Sexual Offences Amendment Act Criminalises Buying Sex

Thursday, 9 October, 2008 - 12:01

A clause criminalising the purchase of sex was inserted inserted into the Sexual Offences Act in September 2006. Many people do not know about this clause. 

In September 2006 a new clause was inserted into the Sexual Offences Act making it an offence to “unlawfully and intentionally engage the sexual services of a person 18 years or older for financial or other reward, favour or compensation.” According to the Portfolio Committee on Justice and Constitutional Development the intended aim of this clause is to protect sex workers from exploitation and abuse and to prevent trafficking in persons by eradicating sex work.

The clause criminalising the purchase of sex was inserted at the last minute after most of the public participation on the Bill had already taken place. In fact most members of the public remain unaware of the insertion of this clause. Sex workers themselves had very little time to give their opinions on this law which will affect them. Sex workers who were asked if they felt their clients should be arrested said:

“No, clients should not be criminalised. They are adults and they are deciding to buy a service from us” (Sandra, 33 years, Hillbrow).

“I don’t think clients should be criminalised…I think that underage sex workers should be protected from clients…” (Neo, 38 years, Carltonville).

It is believed that if clients stop purchasing sex, that the sex work industry as a whole will stop operating. This largely ignores the reality that most sex workers do the work to earn money to support themselves and their families and that sex workers actively look for clients. If sex workers see fewer clients, it means that they will have to work longer hours to earn the money they need to survive.

The result of this law is likely to be that the sex work industry will be driven further underground. The burden of protecting clients from arrest will therefore fall onto the shoulders of sex workers themselves, who will work in more hidden ways or in less safe areas, to shield clients who are their only source of income. Sex workers would also have to see more clients in a day to make the money they need. A sex worker had this to say about the effects of criminalising clients:

“If clients are criminalised, most of them will be too scared to come to us and therefore we won’t make any money any more” (Marianne, 42 years, Kenilworth).

A similar law criminalising clients of sex workers has been in place since 1998 in Sweden. This law has not succeeded in doing away with the sex work industry and sex workers, police and social workers have indicated that the law has driven the industry further underground and made sex workers more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Cari Mitchell, of the English Collection of Prostitutes, denying the theory that the Swedish model improves the conditions of women in the sex industry says: “Criminalising clients forces prostitution further underground. Women have even less time to check out men fearful of arrest. Instead, women are pushed into more isolated, less well-lit areas where they are more vulnerable to attack. Whatever anyone thinks about men paying for sex, safety should be the priority.”

Sex workers themselves have strong opinions on what would improve their lives and protect them from abuse and exploitation. Perhaps it is time to listen to what they say about what would protect them:

“It would improve our work if sex work was decriminalised or it there was a red light zone where we could work in safety…” (Samantha, 32 years, Salt River).

“It would improve my life if the police could concentrate on catching murderers, rapists and child killers. The police put a lot of energy money and time into chasing us around the streets” (Marianne, 42 years, Kenilworth).

- Nicolé Fick is a Researcher at SWEAT.

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