There are over 180 000 self-identified sex workers in South Africa, not to mention countless more who practice ad hoc “survival” sex and internet pornography, plus a mass of unaccounted-for immigrant sex workers. 3 March was International Sex Worker Rights Day and the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), one of SACAP’s fieldwork placement organisations, marched to the Department of Justice, on this day, to once again deliver its memorandum in support of decriminalising sex work in this country.
Among them was Dr Gordon Isaacs, psycho-social coordinator of the outreach programme at SWEAT, who also lectures in Human Sexuality, Gender and HIV Counselling and Crisis and Trauma Counselling at SACAP. Dr Isaacs was last week’s guest speaker at SACAP’s Monthly Psychology Talk, where he explained the many benefits of legalising sex work, among them the improved safety of workers, their ability to access physical and mental health services, the curbing of drug and alcohol abuse and the formation of a cooperative relationship between police and the sex trade to help reduce human trafficking.
Dr Isaacs was joined by 35-year-old single mother, activist and sex worker, Duduzile Dlamini, who told her harrowing yet courageous story to those who attended…
“One night, the father of my two children burnt to death in a shack fire. My kids were 8 months and 14 months at the time. I was jobless and could not turn to my mother for help as she was even poorer than I. I took my little ones and went to live with my sister, who always seemed to have plenty of money for food and new clothes. When I asked her where the money came from, she said her new boyfriend was giving it to her. But, one morning I woke up to find that my sister had not come back to the house the whole night. Then a woman arrived at the door and asked me for money to help my sister, who, she said, had been arrested for prostitution.
So my sister introduced me to the oldest profession in the world. She showed me how, as a single mother, I could provide for my children and rebuild my burnt home. That night we walked and walked and walked – all the way along Voortrekker Road, from Belville to Parow. It was the very first night I made money from selling sex. Not only did I make some money for food but I had also told my story to one of my clients and he had given me extra cash to help me buy building materials and clothes.
That was seven years ago and I’ve worked the streets ever since. In that time I’ve been raped, I’ve been harassed by the police and my children have been persecuted. But I’m not a victim. I chose this profession as a way of supporting myself and my family and I now lobby to get my rights as a worker recognised by the lawmakers in this country – I’ve even travelled all the way to New Zealand and Australia to see how decriminalisation has worked there.
Making sex work illegal doesn’t stop it from happening. What it does do, though, is stop sex workers from accessing the essential services that are their right, like any other worker, to use. Because practicing sex work is seen as a criminal activity, we have limited access to healthcare and we cannot go to the police when we suffer abuse at the hands of our clients. In fact, the police themselves are often the worst culprits when it comes to our mistreatment. I have personally experienced arrest, have spent a night in a wet, dirty cell where my 17 fellow inmates and I were given no water or food and had our medications (even antiretroviral drugs) taken away. I’ve been instructed to trade sex with an officer as a condition of my release and been driven for miles and miles in a police van before being dumped and left to make my own way home. I’ve had to pay for my continued freedom with sex bribes and I’ve even had my condoms confiscated by the officials.
In the past, I’ve tried to exit sex work but it’s not an easy road out. For one thing, it’s difficult to get a job with a criminal record and beading or baking just don’t pay the bills. So, I’ve accepted my profession and it’s time South Africa’s lawmakers did the same.”
Find out more about SACAP’s Monthly Psychology Talks – which are open to the general public and free of charge.