June 1, 2022

514: Policing Bodies: Law, Sex Work, and Desire in Johannesburg (w/ India Thusi)

Sex work occupies a legally gray space in Johannesburg, South Africa, and police attitudes toward it are inconsistent and largely unregulated. This results in both room for negotiation that can benefit sex workers and extreme precarity, where the security police provide can be taken away at a moment's notice. 


There is growing concern about the appropriate role for police, if any, in society. Many people around the world are examining policing in response to incidents of violence within marginalized communities. In recent decades, police have taken on additional responsibilities as administrators of social welfare and adopters of community policing. 


Yet, it remains an open debate whether policing and criminalization bring additional security and human rights protection, especially for historically stigmatized populations. Within this social context, Thusi examines the policing of sex work in Johannesburg, and whether a human rights approach to sex work should ever contribute to more policing, even if the policing is limited to sex workers’ clients. 


Challenging discourses about sexuality and gender that inform its regulation, Thusi exposes the limitations of dominant feminist arguments regarding the legal treatment of sex work. This in-depth, historically informed ethnography illustrates the tension between enforcing a country's laws and protecting human rights.


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Brian Nichols  0:03  
focusing on winning arguments. We're teaching the basic fundamentals of sales and marketing and how we can use them to win in the world of politics teaching you how to meet people where they're at on the issues they care about. Welcome to The Brian Nichols Show. Well, happy Thursday, Wednesday, anything. I couldn't make it flying by, but it's also going quite slow. I think it's the Memorial Day weekend thrown me off Brian Nichols here on The Brian Nichols Show. Thank you for joining us on of course, another fun filled episode. Today we're going to be digging into a topic we haven't really discussed here much recently on The Brian Nichols Show. And one we're gonna be talking about sex work, specifically looking and that was taking place in South Africa with our guests today. Before we get there while I go ahead and shout out our awesome sponsor for today's episode The expat money Summit. 2022 you can head over to the Brian Nichols show.com forward slash expat and sign up for this Yes, free virtual summit November 7 through November 11. Five days 30 expert speakers watch for a week, reap the benefits for generations grab your free tickets at Brian Nichols show.com forward slash ex Pat. Alright, so going back to the topic at hand sex work joining us today, Professor India Tusi Welcome to The Brian Nichols Show.

India Thusi  1:24  
Hi, thanks for having me.

Brian Nichols  1:26  
Absolutely. Now, I must say I really gotta give you props, because you're joining us today. Oh boy from Sweden. Now usually you're in Indiana, my state that I hail from but you're overseas today. And you're taking some time to join us a thank you, India for joining us on the program. How are you? And I guess let's do a quick introduction to India Tuesday to The Brian Nichols Show audience.

India Thusi  1:49  
Yes, thanks. Thanks for having me again. It's actually 11pm out here. But I'm still really excited for our conversation and still wanting to go forward with it. I'm India Tusi. As you mentioned, I'm a professor of law at Indiana University Mauer School of Law and Bloomington. I'm also a senior scientist for the Kinsey Institute for sex research.

Brian Nichols  2:15  
And you wrote a recently a new book and that's why we wanted to have you on the show today. And I'm gonna pull it up here for the audience to see is Come on, there we go. Policing a body's law, sex work and desire in jail is your Hans Berg, correct?

India Thusi  2:31  
Yes, that's an Afrikaans pronunciation. Johannesburg? Yes,

Brian Nichols  2:36  
I? How about that? So talk to us. What inspired this book?

India Thusi  2:41  
Yes. So I wrote a book about the policing of sex work in Johannesburg. And I chose this topic because I was really interested in looking at the ways that different forms of contracts are being regulated and to see, you know, what the appropriate approach to sex recommend particular we do. And it was interesting, because they went into the research not necessarily having a particular agenda or thoughts about what decriminalized or criminalized or regulated, but after I saw how it was being policed, and some of the weaknesses, of having criminalization of sex, where I've come out in favor of decriminalization,

Brian Nichols  3:24  
and let's talk about what you experienced in South Africa. Because one of the things I think it's very tough for us here in the United States to get the context of sex work, because it's not as prevalent as we would think, you know, in especially in other societies. So what is the the premise behind sex work? Why do we see it pop up, especially in a lot of I'd say underdeveloped countries, and what is it that we're seeing be the issue with regards to the policing? Because it seems you mentioned this in the book that there has been a little inconsistency in the way that the police have dealt with this issue of sex work.

India Thusi  4:03  
Yes, you know, sex work, you find sex work that may occur in certain contexts in developing countries where people are really trying to make ends meet. You also see sex working United States. What's interesting that I'm a similar both in the United States as well as what I saw South Africa was that initially, sex work wasn't what normalize that, in fact, it was the aspects of it that had a public nature. So for example, loitering, that was regulated in the laws in the United States and in South Africa, and it was only around the early 1900s or so. And going into the mid 1900s, that you see the states and the country of South Africa, deciding to criminalize prostitution. And you know, there have been some issues that come with that because there's all these resources that end up being spent on trying to criminalize a crime that actually results in really few conviction

Brian Nichols  5:04  
and talk to us in terms of what sex work does from a societal moral standpoint, right? Because I think this would be the biggest argument you likely would hear with regards to sex work. From the moral fabric, right, the moral, the moral fabric of the country would be ripped apart if you legalize sex work, and namely, because I think there has been, for a long time in association with sex. And with that, almost the religious aspect of that going into relationships that go into the monogamous relationships we see here in America today that we're familiar with. So could you talk to maybe the difference in the cultural aspects of sex work and others in other cultures?

India Thusi  5:48  
Sure, you know, what's interesting is that the the people that you found really pushing for criminalization of sex work, we're actually feminist, and feminist who were trying to protect the moral fabric of society. And they argued, if you allow for, you know, men in particular, to engage in sex work, or to have these prostitution transactions, we're going to have a really immoral society is going to impact on children's in the impacts of their wives and their marriages. So you find this major push for the criminalization of sex work around the Victorian precariat and the Progressive Era in the United States. Now, the problem is that no country, no society has been able to actually efficiently and sufficiently regulate sex work. So even when you have it criminalized, what you have is a lot of resources being spent on the policing of it, the criminalization of it, but you have people being released, because it's really hard, maybe close to impossible, to actually prove that someone was engaging in prostitution. So it ends up being this really wasteful crime that's being, you know, exhausted, supposedly, to protect our morality as a society. But this is really ineffective.

Brian Nichols  7:03  
There was one thing I think we can all kind of go back to like a really contemporary story, it was in the news for FeliCa millisecond. And just the way that the world is nowadays everything is in the news for a millisecond. But it was the owner of the New England Patriots Robert Kraft, he was I think was back last Super Bowl or two Super Bowls ago is around that time, there was a big case that was going on where he was accused of engaging in sex acts with I think it was Asian massage therapists. And it was a whole big scandal. You know, the NFL was looking into it, I think the FBI may have been looking into it. So your point, you see that there is so much, and I think the only word to use is wasted time, energy, effort, resources in, in really an act has taken place behind closed doors. And I mean, if we're going to get really to like the very, very minut discrepancies between what is considered legal and what's not considered legal, I mean, porn is a legal product, I can call it a product, I guess, um, but you all you do is just add a video camera, right? And then that turns it into something that makes it legal versus not having the video camera, and you can see that there is there is almost like the societal acceptance of sex work. And yet, the laws don't reflect that. So what's what's the disparity? Why is there such a lag between what you see in the, I guess, the culture, right, and then what the law is actually in place?

India Thusi  8:39  
You know, I think this is just an example where the law is behind society, because, as you mentioned, there actually is a greater acceptance of decriminalization of sex work, most Americans support decriminalization, but the laws don't reflect that. And you mentioned the Robert class situation. And then that was really interesting, because at first there were these accusations that he was engaging in sex trafficking, and these were sex trafficking victims. But once there was additional evidence put forth, what we found was just ordinary, alleged prostitution transactions, right. And all these resources that went into this investigation, all these false claims, he ended up having his charges dropped. And you know, there was nothing that really came out of that, you know, and so there's all these resources devoted to this. This accident most people in the United States don't even think should be a crime. Most people, even in the context of South Africa, don't take it should be a crime. But we're expending all these police resources investigations. And, you know, they're we're not even getting convictions out of it. So it's just really a wasteful situation.

Brian Nichols  9:49  
I'm glad you brought it back to South Africa because I wanted to go that route with the second part of the conversation here because you talk about in the book, a story with a young police officer named Zolo, would you be willing to share that story with us?

India Thusi  10:04  
Sure, absolutely. Um, so I did research with a police officers and a police department in Johannesburg, South Africa. And there was this one officer who I met who was, you know, very macho and protective over me as I was speaking to him. And I asked him this question about, you know, whether he thought that, you know, sex work, whether prostitution should be legalized. And his response to me was that it is legalized? Mostly. Right. So that was just a really interesting response, because it showed how, on the one hand, maybe technically, in South Africa, prostitution is criminal. But there is this tolerance of this and just recognition that you're not actually going to be able to get convictions and really successfully eradicate prostitution. So there's this acknowledgment that, yes, it's mostly legalized, although we have to police it, right. And so for me, that just illustrates a situation where we have concepts that is kind of a separate or at least acknowledge that, you know, there's no way to completely eradicate, yet we have all these, this waste that we're devoting toward it. And it's just really problematic.

Brian Nichols  11:17  
So let's, let's go ahead and talk about the impact of the policing on sex workers. Because I think sometimes the stories we don't hear right, we will hear the stories of the NFL owner like Robert Kraft, but you won't hear the story of the sex worker. So let's talk about what that impact has been in let's look at the book, obviously, and what you were experiencing, as you were going through your two years in South Africa, what are some of the stories you heard when you're speaking to sex workers in regards to having to tow this line between a really kind of weird gray area between legality and illegality of prostitution or sex work?

India Thusi  11:59  
It created a lot of vulnerability. They're in a situation where they're constantly negotiating their relationship with police, sometimes it was just at the whim of police whether they'd be able to engage in the work that they were choosing for that evening. And so it created a situation where they were really vulnerable. So there were these moments where the police officers there would target the clients of sex workers, as opposed to sex workers, arrest them, and solicit bribes for them. And when they would do this, it actually resulted in more risky and violent situations for sex workers, because although they were only targeting their clients, so all the sex workers weren't able to properly screen clients, because they're also hiding from the police. At that time, they weren't able to determine whether this was a violent person or to confer with each other, and warn each other about certain clients. So it just resulted in a lot of violence, actually, during that period of time, when I was out on the field. And so, you know, I think by sending, you know, all these all these, you know, again, these resources in like criminalization and policing sex work, you actually are creating more harm for sex workers, and you're not being successful at eradicating sex work. So for me is the policy that simply just doesn't make sense. And, you know, while there are these strong moralistic motivations for why we should, you know, regulate people's private behaviors here, they're just ineffective, right? The policy just doesn't work.

Brian Nichols  13:28  
Yeah, it's always a fine line between getting the policy in place, and then actually getting it to be effective in terms of being sound logical policies, and getting the desired desired outcomes. Now, the audience here on my program, were much more overtly I guess, empathetic to the overtly non government policies, prescriptions, wherever we can try to make things better outside of government, we're going to do our darndest. But then to the point, there are certain things that unfortunately, government has in there, the others who will say, Well, fortunately, and we're gonna talk about that in a second. But there are those where the government has stepped in, and it has made things illegal, right? It may, it has made certain acts, really a crime to just go ahead and take part in, as we talked about earlier, any other time would be a normal, consensual act between two adults. So let's make the middle ground. And I know that sounds like a weird, kind of, you know, half pregnant kind of situation, but to the point of the program, and the way we really approach things here on the show is we try to not win arguments. We've tried to win hearts and minds and we use the methods of sales and marketing that I've taken from the private sector, and we're bringing it to a lot of the issues we see. And right now I see a market of people who we talked about earlier who are kind of already on board with this, they're just not really talking about it and then there are those who are adamantly against it. So let's talk to right now those who are adamantly against it, what would be the stepping stones to get to maybe some middle ground some common ground I'm not sure what that would look like, but what would you see as As an advocate for this space as being maybe a way to start engaging with those individuals who will be putting up the defenses from the onset.

India Thusi  15:09  
Sure, for people who are adamantly against it, I guess I would really focus on providing them the evidence about the violence that occurs when you have criminalization of sex work, right. And you place sex workers in a situation where they're more vulnerable, they're more exposed to, you know, police corruption, there's a lot of evidence of that both in the United States and in South Africa, and they're more susceptible to violence by their clients as well. And it's just not been successful at eradicating sex work, that even when you have criminalization, you continue to have prostitution. And so I think, you know, focusing on policies that are actually effective, would be a better strategy, given this violence that we see occurring. Because often people who are concerned with criminalization or decriminalization, that is of sex work, are concerned that somehow it may lead to sex trafficking or create more violence. And there's a lot of evidence to shows that actually, that's not the case that it would allow such workers to be more empowered, and be able to contribute more to society. And then for people who aren't sure, or who are kind of, you know, in the middle or just not focused on the issue, I think one thing that would motivate a lot of people is just really understanding the amount of money that we spend on policing and criminalization of prostitution. In many police departments, the vise unit is a unit that ends up spending a substantial amount of resources, because of the patrolling because of the arrests that occur. At the same time, there's a low conviction rate, so as it being really wasteful, and those monies can be used elsewhere in the city budget. And I think that's something that, you know, would be really persuasive for a lot of people because I think people who don't focus on this issue might not realize just how wasteful the policing criminalization of prostitution actually is.

Brian Nichols  17:11  
So where do you see this conversation heading in the future? Right. And I asked that because right now we have if we're looking in the United States, for for our world, right, you look at we have a Democrat president, you have a Democratic controlled Congress, likely 2022, you're going to see that switch in the Congress to the Republican Party. 2024. If Biden's approval ratings continue the way they are likely that turns right as well. So that would be if you were to go more into the conservative progressive conversation, a much more conservative leaning governing body. So is it looking good for sex workers here in America going forward? Or will the culture continue forward? Government be damned?

India Thusi  17:59  
Yeah, you know, it's hard to say there seems to be some movement and advocacy occurring, I would say, a couple of years ago, where there's some momentum around decriminalization of sex work, I think we might see some stuff in certain localities. I think, you know, in New York City, for example, there was a lot of support at a certain point toward for decriminalization. So what we might see is certain cities where people get organized and focused on this issue, that there may be some movement around decriminalization in terms of you know, what's happening in society as a culture, I think there's just going to be continued progress. The real question is whether what society feels a society's views about these issues and matches what government does. And you know, what we're seeing increasingly is this gap between what the laws are saying and what what the people want? And no, just real question about how do we address that and make it so you know, our government is operating in a way that's more democratic and really reflecting the our values and beliefs? Yeah, well,

Brian Nichols  19:03  
I think you started to mention the possible solution there federalism, it was inherently built into the Constitution. I think it was brilliant in its application, because it does give us the opportunity to correct the wrongs where the federal government maybe overstepped or is not taking action, or dare we say they're overstepping their bounds in many cases as well. So that might be the option to take moving forward. So yes, localities, cities looking at you and with that, if you're in local governance, please take take action if this is something that your your community is talking about, and you want to go ahead and lead the charge. Well, I'm sure we could go ahead and point up point you folks towards Yes, in fact, India to see she can go ahead and make sure she educates you on terms of what she's experienced with her book and we talked about it here. And I'm gonna add here the stream for folks can see on the YouTube policing bodies of law, sex work, and desire in Johanna Seberg. Now for folks who are interested in yet and going ahead in purchasing this, this copy of this book policing bodies, we're gonna go ahead and do that.

India Thusi  20:05  
Sure, you can purchase a copy of the book policing bodies at your preferred bookseller. So it's available at all major booksellers. And you can also purchase it directly from the publisher, as Stanford University Press on their website is available for purchase. They're

Brian Nichols  20:22  
perfect. So what we'll do, folks is we'll make sure we include all those links here in the show notes. For you, Youtube watcher, all you have to do is well number one, of course, make sure you've subscribed to the program. But number two, we'll include that here in the description. And for you audio listener, just click The Brian Nichols Show artwork will bring it to the Brian Nichols show.com. Or you can find today's episode, all the links. And also we'll go ahead and give you the entire transcription of today's episode. India final thoughts for the audience? Please go ahead and share that with folks from very, very late night Sweden.

India Thusi  20:54  
Yes, well, thanks again for having me on the show. I hope everyone gets no more information about, you know, policing of sex work and criminalization from the book and from this conversation. And I think, you know, it's just an example of ways that government isn't working the way that it should be working. But there's potential for us to, you know, be be what we want to be and actually live our lives free from intrusion in this area, which is our bedrooms.

Brian Nichols  21:23  
Well, I think the audience here at The Brian Nichols Show, they hear that and they say, Yeah, that sounds about right. So folks, if you want to go ahead and learn more, oh, please go ahead. Yes, back to the show notes and check out your copy of policing bodies today. But with that being said, it's Brian Nichols signing off. You're on The Brian Nichols Show for India doozy. We'll see you tomorrow for listening to The Brian Nichols Show. Find more episodes at Brian Nichols show.com

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

India ThusiProfile Photo

India Thusi

Professor of Law, Senior Scientist, Kinsey Institute

Professor Thusi is a Professor of Law at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law with a joint appointment at the Kinsey Institute. Her research examines racial and sexual hierarchies as they relate to policing, race, and gender. Her articles and essays have been published or are forthcoming in the Harvard Law Review, NYU Law Review, Northwestern Law Review (twice), Georgetown Law Journal, Cornell Law Review Online, amongst others.

Thusi’s research is inextricably connected to her previous legal experience at organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and—most recently—The Opportunity Agenda, a social justice communication lab that collaborates to effect lasting policy and culture change. She served as a federal law clerk to two social justice giants: the Honorable Robert L. Carter, who sat on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and was the lead counsel for the NAACP in Brown v. Board of Education; and the Honorable Damon J. Keith, who sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and is lauded for his prominent civil rights jurisprudence. She also clerked for Justice van der Westhuizen at the Constitutional Court of South Africa, the country’s highest court.

Among other acknowledgements throughout her career, Thusi was selected as a Fulbright U.S. Global Scholar for 2020-2023. Her paper “Reality Porn” was selected for the 2020 Stanford/Harvard/Yale Junior Faculty Forum, and she was recognized as a Top 40 Rising Young Lawyer by the American Bar Association in 2019. Her most recent paper was selected for the 2021 Equality Law Scholars Workshop