I was not surprised to note that national police commissioner, Jackie Selebi’s, suggestion to legalise prostitution and public drinking during the 2010 Soccer World Cup was described as “appalling” by Doctors for Life International (DFL). These are the same people who suggested that the acceptance of same-sex marriage will lead to an increase in child molestation.
I was surprised, though, that Jackie Selebi (“my friend finish en klaar” of alleged gangster and murder accused Glen Agliotti) for once almost made sense. It is so blindingly obvious that sex work should be legalized – and not only during the world cup either.
This for me is such a no-brainer, so pardon me if I am belaboring the obvious.
The problem is, of course, that even people who would usually be quite open-minded and socially progressive, see sex-workers as somehow morally degenerate and tainted. Thus, the Constitutional Court judges who wrote for the majority (Ngcobo) and the minority (O’Regan and Sachs) in the Jordan case suggested that sex workers were somehow beyond the pale and that they had brought the criminal sanction on themselves by choosing this despicable profession.
Nobody has ever explained what exactly about the job of a sex worker is so distasteful that it should be viewed as morally more reprehensible, say, than the work done by estate agents, corporate lawyers, insurance salesmen or priests of the Catholic Church.
It is true that sex workers often have to deal with clients who are cruel, stupid, sexist or all of the above, but which female middle manager at a big corporation does not face the same problem?
The real issue is, of course, that our society has a warped and perverted view of sex. We rather like to have sex. We like to look at sexy things. In commerce we use sex to sell everything from cell phones to toothpaste. But at the same time we have deeply ingrained cultural programming that tell us that most kinds of sex (especially too much sex) are dirty, ugly and depraved. It is only when we have sex with someone we love (or – when we need to take a short-cut – whom we at least like for the night), that it is ok. When women sell sex, it is invariably wrong and we feel they deserve to be punished.
Some sex-negative feminists would say that sex work is deeply degrading to the women who engage in it and for some or maybe even a large majority of such women this will be true. But it is also true, surely, of those women who have to clean urinals for a living or do dirty work on farms. I would argue criminalizing sex work is degrading to women because it is part of the patriarchal efforts to police women’s sexuality.
I am not saying that I would encourage women to embark on a sex work career. However, I am saying that there is a terrible double standard at work in our society that sees nothing wrong with the fact that one kind of work can be criminalized, while other kinds of work that pay lower wages and require much harder work are allowed or even encouraged.