Johannesburg – As a former sex worker, Thulisile Portia Khoza has been through plenty of harrowing experiences. But there’s one in particular that haunts the 34-year-old.
Barely a few months after getting in to the sex trade in 2008, Khoza was lured into a dark alley in Johannesburg one evening and raped repeatedly by 17 men.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that for the rest of my life,” an emotional Khoza says.
“I met a man outside the brothel I worked at and he insisted that we go to a dark alley as he didn’t want to walk into the brothel.”
“I was desperate for the money and so I agreed. He took me to this really dark corner, and there were several other men waiting there. After he raped me, all his other friends raped me and then left me there without paying me a cent.”
“I cannot put into words the pain and hurt I felt that night, physically and emotionally.”
But even after that night of horror, Khoza was forced to put the incident behind her and continue as a sex worker the next day.
“I kind of felt like this is what I deserve because I am a prostitute, and I am seen as nothing in the community. People don’t care about you, and the abuse and rape become a norm. There is nothing you can do about it.”
Khoza, who turned to prostitution at the age of 25 due to family problems and financial difficulties, spent several years being abused and beaten by her clients. She worked in some of the most popular brothels in Johannesburg, and in Durban, including the notorious Butterworth Hotel,.
“Prostitution is a terrible thing and something that no one chooses to do. I know that you agree to sleep with the guy and money gets exchanged, but the things that go on are terrible. Someone will treat you like you are nothing because they have paid you. They will shout at you to ‘just open your legs, this is my money I paid you, so do what I say’.
“When I used to work on the streets, taxi drivers would swear at me and call me ‘Magosha’ and dirty woman. I wouldn’t wish for even my worst enemy to go through what I went through during my time as a prostitute.”
It is no surprise that Khoza is strongly against the proposed decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa.
In March this year, at the official opening of the Booysen’s Magistrate’s Court in Johannesburg, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that sex work in South Africa could soon be decriminalised. This idea has been in the pipeline since 2017.
Ramaphosa said he would work with all stakeholders to develop policy around the decriminalisation of sex work. However, he insisted it would be a matter for public debate and public policy.
While some sex workers in the country are thrilled at the news, Khoza is not one of them.
She believes that the government will be making a terrible mistake should it go ahead with its plan to decriminalise sex work.
Khoza, now the provincial mobilisation co-ordinator of Kwanele, a movement formed by survivors of prostitutions, penned an urgent letter to the president this week urging him to re-think his decision.
“What we are saying is that we don’t want to abolish the whole system of sex trade in South Africa, but rather want partial decriminalisation,” said Khoza.
“We are advocating for the equality model which criminalises the buyers, pimps and brothel owner, but decriminalises the sellers and provides exit programs for women in prostitution.”
Khoza believes the decriminalising of the sex trade will cause further damage to women in South Africa.
“South Africa is facing crimes such as rape, killing of girls and women, and more especially gender-based violence which is mostly experienced in the sex trade.
“So I ask myself what effect will decriminalising the sex trade have when all these issues are still rising factors in our everyday lives in our communities? Instead, it will give rich men more power over women’s bodies and women will be treated as commodities.
“Crime is still an issue in South Africa and fully decriminalising prostitution will not change the fact the high levels of physical and sexual violence against prostituted women in this country.”
There was a time, however, when Khoza advocated for the decriminalisation of sex work, a mistake she regrets .
“I was a sector leader of the so-called “sex work sector” and did not do any justice to myself or millions of poor South African women because I believed then that decriminalising the sex trade and making it work was the way to go.
“It’s not the future I want for myself, my child, members of my family or even for any young black woman out there.
“At that time, I was recruited by rich white people who have never seen a future in black people, and who made me believe that selling my body, soul and morals, actually exploiting me, was the right thing to do.”
Embrace Dignity, an NGO that fights for the rights of sex workers, is also strongly against the decriminalisation of prostitution.
Founder Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge said such a thing would expand the sex industry and would lead to even higher levels of human trafficking and organised crime.
“Germany decriminalised the sex trade in 2002, thinking this would help protect women and equalise the environment between the buyers and sellers. It actually sparked human trafficking,” she said.
“Since the brothels can operate legally, it has created the largest interconnection of organised crime.”
“Total decriminalisation of all aspects of the sex trade would undermine our country’s efforts to address sex trafficking, patriarchy, gender inequality and women’s oppression.”
The former cabinet minister also believes that decriminalising the sex trade would lead to an increase in violence against women and other vulnerable groups.
“Prostitution itself is one of the worst forms of men’s violence against women. It is inherently harmful and exploitative and, as shown in countries like New Zealand, the Netherlands and Germany, it cannot be made safer.
“Decriminalisation of the sex trade would send the wrong message, that men can buy access to women’s bodies.”
Madlala-Routledge says her organisation has a vision in which all prostitution is abolished and all sexual interactions are based on mutual consent, are equal and are not coerced by payment of any kind.
“The Equality Model Law advocates for such a vision,” she says.
“A perfect world would be one where we shift the burden of stigma and responsibility from the exploited to the exploiters.
“We believe prostitution is not inevitable and that its abolition is possible, much like slavery was abolished and apartheid was ended.”