In South Africa, a Debate Over Selling Sex

The nation with the world’s largest HIV epidemic could be Africa's first country to decriminalize the sex industry.

Southern Africa 2016

By Devon Haynie

June 27, 2016

Also published by U.S. News & World Report

If prostitution becomes legal in South Africa, Nosipho Vidima, a 30-year-old sex worker, knows exactly what she’ll do. She’d start her own business called The Pleasure House, a classy operation staffed with an office administrator trained in finance, a group of prostitutes earning minimum wage – and maybe even an Italian chef.

Pleasure House staff would have all of the benefits extended to many employees in South Africa: maternity leave, vacation days, a predictable schedule. She’d also have a strict condom policy, a necessary precaution in a country where roughly 20 percent of adults 15 to 49 have HIV.

“If tomorrow (the government) came out and said decriminalization has come, I would go around the streets shouting ‘I am free! I am free!’ like people did in 1994,” Vidima says, referring to South Africa’s first democratic elections post-apartheid. “I think that will be my first democratic realization, because 1994 did not work for me as a sex worker.”

Vidima’s taste of freedom may come sooner rather than later. Any day now, South Africa’s Department of Justice could release a long-anticipated report examining prostitution in the country. Many suspect the report will recommend either partial or full decriminalization of the sex industry. If parliament were to decriminalize prostitution, South Africa could eventually become the first country on the continent to take the sex industry mainstream.

For years South African society has been having the same fiery debates about sex work that have mobilized activists and pitted feminists against each other in the United States, Europe and beyond. What makes South Africa’s debate about sex work unique, however, is the size of its potential impact on public health.

South Africa has 7 million people living with HIV – the most of any country in the world. Among female prostitutes 25 and older, as many as four in five are HIV-positive. Make sex work legal, advocates argue, and the country’s roughly 150,000 prostitutes will feel less stigma and be more likely to seek treatment – thereby helping the country win its fight against HIV.

On the one hand, the South African government has acknowledged the public health crisis among prostitutes. Starting this month, the South African National AIDS Council is implementing a three-year plan to treat and prevent HIV in about 70,000 prostitutes. South Africa will be one of the first countries in the world to offer sex workers an HIV prevention drug called PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis.

But for the moment, the South African health ministry, which is coordinating the treatment, and the justice ministry seem to be on different pages. Sex work is still technically illegal. And though it rarely happens, in theory anyone caught selling sex could face fines and imprisonment.

Activists may have a tough time convincing the public to support legalizing prostitution – despite having one of the world’s most progressive constitutions, South Africa is largely morally conservative – but they are confident they can appeal to politicians by framing the debate in human rights terms.

Prostitutes are reluctant to report crimes, they argue, making them particularly vulnerable to high levels of physical abuse, extortion, trafficking and rape. When clients demand sex without condoms, they have little bargaining power to refuse.

Vidima, who is also a human rights and lobbying officer for the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce, or SWEAT, says she’s been raped countless times during her eight years in the industry. The first time she went to the police to report a rape, the police laughed and asked, “How can you be raped?” The next time it happened, she didn’t report it.

In Vidima’s view, the government’s public health efforts are commendable, but insufficient in terms of truly improving conditions for sex workers.

“I don’t know how PrEP is going to help with the violence still happening,” she says. “We have healthy sex workers, but those same sex workers that are going out into the field, they get strangled to death.”

Advocates of amending South Africa's prostitution laws fall into two camps: those wanting full decriminalization and those wanting partial legalization.

Those who support full decriminalization believe that all aspects of the sex industry – buying, selling, owning brothels – should be within the law. They look to examples like New Zealand and Germany. Advocates for decriminalization received a boost last month, when rights group Amnesty International became the latest international group to call on governments around the world to “decriminalize consensual sex work.”

Those who want partial legalization of sex work – the abolitionists – don’t want to criminalize prostitutes but believe in prosecuting buyers, pimps and brothel owners. They are fans of the so-called Nordic model, a system spreading to places such as Norway, Sweden and Canada.

Vidima and her group, SWEAT, are advocates for decriminalization. She sees sex work as a choice, one she makes willingly to make her car payments and support her family while she pursues a law degree.

Without making all aspects of the industry legal, Vidima fears prostitutes will still be forced to work in an unsafe environment and to take more risks to shield their clients.

Sally-Jean Shackleton, director of SWEAT, agrees. “Partial decriminalization will make no change at all,” she says. “You will still work in dangerous spaces. You will still have to worry about whether your client will pull out a knife and kill you and not getting paid.”

Many abolitionists, however, reject the notion that there can be much choice in prostitution. They see it as the consequence of a lack of options – a phenomenon tied largely to poverty. While South Africa has one of the largest economies in Africa, it also has one of the highest inequality rates in the world. Women are harder hit by economic privation than men. About 55 percent of South African women live below the poverty line, and almost 40 percent live on about $33 a month.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a choice, I would say it’s a modern slavery thing,” says Grizelda Grootboom, a 35-year-old former prostitute now working as an advocate for Embrace Dignity, an abolitionist group.

Born in Cape Town during apartheid, Grootboom became a street kid when she was nine. She was kicked out of her children's home at 18 and ended up going to Johannesburg, where she fell into a sex trafficking operation. For two weeks, she says she was tied up in a room and forced to work as a sex slave. She spent the next few years in the sex trade, relying on drugs to get her through shifts where she sometimes saw as many as 16 clients a day.

At times, Grootboom, who is HIV positive, considers going back to the business that paid her bills. She doesn’t have an education and wonders if she can find other work. But then she thinks about all the young women she’s known who’ve died from AIDS, and how lucky she was to get out.

“We do it not because we want to do it, but because we were brought into the industry,” she says. “If we had an opportunity we would not be in it. I think people are benefiting from the vulnerability of impoverished women.”

Grootboom and other abolitionists also believe that full decriminalization will do little in terms of curbing prostitution. They argue that demand will go up, and that more vulnerable people, pimps and brothel owners will get into the business.

“I’m sure total decriminalization would actually increase the number of people involved because of the large unemployment rate,” says Jeremy Routledge, deputy director of Embrace Dignity. South Africa’s unemployment rate has increased in recent years, reaching 26.7 percent in May.

While higher demand may make some advocates cringe, it could very well be good for business for Vidima – assuming she can get The Pleasure House off the ground. For her, freedom in the new South Africa means the right to grow her business just like any other entrepreneur.

“Sex workers should be able to say, ‘This is my job. This is my business,’” she says. “They shouldn’t be working in a brothel, getting harsh penalties for not taking a client, penalties for being an hour late. I would like to see sex workers running brothels because they understand the sex work industry.”

Devon Haynie reported from South Africa on a fellowship through the International Reporting Project.