Easy A: A High School Sex Comedy for the Girls

Sarah Seltzer

The film isn’t a feminist rallying cry, and it certainly manages to have it both ways by making lots of jokes about sex and sluttiness without actually featuring a single female teenager who has lost her virginity.

One lame Tom Cruise joke aside, trailers for teen sex comedy-cum-“Scarlet Letter” allusion-fest “Easy A” were highly promising. A high-school flick about a lady, played by a lady, Emma Stone, with evident comedic chops, no less! If you love teen movies but lament the way contemporary versions of the genre feature an almost ritually male-centric attitude towards sex (with “Juno” and “Mean Girls” as the adored exceptions), then the sight of that big female face on movie posters might be enough to reel you in. And if you’re a geeky feminist English major, the film’s references to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s nineteenth-century masterpiece of symbol-laden Puritan-bashing don’t hurt either.

Thankfully, “Easy A” lives up to expectations, particularly, as critics have noted, in introducing to its star, who was merely a love interest in dude-fest “Superbad” and now gets to flex serious comedy muscle in a way that’s usually denied to actresses in such films. Stone takes full advantage of the opportunity, from quips and eyebrow-raising all the way through musical montages, exaggerated sobs, mimicry and simulating sex while jumping up and down on a bed with a gay pal.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, “Easy A” is the story of Olive (Stone), a smart-aleck nobody at her West Coast high school, the kind of place with pep rallies, cliques, raging parties at big houses with swimming pools, and gossip that spreads like wildfire through whispers and texts. Olive has a big mouth, and a small reputation–most people don’t know who she is. Until one afternoon, in a moment of pseudo-serious messing with her best friend, she makes up a fib about sleeping with a college guy. Jesus-loving alpha female Marianne (who, as others have pointed out, channels Mandy Moore’s fantastic performance in “Saved!”) overhears the lie and spreads it. Soon Olive is the object of a lot more curiosity and attention in the hallways, and she kind of likes it.  So she agrees to the above-referenced fake nookie-session to save her gay friend from being bullied. She promises she’ll make him seem like a stud, and at a weekend party, they initiate the quite hilarious bed-jumping sequence as the entire school listens in at the doorway.

The movie’s most spot-on critique of the double standard which goes way beyond the teen years occurs just after that scene, when Brandon, having just gotten fake-laid, is given knuckle sandwiches and high-fives galore, while Olive is mocked and stared at to the extent that she feels she has to leave the party. Her “easy” reputation is cemented, with consequences as well as benefits. Most people think she really did it. But one misfit guy after another catches on to the real favor Olive did for Brandon, and in exchange for gift cards to various local retail outlets–but really because she pities them and perversely enjoys being sought after–she lets them brag about their own made-up sexual exploits with her.

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Olive’s class is coincidentally reading the Scarlet Letter, as most high school English classes do. Ironic to the core, Olive affixes a Hester Prynne-like “A” to a series of corsets, and starts stalking the hallways in stilettos, with her red hair bouncing off her bare shoulders, looking like a modern day Belle Watling. She’s wearing her (imaginary) sins with pride, as intrigued by tampering with her image as all teens are.

Of course, things eventually spin off the rails for our virginal heroine who has discovered “slut pride.” One seemingly-harmless boy thinks Olive’s proclivities are an invitation to sexually assault her. Others blame her for their STDs which arose from other sources. An absurd subplot featuring Lisa Kudrow as the school’s brittle, lying, adulterous guidance counselor feels like it was plucked from another, far inferior movie, but it lands Olive in the path of an angry anti-skank picket line. Never fear. Our heroine has a talk with her quirky yet loveable boomer mom who informs her daughter that she herself was actually promiscuous in her youth, had a reputation, and moved beyond it thanks to the family sense of humor. And with the help of a goofy good guy waiting in the wings (played by Penn Badgely of Gossip Girl fame), Olive redeems herself with a stunning public finale and then a long, live webcast, which provides a convenient framing device for the film. Olive uses social media, which has served to spread her bad reputation, to salvage it, explaining the whole sorry situation to the entire internet and rather contradictorily telling them to stay out of her business. And then she rides off into the sunset like a character from the 80’s movies she, and the film’s creator, admire so much.

The film isn’t a feminist rallying cry, and it certainly manages to have it both ways by making lots of jokes about sex and sluttiness without actually featuring a single female teenager who has lost her virginity. As Jezebel’s Dodai writes:

What would happen if Olive did sleep with a few guys in her class? Would she cease to be a heroic character? Survey says: Yes… It seems that for girls today, even on film*, you can talk about sex, pretend to have sex and joke about sex — but if you want a happy ending, you can’t actually have sex.

Still the film’s own adherence to Hollywood double standards about teens and sex doesn’t stop it from busting other stereotypes–about genuinely, goofily funny women, about sexual double standards, about high school movies that don’t have to center on gross-out jokes or a passel of dudes banding together to lose their V-cards by prom.  “Easy A” goes down like its title, nice and easy, challenging the status quo in a pleasantly understated, and often truly amusing, way. One can hope that it will lead the way for more teen comedies with girls at their center, and even more aggressive critiques of our still-Puritan attitudes towards young women’s sexuality.





Commentary Abortion

Disability, Prenatal Testing and the Case for a Moral, Compassionate Abortion

Vyckie Garrison

Having an abortion to prevent a child from being born with Down syndrome or another disability can be a positive moral choice. Okay, now let’s go on (assuming you’re not already plotting my demise).

by Sierra @No Longer Quivering

Note: If the headline didn’t already clue you in, this is controversial subject matter. If you come away from this article thinking that I advocate genocide of a disabled population or the coercion of women pregnant with disabled fetuses into abortion, that I hate disabled people or think that Down syndrome people don’t deserve to live, you have failed to understand my point. Please walk away from the computer, breathe deeply, and start again from the beginning.

I believe that it is possible and desirable to respect disabled people while still working to eliminate genetic disorders so that children who might have had Down syndrome or cystic fibrosis (or any other disease) have a chance to be born without them. I believe that abortion of a disabled fetus can be a compassionate choice made for morally sound reasons, and does not at all conflict with the respect due to disabled people. I am firmly pro-choice, and I believe strongly that the wellbeing of all born persons in a family is paramount before considering the needs of a fetus. My position is that fetuses are incapable of being self-aware and therefore cannot experience suffering the way born persons do. The prevention of suffering is central to my moral beliefs.

If you’re already angry, please stop reading and go get yourself a nice cappuccino. Have a beautiful day. And then, if you still really want to read this, take frequent breaks to punch a pillow with a “hello, my name is Sierra” badge stuck to it.

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Her.meneutics, the “for women” arm of Christianity Today, recently ran an article by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra on prenatal testing:

What You Need to Know About the Hidden Benefits (and Costs) of New Prenatal Tests

Apparently, science can do something awesome: tell you the genome of your fetus within the second trimester:

Using a blood sample from the mother and saliva from the father, scientists at the University of Washington mapped out the entire genome of a child while he was in the womb. The discovery, which was published June 6 in Science Translational Medicine, makes it possible to spot disorders from sickle cell disease to cystic fibrosis to Down syndrome in the second trimester of pregnancy.

Best of all, at least for those of us who shiver at the thought of an amniocentesis, is that it’s noninvasive.

About 10 percent of the free-floating in a mother’s blood belongs to her baby, and by comparing her blood with her own and the father’s DNA, scientists can pinpoint which DNA belongs to the baby. From there, they can sequence the child’s entire DNA code. Or at least, they can get pretty close. Their accuracy rate was about 98 percent in the infant boy they tested.

Zylstra says that, “at first blush,” this information looks “incredible.” Yes, it does. Because it is. This kind of technology gives us more control over our own reproduction, which means that we’re better able to make ethical decisions about our parenting. As Zylstra points out, parents who are expecting a special needs child can prepare in advance for what that means.

But there’s a catch, says Zylstra:

You can be emotionally prepared for his birth. You could choose a C-section if that was warranted, or line up services for him, or join a support group.Or abort him.That’s the rub, said Gene Rudd, president of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations.

It’s hard to imagine this test wouldn’t be the instigation of selective abortions, since many women with prenatal diagnoses of Down syndrome currently abort, he said. “It’s search and destroy that we do that now with Downs,” he said. “And to what benefit do we do that? If we look at the statistics or surveys that come from families that have raised a Downs individual, 97 percent said it was rewarding.”

It’s a life worth living, and many see that, says Amy Julia Becker, who has written extensively about her daughter with Down syndrome. Heart conditions and respiratory troubles often suffered by those with Down syndrome can be treated, life expectancy has risen from 25 to 60, and by all accounts, raising a son or daughter with Down syndrome can be a wonderful gift. The numbers are tricky, but Becker says that about 70 percent of babies prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted.

“Ultimately, the problem is that we have a society that says it’s okay to kill unborn babies,” Rudd told me. “If that weren’t permissible, this information wouldn’t be misused.” Prenatal testing in a country with legal abortion lets parents decide if that child is “good enough” to live, he said. But as imperfect, capricious, sinful beings, how do we figure we’re smart enough, or good enough, to judge anybody else’s shot at life?

Who are we to say that cystic fibrosis is such an overwhelmingly terrible disease that they shouldn’t be allowed to live?” Rudd said. “Do we say that about a one-year-old who is diagnosed? What’s different about a younger child?”

There are a lot of pieces to this pie, so I’m going to address them problem-by-problem. Ready? Here we go. This article:

  1. Fetishizes disability.
  2. Dehumanizes children.
  3. Downplays economic concerns and long-term viability.
  4. Minimizes the suffering of children and caregivers.
  5. Is logically inconsistent.
  6. Conflates fetuses with born children, and therefore
  7. Devalues labor, delivery and motherhood.
Before we go any farther, here is my main point:
Having an abortion to prevent a child from being born with Down syndrome or another disability can be a positive moral choice. Okay, now let’s go on (assuming you’re not already plotting my demise).
1. Fetishizing disability
The disability rights movement is hugely important and I support it. It’s especially vital for individuals with mental illnesses, who are often judged as “not really disabled” because there’s nothing visibly wrong with them. Disabled people have a long history of being medically abused, used as test subjects without consent, being abandoned or forced to live in squalor, and being generally reviled, disrespected and treated like freaks. We need a movement to rectify that and prevent it from ever happening again. I’m glad we have one.
Now. Here’s where I depart from Zylstra and other activists.

Respecting the rights of disabled people does not mean honoring or celebrating disability itself. Apart from the perspective and political activism that many disabled people have found via their experiences as a discriminated-against class, I’d wager most people who are disabled would rather not be. Just like poor people value their wisdom but would really rather not be poor. I’ve been a poor kid. I’m still pretty poor. I’ve learned a hell of a lot about empathy from being poor. But would I choose to be poor? No. Would I want others to be poor kids? No. Would I jump at the chance to end poverty once and for all? Yes! I want people to listen to what I’ve learned, but I don’t want them all to have to learn it the hard way, like I did. I would wager that at least some disabled people feel the same.

When you argue that children with Down syndrome are “special gifts” or that raising them is a “rewarding experience” for parents, you are appropriating their difficulties and fetishizing their difference. That is the opposite of respecting a disabled person. I get that who we are is shaped by experience and that many disabled people consider disability to be integral to their personalities – just as I see poverty as a formative experience for me – but I doubt they would have chosen to be disabled in the first place. Would they have voluntarily given up able bodies for the wisdom earned from being disabled? Would they refuse treatment, if it were available? Would they choose to suffer disabilities just so that their parents could have the “reward” and “special gift” of raising them?

Amy Julia Becker of Thin Places writes:

I hate the thought that there will be fewer people with Down syndrome in the world as a result of advances in prenatal testing. As I’ve written before, it impoverishes us all when we selectively abort babies based upon particular characteristics (gender, for instance, in China and India… disabilities here in America).

I understand this argument. I do. I get how parents of Downs children learn from their experiences and love their children fiercely and imagine how empty and cold the world would be without children like theirs. But this line of reasoning makes me profoundly uncomfortable. By all means, love your child! By all means, share your hard-earned wisdom! But to wish for Down syndrome to never go away? to never be cured? Why would you wish that?

I can’t help but think that it’s not about the children’s quality of life (wouldn’t you choose a life for your child that didn’t include Downs, if you could?) but about the parents’ inability to distinguish between their love for their kids and the condition from which their kids suffer. By all means, celebrate your child and his or her wonderful uniqueness! (I say this without irony.) But don’t reduce your child to the mere fact of having Downs, as though having Downs makes them a kind of endangered species and that Down syndrome must continue forever because kids like yours would never exist again without it. Your child would be special, you would have that bond, with or without Downs.

Wanting to eradicate a condition that causes suffering or dependence in a population is not the same as wanting that population to die. Imagine for a moment that we’re not talking about abortion. If it were possible to “cure” Down syndrome prenatally, preserving the same fetus, would you deny your child the treatment because you’d hate to see fewer Down syndrome children in the world?

Which brings me to #2.

2. Dehumanizing children

Focusing on the “rewards” to parents of raising a special needs child means privileging parents’ personal growth over the best interests of their potential child.  If parents choose to bring into this world a child that cannot be reasonably expected to care for himself as an adult, they are gambling with their child’s future. Who will care for him or her when the parents are gone? Do they have the resources to provide for their child’s medical needs? Do they have other children who would be neglected because of their parents’ intense focus on caring for the special needs child?

Now, I understand that many, many Downs people are able to function in the world without immediate care, but others can’t. I think it’s awfully brazen and selfish not to consider one’s potential child’s quality of life for the entire duration of that child’s life before deciding what to do. I think it’s necessary to ask tough questions of yourself, to honestly answer the question of whether or not you can provide that child with everything he or she will need for life.

Special needs children aren’t high-maintenance pets that exist to teach you lessons about fortitude and compassion. They are people. And it’s because a special needs fetus will become a person at birth that abortion should be on the table. Responsible, moral reproductive choices involve doing the hard math and yes, making decisions to either give your child the best possible long, independent life or to terminate the pregnancy early if you know you can’t.

Clinging to a soundbyte belief system that makes your decisions for you (“Abortion is murder!”) or abdicating responsibility (“God will provide as long as I don’t get an abortion!”) means shirking your fundamental duty as a parent: to make decisions with your child’s best interests at heart until your child can do so herself. That responsibility may lead you to give birth to and raise a disabled child – and more power to you! – as long as you’re doing it with your eyes open and taking every possible precaution to make sure you can deliver on the promise of care you are making your newborn child. But it may also mean having an abortion.

It intrigues me that religious people, the ones who are the first to point out the flaws and fallen nature of the world, are the last to acknowledge the result: that horrible things happen, and those situations require hard decisions. Birth defects and excruciating diseases happen. To refuse to act to minimize suffering (indeed, to prevent it) is at best selfish and at worst abusive. To pretend that there is always a perfect answer to a problem in this imperfect world is to effectively close your eyes and live in your own imagination.

3. Classism

Not every family can afford the medical care of a special needs child. Not every family can afford the time spent caring for a special needs child, especially if they already have multiple children. To demand that families that know they lack these resources nonetheless give up everything to bring a child into a world where it will be neglected, inadequately treated by doctors, and in all likelihood end up in foster care or, as an adult, homeless, is cruelly insane. To focus on mere “life” to the exclusion of the quality thereof is not just stupid, it’s evil. It is deliberately inflicting suffering on others to soothe your own conscience.

And in case you’re wondering, the cost of a lifetime of care for a Down syndrome child has been recently estimated at 2.9 million dollars.

(Though, given that the estimate was made in the context of a lawsuit, it’s probably a little on the high side.)

4. Minimizing the Needs of Others

Parents and caregivers are people, too. They do not forfeit their own needs when they have children; indeed, doing so is actually harmful to children. Recall the many times I’ve said that having a stay-at-home mother made me feel hopeless and guilty about becoming a woman. I was put in the impossible position of either following in her footsteps, thereby ensuring that every female in our line would do nothing but sacrifice for her children and never get to have her own dreams, or not following in her footsteps and feeling guilty that I was (a) rejecting her by rejecting her lifestyle and (b) doing my own potential children some kind of injustice, even though I didn’t want my children facing the quandary I was! I wished my mother had more of a life outside of raising me, because then I would be freer to have a life, too.

If parents choose to welcome a special needs child into their family, they must consider how it will affect not only that child, but also themselves and their other children. They must make room for breaks and self-care to preserve their own health, mental and physical. In my own church, there was a woman with two children who got pregnant and found out her child had a fatal defect. She decided against having an abortion, believing that God would honor her and heal her child (or at least provide for it). The child lived 13 years in unspeakable pain, without cognition, undergoing surgery after surgery until she died – and by this time the family had exhausted its resources, the other two children had been practically abandoned. The mother had worked herself to the bone, endured a failed promise from God, and had to mourn the child all over again at the end of it all. That child was not a “blessing.” It was not a “rewarding” experience – though the mother might tell you so out of sheer love and the need to justify her situation. The child’s birth destroyed her family, and she was never even aware enough of her own existence to realize she was loved. How is that the hand of God?

5. Logical Inconsistency

First, we get the argument that raising a special needs child is a blessing:

[Says Rudd:] “If we look at the statistics or surveys that come from families that have raised a Downs individual, 97 percent said it was rewarding.”

That is abhorrent abuse of statistics. First, your entire sample (people who have chosen not to abort) is already biased toward the belief that what they’re doing is rewarding. Where are the surveys for women who chose to abort Downs fetuses? You’re comparing this 97 percent to an empty page. They might say that their abortion was a blessing, but you can’t print that, can you? Not on a Christian blog.

Second, the parenting discourse in Western culture is so punitive that parents of “typical” children aren’t even free to express that they dislike the drudgery of parenting without being accused of being sociopaths and hating their kids. That’s why such statements as “I hate being a mom” show up anonymously on Secret Confessions and have been called the Greatest American Taboo. How much more pressure is there on parents of special needs kids never to admit that they wish they weren’t?

Then, we get this:

Who are we to say that cystic fibrosis is such an overwhelmingly terrible disease that they shouldn’t be allowed to live?” Rudd said. “Do we say that about a one-year-old who is diagnosed? What’s different about a younger child?”

Little is different about a younger child. Everything is different about a fetus. A fetus does not have cognition. A fetus lives inside a woman’s body. A fetus has never drawn a breath. A fetus has not lived a life to miss. Those are significant differences.

Also, when did we go from talking about the relative independence of some Downs individuals to the horrible suffering inflicted by cystic fibrosis? Read this description and see if you think it’s an apt comparison: 

Cystic fibrosis is a disease passed down through families that causes thick, sticky mucus to build up in the lungs, digestive tract, and other areas of the body. It is one of the most common chronic lung diseases in children and young adults. It is a life-threatening disorder. Lung disease eventually worsens to the point where the person is disabled. Today, the average life span for people with CF who live to adulthood is approximately 37 years, a dramatic increase over the last three decades. Death is usually caused by lung complications.

Would you utter a sentence like this?: I hate the thought that there will be fewer people with cystic fibrosis in the world as a result of advances in prenatal testing. Would you tell parents how “rewarding” it is to raise a child with cystic fibrosis? Who are we to say that the disease is overwhelmingly terrible? Rudd asks. Well, here’s who we are: Caring parents. Compassionate, educated doctors. People who don’t want to inflict unnecessary suffering by bringing a not-yet-conscious fetus into the world to experience a waking nightmare and die, choking or suffocating, at half the normal life expectancy. That’s who.

There’s also the little problem that the article jumps back and forth between arguing about the intrinsic worth of life and the rewards of being a caregiver. These two competing perspectives make the argument hard to follow.

6 + 7. Erasing Motherhood

It’s a common trope of the pro-life movement that “a moment before birth” a fetus is a baby, and therefore abortion is the same as infanticide. This is not only scientifically inaccurate, it’s misogynistic. It erases the woman, her wellbeing, and her labor from the entire equation. Childbirth is momentous. It matters. It is not just a legal flagpole where personhood is arbitrarily assigned. It is the moment at which a child begins to occupy the world as an independent being.

It is also a moment made possible by the bodily work (pain, sweat, blood and tears) of a woman. If we grew children in plastic incubators with green fluid and Classical music playing gently in the background, then the “moment before birth” comparison might be apt. But it isn’t, because children live in their own bodies, and fetuses live in their mothers’. While that fetus is in its mother’s body, she does have sovereignty over the decision whether or not to bring the child into the world. That is her sacred right as a mother. It is her sacred right as a woman not to have her body violated against her will – be it by another adult, a child or a fetus. Alone, a fetus cannot be brought into the world to become a baby. Therefore, you can’t talk about a fetus as though it exists without regard for the woman upon whom its existence depends. To alienate the pregnant woman from a discussion about pregnancy is like having a conversation about the weather on an asteroid.

Zylstra concludes her article:

It’s not that the test is bad. To be able to map a child’s DNA while they’re still in the womb is fascinating. But so is the fact that many mothers believe that it would be worse to live in an imperfect body than not to live at all.

There’s a huge problem here. Cystic fibrosis is a serious disease. Downs syndrome can be serious. Genetic diseases can leave children’s independence stalled, their mobility hampered, their bodies aching, their minds wracked with torturous bouts of depression and anger, their futures uncertain and their families stressed to the breaking point. This isn’t about perfect and imperfect bodies. This is not the difference between passing on genes correlated with overweight and comparing your potential child to fitness models. The perfect/imperfect body dichotomy is a red herring. No body is perfect. It’s disingenuous and manipulative to assert that having a serious genetic disorder is equivalent to having a few pimples and a crooked nose.

If I somehow (metaphysics be damned!) had a choice to be born in a body that would slowly disintegrate on me, like that of Stephen Hawking, or not to be born at all, I’d pick the latter. This does not mean that I think Stephen Hawking shouldn’t be alive. He is a great scientist. He has done marvelous things with his life. But that does not make the pain and horror of his situation any less. If I could prevent my own child from being born into a life like that, I would. I consider it my moral imperative. And if Stephen Hawking and I were hanging out in the metaphysical waiting room before descending to earth, and he told me he didn’t want to be born into all that suffering, it would be unfathomably selfish of me to demand that he endure what he has endured just so that I (and other healthful people) could benefit from his mind.

My Points:

If you made it this far, congratulations. Here’s the rundown:

  1. Respect disabled people for their personhood, but don’t promote the continued existence of disabilities. That doesn’t do anyone any favors.
  2. Don’t treat disabled children as special projects to improve their parents’ character.
  3. Don’t act like everybody can afford to live by your conscience.
  4. Don’t prioritize the wellbeing of a fetus over the entire family.
  5. Don’t force special needs children into families that don’t want them, and will abuse, neglect or abandon them. They have it hard enough in families that want them and have the resources to care for them.
  6. Don’t conflate serious disorders with minor imperfections to guilt parents into a choice to raise a child they don’t want to have.
  7. Don’t abuse statistics to lie about the satisfaction rate of parents with special needs children.
  8. Don’t minimize the labor of mothers or pretend that you can talk about fetuses without women.
It is possible to choose abortion based on a positive screening for genetic disorders because you are morally opposed to inflicting suffering on others. It is possible that women who abort fetuses with Down syndrome or more series disorders do it not because they hate Downs people or like genocide or are Selfish Career Bitches(TM), but because they honestly believe it’s what’s best for their families. The anti-abortion crowd is not the only one with a flagpole stuck in the moral high ground.
Now, finally, a thought experiment.

Why is it a “blessing” and a “rewarding” experience to raise a child with Down syndrome, but not one with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome? If there’s something inherently valuable about disabilities themselves that improves the lives of people who have them and whose loved ones have them, why does the origin of the disability make such a difference? Why is taking every precaution to avoid FAS, to the point of making pregnant women neurotic, a worthwhile societal goal? Why does no one hate to imagine a world in which there are no children with FAS?

I suspect the answer has something to do with control. Because if you can control an outcome (or at least think you can), people will be justified in blaming you for an adverse outcome. But if you can’t prevent suffering (or think you can’t), your reputation remains untarnished. If you see suffering in your future and evade it, those who are suffering will attack you for your selfishness and arrogance. (“How dare you have it so easy?”) But is that feeling of moral superiority actually moral superiority? I don’t think so. It sounds more like a cry of pain at the unfairness of the world – which is something we should be trying to fix, not perpetuate.

Sierra is a PhD student living in the Midwest. She was raised in a “Message of the Hour” congregation that followed the ministry of William Branham. She left the Message in 2006 and is the author of the blog The Phoenix and the Olive Branch.

Will the World Cup Be A Win for South Africa’s Sex Workers?

Amie Newman

The 2010 World Cup is headed to South Africa next year. As hundreds of thousands of visitors are set to pour into the country with the largest number of HIV-positive people in the world, sex workers see this as a perfect time for the de-criminalization of their work.

One hundred eighty-five more days remain until the 2010 World Cup for soccer begins, in South Africa. 

And there is one segment of the South African population, in particular, that is calling for change

Sex workers in this country are ramping up efforts to push for major reforms before the World Cup games, citing this upcoming period as an optimal time to decriminalize their trade. In an article on the web site AllAfrica.com, Push to Protect Sex Workers During World Cup, Anna Sabisi (not her real name), a sex worker for eight years in South Africa says, "I have seen my colleagues harassed by the police and I have also
experienced that. I would like to see this end before the World Cup."

Sex workers in Cape Town, South Africa are routinely harrassed and arrested by police officers.The head of SWEAT (Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Task Force), an NGO operating in Cape Town, told AllAfrica.com:

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"We have realised that people still enter into sex work, therefore we
say it is better to educate (them) and have their rights protected –
it’s a matter of human rights," added Massawe. "The idea is that
decriminalisation will end the abuse of sex workers by police;
harassment and arrests – though almost never any charges – force people
like Sibisi to operate in risky locations."

In fact, earlier this year, in a case brought by SWEAT in Cape Town, police were found guilty by the High Court of harrassing sex workers because of  these "empty" arrests. 

In a book released last year by SWEAT, Selling Sex in Cape Town, the authors write that almost half of all sex workers in that city (47 percent) were threatened with violence by the police; 28 percent of Cape Town’s approximately 1,300 sex workers were offered their freedom, after arrest, in exchange for sex with a police officer; and 12 percent were raped by a police officer. 

And, of course, the criminalization of sex work not only makes sex workers vulnerable to the authorities, but to their clients as well. There is little leverage for demanding the use of safe sex tools with the threat of police harrassment and arrest hanging over their heads. 

An article in IRIN from May 2009, South Africa: Decriminalising Sex Work Only Half the Battle, discusses these same fears as barriers to accessing necessary reproductive health services and other treatment:

Jankelowitz, of the Reproductive Health and HIV Research Unit (RHRU) at
the University of the Witwatersrand, which runs sex worker-friendly
clinics and outreach programmes, said most sex workers were reluctant
to access health services or report incidents of rape and assault to
the police, fearing both stigma and arrest. 

Health researcher, Marlise Richter, with the South African National AIDS Council agrees that decriminalizing sex work is critical to ensuring sex workers can demand safer sex with clients:

"If it is legal the sex worker will dictate the terms knowing that the
law is on her side, she or he can negotiate with a client for safe sex
which is rarely happening now."

It is estimated that 50 percent of all sex workers in South Africa are infected with HIV. The South African Strategic Plan for HIV/AIDS and STIs for 2007-2011 recommends the decriminalization of sex work based on, according to the plan, recognizing sex workers as a "high risk group" that faces "barriers to accessing HIV prevention and treatment services" and that they "have a right to equal access to interventions for HIV prevention, treatment and support." To that end, the plan also recommends "ensuring a supportive legal environment" for the provison of all HIV/AIDS treatment to sex workers.

Of course, sex workers are a high-risk group around the globe. So why focus on decriminalization in South Africa with such urgency? For one, according to AllAfrica.com, the city expects 450,000 visitors during the World Cup games and undoubtedly sexual activity will increase during that time; sexual activity that will be far from "safe sex" if sex work continues to be criminalized, and sex workers remain unable to access prevention or treatment tools. But most critically, the country is home to approximately 5.5 million people infected with HIV, the largest number of HIV-positive people of any country in the world.  And while the rate of HIV infection has slowed in recent years, South Africa remains among the list of countries with the highest rates of transmission in the world. 

Though the government is not expected to push any new laws through "before next June", there is hope for some positive progression. From the article on AllAfrica.com:

"The South African government and the FIFA local organising committee [Editor’s note: FIFA is the organizing committee for the World Cup]
have also been urged to prioritise safe sex campaigns during the
tournament. Germany’s hosting of the World Cup in 2006 is cited as a
good example. Caroline Keuppers of the University of Munich said condom
distribution was increased by 400,000 and safe sex was promoted more
than a year before kick off."

If it comes down to morals and what we deem, as a global society "morally acceptable" then we can almost certainly see this as a basic human rights issue. Do we decide to deny human beings their right to access health care, to live free from fear, abuse and access to the tools they need to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS because some don’t "like" the work they engage in? If we can save lives, why wouldn’t we?


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