Friday, March 30, 2007

Legal Prostitution at South Africa's World Cup?

South Africa's National Police Commissioner, Jackie Selebi, wants to legalize public drinking and prostitution for the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

According to the Cape Times (20 March 2007), "he suggested that the government adopt innovative ways of 'controlling' public drinking and prostitution." Selebi's deputy, Andre Prius, also proposed the creation of "red light" districts for fans' enjoyment. They both worry that, if the police must enforce this vice legislation, they will be overworked with petty concerns and the fans will be made to suffer.

While the idea of legalizing sex work is not new, the World Cup gives the proposal a sense of urgency and possibility.

But let's unpack some of the assumptions in the Commissioner's proposal:

FIRST, Selebi does not seek to legalize prostitution for the sake of the sex workers themselves. He bases his proposal on the convenience and happiness of a foreign sex-buying men.

This reveals a troubling gender bias. Since the Commissioner's rationale is not based on the rights or welfare of sex workers, it is not clear how legalization would benefit them in the long-run. Their needs are never mentioned. According to his public statements, a legalized sex industry would cater solely to the convenience of sex-buying men.

Though legalization would presumably free prostitutes from many abuses by police officers—and it might even offer some protection from client predations—the rationale behind the proposal reinforces their subordination to male desire.

SECOND, the timing of the proposal reveals that it is the hallowed status of the World Cup in South African discourse that makes Selebi's ideas seem practical and even desirable. But what about after the event?

Since the idea is motivated to deal with the circumstances of a unique situation, it is difficult to see what benefits will accrue to South Africans themselves. Will legalization be a special exception for a limited time, as some hope? Will it lead to substantive changes in the sex industry? Currently, the proposal panders to assumed foreign sexual inclinations but does not address the real concerns of South Africans for whom prostitution remains a difficult subject.

THIRD, by tying the legalization of prostitution to the legalization of public drinking, Selebi has the convenience a particular type of World Cup visitor in mind. He names them: soccer hooligans. Ostensibly, he wants to relieve the police of having to arrest masses of revelers.

But he need not "legalize" these activities to achieve his goals. A simpler solution would be "decriminalization." What's the difference? Decriminalization would allow prostitutes to ply their trade without legal interruption while legalization would add an element of government control and regulation to that work. Hence Prius' call for "controlled red light districts" (on the German World Cup model) rather than free reign for the sex workers (or public drinkers).

For many South Africans, Selebi's approach sounds reasonable. He links these proposals to the unique circumstances of the World Cup, which suggest that these laws might be temporary. And he promotes legalization rather than decriminalization, allowing the government to become "regulators"—rather than bystanders of—the vice industry. Thus, morally concerned citizens can trust that the police will not let things "get out of hand," but will in fact be "controlling" these dangerous trades.

My analysis here concerns the rights and welfare of vulnerable prostitutes. At the moment, Selebi's proposals hint at answering some of the long-standing problems facing sex workers, like the criminalization of their work that leads to police abuse and harassment. But the timing and rationale of his proposal shows that sex workers are not his main concern. He worries more about the happiness of free-wheeling, drunken, foreign johns.

However, just as the World Cup offers an opportunity for Selebi to forward the agenda of johns, so too does it offer sex worker activists the chance to push for the rights of a newly-valued class of laborers: prostitutes. It will be interesting to see how this debate continues, how parties uses the caché of the World Cup to advance their cause, and how soccer, sex and alcohol will continue to co-exist in the national imagination.

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