Is legalizing or decriminalising prostitution is a good idea or not?

By Mallory Perrett

I’ve been wondering whether decriminalisation or legalisation of prostitution is the right way to go.  Legalisation officially would make prostitution legal and remove any prohibitions; whereas decriminalisation removes criminal charges from prostitution however there are still laws surrounding it.

The existing discussions

In June, The Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa) called for a total ban of prostitution. The union stated that it was not their intention to have prostitutes convicted but to diminish the causes of prostitution. The Seventh-Day Adventist Church youth have also publicly opposed the ‘moral degeneration’ of the country.

In IOL News’ article  “Legalised Prostitution: what sexworkers have to say”, Sindy a former Durban prostitute believes that decriminalizing prostitution will have no affect as women will still be raped, abused and violated nor is there a guarantee that working conditions will be improved. Vicki, a prostitute who works in a high-class parlour, viewed legalization as less of a strain on the resources of government and police services, as it is expensive and, at times considered futile.

On the fence, is Embrace Dignity, an NGO advocates for reforms to laws governing prostitution. The NGO does not believe that criminalisation or legalisation the answer but aims to provide counselling and support for sex workers, in the hopes that they can find better employment.

The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) is one of the primary leaders of the defence of sexworkers rights. They believe that sexworkers should have access to health and services as well as be respected within society. They are for the decriminalisation of sex work and the recognition of sex work as work in order to extend labour rights to sex workers.

In my opinion…

In my opinion, there is no way that a ban will eradicate poverty. All humans have the right to food and housing in this country, and if put in a situation where unemployment is ridiculously high and government and corporations alike can’t be held fully responsible for the bleak situation, a woman has got to do what she has to do. It is dire circumstances that drive someone to prostitution but taking someone’s means of survival away is not a means to an end.

There is a possibility of an increase of HIV/Aids if prostitution was legalized. Government has been urging people to stay safe for years. If prostitution was regulated, so could their policies and ‘behavioural code’, where it becomes mandatory for sexual protection.

So perhaps the real question is, ‘does prostitution rob you of your womanhood?’ Some hold the opinion that prostitution exploits women, is surrounded with violence and a patriarchal dominance over a women’s body and has awful psychological and traumatic after-effects. In this line of thought, a sex worker doesn’t consent to sex; she is coerced because of her situation.

This view is outdated, and particularly distressing as it takes agency away from being a woman- a fundamental part of the feminism I practice, is empowerment. Yes situations such as human trafficking or poverty my force you down a path, but I will always believe in active choices. Yes there are those with fewer choices, but there will always be a choice.

Prostitution has been going on since ancient civilization; you cannot claim to be uninformed. A dire situation can be summed up into a basic survival of the fittest. What will you do to survive? Personally, if there were an option between death and sex work, I would choose the latter. If I find myself in financial debt with no work opportunities and need to feed my kids, I will choose the later. I’m not glamorising it, but I am making an active choice.

Our bodies are treated like objects, unappreciated and tossed aside when there is no use for them. Now we cam view our bodies as our own tools, to use what we have to survive. Why must I be a good girl and keep my legs closed? Why do I have to be any type of girl?

Someone once told me that prostitution is the oldest job in history, whether we approve or not. So I’m for regulation, it means having a permit, regular health checks, subscribing to some sort of code that will ensure safety and protection of sex workers. It would mean being able to drag the bastard who beats you or refuses to pay, into court.

If we judge prostitutes for doing what they do, we once again segregate our sisterhood. We can’t empower women individually. We’re part of a collective.


7 thoughts on “Is legalizing or decriminalising prostitution is a good idea or not?”


    I’m not sure how reliable this study is but I think it raises some interesting points nonetheless. We have to have this discussion within the context of the growing problem of human trafficking. As the article linked demonstrates, legalising prostitution, or at least how they’ve done it in the Netherlands, appears to increase trafficking whereas using the Swedish model of decriminalisation appears to decrease it.

    We also have to have a real discussion about the notion of choice and what it means to “choose” in a capitalist, patriarchal society. Agency, that of women or the poor, does not exist in a vaccuum. That’s not to say that we should patronise those who have limited choices but just that it’s not as simple as waking up one day and deciding to become a sex worker.

    The link above also demonstrates the fact that sex work is not just about women but about the men who use the service.


  2. how bout have a real discussion about what happens when you enlist the police to “save us”. Agree with what we do or dont, but whatever you do, please do not advocate for police or christians to save us. IT DOESNT WORK. Frankly i preffer a decriminalised model that removes ALL sex workers from the criminal justice system and instead allows us to be governed y the same laws that govern everyone else. Also on the subject of HIV, where i live and work, condoms are used as evidense of prostitution by the poice. We have to hide our condoms and other safe sex literature or info. Whatever the best intentions of feminists wanting to save women from the so called evils of sex work, you must understand that in every coutry of the world, the polie are our harrassers and abusers never our protectors.


  3. As soon as I began reading the blog post my mind shifted to a play I saw at this years Grahamstown Art Festival (Fringe programme). Titled “The Petticoat Chronicle” it was a series of stories about all types of South African women under themes such as love, sex and birth.

    The story that this article triggered was one about a prostitute who was born under a bridge (her home). The tale was brutally blunt in painting a picture about how her life, especially how it started (her ambilical cord still remaining under that bridge somewhere), was always going to lead to her being a lady of the night. I don’t remember too many of the details but I do remember the line: “Don’t judge me…you don’t know me/where I come from…” which is so so true about these women. I can’t imagine being faced with the “choices” that prostitutes face and the dangers they face trying to make a living.

    I definitely agree with that judgement will only lead to segregation between us women and we should try fight every day (paying attention to our thoughts) to guard against this. And as for having policy that would protect these women and give them liberties like I enjoy in my life, I don’t see how that seems like such an unreasonable thing.

    It’s all tricky in practice but worth a try for sure.


  4. After reading the comment from becauseiamawhore, i realised that this kind of debate is really impossible to argue in any meaningful way by people who are not on the receiving end of the outcome. What do prostitutes themselves think? What about “John’s”? Of course they would not want decriminalisation, if they can still be prosecuted, but this is not only about them…in fact, becauseiamawhore believes that decriminalisation is better for prostitutes. All I know is that we do need more protection for prostitutes, regardless of whether they make a choice or not (I happen to think that Trish is correct when she says that agency does not exist in a vacuum and so we really need to ask ourselves if its a choice at all).


  5. I suggest you read “Girls Like Us”. Sexual Exploitation is often not a choice. Coercion is not an outdated myth created by the patriarchy. I am a feminist and while I stand against infantilization of women, it would be extremely callous of me to turn my back to the physical and mental abuse girls and young women in this country face. I would say girls engaged in ‘prostitution’ face the MOST sexism of any group of women in our society today.

    Write a post on that.


  6. Why is there such a desperate attempt by some feminists to pretend women have agency? No woman, under The Rule Of Men, have agency to consent to sex. This unfortunately means that rape is pay-per-rape. It means prostituted women are victims. Just like all other women.


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