Time to decriminalize prostitution

Feb 11, 2015
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Sex workers have the same rights as any other citizen, writes Maria Stacey.

Cape Town – Towards the end of last year, I was in Port Elizabeth, presenting on the national sex worker project, the Red Umbrella Programme, at the Nelson Mandela Municipality Summit on TB and HIV.

Time to decriminalize prostitution

‘Sweat’ activists protest outside the Western Cape High Court.

While I was listening to the presentations preceding mine, I noted that participants gasped and tut-tutted with shock and disapproval when speakers spoke about “girls selling their bodies at the back of shebeens”, and of “prostitutes having sex with 25 or more men per week”.

I looked forward to my presentation with relish, thinking: “Great, a virgin audience.” I started by asking the audience to call out words they associated with the words “sex worker”.

The words that came up were, “money”, “young girls”, “police”, “HIV and STIs”, “poverty” and “low morals”. This is always a useful informal barometer of attitudes in the room.

I focused my presentation on a simple message: “Sex workers are human beings, and enjoy the same constitutional rights as any other citizen.”

I advocated for sex work to be recognised as work, and argued why decriminalisation of adult, consensual sex work was the legal model with the best possible outcome to combat HIV and protect sex workers’ rights.

As an aside, I noted that sex workers say: “We are not selling our bodies. Our bodies belong to us. We are selling sex.”

As usual, questions after the presentation were lively.

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