The only moral issue regarding sex work is the need to take care of the sex workers.
After participating in a very vibrant debate around gender, gender roles, gender equality versus gender differences – and anything else to do with the issue – late night radio prompted me to join in the fray around whether sex work should be decriminalised.
It’s an interesting debate, not just for sexual deviants, lonely men and frustrated husbands unable to express their most closet urges. Firstly there is my favourite part, the morality of it all: the assumption that churches, mosques, temples and synagogues will go out of business as brothels mushroom as far as the horizon flows. The concern is that we will all yield to tik and every second house will turn into a lolly lounge. Our daughters will see sex work as an equally lucrative career opportunity, on par with accounting, engineering and the sciences. We will become a decrepit society with no moral compass, the Thailand of Africa.
As convincing as this argument may seem, it is very far from the truth. Thailand’s infamy stems from societal inequalities deeply entrenched in severe poverty. Sex work for some women is not a convenient way of making money, but in reality the only way. Sounds like South Africa, doesn’t it? Well, yes and no. We are a poor nation; however, the likelihood of having American tourists fly all the way here just for some cheap nookie is not the most likely consequence. What would most likely be the outcome are the successes the Thais have attained. Greater legal protection for sex workers, sex workers who are empowered to insist that their patrons use condoms; and the last time I checked, Bangkok was not the modern re-incarnation of Sodom and Gomorrah. No-one’s turned to salt and showers of sulphur and brimstone are not in the average weather forecast.
In contrast to us here in the developing world, Amsterdam’s famous red light district is by all accounts quite classy. It is confined to a particular district, and as in South East Asia, the most vulnerable people in this sex work continuum – the sex workers – are in fact protected.
The issue of drugs – syndicates of gangsters, trafficking women from Eastern Europe and Asia, fuelling the trade with illicit hard drugs – is of course relevant. This is only the case because sex work in its current form is illegal. An illegal practice, which has been confined to the shadows of the black market, does not deal in the realm of ethics.
So unwilling workers, duped into believing that they will be highly paid au pairs in the leafy northern suburbs of Johannesburg, brought in from our rural areas or as far afield as beyond our borders, need extra motivation. You get them hooked onto drugs so that they work to support their addiction or to cope with what is tantamount to being raped repeatedly on a daily basis.
Now, if you eliminate the legal censure that accompanies sex work, then most practitioners would not become drug addicted sex slaves. In its current form as an illegal activity, sex workers cannot and will not come forth and say: “Oh, by the way, Mr Police officer, I was abducted from my home, drugged and forced to have sex with men to enrich my pimp. There is my pimp, arrest that naughty man!” Because we are born with an innate and instinctive fear of incarceration, therefore, in all likelihood one would not be motivated to confess to something you perceive would lend you in jail, i.e. prostitution.
Pimps, drug lords, international human trafficking syndicates and their impact are immediately and significantly reduced when women are able to exercise their rights and actually say no to clients that refuse to wear condoms, rape sex workers and refuse to pay.
It will always remain a pariah trade, no matter how liberal the society, and very few parents or their daughters will see sex work as a lucrative career aspiration. Sex workers in Amsterdam and Bangkok are viewed with the same dismay by the communities that house them; the only people that seem to enjoy their company are their paying patrons.
It is not just a Constitutional, legal argument around freedom to a livelihood, but much rather one that is deeply entrenched within gender rights. Ah, see how my earlier discussion ties in now?
The vast majority of sex workers are women whose services are sought out by men. They face oppression at the hands of these proprietors who feel that they can act out whatever fantasy or abuse with impunity because they paid. Further, men re-enter the scene as pimps, middle men who do very little work but for extorting money from the women that report to them and occasionally provide protection services for their “merchandise”. Economics 101: merchandise is only worth something if you can put it to work.
Those horrid syndicates we all fret over, add further misery through a series of abductions, beatings and drug addiction as they try to gain as much out of their “merchandise” before she expires. This continuum leaves sex workers as the most brutalised amongst women, and let’s not forget the reports of police officials regularly picking up these women, in the back of their bakkies, not as an arrest but to benefit for free, under coercion from their services.
Morality is this thing we tend to toss into the air, expecting it to descend like a net that covers us all. What it really is, is a private thing that manifests itself when the lights go out. It is up to me as an individual to make the decision to pay for sex. If I am morally opposed to it for whatever reason, than why not just avoid it? As bad as those pimps, syndicates and bad cops might be, none of them have kicked in my door and dragged me off to a brothel with a large wad of my cash in tow. I have to seek out those services, with much effort, mind you.
So, too, unless I have been comatose under some rock all my life, I have not seen sex workers forming door–to-door pitches for young ladies to join the fun.
So for once, as a society, can we please stop assuming that we are all involuntary automatons that engage in paid-for sex because we saw a lady at a street corner late one night. What we need to realise, as difficult as it might be, is that the truly moral thing to do is to protect the most vulnerable group of women in our midst: sex workers. DM
Gushwell F. Brooks is an LLB graduate from the University of the Witwatersrand. He did not go on to become an attorney, but much rather entered the corporate rat race. After slaving away for years, he found his new life as a talk show host for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk.
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