514: Policing Bodies: Law, Sex Work, and Desire in Johannesburg

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.