The Criminalisation of Sex Work in South Africa
People used to think banning alcohol would discourage drinking
To gain access to Rosebank’s “speakeasy”, one has to approach the nondescript door, in the driveway of a block of flats and ask a guard for permission to enter. The manager of “Sin and Taxes” comes out and after looking potential customers up and down, allows them in. The decor is vintage 1920’s with velvet couches, low hanging chandeliers and crystal glasses. The secret bar is the new plaything for the Johannesburg trendy middle class types, absorbing themselves in nostalgia and supposed romance of the Prohibition Era and illicit drinking.
Alcohol was outlawed in the United States from 1920 to 1933 and people used to gather in speakeasies, like this one, to circumvent the rules. But away from the imagined glamour, people were dying from drinking the illegally brewed moonshine and criminal gangs took control of the alcohol industry, which led to the US government deciding to legalise and regulate it. As I gulp down my drink in the modern speakeasy, I wonder why so many governments around the world have given alcohol the green light, profiting tremendously from taxing it but so few are willing to decriminalise sex work. I’m not whisky’s biggest fan but I need it for courage. This Friday night, I’m heading just few hundred metres up the tree lined street, to the infamous Oxford Road, where sex workers solicit for clients, regardless of the heavy penalties they face.
Always check the backseat
Sex workers rely on comradeship and sixth sense to stay safe
“Police chase after me and my client and demand R3 000 from them”
In one of the quiet side streets in Parkview, I find Gina* sitting by herself on a pavement, facing Oxford Road. I I ask if I can join her and she readily welcomes the company while she waits for customers. She tells me that the Rosebank Police leave women to solicit along Oxford Road but the trouble begins once they climb into a client’s car. Gina looks down at her thigh high boots as she describes how police officers sometimes give chase and extort their clients, threatening to reveal their exploits to their wives or employers. Once clients have handed over all their available cash to the police, they aren’t too keen to pay their companion.
We’ve only been speaking for a few minutes when a twin cab bakkie pulls up alongside the kerb. I hide in a nearby driveway’s bushes while Gina heads to the drivers’ door to negotiate a price. She peers into the back seat (this is the last chance a sex worker has to sense potential danger and turn down a client) before climbing onto the front passenger seat and she’s swallowed up by the night.
Gauteng: the Red Light province?
People come for opportunities but can’t find jobs
Gina is among the estimated 94 000 sex workers who make a living in Gauteng. With the province being a melting pot for so many different cultures, classes and demographics, sex workers’ experiences vary, based on location, price, access to healthcare and even the mood of a police station commander.
Who chooses sex work?
90% of sex workers in SA are female
I cross Oxford Road to where four older women are huddled around a fire, smoking and laughing with three men. They’re standing next to the chain link fence around a construction site where a glass office edifice is going up.
Pretty* appears to be the self-appointed spokesperson of the small group. She tells me the men are friends and one women’s boyfriend and are there to protect them. She shakes her curly hair as she explains how a sex worker on a nearby corner had been stabbed to death the previous week. They suspect the boyfriends of a rival group of sex workers were behind it. “We are always, always being threatened by men along here”, she complain
I press myself closer to the fire. I’m wearing a thick dress, tights and a coat in the July night air. Pretty stands ramrod straight in stiletto heels, a low cut black top and tight shorts.
A man walks up to the group and drunkenly gestures towards me. The women deflect him easily and send him on his way. It’s safer to solicit in a group like this- unlike Gina- but they admit clients are more hesitant to approach them and business appears to be slow tonight. They’re all from Zimbabwe originally and Pretty says she has no option but to take to the streets as none of her applications for a work permit have been successful.
A skinny woman dressed in a halter top and mini-skirt sits down on a pile of bricks and explains she’s supporting her three children, including one who’s studying engineering at the University of Johannesburg, otherwise she wouldn’t be here. She tells me she has some regular clients, most of whom are male. She also services the occasional female client and a handful of couples looking for a threesome.
The others soon lose interest in me, and turn to each other, cracking inside jokes, but Pretty is eager to talk and she echoes Gina in expressing her disdain for the police who allegedly blackmail their clients. It’s here that her experience and streetsmarts show up, “the police know not to ask us (for sex), even if they threaten us, we won’t do it. But they sometimes find someone new, who they don’t know and they can act big”.
There’s an unofficial policy in some Gauteng police stations to look the other way when women sell sex but to criminalise the buyers of sex. This view differs widely, depending on precincts and the whims of station commanders, with some sex workers complaining that police rape them or confiscate their condoms and lubricants. Despite the relative leniency in the country’s economic heartland, sex workers still face a major hurdle as legal persona non-grata.
“I’m in the middle of nowhere, I have no money or clothes”
Pretty’s voice is flat as she describes incidents when she’s been driven far away by clients, stripped, forced to have sex and left on the side of a road, without being paid. “The first thing they do is take our cellphones”, which explains why all the women use the simplest models, while they’re at work. “I’m in the middle of nowhere, I have no money or clothes and I have to get back here and carry on working for the rest of the night so I can get transport home”, she says.
Pretty looks out towards the busy Oxford Road, while their corner remains quiet. She says that everyone knows these days you have to use protection “who has sex without a condom? But if a client doesn’t want it, what must you do?”
The sex workers’ method of peering into the backseat before climbing into a client’s car isn’t foolproof either “we turn down some of the good ones and go with the bad”, she says
I ask her if she’d ever work in brothel, which is considered safer than the streets, she laughs “they pay you R50, here, we charge R150 for shortime and R300 for everything”
Ban sex work: the Apartheid hangover?
Sex workers, inter-racial marriages…the horror
Making sex work, work
Most countries criminalise sex work but others have taken a different route
Aside from Oxford Road, the only other place I’ve noticed sex workers soliciting is in the infamous Red Light District in Amsterdam.
The Netherlands has legalised sex work which regulates it to certain areas and there was a relaxed atmosphere in the bustling streets that Saturday night. Sex workers are in the windows and they’re no longer objects of hidden shame or muffled giggles. I and most other tourists soon grew tired of looking in, at the scantily clad women.
Sweden follows a partial decriminalisation model. The sale of sex is permitted but buying is forbidden.
The Sex Workers and Advocacy Task Force (SWEAT), gender rights NGOs and activists want full decriminalisation in South Africa, arguing this is the model which gives sex workers complete agency over their bodies, while offering them and their clients a safe and healthy working environment.
What happens now?
Public comment on sex work legislation is open
The Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, together with the South African National Aids Council (SANAC) recently held a panel discussion to consider sex work legislation. There was a wide range of views represented on the panel and within the audience, and heated debates took place between sex workers and anti-human trafficking activists. Government was represented by the Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development John Jeffery.
“I wish I could win the lotto and get all of them away from here”
I’m starting to grow concerned that my presence, huddled around the fire on Oxford Road, is cutting into the women’s Friday night paycheck. Several cars turning into the quiet side street have made sharp U-turns since I’ve been there. As I say goodbye, Pretty gestures helplessly to the road “I wish I could win the lotto and get all of them away from here”.
On the way home, I wonder if one day, in the future, the idea that sex work was once banned by the government, will be as laughable as the Prohibition Era seems now. Perhaps there’ll be “illegal brothels” then, similar to the Rosebank speakeasy. For the novelty of experiencing outdated and archaic laws.
*Names and some details have been changed to keep people’s identities anonymous