Like many women in South Africa with first-hand experience of the sex trade, when I initially joined the Sisonke Movement of Sex Workers I was under the false impression that it was there to represent me in advocating for my rights as a woman who was selling sex. I have since found that this is not what the movement stands for at all.
I have not been associated with it for many years but was informed last week that I need to “officially resign” so it no longer counts me as part of its group. On Friday I did exactly that – as did several other women I know who have first-hand experience of prostitution.
I personally entered the sex trade out of desperation. South Africa’s colonial past, apartheid, poverty, past sexual and physical abuse and other inequalities were the context for this.
Prostitution is never a free “choice”. The majority of women who enter it here are poor black women from disadvantaged backgrounds. They did so primarily because of a lack of choice. The vast majority of women in prostitution do not view it as “work”, but rather as a tortured means of survival. Pretty much everyone wants to get out as quickly as possible.
Instead of acknowledging this harsh reality Sisonke promotes, advocates and calls for the total decriminalisation of the sex trade and its recognition as work. This means decriminalising not only people selling sex but also those who buy and exploit us and those who sell us for their financial benefit. This model has failed in New Zealand where trafficking continues to prosper, and where violence against girls and women in prostitution is concealed as it is considered to be “a job like any other”.
This ignores the mounting evidence that women in prostitution experience vast human rights violations including rape, physical violence, dehumanisation and murder by the men who buy us. We are further victimised by the pimps and brothel-owners who sell us for their financial benefit – and by the police as people who are sold for sex are still considered criminals under South African law.
The movement for total decriminalisation of the sex trade does not recognise the growing global trend in a different direction. Despite the mounting evidence that it is the only approach that has been shown to reduce violence and bring us closer to gender equality Sisonke does not support the Swedish or “Equality” Model, which decriminalises, supports and provides exiting services to those who sell sex, but simultaneously criminalises the exploitative elements – brothel-owners, pimps and buyers.
Over the last 20 years countries including Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Canada, Northern Ireland, France and Ireland have all adopted the Equality Model of sex trade policy. This has been largely in response to the efforts of sex trade survivors, supported by national and international women’s groups.
One of the biggest lies of the “sex work” movement of which Sisonke is part of is that they do not represent the best interests of women in prostitution at all. “Sex work” is a misnomer that people in prostitution do not use. It is also a very broad term and includes not only those selling or sold for sex but also every single person with any connection to the sex trade – including those who pimp and run brothels. The fact that Sisonke proposes full decriminalisation shows that it prioritises the desires of these perpetrators of abuse over those who are directly affected.
This worrying trend is not just South African. It has reared its ugly head in various places. Groups which pretend to advocate for women in prostitution – but in reality support pimps, brothel-owners and buyers – have increased their presence throughout the world. They have linked themselves with official reports from UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation, and have directly influenced the policies of non-women’s-rights advocacy organizations such as Amnesty International.
As somebody who continues to fight for the rights of women caught up in the sex trade it is devastating for me to see how our lives, safety and well-being are being compromised by those very groups who claim to represent us.
Sex trade survivors know which approach works best – the Equality Model, which was also one of the recommendations of the South African Law Reform Commission’s Report published last June.
We will no longer accept other people speaking for us and using our misfortune to benefit themselves. We are building our own global movement and we will not be silenced any longer.
Mickey Meji is the Advocacy Manager for Embrace Dignity, an organisation which works to end commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking in South Africa.