By Pamela Eapen:
“I am a sex worker. I don’t sell my body, I sell sex.“
South Africa is one of the many countries where sex work is illegal (and has been since 1957) – and yet approximately 153 000 people in the country are involved in it. Many of these people – men, women, and transgenders – who enter this trade, do so because they have no other way to feed themselves or support their families. Many are immigrants who were unable to find employment due to lack of jobs in the current economic climate, and so turned to the source of income that required no more resources than their own bodies. They too, despite their occupation, have rights – and yet they are considered and treated as anathema by those unsympathetic to their situation.
Sex work is treated in very different ways depending on the country. We find that the trade is legal more in developed countries like Netherlands and Germany, where sex workers are registered and brothels require licences to operate, and only under legally-specified conditions. It has been decriminalised in New Zealand and Mexico – which means that there are no laws against prostitution (although the law does differentiate between voluntary and coerced prostitution). However, prostitution still remains illegal in many countries – Egypt, Liberia and China being a few – which means that sex workers are unable to seek legal or social assistance without facing impunity for their occupation. However, “South Africa follows a model that is the total criminalisation of sex work, which means that sex workers bear the brunt of the full impact of the law.”
South African Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) has taken it upon themselves to support sex workers across the country; and to advocate for the decriminalisation (rather than the legalisation) of sex work in South Africa.
“I don’t want my children to do this work and if it is legal then they might think that it is okay. If there was a way to make police stop harassing us, then that is good, but to make it legal is not good for anyone.”
They employ and provide safe-sex education to sex workers (both former and present) in order to create a better working and living environment for them. They also find ways to provide them basic needs like healthcare and legal representation; and bring the workers together to form a support system.
“We decided that as sex workers, we want our own movement so that they will be able to hear our own voices.”
Violence Against Sex Workers
One of the most horrifying conditions the workers face is the fearless violence and exploitation perpetrated against them. Fearless, because clients know that they can rape and beat a prostitute, and get away with it – because police will turn a blind eye to sexual offenses perpetrated against those in the sex industry. In fact, police themselves have been the offenders. Workers have been raped by them. They have had their livelihood taken from them by police who demand bribes and throw workers in jail when they refuse to comply.
“They put me on the back of [the police van]… so he can do his job.”
“They deal with being raped, and we always have this thing of saying sex workers are not being raped, because she’s a sex worker.”
The HIV Menace
Another intensely disturbing fact is the level of their exposure to HIV/AIDS. The South African National Aids Council (Sanac) recently stated that 60% of sex workers are HIV-positive (although this number has since been disputed). Many contract it because of clients unwilling to wear condoms, or when they are raped. In some cases, prostitutes are unwilling to carry condoms around with them, as police see this almost as evidence that they are sex workers. Several are unable to access decent healthcare, or are scorned for their circumstances when they do get clinical assistance. It has been reported that sex workers would be the most receptive to HIV-prevention campaigns (as they have been overseas), but this remains to be seen in South Africa, where sex workers get marginal attention from the government.
We are consistently told that all humans in South Africa are equal – but when we realise sex workers are not considered humans by most of the populace, we begin to discover the extent to which they are denigrated. They are an already vulnerable group actively persecuted by those who hold power over them. They are the unwanted change that we don’t pick up when it rolls into the gutter.
They are sex workers.