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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.

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.

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Photo by Vije Vijendranath on Unsplash.