Activists for sex worker rights in South Africa are leading a sophisticated national campaign to decriminalize sex work. This Article serves as an act of solidarity with these activists’ continued efforts to fight for and realize sex workers’ human rights by examining the negative impact that criminalizing prostitution has on sex workers’ rights and presenting evidence-based arguments to show that South Africa should enact legislation to fully decriminalize sex work. South African sex workers’ real-life experiences with violence, police abuse, and lack of access to health care and the justice system, highlighted through interviews conducted by the authors during fieldwork in South Africa in November 2011, are included in this Article as testimony to the human rights violations caused by the criminalization of sex work.
Part I demonstrates how the legal frameworks of criminalization, partial criminalization, and legalization and regulation of sex work are costly, ineffective, and harmful approaches to sex work. Part II presents evidence from New Zealand, the only country to fully decriminalize sex work, to show the positive impact decriminalization has had on the lives and rights of sex workers. The experience of New Zealand suggests that making sex work legal through decriminalization has a positive impact on violence against sex workers, does not result in an increase in trafficking into forced prostitution or youth in the sex trade, and has no influence on the level of demand for sex work.
Part III advocates for the decriminalization of sex work in South Africa as the only legal regime that will uphold sex workers’ rights. Finally, Part IV demonstrates how decriminalizing sex work will fulfill South Africa’s constitutional and human rights commitments by promoting sex workers’ rights to free choice of work, association, access to health care, security of the person, and human dignity.