Photo: Elsa Oliveira, taken at were Sisonke Sex Worker March, held on March 7, 2013, In Johannesburg
A story told by Vanessa Klass1 to Elsa Oliveira
It was after I gave birth to my daughter in 1999 that I began to work as a sex worker in Hillbrow 2, an inner-city suburb of Johannesburg. I was a seventeen-year-old single mother in a family of ten people. At the time, my parents were unemployed hospice workers, and so it was with my grandmother’s meagre pension and the money that she earned as a domestic worker that we were able to buy food. Life was very hard for all of us. I knew that I needed to find a way provide for my daughter. I wanted to find work that would offer me the opportunity to earn enough money so that my family- and I- no longer had to live under the stressful conditions in which we found ourselves. I prayed so much during those days. I prayed for work; I prayed for an opportunity to improve my life; I prayed that my child would not have to live without food or an education; I prayed for all things that would relieve myself- and my family- from the hardships that we were experiencing.
About a year after my child was born, a friend of mine came over to my house with information about a job opportunity in Johannesburg. She said that I could work at a hotel in Hillbrow, and that I could earn a lot of money. At the time, I lived with my family in a rural area outside of Pretoria, about two hours away from Johannesburg. The decision to pursue work in Hillbrow, meant that I had to leave them all behind- including my daughter- and this was not easy. But, I was eager to earn an income so I decided to travel to Johannesburg in order to find out what the job opportunity was all about.
When I arrived in Hillbrow I learned that my friend was a sex worker. This is what she did to make big money. I did not know that this is what she did for work. I thought that I was going to work as a hotel maid, but when I arrived my friend took me to the hotel where she worked and it was then that she explained to me that she sold sold sex for a living.
After I listened to her I decided that I would give sex work a try so I began to work that very night- my first night in the ‘City of Gold’. My friend gave me a mini-skirt, she told me what I should charge, she taught me how to use condoms, and she told me to make sure that I received the client’s money before I ‘conducted business’ otherwise I would likely never see the money. After a month of selling sex I decided to travel home in order to visit my family. I arrived with groceries, clothes, and money for school fees. When my family asked me where I got the money, I told them that I had met a nice man in Johannesburg and that he was taking care of me.
I am happy that I chose to work as a sex worker. It was the best option for me because I have been able to earn a very good income. I am the head of household and my income from sex work allows me to provide for my family in ways that other informal work, such as domestic work, does not offer. My earnings from sex work have allowed me to build a house that is big enough for my entire family. I also feed, clothe, and pay for other miscellaneous expenses such as school fees, school uniforms, and medical expenses when necessary. Although I am glad that I chose to enter the sex work profession my experiences in sex work have not always been easy. The ‘debt’ of working in this profession is, at times, unforgiving. I have been forced to pay bribes; I have been arrested, detained and physically abused by police officers; I have been raped by clients while they were unprotected; I have faced humiliation by medical staff when seeking health care services, and I have been forced to have unprotected sex with the hotel security guards. I have had to exchange sex in return for bribes and I have had to pay hotel management with ‘sexual favors’ in order to be allowed to ‘conduct business’ at the hotel.
When I first began to work as a sex worker, I did not know my rights. I thought that because sex work was illegal in South Africa 3 that I did not have the right to file police claims when my human rights were violated. Sex workers often face abuse by clients, unlawful police, and sometimes, at the hands of medical practitioners. Tragically, some sex workers even face death.
Here’s an example: One night, while I was sleeping alone in my hotel room, a police officer broke in, woke me up, and told me that I was under arrest for being a sex worker. He forced me to go downstairs- to the bar area- and wait in line with other sex workers that were also under ‘arrest’. There were men sitting at the bar drinking beer as we stood in line waiting for the police officer to decide what was next, when suddenly he began shooting the beer bottles with a rubber pellet gun. The bottles shattered and shards of glass hit us. Some of us were badly injured, including myself. After his shooting tirade, the police officer told us to get into the police car. He took us to the police station where we were detained for three days without any medical attention. I was badly bleeding, and when I asked him for something to clean up my wounds with he responded by saying that I was ‘talking too much’ and that I didn’t have the right to ask such questions of him. Eventually we were released, but we had to pay a bribe in order to be let out of jail. I felt so angry. I had to pay him money as if I owned him. Regardless, we paid the 50R 4 bribe so that we could leave the cell, and return to our lives.
In 2004, I was losing a lot of weight and decided to go to the local public health clinic for an examination. It was during this time that I found out that I was HIV positive. The nurse announced my status in front of everyone in the waiting room. I felt so ashamed and humiliated. This experience formed part of the reason why I resisted going on ARV treatment as soon as I found out about my status. I was afraid that I would face the same sort of treatment every time I went into the clinic. Fortunately, soon after this incident, I began to learn more about HIV through the Sex Worker Program at the Wits Reproductive Health & HIV Institute (WRHI) 5. The stigma that I felt was replaced with a desire to live a healthy life, so I began ARV treatment. I am happy to say that my health experiences with medical providers have improved significantly since the day I first learned about my health status. This experience, as difficult and lonely as it was, provided me with first hand knowledge about the ways in which stigma, fear, and lack of information keep some people from learning more about their health status and/or treatment options. Now, I share my story and experiences with fellow sex workers, and clients, as a way to encourage them to get tested and seek treatment, if necessary.
During my earlier years as a sex worker I didn’t know my rights. I felt that the injustices that I was facing were unacceptable, but I did not know that I could file police reports when my human rights were violated. It was only nine years after I started to work as a sex worker that I began to learn about my rights. In 2008, a colleague asked me to volunteer as a peer educator in the Sex Work Program at WHRI. As part of the training to become a peer educator, I attended a Human Rights workshop where I learned about the rights of sex workers. I also learned about STIs, prevention, and the importance to fight and advocate for the decriminalization of sex work in South Africa. I worked as a volunteer peer educator for four years. During this time, I conducted outreach to other sex workers that worked in hotels, and on the streets; I taught them about prevention and health, and I encouraged them to access the support services of Sisonke Sex Worker Movement 6. In 2011, I became a Committee member in Sisonke, and my responsibilities shifted towards more of a community leader within the movement. In 2012, I became the Johannesburg Outreach Coordinator for Sisonke.
The social injustices that sex workers face are human rights violations and the government must support, and protect, our decision to work as sex workers! The government does not have to agree with the work that we do, but the government must protect our choice, dignity, and human rights. We, sex workers, are busy working to feed our families, and the choice to work in the sex industry should not be relegated to the arenas of feminist discourse, or moral/immoral diatribes, but rather based on the reality that we choose to sell sex, and that the choice to sell sex should not be met with stigma, violence and malfeasance.
Many people think that sex work is not a choice, but for the great majority of sex workers around the globe, sex work is a very viable choice. In a world of few employment options, sex work offers many of us an opportunity to provide for our families, support our children, and take care of ourselves. Like me, many sex workers are head of households that must find a way to earn enough money to support themselves and their loved ones. For others, like my transgender colleagues who face very high levels of discrimination because of their non conforming gender identity, sex work is the most viable option when it comes to earning an income. Regardless of the reason to enter sex work, the most important thing to understand, and at times it seems as though it is the hardest thing to convince ‘others’ of, is that sex work is a choice.
What is not a choice is the abuse, brutality, rape and death that so many sex workers face because they choose to enter a profession that is not protected by the law. I am not saying that the law will reduce discrimination immediately, or that the law will suddenly relieve us of the injustices that we face, but changing the law by decriminalizing sex work is a necessary, and vital step, in addressing our human rights violations and ensuring that there is legal recourse for those who violate our rights.
As a pro-sex work activist it is my job to continue the fight against all forms of oppression against sex workers and clients. Personally, I can say that my experience as a sex worker in Johannesburg has improved slightly, and I attribute this improvement to the presence and work of Sisonke. Police officers are less likely to indiscriminately abuse us because most police enforcement officials are aware that we know our rights. When sex workers, and/or clients report cases of abuse, Sisonke’s presence is immediately seen, felt and heard. We attend court cases, we assist sex workers and/or clients with police reports, and we document all of the human rights violations that are reported to us. Unfortunately, cases of mistreatment and abuse are still rampant, and even more so in areas outside of Johannesburg, where the Sisonke presence is not as strong. Advocacy efforts by Sisonke have brought to light, on a public scale 7, some of the gross human rights violations experienced by sex workers across the country, and so the pressure to decriminalize sex work in South Africa is slowly gaining momentum and support. We also work closely with researchers, and other NGOs, to bring sex work rights to the forefront of local, regional and national policy discussions.
The choice to become a sex worker is varied and while the movement to protect sex workers is gaining global attention, sex workers are still being treated unjustly. The price that sex workers are forced to pay is unacceptable. ‘Payment’ in the form of bribes, forced sex, and ‘payment’ with one’s own life is a tragic reality for sex workers across the globe. When I am asked what it is that I hope to achieve as a sex work activist my response is simple, ‘I want sex workers to be treated as humans with dignity. I am a mother, daughter, sister and friend. My work is my business and my body is mine to do as I chose. Please let me, and others, be so that we can work to feed ourselves, and our families, without fear of harm, abuse or death’.
Before I entered sex work I prayed that I would find work, and I did. I found a great job opportunity, and I am proud of who I am. I am proud to be a sex worker and I am proud of all that I have accomplished since I started my work as a sex worker. Now, I pray that one-day sex workers in South Africa, and beyond, no longer have to spend their hard earned money on bribes; I pray that we no longer have to pay with forced sex, and I pray that no sex worker pay with their lives. Until then, remember, ‘sex workers demand rights not rescue’.
How research and photography can open the space for sex workers voices to be heard
Vanessa Klass was one of eleven migrant women sex workers who participated in a ten-day participatory photo project that was conducted in Hillbrow during August 2010. During the participatory photo project women shed light on a wide range of experiences and life stories. Participants highlighted issues of abuse, stigma related to their work, structural violence, migration histories, and trajectories into sex work. Their varied and innovative coping strategies, and the exercise of individual agency in the face of hardship and personal danger were striking, and challenged traditional notions of victimhood. Like Vanessa, many migrants moving into Johannesburg engage in informal livelihood strategies. Sex work is currently illegal in South Africa and considered to be an informal albeit “illegal” livelihood strategy. Research clearly shows that sex workers in inner city Johannesburg experience challenging- and often times dangerous- unsafe, unhealthy, living and working conditions (Richter et al. 2010; Oliveira, 2011; Vearey et al, 2010). Research also shows that sex work is a viable option for many women as they seek to support themselves and their families back home; however, the current environment in which sex work takes place puts migrant women sex workers at high risk of violence, discrimination, and HIV (ibid). Life stories, such as this one, contribute to on going research on migration and sex work, and most importantly and collectively, point to evidence for the need to decriminalize sex work.
The photograph that illustrates this article was taken by Confidence during a ten-day participatory photo project entitled, “Working the City: Experiences of Migrant Women in Inner-City Johannesburg”. The project involved a collaboration with the Market Photo Workshop (MPW) , the Sisonke Sex Worker Movement, and the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University.
This article is a modified version of the original work that was published in Buwa! Journal of African Women’s Experiences: http://bit.ly/1IM2DdO
Flak, Agnieska. 2011. Fictional representation of migrant women involved in sex work in inner-city Johannesburg: How does Self-Representation Compare? MA Thesis, Forced Migration Studies Programme, University of the Witwatersrand.
Gould, Chandre. & Fick, Nicole. 2008. Selling sex in Cape Town, Sex Work and Human Trafficking in a South African City. Pretoria: Institute of Security Studies.
Oliveira, Elsa. 2011. Migrant women sex workers: How urban space impacts self-(re) presentation in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. MA Thesis, Forced Migration Studies Programme, University of the Witwatersrand.
Oliveira, E (2011) A look at the experiences and perceptions of health among migrant women sex workers in Hillbrow, Johannesburg African Women’s Journal 2:22-30.
Richter, Marlise. 2010. ‘The Slippery Slope of Prostitution Hill and being highbrow in Hillbrow.’ Perspectives: South Africa and the World Cup.
Vearey, Joanna., Oliveira, Elsa., Madzimure, Tambudzai., Ntini, Bekie. 2011. ‘Working the City: Experiences of Migrant Women in Inner-city Johannesburg’. The Southern African Media and Diversity Journal 9:228-233.
1 Actual names has been replaced by a pseudonym.
2 Hillbrow, an inner-city suburb of Johannesburg, is a migrant epicenter in Africa and the most ensely-populated suburb in South Africa; Hillbrow covers approximately one square mile and has a population of approximately 100,000 people; exact numbers are difficult to capture due to the mobility of the population (City of Johannesburg 2009).
3 Sex Work is illegal in South Africa under the Sexual Offences Act, Act 23 of 1957. There is extensive public health research on high-risk behavior that has identified sex work as an elevated transmission area (e.g. Gould & Fink, 2008; Richter 2008; Vearey, et al. 2010; Venables, 2010). Richter et al. (2010) argues that sex workers commonly experience violence, and due to criminalization laws sex workers are less likely to report rape, abuse and/or seek medical care.
4 A total of approximately $5 US dollars.
5 The Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute is one of the largest research Institutes of the University of the Witwatersrand and part of the Faculty of Health Sciences. Established in 1994 as the Reproductive Health Research Unit (RHRU), the Institute was formed on 1 October 2010 through a merger with Enhancing Children’s HIV Outcomes (ECHO). Institute status was awarded by the University of the Witwatersrand in recognition of our outstanding portfolio of research. The portfolio embraces not only research but includes programmatic support, training, policy development, health systems strengthening and technical assistance at national and international level. We are one of the largest organizations of our kind in Africa. http://www.wrhi.ac.za/Pages/default.aspx
6 The Sisonke Sex Worker Movement, founded in 2003, is a sex worker led organization based in Hillbrow. The movement aims to unite sex workers, improve their living and working conditions, and advocate for equal rights.
7 Various television programs in South Africa, ranging from talk shows to investigative news reporting, have aired in the past twelve months. These programs solicited Sisonke’s input and all have highlighted, in varying degrees, some of the concerns shared by Sisonke surrounding issues of police brutality and decriminalization. Recently, a program that focused on the life and experience of ‘Snowy’ a transgender sex worker, was aired on Carte Blanche. For more information please visit: http://beta.mnet.co.za/mnetvideo/BrowseVideo.aspx?ChannelId=35&vid=39786