What happens when the biggest soccer event of the year rolls into South Africa? Well, apparently a whole bunch of people are going to get HIV from having unprotected sex with prostitutes. But one South African HIV/AIDS researcher hopes the sex trade will be temporarily legalized to let fans get their jollies off without the risk of getting the immune-attacking virus.
According to an article in The Observer—the Sunday sister of the better-known The Guardian—heath specialists are calling on South Africa to legalize prostitution in advance of next year’s World Cup in order to prevent the spread of HIV to other South Africans and visitors. It is estimated about half of the country’s sex workers are HIV-positive.
Ian Sanne, head of clinical HIV research at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, told The Observer that South Africa should start registering sex workers and screening them for HIV.
“Interim legalisation of prostitution would be best for the country, rather than leaving it uncontrolled,” Sanne told The Observer. “Sex workers need to register with a board that will regulate their practice and give certification to practise, but they have to go through a mandatory HIV testing process first, and only those who test negative will be allowed to practise.”
Legalizing the sex trade is a complex issue. Aside from moral objections, some oppose the legalization of prostitution because it inherently exploits sex workers (the majority of whom are women), and reinforces the sense that men are entitled to purchase sex. It’s a valid concern when we know that women, men, and children are forced into the sex trade through human trafficking and poverty. But some sex workers disagree, and three women in Canada are currently fighting prostitution laws.
Legalizing prostitution has its merits. It has the potential to help create and enforce safe sex standards (such as mandatory condom use) and to create safe spaces for sex workers to work, which could reduce the risk of rape, sexual assault, violent assault, and even murder. But it doesn’t appear that the health, safety or security of prostitutes is even an issue in the World Cup equation. At issue is avoiding the spread of HIV to young South Africans and soccer fans who will flock to the country for the tournament.
While preventing the spread of HIV may seem like a good reason to move forward with licensing, there is a pink elephant looming menacingly in the room: The plan will put 50 per cent of prostitutes at risk of abuse or destitution.
Faced with a total loss of income and marginalization from society due to their illness, HIV-positive prostitutes will be forced underground. The fees they once commanded will be slashed, and they will be at the mercy of their clients; they won’t even be able to seek out help from authorities or health care workers without incriminating themselves. With less money, the quality or quantity of the foods they eat will drop, which will have an adverse effect on their health—not a good position to be in for someone battling HIV.
Another problem with this plan is it encourages or validates unsafe sex, but does nothing to prevent sex workers from becoming infected with HIV. By removing the threat of HIV infection, many customers may feel safe in engaging in sex without a condom, and they could end up spreading sexually transmitted diseases.
A far more effective use of resources and government funds would be to educate sex workers, the public, and visitors about safe sex and the risks associated with not using condoms. Teaching sex workers how to use condoms and providing them with free condoms during the tournament would go a long way to reducing transmission rates.
The next line of defense is education. A country-wide public service campaign could highlight the health risks of unprotected sex and the benefits of condom use. The campaign could be rolled out in waves, reaching people in as many media as possible, including the radio, television, cell phones, newspapers, and signage.
The last step would be to educate visitors through a campaign that could include traditional media and advertising in public transit, taxi cabs, and along the streets. All persons entering the country should be informed that 50 per cent of sex workers are HIV-positive, and that condom use is the only way they can protect themselves against transmission.
An ill-formed plan that hinges on further marginalizing HIV-positive prostitutes is not the solution; education and access to safe sex resources would be far more effective.