In South Africa prostitution / sex work is stigmatised and illegal, and prostitutes / sex workers are a particularly marginalised section of the population. Poverty, inequality and prostitution / sex work are inextricably linked, with most sellers of sex being female and poor. Research on the extent and context of sex work / prostitution in South Africa is relatively limited, and policy debates are often fuelled by passionate advocates both for and against the selling of sex. Feminist debates on the issue are fervent and often polarised, with one side arguing prostitution/sex work is always forced, and thus equates with rape; and the other side viewing prostitution/sex work as a form of work, requiring policy reforms that provide better work conditions and protections for sex workers. The need to better understand sex work / prostitution in South Africa has been thrown into sharp relief by the work of the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) which has been reviewing legislation on sex work / prostitution for some years, and is under pressure to make firm recommendations.
Given this political reality, the Sexual Violence Research Initiative, and the Medical Research Council with support from Embrace Dignity and the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women hosted a workshop on 14 and 15 April 2010 in Pretoria, South Africa, to assess what is known about prostitution / sex work and the industry in South Africa and reflect on key issues that should be a focus for future research and methodologies that would be appropriate for monitoring and assessing the impact of legislative change. Forty participants from research institutions, non-governmental agencies, the criminal justice system, advocacy agencies, government and international organisations attended this seminar.
The seminar identified specific outcomes in monitoring and evaluation of research in the field and proposed a number of priority areas for research. Additional important outcomes of the seminar was the need for: clear and differentiated definitions of prostitution / sex work and transactional sex; research tools and methodologies to address the methodological and ethical challenges in doing sex work / prostitution research; and, understanding diversity within the field when developing a research agenda.
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