Sex work is work: why this woman chose to sell sex

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Sex work is currently illegal in South Africa. There has been a call for many years for the profession to be decriminalised and recognised as real work

In March 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa committed to the decriminalisation of sex work when he signed the Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Declaration which also looks at the safeguarding of sex worker human rights. 

He then presented the leader of the Sex Work Sector, Kholi Buthelezi, with a sunflower as a symbol of his solidarity. This has become known amongst members of SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task force) as the Sunflower Promise. A few weeks ago, members of SWEAT took a memorandum to parliament and presented Ramaphosa’s representatives with a bouquet of sunflowers to remind him of this promise. 

READ MORE: What we've learned from the Gender-based Violence and Femicide Summit 

Sex work has been in the limelight since, but how much do we really know about those who choose to sell sex and why they do it? 

So I spoke to a woman who has (and might still if she feels the need arises) sold sex. 

I had been having sex for 10 years and I never got his much money, then after a few minutes, I made enough money for three months.

Zoe Black (not her real name) is originally from Zimbabwe. She started selling sex as a means to provide for her four children after she left an unhappy marriage. 

She began selling sex one night after asking a friend for help, but they were unable to help her with anything, so she went to a bar at a five-star hotel and found herself a client.

“I sat there, ate some chips and then this white guy came along. I started talking to him and then one thing lead to another. I didn’t even know what business was then,” says Zoe.

“But then I went with him [to his room] and in those few hours, I made enough money to send my kids to school, buy groceries and start a new life. And that was my turning point. I had been having sex for 10 years and I never got his much money, then after a few minutes, I made enough money for three months.” 

READ MORE: As women working at Heineken protest sex for job practice, we find out whether it's more common than you think 

Zoe was always very careful about who she slept with and who she told about her new source of income because as an artist she was well-known on that scene. She mostly slept with foreign men and people she didn’t know, which kept her going until she decided to come to South Africa. 

“When I came here, I also didn’t have any money and I was staying with this guy and drinking a lot, but I decided that wasn’t for me. I came to Observatory to look for help because there was a place that helped refugees. I was walking around and then on my last turn, I found this place that said “Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task force” and I was like ‘South Africa is strange. They just write sex on the walls.’” 

Zoe walked into reception where she was told that there was another woman from Zimbabwe that worked on the helpline and could talk to her. This woman gave her options and told her that there were places she could stay while she was looking for work and to get away from the toxic relationship she was currently in. 

…sometimes selling sex depends on the needs I have or the problems in my life. Because sometimes you do get stable and content, and sometimes you’re pushed or you push yourself to sell.

“I was then able to move around and learn about places that I could sell sex, but I was still very careful. My legal status in South Africa was very difficult. When you’re a migrant sex worker, you want to stay far away from police and drama so if anything happens to you, you can’t report it,” says the 35-year-old woman. 

“Documentation is a strain, being a migrant sex worker is a strain. The pressure at home is so much,” says Zoe. Being in a foreign country while looking for work is difficult for anyone. That does not change for sex workers. They have no support; their family is far away and things can get tough.  

READ MORE: Are we finally seeing refugees as...people? 

“Loneliness is real. The fear of not knowing who you’re going to meet and not trusting anyone [is real]. Just sending things and money home in a very unstable economy. Where you grew up. What you call home and loved and you can see it crumble in your face. It’s emotionally draining. I think my activism grew from there,” she says. 

Working with SWEAT has opened up doors for Zoe who doesn’t have a formal education, but through her advocacy work has learnt many things and been empowered by them. She works as a consultant, works around migration, LGBTQI issues, the Triangle project. She also sits on the SWEAT board. She says she loves to read and research and being part of Sisonke (a national sex worker movement) has empowered her in new ways. 

Zoe has sold sex in the past, but is not currently doing so. She, however, will not call herself a former sex worker. “…sometimes selling sex depends on the needs I have or the problems in my life. Because sometimes you do get stable and content, and sometimes you’re pushed or you push yourself to sell. Sleeping with a client is just a transaction.”

She reiterates that being a sex worker is a job like any other; there are days you don’t want to get out of bed and go to work. 

There are good and bad days for everyone. Watch out for part two of Zoe’s story soon.

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