South Africa


There is a need for more nuanced reporting on sex work and sex workers

There is a need for more nuanced reporting on sex work and sex workers
Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force protesters during a march from Hanover Street to the Slave Lodge in Cape Town on 11 August 2022. (Photo: Brenton Geach / Gallo Images)

How journalists and media practitioners report on sex work is a powerful tool in shaping public discourse and informing how we understand concepts and social norms.

This past Friday, 8 March marked International Women’s Day, commemorated annually to celebrate the achievements of women of the past and present, as well as to highlight the challenges women continue to face while striving towards justice and equality. 

Additionally, International Sex Workers’ Rights Day was held the previous week on 3 March, signalling the month of March as perhaps the most opportune time to critically reflect on prevailing narratives on sex work in the South African media context. How journalists and media practitioners report on sex work is a powerful tool in shaping public discourse and informing how we understand concepts and social norms.

We appreciate that the topic of sex work is contentious, and often invokes feelings of disdain and discomfort, and questions of morality and agency. How social media platforms engage with sex workers also carries weight. 

In October, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) and ALT Advisory prepared a discussion document, Navigating the Narratives: Sex Work, the Media, and Online Platforms, which explores this subject. The document aims to guide journalists reporting on sex work. Further, it explores emergent challenges regarding sex work which takes place online, proposing considerations for social media platforms. 

In January, MMA made submissions to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women and Girls regarding harmful media practices as potential drivers of violence against sex workers. Some key takeaways are discussed below.

First, there is a need for more nuanced reporting on sex work and sex workers. In the South African news cycle, rarely are we made aware of stories that go beyond the known and/or stereotypical portrayal of sex workers as abused and exploited victims without agency, depriving them of opportunities to put forward their perspectives.

Lamenting the scarcity of considered reportage on sex work, Megan Lessing of Sweat pointed out that media reports on sex work in South Africa are rarely empowering. Instead, such stories generally relate to violence that has been perpetuated against sex workers and whether criminalisation is the appropriate governance model.

The Press Code places a duty on the media to ensure that the stories they produce are reported truthfully, accurately, and fairly. Further, the media is called to “…present news in context and a balanced manner, without any intentional or negligent departure from the facts whether by distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation, material omissions, or summarisation.” 

Reporting from varying angles and the inclusion of diverse voices are useful ways to counter commonly held misconceptions and misinformation.

Second, the conflation between sex work, human trafficking and child sexual exploitation (CSE) is harmful. Sex work does not refer to persons under the age of 18 or the non-voluntary selling of sex or human trafficking for sexual exploitation. 

The failure to distinguish sex work from human trafficking perpetuates misnomers and, importantly, disregards an inquiry into consent, which is contrary to feminist understandings of sexual violence. 

Of course, articles concerning children require a higher degree of precaution. Where reportage pertains to CSE, the “best interests of the child” principle must always apply. Children must not be placed at risk of harm or reprisal. To the extent possible, the media ought to provide psychosocial support. Additionally, where the child’s personal information will not be adequately protected and there is no overriding public interest justification for publication, the story should be reported in general terms, if at all.

Last, when it comes to online sex work or platform sex work, a balance must be struck between content moderation and sexual expression. While content moderation, appropriately applied, fulfils a critical function — curbing harmful online behaviour and protecting, for example, children — it may also cause challenges to sex workers who engage digitally. 

Practices such as shadow-banning and the inconsistent enforcement of community guidelines foster a lack of transparency. Unsurprisingly, these practices disproportionally affect members of the LGBTQI+ community, people of colour, and plus-sized individuals. Accordingly, content moderation must be proportionate and rational, with accessible channels of recourse for users.

Although sex work in South Africa has not been decriminalised (and there is some uncertainty which has been created by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development on this subject), sex workers’ stories must be shared in a way that upholds their constitutional rights to dignity, freedom of expression, association and privacy. 

Ways to enable this include sustained collaborative efforts between journalists, civil society organisations and other frontline organisations; the production of educational content which uses appropriate and neutral terminology (which is linked to attitudinal responses to sex work); and the framing of stories through an intersectional lens.

The discussion document is accessible here

MMA’s submissions to the special rapporteur are available on request. DM  

Azola Dayile is the programme manager for advocacy, litigation and lobbying at MMA. S’lindile Khumalo is a senior associate at Power and Associates and ALT Advisory.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Troy Marshall says:

    Many years ago I was living in a commune in Durban’s lower Glenwood. Sex workers worked those streets and they still do. A few hundred metres away there was an eatery. Every day we would see the same cars outside the establishment, and the owners, reasonably well off woman would spend the day at the eatery. These woman would harass the sex workers, scare away clients and on occasion call the SAP.
    I suppose these women saw themselves as moral but their actions disgusted me. This was nothing but callous cruelty. They obviously didn’t have to work yet chose to harass women who had no other choice but to work the only profession that would have them.
    My message to those woman at the eatery. If you think your husbands / boyfriends cheat on you ….. get lawyered up.
    If a transaction is made between two consenting adults, how can that transaction be deemed criminal? Seems giddy to me.
    The profession needs to be decriminalized & destigmatized, but only allowed to operate in certain areas (away from schools)

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