Statement calling for decriminalisation of ‘sex work’ by the Honourable Deputy Minister of Social Development, Henrietta Bogopane-Zulu Irresponsible

The Honourable Deputy Minister of Social Development, Henrietta Bogopane-Zulu was quoted in several media reports as having made a policy pronouncement calling for the “decriminalisation of sex work”. The ANC and the Government do not have a policy on the “decriminalisation of sex work.” It is irresponsible for ANC representatives in government to call for the decriminalisation of ‘sex work’ and give voice to an agenda that would oppress women, undermine gender equality and perpetuate patriarchy. The link between prostitution and organised crime is well established. Calling for its decriminalisation is tantamount to opening the flood gates for human trafficking, drug trafficking and other forms of organised crime.

The ANC deliberated on this issue at its 54th Congress and passed a resolution calling for a high- level public dialogue that would determine the societal norm. The ANC also called for the protection of those bought, exploited and sold in the sex trade. Nowhere has the ANC called for the protection of sex buyers, pimps and brothel managers, which is what the decriminalisation of the system of prostitution would do.

Resolution 2.28 states:

“The calls to decriminalise Sex work must be subjected to a high-level discussion and engagement with relevant multiple stakeholders, and to continue to engage society on this to determine the societal norm. Sex workers must be protected.”

The call for the protection of “sex workers” by the ANC must not be confused with the call to decriminalise the whole sex trade, including pimping and brothel keeping, which is implied by the call for the “decriminalisation of sex work.”

There are many other resolutions from the ANC conference that show the ANC would not support total decriminalisation. Patriarchy perpetuates prostitution and prostitution entrenches patriarchy. The ANC has always maintained that patriarchy divides society and must be combatted in all its forms. The ANC has called for gender-stereotyped socialisation of girls and boys to be addressed to build social cohesion.


The term ‘sex work’ does not appear in any South African legislation. ‘Sex work’ is a term invented by the ‘sex work’ lobby to normalise an exploitative, oppressive industry designed to normalise the oppressive system and persuade people to regard it as work. It is a slight of hand to opportunistically introduce an idea that has not even been debated in the country.
The South African Law Reform Commission specifically deals with the issue of language and has concluded that this is a matter of policy. It therefore recommended the continued use of the “prostitution”, which is the term in our law.

Referring to the prostitution system as “sex work” is an attempt to normalise an exploitative and coerced transaction, where the buyer is exercising power and money to gain access to another’s body for their own sexual gratification.

Prostitution is neither sex nor work, but coerced consent and exploitation. While some may argue it is consensual, the fact is that it is coerced by the money and it is therefore not free or mutually fulfilling. It does not fit the ILO definition of decent work, as it is exploitative and often violent. The seller has to numb and disassociate themselves to survive the pain and repeated bodily invasion.

Prostitution is inherently harmful. It cannot be made safe.

The oppressive system of prostitution

The ANC-led Government is developing policy and legislation through the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) which has completed its final report on Project 107 Sexual Offences Adult Prostitution and submitted it to Cabinet, after lengthy research and inputs through public submissions. The report was released by the Minister of Justice and the SALRC for public comment on 26 May 2017.

The report dismissed the total decriminalisation of adult prostitution as a policy option for South Africa, and presented two options, with two draft bills:

Option 1 was partial decriminalisation which decriminalises those who sell sex and retains the criminal sanctions on those who buy sex, as well as those who exploit the women – the pimps and brothels.

Option 2 retained the total criminalisation system of prostitution and provides options for diversion and exit from the system.

It is important to note what the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, Adv. Mike Masutha the recommendations in the Report. He, said: “We are convinced that the legislative proposals contained in the report will improve the present system as it applies to adult prostitution and ease some of the complex realities faced by South Africans engaged in prostitution, such as socio-economic marginalisation of women and the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.”

He also said: “Our government has a constitutional responsibility to promote the values of human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms.

We are also obligated to observe several international legal instruments, including the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1979 towards the combating and, ultimately, eradication of violence against women.”

The Equality Law

Embrace Dignity welcomed the release of the SALRC Report Project 107 and in particular the recognition of partial decriminalisation in Option 1. This legal option is also known as the Equality Model. In the beginning, it was called the Swedish Model.

It promotes equality by diminishing the privilege of the powerful to exploit and holding them accountable for a change and by raising the status of the violated by recognizing that they are not criminals.

Equality belongs to all peoples, as this model does.

At Embrace Dignity we commissioned research and consulted with our allies in countries that have implemented the abolitionist Equality Law, also known as the Swedish model or Nordic model. We developed a Policy Brief and Draft Bill to the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development for consideration.

The abolitionist Equality Law, pioneered in Sweden as part of a set of laws and other interventions, such as providing support for exit, promotes gender equality and addresses gender-based violence and patriarchy – breaking the cycle of oppression.

It has been adopted and adapted by a number of countries, including Iceland (2009), Norway (2009), Canada (2014), Northern Ireland (2015) France (2016), Ireland (2017) and Israel (2018). Hopefully South Africa will be the first country to adopt the Equality Law in Africa and the ninth in the world.

The Equality Law is a creative third way in its own right with a clear purpose and a coherent strategy to ultimately abolish the oppressive system of prostitution, rather than promote it.

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Embrace Dignity proposes a coherent, rational solution to a fatal flaw in the Strategic Plan on Gender Based Violence (GBV) and Femicide

This op-Ed was written by our Founder Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge

There is a fatal flaw in the proposed National Strategic Plan on Gender Based Violence and Femicide released by the government in May 2020. The flaw is the implied recommendation for the decriminalisation of “sex work”, which we prefer to call the system of prostitution as it forms part of systems of oppression, including patriarchy, classism, sexism and racism. As outlined in the statement made by UN Undersecretary and Executive Director of UN Women, Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, “those who buy (sexual) ‘services’ are perpetrators of violence against women, and this is who the law should hold accountable. We agree with UN Women that prostitution is one of the worst forms of men’s violence against women.

We strongly assert that to include the decriminalisation of ‘sex work’ in the call to “revisit and fast track all outstanding laws and bills that relate to GBV and Femicide” is fatally flawed for the following reasons:

  •  There is no law or Bill on our statutes that deals with the decriminalisation of ‘sex work’. The term ‘sex work’ was invented by the sex industry as a way to try and normalise prostitution. The use of the term is just a slight of hand to opportunistically introduce an idea that has not even been debated in the country.
  • The call seems to have been made opportunistically at the end with no discussion, consultation and consensus on this issue in the process of drawing up the strategic plan.
  •  Referring to the prostitution system as “sex work” is opportunistic and an attempt to normalise an exploitative and coerced transaction, where the buyer is exercising power and money to gain access to another’s body for their own sexual gratification.
  • Prostitution is neither sex nor work, but coerced consent and exploitation. While some may argue it is consensual, the fact is that it is coerced by the money and it is therefore not free or mutually fulfilling.
  •  It does not fit the ILO definition of decent work, as it is exploitative and often violent. The seller has to numb and disassociate themselves to survive the pain and repeated bodily invasion.
  • Prostitution is inherently harmful. It cannot be made safe.

What to do about Prostitution

What to do about prostitution is a controversial issue, sometimes referred to as a wedge issue because it divides all parties and sectors. This explains why political parties avoid doing something about it. The lives of arguably the most marginalised members of our society, the ’sex workers’, are daily put at risk at the hands of men who abuse their power to buy their access to women’s bodies, and corrupt law enforcement officers. Fortunately this issue has come to the fore following the Presidential Summit held in November 2018 and the publication of the National Strategic Plan to End Gender Based Violence and Femicide by our government in May 2020.

While we agree that the bought, sold and exploited must be decriminalised and assisted to find alternative forms of employment, we totally disagree with the call to also decriminalise the sex exploitation industry as a whole. Those exploiting the position of vulnerability caused by factors such as poverty, childhood sexual abuse or abandonment or race and gender inequality should remain criminalised. Focusing on ending the demand and supporting exit from prostitution as part of a comprehensive strategy to abolish the oppressive system is the only effective strategy for addressing the violence inherent in the prostitution system.

Prostitution is a complex issue. While some see prostitution as a harmless transaction between consenting adults, others consider It to be inherently harmful and exploitative. Dealing with prostitution is not simply a matter of morality. It is an issue of human rights. Prostitution is one of the oldest forms of oppression, targeting the most marginalised in society.

The debate on prostitution needs to be wide-ranging and informed by considerations of what’s best for our country and in line with our constitutional and international obligations. We need to build national consensus and put aside our personal preferences on the issue, in the same way we have dealt with other controversial social issues, like the choice on termination of pregnancy or smoking in public places. We need to engage, not just those who are directly affected. We need to approach it with cool heads. We need to engage from an informed position and not simply from a knee jerk reaction to unemployment and poverty, or a laissez faire approach of commodification of everything that sells. We need to look at the socio-economic drivers of prostitution as well as the research on the harms of system of prostitution and learn from the experience of countries that have gone before us in dealing with this issue. We must relate this debate to the context of high unemployment, high levels of violence against women and girls, gender inequality and poverty. The debate must involve those with direct experience of the lived reality of the harms of the system of prostitution, whose voices have been missing in the debate so far. We have much to learn from their lived experience of the harms and trauma they have survived in the prostitution system.

Embrace Dignity is fully behind this unprecedented national thrust to eliminate gender based violence and femicide, a societal problem of unimaginable proportions, and a national disaster. We would in fact wish for the President to have declared a state of disaster, considering that the rapes and killing of women in South Africa is one of the highest in the world. Catharine MacKinnon (1993, 1994, 2006) a leading legal scholar, author and campaigner for women’s rights has equated the harm of rape to torture and genocide.

The Declaration makes overarching commitments focusing on the underlying factors that contribute to gender based violence. Commitment 10 states: “A targeted, social behaviour change programme to address patriarchal values and norms and structural drivers of gender-based violence …targeted at all sectors, including individuals, families, communities, civil servants, religious and traditional leaders, the private sector, the media community and others that are strategically placed to influence attitudes, behaviours and practices, supported by an effective, resourced communication strategy” (Declaration of the Presidential Summit Against Gender-Based Violence and Femicide). The South African Law Reform Commission has produced a report of a review of the current laws on adult prostitution and has released a report with two draft bills, which must still be tabled and debated in our parliament.

The SALRC report dismissed total decriminalisation as a policy and legislative framework and said this would be disastrous for our country with our levels of violence against women, high unemployment and poverty. The decriminalisation of “sex work” would be counter-productive as it would lead to the expansion of the exploitative industry, which is already getting out of control.

Sex sells

Prostitution is a lucrative ‘industry’. There are huge profits made by the sex industry. A research report conducted in 2014 estimated the sex markets in the United States to be worth anywhere from $40 million to $290 million (close to R5 billion) in seven cities profiled in the government-sponsored report by the Urban Institute.” As they say, sex sells. A survey by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) indicates that sexual exploitation rakes in $99 Billion globally and accounts for 66% of the human trafficking industry, of which forced labour accounts for 28,7% and Domestic servitude, 5,3%. (Source ILO Human Trafficking Centre). The prostitution system is one of the worst forms of violence, that some women and girls face at the hands of men who buy them for sex and those who take advantage of the position of vulnerability, caused by a toxic combination of systemic oppression and patriarchy. The system of prostitution – sometimes opportunistically referred to as “sex work” – is driven by patriarchy and men’s feelings of entitlement to women’s bodies, and the system in turn perpetuates patriarchy – a vicious cycle.

A comparison of the different legal frameworks

There are three legal approaches to regulating prostitution. Prohibition, Legalisation/Decriminalisation and Abolition. These approaches are completely different and depend on national policy and the expected outcome.

  • Prohibition refers to the legislative framework where all aspects of the prostitution system are criminalised, including the buying and selling of sex, pimping and brothel keeping. This is the status quo in South Africa and most of the world. As we have seen in our country, prohibition has not successfully curbed prostitution. In fact all indications are that it is growing, especially under our conditions of high unemployment, poverty, patriarchy and gender based violence. Prohibition has not examined the fundamental socio-economic factors that drive prostitution. Instead, it punishes those that are already victimised by poverty, childhood abuse and homelessness, as well as unequal gender relations.

  • Legalisation/Decriminalisation refers to a spectrum of legal approaches including regulation. The buying and selling or sex are not a crime. Legalisation imposes certain limitations, including the requirement for registration of all those providing sexual ‘services’ and defining ‘red light zones’ – specific areas where prostitution is allowed. Decriminalisation refers to an approach where there are no laws restricting the buying and selling of sex except for regulating its activities .

  • Abolition recognises prostitution as a system of oppression and puts measures in place for its eradication.

Total decriminalisation has not worked in New Zealand, the only country that has adopted such a legal framework and policy. In New Zealand, brothel-keeping, living off the proceeds of someone else’s prostitution, and street solicitation are legal in New Zealand and have been since the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) 2003 came into effect. It is important to note that the PRA was passed by 60 votes to 59 with one abstention. No other country has followed the New Zealand experiment, and as Melissa Farley has pointed out, in New Zealand decriminalisation has not stopped the violence, stigma, prejudice, and more importantly under-age prostitution has increased.

As shown in countries that have chosen the legalisation route, like Germany, The Netherlands and some states in Australia and the United States of America, one of the consequences of legalisation or total decriminalisation is the significant increase and extent of the prostitution system, as well as an increase in organised crime and human trafficking.

Germany, which passed a law legalising prostitution in 2001, has seen a massive growth in the sex industry, as documented in an article published by the Economist. In a report titled: “Prostitution in Germany: A giant Teutonic brothel: Has the liberalisation of the oldest profession gone too far?” the Economist compares Germany and Sweden’s legal approaches.

Since 2001, prostitution is legal in Germany, but different states and cities enforce different limitations on where and how it can happen. The law in Germany aimed to remove the stigma of prostitution by for example, giving those selling sex full rights to health insurance, pensions and other benefits.

According to the law Germany those selling sex are required to register with the government and undergo regular health checks. However, according to DW news, only about 33,000 of those selling sex have officially registered in Germany, out of a government estimate of 400,000. This shows that legalisation has not removed the stigma. It is not clear whether the promise of better health has materialised, especially as exemplified by the real danger of contracting the Corona virus in addition to sexually transmitted infections and physical and mental trauma related to the sex, where the levels of post and ongoing traumatic stress are recorded as very high.

Two years before Germany went the legalisation route, Sweden pioneered a different approach, known as the Swedish model, Nordic Model, Sex buyer law or Equality model. The Sex Purchase Act in 1999, was part of a basket of legislative measures for tackling gender based violence. The Equality Model is a form of partial decriminalisation that decriminalises only those selling sex (mostly women) and gives them a right to safety and bodily integrity. Simultaneously, it criminalises those buying sex (from men) and those who profit from the exploitation of the vulnerability of others. Since 1999, the Equality Law has gained traction and has been adapted and adopted by a number of countries, including Norway (2009), Iceland(2009), Canada(2014), Northern Ireland(2015), France(2016), Ireland(2017), and Israel(2018).

The Equality Law is the only clear and coherent strategy for reducing the demand for prostitution. It would be in our country’s interest to consider the Equality model adapted to our context of high levels of violence against women, high unemployment and high levels of inequality. Fortunately we are half-way there. In 2007, parliament amended the Sexual Offences Act and criminalised the buying of sex. Section 11 of the 2007 Sexual Offences Amendment Act prohibits engaging sexual services of persons 18 years or older. What we need to do now is to decriminalise the bought, sold and exploited and support them to exit, while retaining the criminalisation of all the other aspects of the prostitution system.

There are indications of growing support for the Equality Model in South Africa.

  •   In December 2017, the ANC adopted a resolution at its 54th Elective Conference calling for a process to determine the societal norm on this issue. Resolution 2.28 states: “The calls to decriminalise Sex work must be subjected to a high level discussion and engagement with relevant multiple stakeholders, and to continue to engage society on this to determine the societal norm. Sex workers must be protected.”
  • In June 2018 the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) unanimously adopted the Embrace Dignity Petition Report and the Study Tour to Sweden Report and called on the Minister of Justice to study the reports and consider the Swedish Model for dealing with prostitution. This was in response to the Embrace Dignity petition. In 2014 Embrace Dignity petitioned parliament to set up a multiparty ad-hoc committee of both houses to investigate the harms of prostitution and legislative frameworks that would address these harms.
  • The High Level Panel on the Assessment of Key Legislation and the Acceleration of Fundamental Change Report Recommendations calls for: “Parliament should use its powers to introduce the following legislative changes to the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Act 32 of 2007 with regard to protecting those who sell sex. The Act should be amended to decriminalise prostitution in order to remove the unintended consequences arising from the criminalisation of prostitution for those who sell sex. Other legislative provisions contained in national, provincial and municipal legislation criminalising prostitution for those who sell sex or making it an offence should also be amended. 
  • The South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) Report includes partial decriminalisation (a form of the Equality Model) as one of the two legal options in their report. The SALRC completely dismissed total decriminalisation.
  •  Minister Masutha said: “Looking at it of course from a South African perspective, looking at where we have high rates of poverty and looking at all these factors and what would be best suited to South Africa and they are essentially finding that decriminalisation is not suited or the best ideal for South Africa.”

Minister Masutha called for a national dialogue on this complex issue. The lack of clarity on national policy on prostitution has resulted in confusion within the criminal justice system. The release of the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) Report released in May 2017 by the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Adv Michael Masutha, and the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development, Mr John Jeffery gives us an opportunity to debate policy on adult prostitution from an informed understanding of all the issues involved. Often people pronounce on this issue from gut feeling or other reasons, without the relevant information and research, which we now have at our disposal.

The aim of the investigation by the SALRC was to “review the fragmented legislative framework of all statutory and common law sexual offences.” The statutory provisions under review are contained in the Sexual Offences Act 23 of 1958 (The Sexual Offences Act). The secondary aim was “to consider the need for law reform in relation to adult prostitution and to identify alternative policy and legislative responses that might regulate, prevent, deter or reduce prostitution.”

The SALRC indicated that “as there are a range of legal responses to prostitution in open and democratic societies, it is essentially a matter of policy to decide which legislative model accords with governments‘ goals and strategies.

After considerable consultation and research, the SALRC presented its report to the government in 2015. The South African Law Reform Commission’s (SALRC) report on adult prostitution was released during a press briefing held in Pretoria on 26 May 2020. The report carries two legislative recommendations. The first option which is the Commission’s preferred option is to retain a totally criminalised legal framework. This option is coupled with an opportunity for people in prostitution to divert out of the criminal justice system so that they can access supportive resources and systems in order to exit prostitution if they should choose to do so.

The second option favours the partial criminalisation of adult prostitution. This option criminalises all role-players engaged in prostitution with the exception of the person providing the sexual service.

The first option is also known as prohibition. This is the present law in South Africa. As we all know, prohibition has not worked, even with diversion. Its main flaw is that it does not address the underlying socio-economic drivers of prostitution. Instead, it punishes the victims while those exploiting them are left off the hook.

Reflecting on the drivers of prostitution Masutha said: “The report also notes that the prevalence of prostitution in our society and the inherent exploitation associated with it are primarily social phenomena, which reflect deep-seated economic and sexual inequalities. This situation is perpetuated by the limitations in the laws that are supposed to deal with these social issues. For this reason, the report contains both legislative and non-legislative recommendations” (Masutha, 2017: Media briefing on Adult Prostitution Report).

Also known as partial decriminalisation, the second option is preferable, as it shifts the burden of criminality and stigma from those selling sex out of desperation and it gives them an opportunity to leave the exploitative prostitution system. It targets on eliminating the demand by criminalising the purchase of sex and the profiteering by third parties such as pimps and brothel keepers. Embrace Dignity has modified the bill along the lines of the Equality Model, suitable for South African conditions, which we have shared with the government, and we are ready to make submissions when the government tables the bill in parliament.

The Equality Model is the only coherent strategy for addressing prostitution and its harms. As stated by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, the law should target those buying sex or profiting from the exploitation of women. As she puts it, they are the perpetrators of violence against women. In relation to commitment 17, we are most concerned that the broad brush approach of decriminalising the whole ‘sex work’ industry, is counterproductive and will perpetuate patriarchy, and increase violence and the objectification of women. By passing a law that targets the demand, Sweden has shown us that it is possible to change public opinion and behaviour. They have twenty years of experience to prove it. Having passed the Sex Purchase Act in 1999, Sweden has seen a reduction in both street prostitution and human trafficking. The law has shifted the stigma and accountability from the bought, exploited and sold, to the exploiters and perpetrators. It is no longer cool to buy sex in Sweden. We urge our government to adopt the Equality Model as part of effectively dealing with gender based violence a fatal blow.

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Embrace Dignity applauds UN Women progressive statement with regards to prostitution

Embrace Dignity is delighted by the most recent and progressive statement made on the 10thJuly 2020 by Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, which supports our abolitionist position and long held view that prostituted persons are victims of gender based violence.   She further viewed the sex trade as undermining the right to dignity, a constitutionally guaranteed right in South Africa.

The webinar might be published in the coming days. Click on the link below for a video record of excerpt of Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka’s statement:

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“I support the Abolitionist Equality Law because I don’t want to end up dead in a ditch” by Mampho

The article is part of our Kwanele Survivor Speak series where Kwanele survivor movement members share their lived experience of violence and exploitation in the system of prostitution. 

My name is Mampho I am 25 years old from Free State. I am a second born at home. I have three brothers and my mom passed away when I was in Grade 4 and I was 10 years at the time. I ran away after 2 years of staying with my dad and stepmother because my dad was very abusive. My dad was a monster who always highlighted our naughtiness and we would sleep outside for days as he was not home as he worked at Doornkop mine in Johannesburg. I fled to Johannesburg at the age of 13 years.

Life was hard in the streets so I had to make a living. I had to make sure I survived. I know how it feels to go to jail just for a meal and a safe place to sleep. I was homeless and I stayed in the railway at Lenasia till 16 years then I started selling my body. Due to my age I did not ask much, the men were telling me what they want and often refused to use condoms and diverted from the agreements we would normally have before sex. I then found out that I am HIV positive and had to hide it from the other girls fearing that they will tell “clients”.

I started taking ARVs medication but that didn’t help because Metro Police often chased us all over the city and my medication would get lost. I tried going to adult school but I could not do my matric cause I do not have an ID. I have looked for jobs till this day but there’s absolutely nothing. I am now staying at the nearby informal settlement and make a living by selling atchaar, bunny chow and cigarettes. I support the Abolitionist Equality Law because I don’t want to end up dead in a ditch somewhere nor do I want any women to go through that. A lot of prostituted women have been killed by the after effects of cold weathers in their bodies as we used to sleep outside. We also roam with violent truck drivers from point A to B. Lastly the sex buyers are violent and they kill us without any mercy it’s like we are not human. Majority of us do not even have identity documents although we are South African. We are a forgotten population and most organisations only serve us with condoms and lubricants and encourage to keep this violent inhumane lifestyle.

I need a dignified work and opportunities so that I can go back to the Free state. As a result of rape on the streets, I have a daughter now. I cry every day at the thought of her falling into a trap that is the system of prostitution. I have been raped, beaten up and called names. I have also explored with drugs and have landed in jail for petty crimes just to run away from the cold and cruel street life. I do not want the decriminalisation of the system of prostitution and I do not want prostitution to be called “sex work” as it is not work at all. The sex buyers have no respect for us as women. I exited the system of prostitution after I was beaten to a pulp by a white sex buyer for refusing to blow job him without a condom and it was only because I had mouth sores and I wanted to protect us both. I got kicked and beaten up by big boots and I was afraid of that man he was heavy and he told me the police will not believe me because I’m just a whore.  I am still traumatized by that to this day. 

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Mainstreaming Pimpland in the NYC Subway System

The following Op-Ed was written by . Taina Bien-Aimé is the Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), one of the oldest international organizations dedicated to ending trafficking in women and girls and commercial sexual exploitation as practices of gender-based violence and discrimination.

Last February, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) plastered ads throughout New York City’s vast subway system that, unbeknownst to riders, promote prostitution. 

Bright, eye-catching pink and red posters urged New Yorkers to flock to a free pop-up exhibit “celebrating the global sex worker movement.” Activities and talks from March 10-16 would have burbled at the pop-up, had alerts about the deadly COVID-19 pandemic not shut it down a few days after opening. 

At first glance, the advertised event just seemed an innocuous celebration of a marginalized group that suffers in silence and isolation. In most countries, including every US state, people in prostitution are harassed and arrested by the police, shunned by society, incarcerated far too often. Women bought and sold in the few legal brothels in rural Nevada are immune to arrest but suffer stigmatization and exploitation.  

But that’s not the full story behind the pop-up and the movement it promotes. Which is why 14 New York City-based groups, mostly direct service providers, survivor-led groups, and women’s rights organizations, challenged the MTA for accepting advertising that violates its own internal rules prohibiting the promotion of illegal goods and activities, political messages or “sexually oriented business.”

So, what is the story? 

The phrase “sex work “is a euphemism for prostitution. Coined in the late seventies by the sex trade and its supporters to legitimize sexual exploitation as employment, the term is a creative stroke that has changed the way we talk about prostitution. 

The mediaacademiaHollywood, and the self-anointed progressive movement view prostitution exclusively through the lens of personal choice, autonomy and self-identity, not as a phenomenon rooted in histories of misogyny, racism, and colonization.

The sex trade functions like any commercial market, operating on the principles of supply and demand, driven by an incentive for profit. 

The “supply” here comprises the most vulnerable populations on the planet, primarily children and women who have endured childhood sexual violence, inequalities, displacement, foster care, and suffered from an appalling absence of socio-economic choices. 

New York is no exception. Disenfranchised women and girls, as well as trans youth, mostly people of color and overwhelmingly victims of sex trafficking, are fodder for the local sex trade. 

Their profiteers thrive online and off: pimps and traffickers; owners and managers of brothels, illicit massage parlors, strip clubs, escort services, sugar dating websites; and pornographers. These perpetrators generally enjoy impunity for the crimes they perpetuate to procure victims and keep them in check, using a variety of tactics, from vicious coercion to ritualistic violence to debt bondage. 

The invisible pillar of the sex trade, however, are the men who purchase sexual acts with quasi-blanket exemption from accountability. Since the novel coronavirus outbreak, a plethora of news articles are reporting about the decimation of brothels and other commercial sex establishments and red-light districts. Almost none are talking about the men who create the demand for prostitution that hold the pillars of prostitution on their shoulders and foster sex trafficking.   Do the math: without this demand, the sex trade crumbles. 

The MTA defended the pop-up ad campaign as constitutionally protected free speech, promoting a cultural exhibit, not prostitution. 

Had the MTA conducted any research before accepting these ads, it would have discovered these were false assumptions. They would have recognized that the poster’s red umbrella is the universal logo of the movement to decriminalize the sex trade worldwide. 

The MTA might have found out that former leaders of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (whose logo includes said red umbrella) were convicted of sex trafficking and are now serving prison sentences in Mexico and Argentina.

Had the MTA logged onto the @sexworkerspopup Instagram account, prominently noted on the colorful posters, it would have quickly seen linked pages with child pornography, which I cannot cite here. 

While the MTA claimed the ads didn’t promote political activities, five minutes of research would have yielded announcementsof talks at the pop-ups by elected officials and political candidates promoting the decriminalization of brothels, sex buying and sex tourism. 

Not to mention, the expensive ad campaign was sponsored by George Soros’ billion-dollar Open Society Foundations, which also endows the global movement to decriminalize, legalize, and deregulate the sex trade.

With this information, the MTA would have understood that celebrating the “sex worker movement” is not about helping those surviving the hell that is prostitution, nor about helping them exit, but about promoting the sex trade itself. Otherwise, this movement, which includes convicted pimps and sexual predators, would never ask governments to greenlight the commercial sex market.

And let’s not forget pornography, which sex trade survivors routinely describe as prostitution on screen. 

The sex trade is shifting further online. Pornhub, the largest digital warehouse of pornographic videos, is taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis by offering free premium access to its platform, which includes documented rapes and the sex trafficking of children

Individuals can always “choose” to engage in dangerous activities that put their lives at risk and a tiny percentage of those in prostitution claim they entered the sex trade freely, as adults, without any third-party extorting every dollar. The “sex work” movement argues getting paid for sexual acts is simply labor and must be fully decriminalized. 

But the growing movement of survivors, fighting the normalization of the sex trade, is a powerful one. The truths these women (as well as a few men and trans women) share about their lived experiences in prostitution and pornography offer us meaningful solutions to combat the horrors sex buyers, exploiters, and prostitution imposes.

“Prostitution is the only ‘job’ where what you earn declines the longer you remain in it,” said Mickey Meji, advocacy manager at Embrace Dignity and the founder of Kwanele, a survivor-led network in South Africa when I asked her whether claims that prostitution is work like any other is rooted in reality. 

“In all other professions, experience offers you increased regard and higher earnings. Prostitution is the only ‘occupation’ where experience strips one’s dignity,” Meji added.

Will the worst health crisis in modern history end the sex trade or recreate it? 

Will COVID-19 lead states to finally recognize that people prostituted in the multi-billion-dollar sex trade are not only harmed, but also in urgent need of housing, medical assistance, and other services? 

Effective responses to these needs rests on laws and policies, such as those enacted in Sweden and France among other countries, which recognize prostitution as a dangerous system of exploitation steeped in acute discrimination and gender-based violence. 

New York and other U.S. states must pass laws that hold sex buyers and pimps accountable, fund necessary, comprehensive services for people in prostitution, and uphold principles of equality for all—rather than letting the MTA promote Pimpland.

“It seems to me that this pandemic of global consciousness is the right time to explain that body invasion by strangers is the most dangerous ‘job’ on earth — and why prostituted women and children have such a low survival rate physically — without even starting on social and emotional survival,” said author and feminist activist Gloria Steinem on steps needed to change the dominant narrative normalizing the sex trade. “Shouldn’t we seize the moment and get a global commitment recognizing that?” 

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Op-Ed: A Call for South Africa to pass the Equality Law now and END Gender Based Violence

This opinion article was written by our Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge for Sunday Independent, it was published on Sunday Independent on the 8th September 2019.

That South Africa is a war zone for women and children is beyond question. Nothing could have driven this message home more effectively than the brutal murder and rape of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year old UCT student who had gone missing after she went to collect a parcel from the Post Office. President Ramaphosa has called it a “watershed moment” for South Africa as we try to grapple with the pandemic of gender-based violence. Despite the national outcry, the killing of women continues unabated.

At Embrace Dignity we are campaigning for the Equality Law to end the system of prostitution and its objectification of women and related gender based violence. The Equality Law is also known as the Nordic/Swedish Sex Buyer Law or, loosely, partial decriminalisation. It is the only coherent and comprehensive strategy for dealing with the system of prostitution and protecting women. The system of prostitution is a societal problem and not a private matter between two consenting adults. It is exploitative, discriminatory and violent. It is deeply embedded in inequality and it perpetuates patriarchy.

In the Equality Law those who are bought and sold for sex are not criminalised and are offered support for exit. The buying of sex is criminalised, so too are pimping, brothel keeping and third party profiteering. This shifts the criminality and stigma from vulnerable women and girls, to those who exploit and exercise financial power over them.

The Equality Law targets the demand for prostitution, which in turn provides the demand for sex trafficking. It importantly carries the message that women’s bodies are not commodities and objects of men’s sexual gratification.

Sweden pioneered the law in 1999, and there has been a shift in public attitudes. The majority of men no longer consider it cool to buy sex, and those selling sex partner with the police in fighting any abuse and organised crime. Street prostitution has been halved and sex trafficking is almost non-existent.

Norway and Iceland (2009), Canada (2014), Northern Ireland (2015), France (2016), Ireland (2017) and Israel (2018) have since adopted this law. South Africa could be the first African country to adopt it and join this growing trend of law reform to address patriarchy and promote gender equality, and more importantly to end the commodification of women and gender based violence.

Within the context of poverty and high levels of unemployment, South Africa needs to seriously consider the Equality Law as the only rational policy choice to end gender based violence.

There has been progress with the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) releasing its final report on Adult Prostitution. It includes a form of the Equality Law as Option One. The Commission strongly rejected total decriminalisation as an option and outlined among the reasons the fear that it would expand the sex industry and the extent of abuse and gender based violence instead of curbing it.

The Report of the High Level Panel, known as the Motlanthe Report, called forParliament to use its powers to amend the present Act to “decriminalise prostitution in order to remove the unintended consequences arising from the criminalisation of prostitution for those who sell sex”.This is consistent with the Equality Law as it calls for the removal the unintended consequences arising from the criminalisation of prostitution for those who sell sex. It is significant that they do not include the removal of the consequences of the criminality for those buy sex, pimp or run brothels.

At its 54th Elective Conference the ANC passed a resolution that “The calls to decriminalise Sex work must be subjected to a high level discussion and engagement with relevant multiple stakeholders, and to continue to engage society on this to determine the societal norm. Sex workers must be protected.”This  is consistent with the Equality Law, and it is significant that it does not state that sex buyers, pimps and brothels must be protected from the law.

In addition Embrace Dignity petitioned Parliament to investigate the harms of prostitution and legislative frameworks that would address these harms. The Petitions Committee of the NCOP issued its final report on our Petition after public hearings and a trip to Sweden to study the Equality Law there. They unanimously adopted the report.

The present prohibitionist  system of total criminalisation, even with diversion, is not the answer as it does not address the fundamental factors that drive women and other marginalised bodies into prostitution and it does not have a clear strategy to address the issue. It is those who are harmed and exploited in the system of prostitution who are inevitably blamed and stigmatised.

Total decriminalisation or the ‘sex work’ position would be a disaster for South Africa as it would expand the exploitative sex industry and give free reign to the abuse of the vulnerable. It would turn South Africa into a pimp state. Prostitution cannot be considered work. It would be wrong for the poor to be offered prostitution as a solution to the problem of unemployment.

My call to South Africa is to pass the Equality Law now and end gender based violence. Do not turn South Africa into a pimp state.

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Meet our Intern: Meera Govind

My name is Meera Govind and I am from the UK. I graduated in June 2018 with a degree in Criminology. As I am originally from Zimbabwe, I’ve always had an interest in working in an African country. I started work with Embrace Dignity in October 2018 hoping to gain some valuable experience into the world of an NGO & was lucky enough to have continued for 9 months. This opportunity shaped my future career & lead me to pursuing further studies into Policy and Diplomacy.

My interest in human rights, specifically women’s rights had grown in my final year at university. This pushed me into finding an opportunity that would further my understanding about an NGO environment; their policy frameworks and how effective their approach stands.

Having the opportunity to work for Embrace Dignity gave me in depth knowledge of how flawed legal systems can be when it comes to fundamental human rights. ED’s goals involve abolishing the system of prostitution; challenging gendered power inequalities; actively advocating for a partial decriminalisation law (the Nordic Model) and recognising the violence that prostitution holds against women by supporting survivor’s leadership. I developed an immense passion towards legal advocacy through the lens of this NGO. I became more aware of the importance of always engaging and asking questions, debating challenging ideas and advancing my research skills specifically with South African law. Immersed in this environment with individuals that work towards an empowered feminist movement, defined the work I wanted to pursue that pushes towards focusing on victims of extreme exploitation. Assessing the importance of policy recommendations, I referred to the government’s political power and their decision making process. This line of work deals with the vulnerable people of society which can be tough to be in. However, I focused on a positive note and realised why this NGO was so significant, it was there to radically change their reality.

Once I found the projects that I was passionate about, Embrace Dignity was able to trust me with it and always took my opinion into consideration when coming to a final decision. I was always eager to engage on various other projects. This led me to establish a great relationship with the team.

Actively working on the law reform projects allowed me to explore elements surrounding South Africa’s legal framework on prostitution by linking the agenda of prostitution to South Africa’s Constitution & Bill of Rights and the Sexual Offence Act. Through evaluating these documents, I was able to further draft a policy brief.  From a cost-based analysis, I debated several factors that outlined the social and economic cost the state required to cover if they prostitution was permitted. With assistance from a law firm, we addressed prostitution under International Human Rights Law. We outlined the African Unions position on prostitution which assisted us in creating an updated legal document for the organisation. Additionally, I was also assigned to a variety of other tasks that included creating a list of referrals of organisations that ED can communicate in each province that sisters are based in; creating a 5 year plan that ED wish to achieve with reference to the CAP International golden rules and being present in a variety of meetings that focused on an coherent exit strategy model for victims. Additionally, for ED’s Annual General Meeting I had a management role that created and sending out invitations, allocating team to certain tasks, sorting out transport and accommodations for sisters flying in to speak.

Having the opportunity to work closely alongside the Executive Director on her papers and presentations for conferences, I grasped a theoretical perspective towards legal advocacy. Incorporating complex themes of patriarchy, the economic necessity of consent and the intrinsic harm involved were critical when assessing the harms of prostitution. I progressively drew on my own experiences from my dissertation and synthesise elements with that of leading academics. Catherine Mackinnon and Melissa Farley’s work provided a central focus when articulating key disputes such as choice and agency; child and adult prostitution.

Observing a social movement and how it engages with a policy process towards gender equality and cultivating how NGO’s strategized their tools, has further deepened my interest in world affairs. By interpreting political member’s actions and their alliances that puts global and regional challenges at the forefront of their mission, broadened my knowledge of policy in the eyes of an NGO.  I feel grateful to have worked with such a great team for a radical purpose and look forward to the change Embrace Dignity intends to bring.

To read more on Meera Govind, click here.

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A female sex trade survivor : I wanted to escape but I didn’t know how to

This article was published on Times Select on the 10th June 2019.

For Phindiswa Klaas, 35, working in the sex trade was not something she had ever thought about. She had grown up in Engcobo in the Eastern Cape with her mother and four sisters.

“Then, in 1998, I moved to Cape Town with my father’s family,” she says.

Living in a household with 13 people in the the under-resourced area like Site B in Khayelitsha, Phindiswa had little hope that a great future awaited her. Then, she met a young man who soon became her boyfriend.

Soon after they had met, he encouraged her to leave her family.

“He said ‘come and live with me’. And so I went,” she says.

“Towards the end of 2001, I was pregnant with our first daughter, and I moved in with him, but his sisters kicked me out of his house, telling me that I am very young to stay with a man. I told them that I am pregnant with his daughter and then they allowed me to stay,” she recalls.

Then, her boyfriend took her to the neighbours who began telling her that there were job prospects in Mfuleni, which is about 5km away from Site B.

Her boyfriend gave her R20 for transport, and off she went.

“When I got there I met some ladies and said: ‘Please, I want to join you in whatever business you are doing’. I needed money and they were getting money.”

The women, seeing that she was clearly still in her early 20s, told her she was too young for such business but she was desperate for money and insisted.

But the horrors of the work soon became very apparent to her: “In that period, I quickly became more trapped in system of prostitution and my first experience is when a sex buyer dragged me to very dark bushes and sexually abused me and left me lying helpless in those bushes.”

It was two years later when she was desperate to get out of the system that she took up voluntary work for the ANC. By then, the boyfriend who had pimped her was no longer around.

“After volunteering, I got a job opportunity, a three-months contract. By that time I found a boyfriend who was also permanent working for ANC, and he married me.”

When the three-month contract was over, Phindiswa felt like her life could get back on track, but once again she had no income. She and her boyfriend had had a baby, so now she had two children, and no money.

She then found a job as a parking marshal, and still held hope that things would turn around. But the salary was so small it could hardly be called a living wage.

“Bear in mind that I was still married so where down the line my husband discovered that I’m a prostitute things became very bad at home and he divorced me,” she says, adding: “I knew what I was doing was not right and I wanted to exit prostitution but I did not know how.”

Pretended she sold drugs

Phindiswa had another baby girl, and saw no other way of making a living. She says that the hardest part about it was doing it to feed and clothe her children, while also having to hide from them how she was making a living.

She once even pretended to them that she was selling drugs as a way of explaining her secretive behaviour. But her children remained suspicious.

“A man would come to the house and if he left a bottle of brandy, for example, my children would see it and ask: ‘Is there a man here? Why was there a man here?’”

After years of finding herself in sexually and otherwise abusive situations just to earn a living, Phindiswa finally joined an NGO, the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce. Here, she campaigned with others for the inclusion of sex workers as respected and valued members of society, and carried on working as a sex worker.

But later she realised that this did not fit in with her own ideology. She felt like the sex trade had violated all her human rights and no longer wanted to campaign for it to be seen as a legitimate way to make money that should be regulated and its workers protected.

Earlier in 2019, she joined the Kwanele survivors’ movement and says: “Enough is enough.”

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A survivors’ group: Do not offer sex work to us as a solution

This article was published on Times Select on the 10th June 2019. 

Mickey Meji is the leader of a prostitution survivor movement called Kwanele, which is supported by NGO Embrace Dignity.

Unlike other forms of advocacy that seek to make the trade legal and regulated and remove the negative stigma of the word prostitution itself, Meji is all about an exit plan for those stuck in the system.

“South African survivors of the system of prostitution have been dehumanised, humiliated and stripped of our dignity as, invariably, black, poor African women,” she says.

She says survivors do not want the system of prostitution to be decriminalised, legalised and “offered to us as a solution for unemployment and poverty”.

“We call upon government, our countrymen and women to embrace us and shift the burden, stigma and accountability to the men who take advantage of our vulnerability,” she says.

According to Embrace Dignity, reasons that many mostly poor and mostly black women and other marginalised individuals give for entering the system of prostitution include to feed and support families.

They are pushed into the system by cycles of poverty, unemployment, retrenchment, death of a breadwinner, not completing school as a result of needing to raise or help raise siblings, and by being orphaned.

Some are also forced into it to pay off loans, while others have run away from home after being sexually and physically abused.

An international study that looked at nine countries, including SA, found that 63% of those in the sex trade were sexually abused as children. This was after interviewing 854 people working in the sex trade.

It was also found that almost 60% had been beaten as children, to the point of injury, and that 64% as adults in the sex trade had been threatened with a dangerous weapon. Physical assault was high at 71%, and 63% had been raped.

Lead author Melissa Farley, a clinical psychologist, said, “We asked those we interviewed in six countries (Canada, Colombia, Germany, Mexico, SA and Zambia) whether they thought that legalising prostitution would make them physically safer. Across countries 46% stated that prostitution would be no safer if it were legalised. It is noteworthy that in Germany, where brothel prostitution is legal, 59% of respondents told us that they did not think that legal prostitution made them any safer from rape and physical assault.”

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, who founded Embrace Dignity, says: “A common thread of poverty and human rights abuses all too often runs through the life stories of many survivors of the system of prostitution.”

When there is a major sporting event, it “boosts” the industry: “We are seeing a trend with not least mega-events such as major South African horse races where women are paid to fly to the race and pander to the whims of their so-called ‘blesser’,” says Madlala-Routledge.

“While society tends to judge many of these women as materialistic and so-called millennials eager to add to their shoe collection, the reality could not be further from the truth, and we need to be clear about the reasons that resulted in them accepting the advances of a ‘blesser’ in the first place,” she adds.

Meji says that given that the SA girl child is increasingly assuming the role of breadwinner, the fate of SA society depends not least on ensuring that marginalised individuals trapped in the system of prostitution are given exit programmes.

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A male survivor of prostitution: How can you call it ‘work’ when you could be killed?

This article  was published on Times Select on the 10th June 2019.

Zola Ncapayi, who now lives near Delft in Cape Town, grew up in the Eastern Cape, attending school first in Grahamstown and then Port Elizabeth. He grew up with his parents and two brothers (one older, one younger), and had always dreamed of being a teacher. After matric, he attended the University of the Western Cape where he finished his degree and then worked as a teacher for several years. It seemed as if his life was mapped out for him – although keeping his homosexuality under wraps wasn’t easy, he had a stable job, a loving family, and got much satisfaction from working as an educator.

Desperation comes

Ncapayi taught in township schools in Cape Town and eventually settled in the suburb of Observatory and taught at a school in Salt River. But, when his father died, the emotional impact on him was so severe that he began drinking.

“In 2009, my father died. I was so traumatised, I starting drinking heavily and eventually lost my job as an educator,” he says.

In 2011, with no money to pay his rent in Observatory, he moved back to the townships and, although he didn’t touch cigarettes or drugs, he “couldn’t control” himself with alcohol.

Falling apart emotionally, and under major financial stress, he turned to a very close female friend.

“I trusted her the most and shared everything that was happening to me. She knew about my financial status because I told her, and then one day she asked me a very strange question: ‘Zola, do you need easy quick cash without working hard?’ I looked at her and said: ‘My friend, which drug are you using? How is it possible to get money out of nowhere?’”

This was the beginning of a horrific journey that would take Zola’s life completely off course. His friend kept quiet, and took him to a place where she said she made easy money.

First encounter

“I still remember it was January 25 2010. I became so curious and interested to know how she is making these miracles. She said we would leave at 6pm and I must dress like a woman.”

She gave him the props: tight pants, high heels and a wig.

“She even showed me how to wear makeup,” he recalls, adding that it was the first time he had cross-dressed and it made him very uncomfortable.

They boarded a taxi to Epping.

“Bear in mind that time I knew nothing about prostitution. I only heard people talking about it but I was not interested to know the details about it because it did not concern me,” he says. “When we arrived at the Epping truck stop, she introduced me to a man who was in a huge truck.”

This was how she introduced him: “This is Zola, the one I promised you.”

He says: “Then I took two steps back and asked her: ‘Is this real, my friend, are you selling me to this man to kill me?’”

She told him to jump in a truck with the man and not ‘ask stupid questions’. The man drove the truck into the truck stop and offered Zola a drink. With his nerves shattered, he asked for a brandy.

“The way I was so nervous, I wanted to be drunk so that whatever happened I cannot actually feel.”

He knew something strange was going on but still did not realise he had been “sold” by his friend as a prostitute.

When the man began discussing “the price”, Zola told him he didn’t understand. Eventually, the man said he would “do whatever” Zola needed financially as long as he “satisfied” him sexually.

“Because I was very desperate that time for money I gave him a very big yes. After all that conversation, he said let’s go back to the truck.”

Zola says: “He started touching me. I stopped him and asked if he knew I wasn’t a woman. He said he does men and women and that was why he had asked my friend to bring me.”

Zola was repulsed by the man’s large body, but pretended to like him. They spent the night together, with Zola satisfying the man’s needs. In the morning, the man proposed being Zola’s regular client, which insinuated some type of ownership, and handed over R900.

Relieved at having earned “quick” money, Zola then entered a life of prostitution with this man, but “I still didn’t call myself a prostitute – in my mind I had finally found a man who is willing to provide and make me happy.

“The first week everything went well with my first client. In that week I had more than R3,800 because that guy was giving money every morning until he left to Johannesburg where he came from.”

The underworld

Zola’s friends promised to find new clients for him, but “other prostituted women started getting jealous of me and started fighting with my friend, telling her to keep ‘that moffie’ (me) away or they will deal with her”.

Next he was introduced to a man who showed him another underworld of “indoor selling”.

“That man took me to a hothouse in Green Point where he was making business. Things were not the same as the truck stop where I started prostituting. I had to dress like a man.”

He now began performing sex acts that made him feel extremely uncomfortable – like rimming and fisting, threesomes, and being forced under threat to have sex without a condom.

“It was difficult to adapt but I had no choice because I was desperate for money, and I got used to it. I also sold sexual acts to more than three or four different men per night.”

Having risked his life with unprotected sex, his “pimp” then demanded more money than agreed upon and forced him to pay for drinks at a local pub. Zola felt like he had compromised himself on so many levels out of desperation for the money, and was now being fleeced by the man who had pimped him. After a fallout, he left the pimp, and thus began another dark chapter in his life.

Working on the street

With no pimp, Zola now worked for himself and became what he calls “a street-based prostitute in Sea Point on Beach Road”.

“Things were hectic. There was a lot of competition and jealousy – we had to run for ‘clients’, four or five of us running for one client. Things were a little bit better in my first three days because I was a new face so I had many ‘clients’ … There were days where I stood and walked up and down the whole night and went home without making a cent.”

One night, things took a turn for the worse, bringing Zola face to face with the true fear of the world he now found himself in.

One night, a man in a fancy X3 stopped and took Zola and a few others with him. He was being so polite and kind that it unnerved Zola who wondered what the man was getting up to. He, the client, said he was going to take them to his house but would stop somewhere en route for drinks.

In the car, he asked: “How many of us are doing drugs and how many are drinking?”

The other three were all users of injectable drugs. Zola wasn’t.

“Then he took us to the nearest pub to buy few beers for him and me,” Zola says, adding that the man then gave the other three money for drugs, before zooming along to the Sea Point police station. Zola, assuming he was not from Cape Town and was lost, said to him: “Sir, this is not a pub.”

Then the man took out his badge and shouted: “You bastards are now all under arrest for loitering.”

“I started crying and begged him and I even said I am willing to do whatever he tell me to do to not go to jail,” Zola recalls. The undercover policeman drove back to Beach Road and told the three other men to get out of the car. Zola tried to run but the policeman threatened him with a gun and said: “If you try run I will blow your head off.”

The policeman drove him to a dark and secluded place, where he forced Zola to take his pants off.

“I was so nervous and shaking that I took more than five minutes to take off my pants. Then he kicked me and I fell. He dragged me to the back of his car and undressed me. After that he forced me to suck his dick. Then he raped me several times without a condom right up until the morning.”


Devastated by the experience, Zola stayed off the street for a month, even knowing his livelihood would come to a halt. During that phase, he began to feel sick and went to the clinic. There he received news that landed on him like a ton of bricks: he had contracted syphilis and also needed an HIV test.

It came back positive.

“That was the worst traumatic time of my life. I felt suicidal, but because of the support I had from Health4men and Desmond Tutu HIV Research Foundation I accepted my status and life became normal and I started treatment as much as I am still on it right now,” he says.

Brave Heroes

Over the next while, Zola put all his energy into exiting the world of prostitution, a journey he says was difficult but which he wants to encourage every prostitute to make.

At first, he took on the ideology that prostitution should be called sex work, and should be legitimised as a way to earn a living. But, this felt wrong to him: he then formed a movement for male prostitutes called Brave Heroes which is supported by Embrace Dignity, an organisation that calls a spade a spade and says that prostitution is nothing more than a form of sexual exploitation and abuse, and should be abolished.

“My life is now back on track,” he says. “How can we call something ‘work’ when there is the possibility you will be assaulted, or won’t come home, or will contract an illness, or get killed, and not even be taken seriously by the police if you report what happened to you while you were ‘at work’?”

Zola Ncapayi is a survivor of prostitution and founder of Brave Heroes – a movement for LBGTIAQ+ men and womxn who want to abolish the violent system of prostitution.

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