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Decriminalising sex work can protect sex workers — and everybody else — from gender-based violence and even diseases

Decriminalising sex work can protect sex workers — and everybody else — from gender-based violence and even diseases
Organisations protest outside the Johannesburg Magistrate's Court during the appearance of a suspect linked to the murders of six sex workers in October 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi)

South Africa plans to decriminalise sex work. Public comment on the draft legislation closed on Monday. Evidence from other countries suggests South Africa could see a drop in rapes and sexually transmitted infections for everyone if the bill goes through.

  • When sex work is illegal, sex workers are more likely to experience physical and sexual violence. When it’s legal, sex workers can go to the police for protection.
  • Because they don’t have to hide from the police by working in dark side streets or in bars, they can better assess possible clients before getting into their cars. This also means they could negotiate rates before sex.
  • Research from the US and the Netherlands found that rape rates dropped as a direct result of sex work becoming legal. And these benefits applied to everyone in the area; not just sex workers.

South Africa could see a drop in gender-based violence (GBV) if it follows through on a draft bill to scrap all existing legal penalties on sex work.

The proposed changes to the current legislation, which will make it legal for adults to buy and sell sex, were announced in December. If it’s signed into law, the bill will also clear people who were previously charged or jailed in connection with soliciting or practising sex work.

The period for public comment on the bill closed on Monday.

Sex workers in South Africa face a lot of abuse.

In 2019, 70% of female sex workers in a countrywide study said they had experienced violence in the previous year, while almost half had been raped by a client in that time.

The move to make sex workers’ jobs legal could change that, research shows.

An analysis of 86 peer-reviewed studies found that the chance of sex workers experiencing physical or sexual violence, abuse or getting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) is higher in places where sex work is seen as a punishable offence than where it’s legal.

Moreover, the benefits of decriminalising sex work stretch beyond those in the industry. Research carried out in Rhode Island in the United States shows that rates of rape and STIs such as gonorrhoea dropped — for everyone — after sex work became legal in the state between 2003 and 2009.

Gonorrhoea often has no symptoms. It can be cleared up with antibiotics, but if left untreated, the infection can lead to infertility or serious inflammation. Moms with gonorrhoea can pass it on to their babies during childbirth, which can harm their eyes.

We break down how the decriminalisation of sex work has reduced GBV and STI cases in countries or cities where selling sex is legal — not only among workers, but also among the general population.

Out of sight and out of luck: How criminalisation isolates sex workers 

When sex work is illegal (whether it’s the buying or selling of sex, or both), workers are often forced to do business in places where they can avoid the police easily. So instead of working on roads with lots of passing traffic or in brothels, they’ll work alone in darker, quieter side streets or in bars.

Police may not be able to see them in these places, but it means they’re also out of sight of friends and passersby and therefore more exposed to violence or theft by clients or criminals.

Sex workers have raised this concern in countries where sex work is outlawed — such as Serbia and Thailand — and in places like Vancouver, Canada, where selling sex is legal but buying it is not.

For those working on the street, fear of the police also means that there is little time to figure out whether a client could be dangerous before getting into their car.

A sex worker in Canada explained the issue to researchers: “[Y]ou can’t really see [the client’s] face, can’t really see anything, they could have a gun in their hand… they could be a little drunk… And you can’t say ‘hi’ or whatever before you get in. You have to just hurry up before the cops come.”

This rushed process also means that sex workers struggle to negotiate prices with clients before agreeing to the job. In Kenya, where sex work is illegal, workers told researchers that arguments over the cost of their services (often after they have already had sex with the client) were a big reason for violence against them.

Disputes over clients’ refusing to wear condoms, or attempting to break them, was another.

All of this is in stark contrast with the experience of many sex workers in areas where buying or selling sex is legal.

In the American state of Nevada, where brothels can get business licences for legal sex work, prices are agreed to and paid up front, and a notice at the door states that condom use is mandatory.

There, sex workers’ rooms have intercoms and panic buttons and they can call out to colleagues and management who work in the same building.

Brothel staff are also able to call the police if clients get violent.

As a result, 39 out of 40 sex workers interviewed across 13 brothels said they had never experienced violence while on the job, and most felt that their work was safe.

‘Sex workers are slaughtered like chickens’

South African sex workers’ realities are very different. They can’t rely on the police for protection because their jobs are illegal.

Sex workers in South Africa and three other countries where sex work is also illegal — Uganda, Kenya and Zimbabwe — told researchers they were reluctant to report abuses to the police, in many cases because they feared being jailed.

Many rapes and assaults are therefore not reported and the offender is never brought to book.

Often, the police are the ones local sex workers need protection from.

In 2019, one in seven respondents in a survey of over 3,000 female sex workers across all nine provinces said they’d been raped by a police officer in the previous year.

Over the same 12-month period, about one in six of the interviewed sex workers had been physically assaulted by an officer.

In field research in 2021 that included people from Africa, the United States and Russia, sex workers from Cape Town explained that the police turn carrying condoms into an offence, either confiscating them — and so putting workers at risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections — or taking the condoms as proof that somebody is a sex worker and should be arrested.

Almost half of the sex workers interviewed in South Africa said they were afraid of carrying condoms because they might be arrested.

Constance Mathe is the coordinator of Asijiki, a South African group advocating for the decriminalisation of sex work. She hopes that making sex work legal could lead to better working relations with the police.

She explains: “Sex workers are being slaughtered like chickens. And no one cares. If sex work is decriminalised, we can at least [go to the police and] open up a case. At the moment, sex workers themselves are afraid to testify [against offenders] because they don’t have protection [from the police].”

Can sex workers and police ever be allies?

It doesn’t have to be this way, research shows.

In New Zealand, for example, sex work was decriminalised in 2003. Many workers there say they feel safer now because officers regularly check up on them and share reports of violent people passing through the police station, which helps them to look out for potentially dangerous clients.

Because they no longer had to hide, sex workers who were punting their services on the streets said they could do their job in safer, busier places and didn’t have to rush haggling about the price of their service.

The researchers caution, however, that New Zealand is a small island nation with strict border control, and so other countries may not be able to copy their approach exactly and get the same results.

How does legalising sex work make everyone safer from sexual violence? 

Making sex work legal can be good for everyone. Evidence from the United States and the Netherlands shows that sexual violence dropped across entire cities and states because of sex work becoming legal.

In Rhode Island, for example, indoor sex work was legal between 2003 and 2009. Researchers found that reports of rape dropped by nearly a third compared with what their models would’ve expected if decriminalisation hadn’t happened. (Indoor sex work means selling sex in massage parlours or online, but not on the street.)

Gonorrhoea infections also nearly halved across the state (when compared with what we would have expected had decriminalisation not happened).

Researchers think the drop in gonorrhoea cases was because people could legally sell sex only from indoor venues. This shifted the market away from street work prostitution, and because sex workers then had more control over their environments, condom use was more strictly enforced, reducing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Second, when indoor sex work became legal, more people went into the business and those new recruits weren’t infected.

That also meant clients weren’t infected, and so they couldn’t spread it to other partners later either.

Working out how decriminalisation cut down on rape cases in the state proved to be more difficult. It’s likely that improved safety among sex workers led to fewer rapes among this group, but the drop in sexual violence was so dramatic that rape, too, must have dropped among other parts of the population, the researchers argue.

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One theory is that when the police weren’t forced to spend time chasing sex workers and pimps, they could focus more on policing other crimes like sexual violence, thus reducing rape rates across Rhode Island.

While researchers don’t know exactly why the policy change caused the widespread drop in GBV cases, the “difference-in-difference” method they used in their analysis shows that their finding about the reason for the change holds.

Here’s how it works:

The researchers looked at how the number of rape cases in Rhode Island (the treatment group) compared with that in other states (the control group) over time. They saw that the difference was always similar.

So, suppose there were 70 rapes in Rhode Island and, on average, 100 in other states, then the difference is 30. And this difference remained roughly the same, year after year.

However, after 2003, the difference between the number of rapes in Rhode Island and other states started to change. So, if previously there were 30 fewer rapes in Rhode Island than elsewhere, there were, say, 50 fewer after the policy change.

This would tell researchers that the change in policy — that is, decriminalising indoor sex work — was the reason for the drop in cases because this was the only thing that changed between the conditions in the treatment group and the control group.

A coincidence that followed bolstered the US evidence.

Economists in the Netherlands published research with similar findings using the same analysis methods — without knowing about the US researchers’ study.

Some Dutch cities have tippelzones — designated streets where sex workers are allowed. Cities with tippelzones saw rape and sexual abuse cases dropping by 30-40% soon after these strips opened. This is in the same ballpark as the findings of the Rhode Island research.

But tippelzones don’t have the same rules everywhere. In unregulated tippelzones, where sex workers don’t need a licence, the decline in sexual violence lasted two years and then returned to previous levels.

But in those where sex workers had to have a licence, like in Eindhoven or Heerlen, levels of sexual violence remained low for more than five years.

The main investigator in the Dutch study, Stephen Kastoryano, says although it’s not yet clear what’s driving these results, “getting similar results from two unrelated studies suggest that making sex work legal can indeed lead to fewer cases of sexual violence.” DM/MC

This story was produced by the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. Sign up for the newsletter.


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