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Kirsten Hornby
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The Legalisation of Prostitution: Social Crisis or Social Liberation

22 April 2014, 10:13

There are many destructive myths as well as a few facts making the rounds about prostitution and the implications that legalising it may have on South African society. Most of these myths have been spread by rather radical activists who hold a position either strongly for or strongly against the legalisation of prostitution in South Africa. Before you choose a position on this issue, it is important that you consider what the legalisation of prostitution will really mean for people of South Africa and whether the consequences of legalisation or keeping prostitution criminalised is something we want.

The definition of prostitution is this: the practice or occupation of engaging in sexual activity with someone for payment. Many arguments around the legalisation of prostitution are not actually based on what effects legalising prostitution would have on society per se, but rather what effects an increase of commercial sexual services will have on society. This is because it is often implied that the legalisation of prostitution will cause growth in the commercial sex industry. If this is correct, then those arguments will stand; of it is not, then they will simply fall away. To determine whether an increase in the offer of sexual services will increase, let us look at prostitution as an industry.

Working in prostitution generates a significant amount of income in a short amount of time usually outside of conventional working hours. The average monthly income for an individual working in prostitution is higher than many forms of entry level employment- making it a viable choice for job seekers across the country. Also, because of its unconventional hours, it is a practical method for an individual engaged in other activities during traditional working hours to supplement their income (to make a bit of cash on the side). Therefore, it is clear that working in prostitution offers definite economical benefits- benefits that may not be able to be attained any other way, despite apparent health and safety risks.

These economical advantages suggest that legalisation of prostitution may make it a very appealing choice for people who are currently unemployed or wish to generate extra income. Groups that prostitution may particularly appeal to are young women (and men) who are currently busy with studies or working in a position that is not adequately meeting their financial needs. This is because youth and beauty are valuable commodities in the sex industry; and therefore, unlike almost any other industry in the world, the younger you are the easier it will be to be financially successful. Unless a person has a strong stance against entering into prostitution or finds the safety and health risks to be too great, the instant economic advantages may be a strong drawing card to convince many- especially those coming from impoverished backgrounds. South Africa has very high unemployment rates especially among individuals between the ages of 18-30. Because of this, can be inferred that legalising a method where people without access to other forms of employment can make a significant amount of money will result in an increasing number of people entering into prostitution.

On the other hand, many would argue that in nations where prostitution has been legalised there has not been a significant increase in the amount of people selling sexual services. However, it is important to note that the nations where prostitution has been legalised have very different societies from South Africa. I am not commenting on the morality or values of any of these nations, but rather on different social economical factors that may drive individuals to choose a life of prostitution. Simply put, many (not all) of the people in prostitution in nations where it is legal have other opportunities to generate income, while many people in South Africa do not. Poverty and unemployment is the largest driving factor for individuals  providing commercial sex services in South Africa- a driving factor that is not present (or at least not to the same degree) in many of these other countries. Therefore, it is very likely that the legalisation of prostitution will increase the number of individuals entering into prostitution; but it is yet to be determined whether this really is a negative thing or not. 

The legalisation of prostitution can easily be seen as a form of job creation and can offer a form of legal protection for individuals already working in the commercial sex industry. Now, there are many indirect consequences that the legalisation of prostitution may have in relation to prostitution solicitors (pimps), the likelihood of an increase of human trafficking and exploitation, and also an increase in competition among people working in prostitution. However for means of the remainder this article all I am going to focus on is whether prostitution in a traditional form is “bad” or not.

To answer this question, I will not appeal to any type of moral code or so called “social standards” of behaviour, but merely offer evidence and observations from which you are free to draw your own conclusions. Being on the field and speaking to the women and men who prostitute themselves on the streets of Johannesburg and Cape Town has given me interesting insight into their lives. Even though every individual has had their own reasons for entering and remaining in prostitution, and I have by no means spoken to large enough samples of people to draw cause-and-effect like conclusions about prostitution, there have been a few things that these men and women have said that have solidified my view on the issue of legalisation. These comments were made by men and woman who were (and some are still) working in prostitution and who were not being controlled by any third party.  Now please note that these comments were made by these women and men from a place of vulnerability, as many conversations that I’ve had with a man or woman in prostitution has begun with them advocating what they do- as I’m sure many of us would do too.  

“People think we want to do this-that we find our jobs fun. I’m here because I have children back home that need to go to school. They can never know what I do.”

“You should see the way they look at us- like we are nothing.”

“They think because they pay us they can treat us anyway they like. We are still human beings.”

“If my children could see what I go through, maybe they would learn and never become like me... at least then they would appreciate what I do to give them a life”

“At the beginning it is horrible. But after a while you go numb. Sex is a job and you have to be strong. The money is good so it makes me think it’s worth what we go through.”

Why do you think the clients come to you? “Some of them are lonely. But once I asked a man who had a ring on his finger ‘why do you do this?’ he replied: ‘because I can’t just eat chicken everyday’.”

“The one time I was walking home and two men came up to me with a gun, took everything I had, beat me up and then had business with me for free.”

So the question of whether prostitution should be legalised or not should not be about what would make the industry more accommodating to prostitutes, whether we want to create more taxable employment, or whether prostitutes deserve this treatment and should be criminalised; but rather whether we as society see it fit to encourage more men and women enter into an industry of exploitation.  Some things should not be for sale.

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