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Dr Lourens’ research challenges conventional perceptions of sex work
Author: Corporate Communications and Marketing (Hannelie Booyens)
Published: 28/03/2024

​If you saw a blonde woman in a red gown with the brightest smile imaginable on the final day of Stellenbosch University's (SU) graduation week at Coetzenburg Centre, it was most likely Dr Marna Lourens of the Centre for Social Justice. Since passing her final LLD examination at the Faculty of Law with flying colours earlier this year, she hasn't stopped smiling.

Six years ago, Lourens embarked on a research journey that has consumed a huge part of her life and tested her resolve. Focusing on the difficult topic of the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa, her dissertation is a critical assessment of transformative justice in our constitutional dispensation for adult uncoerced sex workers.

Using an intersectional lens, her research not only sheds light on the lived experiences of sex workers but also underscores the need for a more inclusive and compassionate approach to this contentious issue.

Lourens' exploration began with pivotal questions about the agency and choices of women involved in sex work. “Initially I was doing research into human trafficking. The more I read about women's experiences in the sex industry, the more I wondered about the issue of choice. As livelihood seekers, women sometimes find themselves in situations where they know they could be pushed into sex work."

South Africa's poverty and unemployment crisis means that for many women sex work is a way to put food on the table. For some, paid sex work provides agency in a context where they would otherwise not have control, Lourens notes.

Her interest in the topic was further sparked by an encounter with a survivor of sex trafficking while she was doing an outreach art project at a safe house in Stellenbosch. Apart from Lourens' passion for law and social justice, she is also a skilled visual artist. At the time she was experimenting with body prints – where the subject strips off their clothes and imprints their paint-covered body on a canvas.

“One of the women volunteered to take part in the body printing exercise. Although she saw herself as a survivor, she couldn't really talk about her experience of sexual exploitation. After we did the body print, she turned to me and said, 'But I'm beautiful'. It touched me deeply. I realised that for the first time, she saw herself in a way that was not exploitative."

This encounter led Lourens to delve deeper into the complexities of female sex workers' diverse experiences and the legal frameworks that determine their lot. Through her engagement with the stories of adult sex workers' lived experiences, Lourens uncovered a narrative of vulnerability intertwined with agency, challenging conventional perceptions of sex work.

Lourens also made an oral submission to Parliament about the existing legal approach to un-coerced adult female sex work in South Africa, where further engagement with sex workers in the industry deepened her resolve to find a legal approach that did not push sex workers outside the realm of constitutional protection, unable to improve their lives.

The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill, which seeks to decriminalise sex work, was published in December 2022, Lourens explains. The draft bill decriminalises sex work to ensure better protection for sex workers from violence, among other things. However, it does not make provision for how this change in legislation will impact existing regulations.

“The problem with the bill is that although it decriminalises sex, it would still subject sex workers to municipal regulations. In a way, this is worse, because that would allow local authorities to target sex workers under bylaws. They could be arrested for loitering or for soliciting sex." Also worrying in this scenario, Lourens notes, is the fact that the highest level of abuse sex workers experience come from the police.

“While the bill is being revised, sex work remains fully criminalised. So, almost 24 years after the Law Reform Commission started their investigation into adult, uncoerced sex work in South Africa, nothing has changed."

Beyond decriminalising sex work, there should be regulations within a human rights framework that provide sex workers with access to justice and medical care, Lourens says.

“The challenge is to find a legal approach to sex work that recognises both women's vulnerability and their agency while protecting their rights. There are so many reasons why women become sex workers; the law should provide for the nuanced realities of sex workers lives."

Laws that cast sex workers one-dimensionally as victims are not helpful, Lourens adds. “Through my research, I wanted to find an approach that centred the voices of female sex workers and considered women's multifaceted and multi-layered realities."

Looking through an intersectional lens at these issues enabled Lourens to understand how patterns of past and present inequalities inform the normative frameworks that shape society.

Lourens is eager to continue her work in gender and the law, but for a few days after graduation, she is taking a well-deserved break at the family's Betty's Bay home. Her husband Max and children Caterina and Max, both students at SU, are very grateful that for the first time in six years, Lourens won't be working on her LLD over the Easter weekend.

“After such a long stretch with my head in the books, it's amazing to be free to enjoy weekends and holidays again and pay full attention to my family and friends. People don't tell you that completing an LLD is a very lonely path. But I don't regret taking on this challenge. The journey has been more than doing an LLD, I've grown so much. What I've written and researched has made me into something more. I've come to realise the value of self-reflection and appreciating the realities of other people's lives and stories.

“It has empowered me to speak out about justice in the context of a very marginalised group of people. I want these women's lives to change for the better. I want people to listen and think about how we judge others. Compassion and shared humanity should be our guiding light."

PHOTO: Stefan Els