Forced to work in dangerous locations, harassed by police officers, and afraid to report violent attacks, sex workers in South Africa urgently want their work to be decriminalized. For years, the legal status of sex work – prohibited under an apartheid-era law – has been a controversial subject of debate amongst civil society groups and government departments. Based on her interviews with female sex workers in South Africa, researcher Skye Wheeler talks to Birgit Schwarz about how criminalization affects those who sell sex to survive, and why South Africa’s government should listen to what sex workers have to say about how best to protect their rights.
How did you find sex workers willing to talk about their work despite it being illegal in South Africa?
It’s very difficult to gain sex workers’ trust without connections to people already actively supporting sex workers. For one, because their work is illegal. But also, because they are busy. They are working as many hours as they can to make enough money for food and school fees for their kids. Most are single mothers who often need to pick up their kids at a certain time, usually from paid childcare in Johannesburg or from a relative’s place in the smaller towns. They don’t really have the time or the inclination to talk to an outsider about what they do.
So we worked with organizations that sex workers know and trust. There are a number which run outreach services that provide sex workers with health care and other kinds of support, and I was very grateful to have their help. All of these assisted to connect me to women engaged in sex work. In Johannesburg, I walked around the city’s central business district with a community support person for sex workers who introduced me to women she knew. These women then introduced us to other sex workers who were willing to be interviewed.
What conditions did the women work under?
Sex work exists everywhere in South Africa and the conditions differ. In Johannesburg, there are sex workers who work in expensive hotels and fancy neighbourhoods, where they are relatively safe from police harassment and who charge a lot of money. But most of those I spoke to in downtown Johannesburg work in derelict, dark buildings or on back streets because the criminalization of their work prevents them from setting up safe places where they can work in dignity, and because they have to hide from the police. In small towns they often operate from pubs or bars, or meet their clients behind bushes or in small parks behind the bar. I also interviewed women who rented a series of rooms in one building in Johannesburg. They were able to keep an eye on each other and thus had some security.
How do the police treat sex workers?
Although the police virtually never have evidence, they frequently harass or arrest them, and lock them up in police cells. They will pick them up because they know they are sex workers, or just because they are standing in a place where sex workers stand, or are dressed in a way that fits the police’s stereotype of what they consider to be the way sex workers dress. The arrests we documented were always the result of this kind of profiling.
In some places, police have decided to leave sex workers alone. As far as we understand, the police in charge just don’t consider policing sex work a priority. But in other places, it’s a constant cat-and-mouse game between sex workers and the police. In one rural area north of Johannesburg, the same sex workers would be arrested every week. Every single time, without fail, the judge would throw the case out.
Sometimes the police will arrest the women for having condoms in their pockets, citing this as evidence that they are sex workers. The irony is that often those condoms were given to them by NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) that work in partnership with the Department of Health, which, together with the South African National AIDS Council (SANAC), supports decriminalization and health services for sex workers to, amongst others, curb HIV/AIDS infection rates. The women are literally being arrested by one arm of government for having something another arm of government provided.
Often, the women are held in police stations for a whole day, or over a weekend, meaning they lose valuable income and are away from their families and children. And those who are receiving medical treatment, including to prevent or treat HIV infections, miss doses.
Arrests can be very humiliating. One Johannesburg-based sex worker told me police officers took photographs of her breasts, probably to shore up indecency charges against her. Using threats or failing to explain the charges appears to be common practice at police stations. So is the soliciting of bribes: police officers will pick women up and drive them around until they give them some money to avoid being arrested and locked up. Sometimes police officers even coerce women into giving them free sex.
What happens when the women report such abuses?
Because sex work is criminalized, and there is stigma attached to it, it’s difficult for sex workers to report abuses by police and others. When women do overcome these barriers and go to the police, the experience is often humiliating. They either send them away or laugh at them saying: “Well, what do you expect? You’re a sex worker. Of course you’re going to get raped and beaten.” The general feeling amongst the sex workers I interviewed was that it was pointless to report a crime as the police would not protect them.
How does criminalization affect the women’s safety?
The fact that sex workers can’t work from home or in a safe location makes them extremely vulnerable, and many have experienced violent assaults. Several of the women described being driven out to the middle of nowhere, raped, and then kicked out of the car, sometimes naked. One woman said she got into a car with a client who had promised to buy her services for the whole night. Once she was in his car, he choked and blindfolded her, then raped her repeatedly without a condom.
Many of the sex workers I spoke to had experienced at least one similar story in the last five years. They showed me scars on their bellies and faces where they had been cut, and broken teeth from being punched in the face or having had bottles slammed into their mouths. Criminalization makes their work more dangerous.
Why do the women you interviewed do sex work?
For economic reasons. The majority of the women I spoke to would rather be doing something else, but jobs are hard to come by. Most have very little education or none at all, and choose this work because it enables them to put food on the table, pay for their kids’ school uniforms and books, and get them a better life. One of the women I met who, while bringing up her own, now grown up children worked as a secretary, ended up looking after her late sister’s seven children. Sex work was the only way she could think of to feed them and get them through school. She “would die for these kids,” she told me.
Most of the women I spoke to try to shield their children from the truth for fear that their own kids will be ashamed of them or end up bearing the brunt of the stigma attached to their work. They are more scared of their children finding out than being found out and arrested by the police.
Decriminalization of sex work has been under discussion in South Africa for the last 10 years. Why has it still not happened?
South Africa should be a leader on the continent on this front. But instead, the country seems stuck with a backward law. Only recently, President Cyril Ramaphosa claimed his government was looking into ways in which sex work can be decriminalized. But so far, the government has failed to do so. Sex work remains stigmatized, and some segments of society including religious leaders oppose decriminalization for reasons of morality. Others, including anti-trafficking groups, argue that criminalization of sex work is necessary to protect women against trafficking.
There are, however, very strong voices supporting full decriminalization of sex work. The Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce, known as SWEAT, who partnered with us and who are an organization made up of sex workers and former sex workers, has been fighting for decriminalization for decades. The big unions are also pro decriminalization, and so is the Department of Health. South Africa still has a severe HIV/AIDS problem, and sex workers face a disproportionate risk of infection.
What arguments might convince lawmakers to finally decriminalize sex work?
Criminalization of sex work does not end sex work. It does, however, lead to a waste of police time and resources and creates opportunities for police corruption and abuse.
If sex workers weren’t afraid of the police, they might even help combat trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children, as they are in a good position to detect and report such crimes.
But most fundamentally: Women have bodily autonomy; our bodies are our own. If we are consenting adults, we should be able to do with them whatever we want, and that includes making money selling sex.
What changes do you and the women you interviewed want to see happen in South Africa?
Most urgently, the women want sex work to be decriminalized. They’d like access to other jobs that pay at least the same. A better life for their kids, access to education, and good healthcare is a priority for most of them.
Also, they want police officers to take reports of rape and assault seriously. And allegations of police misconduct, such as soliciting bribes or free sex, need to be investigated.
A crucial issue that came up again and again is that sex workers want a safe, clean space to work from. But that will only happen when sex work is fully decriminalized. Then, women will be able to, amongst other things, work together, build businesses, and be safe.