Sex work is not for sissies

A sex worker negotiates with a motorist customer. Picture: Leon Sadiki
A sex worker negotiates with a motorist customer. Picture: Leon Sadiki

Because there are no laws that protect them, South African sex workers are no strangers to harassment, abuse and rape

Imagine being repeatedly raped, tortured and threatened with a gun or a knife without being able to report it because the very people who should be protecting you – the police – will almost certainly abuse you further.

“You’re a whore, a prostitute; you are worth nothing. You deserve what you get,” they tell you.

And, in all likelihood, they might rape you too.

Or demand money from you “to keep quiet” and to avoid arrest and further harassment and exploitation.

This is the real life of thousands of women – and men – every day. Sex work is not for sissies.

Human Rights Watch, an independent, international organisation – in partnership with the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) and working closely with Sisonke, a national sex workers’ movement, and other human rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – launched its comprehensive report, Why Sex Work should be Decriminalised in South Africa, last week.

Researchers interviewed 46 female sex workers, three of whom are transgender women.

Six of the women work in a building, the rest find customers in bars or on the street.

The women work in the cities of Johannesburg and Cape Town, and in the towns of Musina, Makhado, Tzaneen and Hoedspruit in Limpopo, Bushbuckridge in Mpumalanga and De Deur and Eikenhof in Gauteng.

All the women interviewed are poor and black. They sell sex primarily to support their children and other dependants.

Criminalisation of sex work has not – and will not – deter people from selling sex to make a living.

Instead, what it has done is make sex work less safe.

As the interviews show, it undermines sex workers’ access to justice for crimes committed against them and exposes them to unchecked abuse and exploitation by law enforcement officials, including police officers.

It hinders sex workers’ efforts to access healthcare, including HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

Almost none of the women interviewed for the report matriculated from school, one did not go at all.

Most regard sex work as one of the few options available to earn an income to keep a roof over the heads of their children.

Criminalisation has forced most of them to work in or go to dark and dangerous spots where they are open to abuse from criminals, sadists, thieves and rapists pretending to be clients.

They know the women will not report them because police laugh at the women and tell them that, as sex workers they cannot be raped.

Arrests are particularly concerning for sex workers living with HIV on antiretroviral treatment.

Four of the women reported treatment interruption because they were unable to access their medication in detention. Others reported missing clinic or hospital appointments.

Criminalisation also contributes to and reinforces stigma and discrimination against sex workers.

South Africa uses a model of total criminalisation or prohibition of sex work, which means that the conduct of an estimated 132 000 to 182 000 sex workers is subject to criminal sanction, according to Sweat.

Criminalisation under the Sexual Offences Act includes the purchase and the sale of sex, as well as any activity connected with “prostitution”, such as owning or running a brothel or “enticing” a woman to work in a brothel.

The report shows that women in sex work experience disproportionately high levels of physical and sexual violence at the hands of both clients and police officers.

And access to justice is particularly elusive for sex workers.

Frustrating, useless, cruel, brutal and frightening are just some of the words used by the sex workers to describe their treatment by police officers.

Brutality and cruelty a way of life

The violence and abuse are not only perpetrated by police officers. Clients take full advantage of the fact that sex work is a criminal offence and most sex workers will not report the abuse.

*Yolanda Nkgapele (31) still has scars on her head, back and shoulders from an attack in 2016.

“It happened in Tzaneen [Limpopo]. He promised to buy my services for the whole night. But when we got there he stepped on my back, blindfolded me, was choking me and cut me with a knife. From 9pm to 3am he raped me repeatedly with no condom,” she said.

About a third of sex workers interviewed said they had been raped, mostly at work, some more than once. Others have experienced brutal physical violence. Those interviewed showed scars on their bellies and faces where they had been cut. The also showed broken teeth from punches or bottles slammed against their mouths during terrifying abductions.

Almost every woman said she had been robbed while she was working, often at knife or gunpoint, by men who demanded “their” cash back after sex and often the proceeds from other work as well.

*Kim Xitsoga, a sex worker based in Tzaneen, Limpopo, said: “When I go to the police station they say: ‘You are a sex worker, you can’t be raped. Go away’.’”

A terrifying gang rape stopped Margaret Sisulu from working at night, even though she can charge more after the sun goes down. “Sometime last year three guys came and took me in a car. I’m not sure where I was taken. They robbed me and beat me [up] and all three of them had sex with me without condoms.”

Pume Mbatha, a Johannesburg sex worker, described two vicious rapes in the past five years. One attacker broke her tooth when he hit her with a bottle; another rapist held her arm when she was on her knees and then stamped on it, breaking a bone.

She said she did not report them: “The police will say because you are doing sex work you deserve this.”

Rapists generally do not use condoms. Sometimes an argument between the sex worker and the perpetrator over condom use precedes the rape.

“He began slapping me, he took off his condom, he broke a bottle and threatened me and then raped me,” said Mlilo.

“Later he gave me R20, said I had to take it.”

Rough sex, beatings, theft, being at the mercy of tsotsis, gang members and criminals are real-life everyday risks for sex workers.

But there’s not much they can do.

Modo Adams (39), a sex worker in Eikenhof, Johannesburg, said: “I went to the police to complain about it but when they saw me they said I am a prostitute and they wouldn’t even take my statement.” – Jo Tyler

A recent report by Sonke Gender Justice and Sweat found that 33% of survey respondents had been sexually assaulted or raped by a police officer and 25% had been pepper sprayed by police.

In this report, sex workers say police officers sexually exploit them, coercing them to give them free sex under threat of arrest.

*Esther Makaza, a Zimbabwean sex worker and a single mother of two, says: “They [the police] just force me to have sex with them or else they say I will arrest you… Six or seven times this has happened.”

She says police take down her number, check that it works and then call her later for sex.

“Two years ago a policeman arrested me. He was alone and took me somewhere in the town in his car and then told me to give him free services and so I did,” says *Reneilwe Mola from Tzaneen.

Of the sex workers interviewed, only 11 had not been arrested. Several said they had been arrested more than 10 times, but three or four arrests were most common.

Some cannot remember how many times they have been arrested.

“I have given thousands of rands away in police bribes,” *Tanatswa Moyo, a transgender sex worker in Musina, says.

“They search your coat and find a condom and say that’s why. But really it’s because this is a small town and they know us.”

*Anna Matamela, a Makhado sex worker, often runs through the streets, parks and bushes to escape arrest.

If they are not raped by police they are often fined.

“Usually [the fine is] R100 or R200. I get a receipt that says ‘gambling’ or ‘being on the streets’ or ‘urinating on the streets’. But they arrest me because they know I am a sex worker and because they find me at a ‘hot spot’,” says Mola.

Sex workers working indoors, paying R200 a day for rented rooms, appear to be more protected. But on the street or in bars it’s open season.

A Musina sex worker says: “They come sometimes one or two times a week… They pick us up and they drive around saying: ‘This time you’re going to the cells for two or three days.’ Then you negotiate and they ask for money and release you. If you don’t have money, they will drive you to a friend’s house to borrow it.”

*Mondo Adams, an Eikenhof-based sex worker waits for clients under a roadside gum tree.

“Last time we were arrested they took this other woman too. She has mental health problems. She sometimes gets bored just sitting at home and so she comes to sit with us. The police released her only when we told them the same thing: ‘You have the wrong lady.’”

Interviewees say that when they question why they have been arrested the police abuse them verbally or threaten them.

*Rofhiwa Mlilo says she has been arrested on a number of different charges over the years, including “loitering” and “flashing”, even though the police have never seen her doing anything more than standing at a hot spot.

Verbal harassment and humiliation is frequent. A Makhado sex worker describes how a police officer’s harassment almost made her worst nightmare come true – her 12-year-old daughter finding out how she puts food on the table.

“I went to the mall … the police saw me and one said: ‘What are you doing here, why aren’t you selling?’ My child was asking me what that was all about. She said: ‘What is a magosha [prostitute] mum?’”

Most of the sex workers say their cases seldom, if ever, reach the courts. A 52-year-old sex worker from Eikenhof says: “On Thursday I have to go to court. Every time I am arrested, I will go. We must be there by 8.30am and then we leave at 2pm. We have to wait even though our names are not on the list. I have never actually got to see a magistrate.”

*Not their real names


Are you a sex worker or know someone who is? How will decriminalisation aid your/their safety and health?

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