Sex Work in Cape Town

Wednesday, 20 August, 2008 - 09:36

The Crime and Justice Programme of the ISS and SWEAT have published a joint report entitled ‘Selling Sex in Cape Town".

The Crime and Justice Programme of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) have published a joint report entitled ‘Selling Sex in Cape Town’. The report is the first survey and analysis of the sex industry in Cape Town and examines the extent to which sex workers have control over their working conditions in a criminalised industry.

Speaking at the launch of the report in Pretoria, ISS senior researcher, Chandre Gould, said the survey focused primarily on the views of sex workers and brothels owners. This focus she said, allowed a better understanding of and insight into the complexities of the relationships between pimps, brothel owners and sex workers to be developed.

Recognising that many people are trafficked into sex work is a concern in South Africa and globally, the report highlights the seriousness of human trafficking within the sex work industry. Authors of the report describe sex work as “work” and human trafficking as an “extreme version of labour exploitation.” Gould believes that the report can help policy-makers find more effective ways of tackling the problem.

The research found that the majority of sex workers prefer to work indoors (self employed or based in brothels) because it makes them feel safer and more anonymous than working in the streets.

The report states that 75 percent of the sex workers in Cape Town are not South Africans. SWEAT’s Nicole Fick, points out that about 25 percent of sex workers are vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and drug addiction. Sex workers are also raped by the agency owners and are overworked, she says.

The report also considers the numbers, earnings, working conditions and the exploitation of both street-based and indoor-based sex workers. For example, sex workers are fined heavily for late arrival, failing to come to work, or for other behaviour deemed offensive by the brothel.

Policy analyst and senior researcher at the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre (TLAC), Lisa Vetten, believes that the industry should be decriminalised. She argues that decriminalising sex work will give the government powers to regulate the industry by the same labour legislation as other sectors of the economy. She argues that the proceeds of sex work should primarily benefit the sex workers and not brothels owners.

Why prostitution?

The report attributes the increasing number of sex workers to socio-economic constraints such as poverty and employment in most communities. It argues that sex workers have the opportunity to earn three to five times more than the money they can earn in a formal employment sector.

The earnings of street-based sex workers in Cape Town

Level of education (and training)  Average past earnings Average earnings Differential
Tertiary  R4 000  R6 000  1.5 times more
Matric  R1 560  R2 700  1.7 times more
Other high school   R1 279   R3 587  2.8 times more
Primary school only   R693  R3 771  5.4 times more

Source: Selling Sex in Cape Town

The report identifies poverty, unemployment, child prostitution as some of the contributing factors to the immediate pressing financial needs of sex workers.

The report recommends that the South African Police Services (SAPS) should consult civil society organisations that work with sex workers to develop a short training course for police members to sensitise them on issues specific to sex workers. The report argues that the relationship between sex workers and the police does not encourage sex workers to report cases of abuse or exploitation against them.

For example, in July 2008, 11 members of the SAPS appeared in the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court for allegedly assaulting sex workers with sjamboks, and of punching, kicking and insulting them.

In 2007, the suspended National Police Commissioner, Jackie Selebi, called on the parliamentary safety and security committee to consider legalising prostitution.

Selebi’s views are echoed by Gould, who argues that decriminalising prostitution will leave no space for police and brothel owners to abuse and exploit sex workers (WorldCupBlog, 2007).

- Butjwana Seokoma, Information Services Coordinator, SANGONeT

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