Sex work: lessons from the global South?

In June of this year, the US funding stream for HIV and AIDS, PEPFAR, ended its restriction on supporting the work of organisations who did not explicitly state their policy of opposing prostitution. The US Supreme Court declared the policy to contravene the First Amendment, and threw out the requirement that: “No funds made available to carry out this Act, or any amendment made by this Act, may be used to promote or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution or sex trafficking”; and that any organisation in receipt of PEPFAR funds had to adhere to a pledge to explicitly oppose prostitution (the so called ‘Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath’ – APLO).

The same month, MSP Rhoda Grant’s bill to ban payment for sex in the Scottish Parliament, were blocked when it secured too little parliamentary support. Nevertheless, the reaction to the bill has been to reignite debates about how best to deal with sex work in the UK.

Debates in the UK are linked into wider debates and experiences across Europe (and elsewhere, New Zealand’s policies being subject to particular scrutiny in the search for how best to legislate and police sex work). Here, the debate, at least that in the media, is polarised into two main camps: those who see sex work as fundamentally and invariably an act of abuse against women that must be legislated against; and those who seek to manage it, seeing it as a reality that can never be eliminated, and should therefore be carefully regulated to provide protection and support for those engaged in the sector.

So we have the Nordic Model, which seeks to criminalise paying for sex; and the legalisation model of Germany. We have the reported more tolerant ‘turning a blind-eye’ regime of Edinburgh set against more pro-active intervention in Glasgow (the former, according to some reports, increasingly under threat). And between campaigners for both sides of the debate, fly accusations of moralising disapproval and paternalism, and tolerance for the abuse of women. Both mobilise data to support their causes, albeit often anecdotal, limited and partisan.

What is interesting about the ongoing debates, and what links in the PEPFAR story, is that policy discussions, debates about best practice, and considerations over what exactly sex workers need pays scant attention to what has become a highly nuanced and understanding set of policies in the global South. These policies have sought to engage with the needs of sex workers primarily: what are the conditions that create particular sets of vulnerability to violence, sexual abuse, drug additions; what exacerbates poor sexual health; and what can be done in response. Organisations and individuals working with sex workers have also, arguably, a better understanding of the nuances of the sector: the differences between types of sex work; the fluidity between those types; and the economic pressures that push people into, and keep people in, sex work.

Even differences in language are revealing: media reports, politicians’ speeches and legislative responses in Europe are replete with the terms ‘prostitute’ / ‘prostitution’. For anyone writing about or working in this sector in Africa, say, such language has been deemed stigmatising and moralising for decades. Here, we are reminded to use the terms ‘sex work’ / ‘sex workers’, as a deliberate attempt to move away from condemnatory moralising and deeply stigmatising discourses.

The criticism of PEPFAR’s policy towards organisations working with sex workers was always that it was profoundly damaging to the interests of sex workers themselves. That however laudable the policy was in its intention, it was not just impractical, but put sex workers at increased risk (including of infection with HIV) by making it harder to design policies that met their needs, but which met the requirement of APLO to ‘explicitly oppose’ sex work.

So too the criticisms of programmes that have sought to help sex workers ‘escape’ (and the language used in such programmes frequently refer to ‘saving’ and ‘rescuing’ women in order to ‘rehabilitate’ them) have argued that good intentions mask ill-designed programmes that fail to capture the realities of life of the sex workers they seek to assist. Botswana and Namibia have seen their schemes fail, with those taking part largely failing to find alternative forms of employment. Women in South Africa with a primary education, for example, can earn more for some forms of sex work than they could ever hope to earn in other jobs they would be qualified for. What is required are not ‘saving’ angels in the form of government policies and programmes, or laws outlawing sex work, but meaningful efforts to address underlying systems and structures.

What is perhaps most dispiriting is the complete lack of engagement with and interest in the policy literature on sex work from research and engagement across the global South, another example of the Global North failing to acknowledge good practice and bodies of knowledge from elsewhere. Some innovations from the global South have been picked up in donor policy (mobile banking, and cash transfers, most famously). But outside specialist international development ministries, it appears few politicians seem willing to listen to the experiences of those outside their usual frame of reference.

There is a moral debate to be had about whether sex work is something societies should tolerate and accept. There is a debate to be had about whether sex workers should be seen en masse as ‘victims’, or whether some / many / most should be considered active agents. But policies should be focused on what sex workers need, not what others consider they should have. To some this may fall into the ‘sex work is inevitable’ camp. And there are many things once thought inevitable that have quite rightly been stigmatised, outlawed and acted against. Perhaps sex work is different in the global North, and therefore should be treated differently. But experiences from the global South should perhaps remind us that there are alternative, interesting, innovative approaches that may have something to teach us. Even if only that the language we use should be moderated, and stigmatising words that moralise and belittle individuals, and do nothing to protect and support, should be abandoned.

About Mike Jennings

I am a Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. My work is on the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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