** Disclaimer: Mention of rape, physical violence, threats

Criminalisation of sex workers making them vulnerable

In 2010, the then United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon convened a commission to look into legal issues linked to HIV. The Global Commission on HIV and the Law released its report in 2012, calling for nations to do away with “punitive” laws against sex work.

It recommended the decriminalisation of all laws prohibiting “adult consensual sex work” and noted the need for legislation to distinguish between trafficking and sex work.

In South Africa, however, despite all efforts being made at international, regional and national levels to protect them, sex workers remain one of the most marginalised groups.

Sex work has been explicitly criminalised in South Africa by the Sexual Offences Act (No. 23 of 1957) and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act (No. 32 of 2007), leaving sex workers vulnerable to state-led and societal harassment, abuse, lack of access to healthcare and, regrettably of late, digital violence. 

Criminalisation of sex work has resulted in a lack of essential human rights protection for sex workers. These rights include the right to human dignity, bodily and physiological integrity, access to healthcare, the right to be free from all forms of violence, freedom of expression, right to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of movement, among others. The government of South Africa has also failed to provide financial security to sex workers. 

In the light of this criminalisation, sex workers often find it hard to continue to work lucratively, and are increasingly moving to digital platforms to connect with clients, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic induced lockdown and the resulting shift to technology for basically everything. This shift has also given rise to online hookup sites like AdultFriendFinder, making it easier for men to connect with sex workers and sexual partners. And while this has increased work opportunities for sex workers in South Africa, it also comes with its threats and harms like cyber and physical abuse.

Taking sex online

Because sex work is illegal under South African law, sex workers have no legal protection. They are criminalised and stigmatised. The law and marginalisation makes sex workers more vulnerable to assault by clients, pimps and brothel keepers. They are often harassed by the police or fall victim to crimes for working in dangerous environments in order to escape public scrutiny; this has also led some of them to turn to the internet to advertise themselves for work.

I would make enough money on the streets of Johannesburg. When the pandemic hit, business became so low that the internet became lucrative for attracting clients. - Noma

Sex work has evolved in light of technology and sexual liberation. The industry has now extended to activities such as webcam pornographic modelling, phone sex operators, erotic massage services as well as sexual surrogacy.

Noma, a sex worker based in Johannesburg, says, “Before the COVID-19 lockdowns I was not even interested in advertising on the internet. I would make enough money on the streets of Johannesburg. When the pandemic hit, business became so low that the internet became lucrative for attracting clients.”

Since the pandemic-induced lockdowns and curfews, many sex workers shifted from bars, brothels and massage parlours to websites, apps and video calls in search of clients. But where it has opened opportunities for sex workers like Noma to connect with the clients, it also poses threats of violence that many have reported.

Cyber abuse of sex workers on the rise in South Africa 

Sex workers have come under attack by criminals masquerading as potential clients on the internet only for some of them to end up in abusive and life-threatening situations.    

Noma narrates her experience of such abuse when she took a job through the internet. She says “I joined an app that helped me hook up with clients around the city of Johannesburg. On June 2, 2021, I got a potential client. We spoke online and he gave me an address. I went to the place and met him. We agreed on the fee that he was going to pay me.” 

She adds, “The following morning I asked him for the payment, [and] that is when he started insulting me and beating me up. I was not familiar with the area I was in. He locked me inside the room the whole day. All day, he would rape me and threaten to make me disappear when he was done with me. I was so terrified. He confiscated my phone so I couldn’t contact anyone. Around 3 pm, he raped me again and told me to dress up. He blindfolded me and took me to a vehicle which was parked outside. He drove for almost an hour. When he stopped, he threw me out of the vehicle and sped off. I managed to remove the cloth that he had used to cover my eyes and I discovered that I was in a forest, with a huge river in front of me and no sign of human life. Luckily, somehow I managed to get help from some people.”

Noma’s ordeal is one of the many cases of abuse being faced by sex workers in South Africa as they have become easy prey for criminals through the internet.

Grace Kamau, a coordinator for the African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA), says, “It is true, the internet opens up a plethora of positive opportunities for individual growth and self-acceptance, but sadly there is also the potential for great harm to be caused against the most vulnerable in our communities, sex workers included. The use of digital technology to offer their services comes with a barrage of online dangers, leaving sex workers vulnerable to blackmail, sextortion, and physical harm, and in some cases death or trafficking.”

Sex workers have come under attack by criminals masquerading as potential clients on the internet only for some of them to end up in abusive and life-threatening situations.

Most sex workers who spoke to me for this story confirmed that they know how to keep themselves safe with clients in the real world. They know about precautions to take, like to inform peers of their movements and to check in at regular times, but they do not know what specific precautions to take when engaging with clients through the internet. 

Tindo, another sex worker, said that she “met a guy on a dating site called Badoo. We exchanged numbers and made an appointment to meet at his apartment for sex. I was only shocked when I got there to find him in the company of three other guys. They said they all wanted my services but after sleeping with all of them, I was only paid less than a quarter of what we had agreed, which was not even enough to cover my transport costs.”

Prudy, a sex worker based in South Africa’s Pretoria city, says, “When it comes to the internet, most of us have no idea [about the security measures] because it is a relatively new space for us. We need to be educated on the risks and how to be safe and there is no information available for us about digital security.”

Prudy noted with concern the way two of her peers have disappeared without trace for almost a year now while three others fell victim to non-consensual pornography, where sexually graphic material was posted online by their clients without their knowledge. “Many of my friends’ clients have filmed their sex sessions and posted them online. It is regrettable that people think we don’t have rights because we are sex workers,” she shares.

She noted that sharing of images, videos or private information without consent, known as doxxing, was a concerning issue among sex workers.

Image-based sexual abuse, which includes non-consensual use of intimate images (often problematically known as revenge porn), has also skyrocketed with more people sharing nudes and explicit material.

“We suspect that two of my fellow sex workers who disappeared last year might have been trafficked by fake clients they hooked up with through Facebook. Our worst fear is that they could have been murdered. Also, in October 2022 bodies of 6 sex workers were discovered dumped at a warehouse in Johannesburg,” Prudy shares, adding, “No one cares about us. We are harassed and murdered everyday but we have nowhere to report. Police are also part of our abusers.”

Digital rights activist, Isabel Moonie, notes, “Most commercial sex workers share their content with anonymous people because there is a lack of awareness among most women from marginalised groups, such as sex workers.”

In such an environment, it is therefore critical for sex workers to be educated on how to remove pictures and videos posted online without permission.

It is, however, disappointing that even when the information is taken down, it would have already circulated far and wide, and the damage to the individual is done.

Loice, a sex worker who has been using her Instagram account to advertise, told me that she has gone offline on all digital platforms after one of the clients she had an encounter with started degrading her online, describing how bad she was in bed.

“I was hurt when a close relative called me asking if I had come across a post with my picture and a caption ‘very cold bi**ch, no taste.’ I did not know I had the right to report such incidents to the police as cyber bullying under the Crimen Injuria. But now I think I am going to open a case,” she narrated.

When it comes to the internet, most of us have no idea [about the security measures] because it is a relatively new space for us. - Prudy

Under the Crimen Injuria, the police are mandated to “protect all citizens [sex workers included] against  unlawful and intentional impairing of  their dignity or privacy.”

The country is yet to put into effect the Cybercrimes Act 19 of 2020 which aims to move its cyber security laws to match international standards, which would make it possible for sex workers to seek protection and recourse against digital violence they routinely face.  

Failing Legal System

Despite the gravity of cyber bullying towards commercial sex workers in South Africa, it is unfortunate to note that most of them do not report cases to the police for fear of being shamed and victim-blamed.

Minister of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities, Maite-Nkoana Mashabane told me, “We have noted with concern how digital abuse has led to many sex workers being shunned and isolated by friends and family, with many feeling traumatised, depressed and suicidal.”

Referring to the 6 sex workers who were murdered in a warehouse in Johannesburg in October 2022, the Minister called on the police to apply the law without discrimination. 

“The incident is a reminder that gender based violence and femicide online and offline continue to rob women of their basic human rights and dignity. The law must take its course and we also plead with the justice system to show no mercy when sentencing these perpetrators. They must receive harsh punishment as there is no place for them in society,” adds the Minister.

Hope for sex workers

Towards the end of 2022, South Africa’s Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, Ronald Lamola announced the release of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill of 2022, which would decriminalise sex work, for public comment.

Minister Lamola explained that the government would be taking a “two-step approach”, with regulation of the sex work industry following from its decriminalisation.

He said decriminalisation would “de-stigmatise sex work and enable access to basic services and protection by law enforcement agencies.” 

While welcoming the bill as “incredible news”, sex workers rights' group SWEAT wrote on Facebook, "With sex workers no longer labelled as criminals, they can work much better with the police to tackle violence."

Minister Lamola noted that law enforcement officials need to be reminded of how cyber violence affects sex workers not only by causing them psychological and physical harm but also deterring them from doing their job freely and costing their lives in some cases.

As for Noma, cyber violence that led to severe physical violence has affected her income. She says although nude videos and pictures that reveal her face fetch higher prices, she now only sells them to her regular clients.

“Most videos and nudes I post do not reveal my face for fear of being victimised. It is our hope as sex workers that authorities will also prioritise our cyber rights and take us seriously when we report abuse to the police,” she says.

As the world continues to digitalise, online solicitation by sex workers has exposed them to many  occupational risks and for sex workers in South Africa, decriminalising sex work could lessen the amount of abuse, as such, the country’s law needs to step up to the mark and so do policing standards.

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