Peter van der Merwe
Peter van der Merwe

The cost of scoring in 2010

When millions of football fans descend on South Africa in mid-2010, it’s not just the country’s tourism industry that will be welcoming them with open arms. Never slow to miss a trick, practitioners of the world’s oldest profession will be bracing themselves for the inevitable flurry of scoring that goes with an event like the World Cup.

As we speak, hookers across the country are practicing how to say “Hello, Sailor” in seven different languages as they prepare welcome hordes of red-blooded boykies armed with fistfuls of euros, dollars and pounds.

Whether they’ll be doing so legally or not is a matter of mass debate at this stage. By all accounts, the South African government is considering decriminalising prostitution for the duration of the event. It’s not quite clear whether they’re hoping for a slice of the revenue, wanting to be as hospitable as possible or simply being downright practical.

On the face of it, it’s largely irrelevant whether Big Brother approves or not. For one, our ladies of the night are licking their lips for a little windfall, regardless of whether it’s legal. And by the same token, your average footie fan is hardly likely to pay too much heed to quaint local customs after a dozen pints of beer and watching his team bang in a couple against stern opposition. Action is what he will want, and bloody hell, action is what he is going to get.

If government goes ahead with the proposal to loose the dogs of whore, it could have severe consequences. For one thing, it’s going to result in a lot of grumpy cops. If prostitution is legal, they can’t very well demand a free roll in the hay in exchange for turning a blind eye. The prospect of having to pay for it, like every other Tom, Dick and Harry, won’t go down well with our boys in blue.

But the seeming frivolity of the situation masks a deeper issue. Many advocacy groups have long maintained that all sex workers should be able to ply their trade without the constant police harassment and discrimination that comes with a criminal record.

Bringing prostitution out into the open, they say, will reduce violence against women and improve the health of sex workers and their clients. Decriminalise prostitution, and you bring it out of the underground and off the black market. Bottom line: right now, a lot of people are engaged in prostitution without practicing safe sex. In countries like The Netherlands, New Zealand and Thailand, where payment for sex is allowed, sex workers are more likely to use condoms and have lower rates of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

That’s where the difference between decriminalisation and legalisation comes in. Decriminalising something merely implies it’s no longer a criminal offence — like having sex with a 16-year-old boy, for instance. Legalisation means something more: actually creating a formal industry, with registered practitioners, industry bodies, even regular conferences at Sun City. The mind boggles.

And if we’re not going to legalise the industry, someone should put up large signs at every entry point (to the country, that is) warning our upstanding visitors of the dangers inherent in burying one deep into a seemingly unprotected net. This is Africa, where Aids is a terrifying reality, and your team getting eliminated in the first round will be the least of your worries if you get led down the wrong alley one dark and tempestuous night.

Will our government rise to the challenge? Or will they talk a good game, and then fail to deliver when the rubber hits the road? Time will tell. The greater good of the sex-work industry — and the ongoing sexual health of football fans from around the world — depends on it.

(This blog was also published on www.shine2010.co.za)