One of the biggest reasons that has been given by the South African state for the continued criminalization of sex work has been that decriminalizing sex work would fuel the trafficking industry in the country. The problem with this reasoning is that it relies on assumptions about trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation that we have very little evidence to support. And, what’s particularly concerning is that these assumptions have effected the making of anti-trafficking policy in South Africa.
Let’s be very clear, the trafficking (recruitment, transport, and coercion) of anyone, regardless of purpose, is completely apprehensible and should be criminalized. BUT, it should also not be confused with sex work. Sex work is actively chosen by people as a livelihood, whether it be for economic reasons or simply because they enjoy the work.
Through research that Ingrid Palmary and I have done over the last two years, as part of the Migrating out of Poverty Research Consortium – tracing the development of the Trafficking in Persons Act of 2013 – it has become apparent that myths and misconceptions about trafficking and sex work drove both the emergence of an anti-trafficking movement in South Africa and the development of the Act.
A good example of one of these myths was the panic that emerged just prior to the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa about the fact that thousands of women and children would be trafficked in to South Africa for the purposes of sexual exploitation at the hands of soccer-loving tourists. This, thankfully, did not happen. But what’s concerning is that this panic was simply another panic in a long list that emerge prior to major sporting events and which never come to fruition.
Unfortunately, most of what we ‘know’ about trafficking is not evidence-based. But what’s concerning about our findings, is that these myths were and are accepted at face value by policy makers. It’s one thing that ordinary people are unable to effectively interrogate what they read, a global phenomenon. But it’s another thing entirely when our policy makers embrace the post-truth/ post-factual world and fail to sufficiently interrogate the information with which they are presented and upon which they make policy.
As it currently stands, the fight for the decriminalization of sex work and against trafficking in South Africa, and globally, seems to be one in which we won’t see the triumph of evidence-based policy making. Rather the triumph of conservative ideas, which advocate for the continued policing of women and men and their decisions in respect to their sexuality.
If we are serious about human rights, specifically the rights of people in deciding what to do with their bodies and not be exploited or trafficked, policy makers need to do a better job of taking into account the evidence-based case for #Decrim.
If you’d like to know more about the importance of and case for decriminalizing sex work, specifically in relation to the fight against trafficking, the New York Anti-Trafficking Network have produced a great video on the topic. Bhekisisa have also produced a great video on the importance of decrim in the fight against HIV/AIDS.