The Future of Sex Work
When Jesus ministered to and even socialised with prostitutes, he gave his followers a mandate to aid these most widely reviled women in society.
The popular image of sex workers as women of loose morals engaging freely in sinful behaviour very rarely corresponds with reality.
Most women (and some men) in the sex trade enter that life not out of free choice, but through circumstances. There is little allure in a life of prostitution. Though some high-earning prostitutes might contend that their prosperity beats the alternatives, the inherent sinfulness of prostitution damages all involved in it. While we must regard transactional sex — even if it is between two consenting adults (often it isn’t) — as sinful, we may not disown those who offer it.
While we must regard transactional sex — even if it is between two consenting adults (often it isn’t) — as sinful, we may not disown those who offer it.
For some women, transactional sex is the only way of feeding their family. For them, selling sex for survival, whether practised casually or professionally, trumps morality and even the risk of violence or contracting diseases.
Some impoverished families sell their daughters’ bodies in acts of desperation to secure money, goods, services, remission of debts or favours. Thus despoiled, the marriage opportunities for such misused girls diminish. Some continue a life of transactional sex.
Likewise, many prostitutes emerge from a childhood of sexual abuse. While not everybody who suffered such abuse becomes a prostitute, for some the degradation of their sexuality has compromised the scruples which might otherwise have deterred them from entering a life of sex work.
Others sell their bodies to escape a ruinous homelife or to feed an addiction, often falling into the clutches of pimps or organised crime syndicates who exploit and often debase them. Crime syndicates are behind the most distressing form of prostitution, that which involves human trafficking.
Crime syndicates are behind the most distressing form of prostitution, that which involves human trafficking. Women are lured under false pretexts to strange cities or countries where they are then systematically brutalised and forced to submit their bodies in inhumane conditions.
While some sex workers claim agency in their choice, behind most stories reside chronicles of anguish and desperation, and a future without much hope. Such women need our compassion, not contempt. The Christian response is to find ways of helping and empowering them, not to condemn and marginalise them.
Skills-training programmes for women wishing to escape sex work are therefore commendable. Ideally these also include ancillary but necessary services, such as counselling and, where required, drug rehabilitation.
But even if implemented widely and nationally, as it should be, such programmes would reach only a small proportion of sex workers, and then only those who are in a position to extricate themselves from prostitution. Those who are trapped in prostitution must not be discarded by government or society. The Church has a part to play in this, as do many NGOs.
Those who are trapped in prostitution — be it by controlling pimps, crime syndicates, their families, or a lack of alternative survival options — must not be discarded by government or society. The Church has a part to play in this, as do many NGOs.
Parliament will likely revisit the possible revision of legislation governing the sex trade. In that pursuit, the government and parliamentarians are likely to place a priority on practical measures, not moral considerations, to provide for greater protection of vulnerable women and children engaged in sex work. The government has not yet declared a position, but it will likely support partial or full decriminalisation of prostitution.
The government has not yet declared a position, but it will likely support partial or full decriminalisation of prostitution.
The experiences of countries that have innovated laws on transactional sex — with mixed results, as a research paper by the Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office notes — will be helpful in guiding the discussion. But South Africa is not Sweden, Germany or the Netherlands: a local solution must address our realities.
What such legislation would entail must be a subject of wide-reaching dialogue. While the Catholic Church condemns transactional sex as immoral and degrading, the regulation of the sex industry through some measures of decriminalisation might address other evils, including the exploitation and violation of women. In its contribution to the debate, the Church will have to balance moral and practical concerns.
The CPLO’s Lois Law brings it to a point in her research paper: “We must be forever mindful that everyone has the right to dignity and respect.”
Like Jesus, we must make explicit our concern for women who sell their bodies, and remove their condition from the shadows of marginalisation.