“When I worked in the brothel in Hillbrow, I felt like a queen. If I ever lose this job, I will  have no hesitation about going back there. Besides, I earned much more then than I do now”

I had just started working at SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce) and was driving to a meeting with one of my new colleagues, a former sex worker. As we drove, she spoke about her experiences in the industry. It was one of my many conversations which, over time, shattered the stereotypes I had previously held.

It was 2010. I had been asked by SWEAT to help set up a national HIV prevention programme for sex workers. I accepted the offer with curiosity. As a community psychologist, I had worked with other groups of people who were marginalised, stigmatized, blamed or misunderstood.  Over and over again, I was surprised as my preconceptions about these ‘unfortunate’ groups of people, were smashed. As people from backgrounds completely different to my own took me into their confidence, I was constantly humbled by their rich humanity. I realized that I had been guilty of a well-meaning but patronizing pity. I had fallen into the trap of what writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story.”

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. 

And so, when I started working at SWEAT, I only knew of a single story about sex workers. It is probably the same story that you, the reader of this article, have always heard. What is this story? Well firstly, sex workers were probably sexually abused as children, they probably got involved in the industry when they were teenagers. They are probably drug addicts. They could not possibly have sex with strangers unless they were high. What else? Sex workers are victims. Most have pimps who exploit them or are victims of human trafficking. And the clients? We do not know much about them, but we guess they may be misogynist, abusive or deviant. What do sex workers need? Well, presumably sex workers would rather be doing anything else, and so they should be supported to exit the industry and develop other skills.  

Between 2010 and 2016, I was responsible for setting up and managing South Africa’s first national sex worker programme, funded by the Global Fund for HIV, TB and malaria. Here, sex workers are provided with peer support, education, condoms, group activities, and biomedical, psychosocial and human rights services. I also set up a national toll-free 24-hour helpline, staffed by sex workers who have been trained as counsellors.   

Based on World Health Organization recommendations, sex workers have been included in the development and strengthening of the programme. The programme employs over 1500 trained sex workers as peer educators, site coordinators, programme managers, data capturers, human rights defenders, and HIV testing officers. Four successive programme evaluations have found that the programme has made a significant contribution to preventing HIV and keeping HIV+ sex workers healthy. It has also strengthened sexual and reproductive health more broadly, improved human rights, reduced violence, reduced stigma and discrimination, improved psychosocial wellbeing and strengthened social capital. The programme continues to evolve, and now includes an economic empowerment component and interventions to address the specific vulnerabilities of minors selling sex. 

I have probably engaged with between 5000 sex workers in every province of South Africa, as well as beyond our borders. I have spoken to many in their homes, in brothels, in taverns, at truck stops, and on street corners from Komatipoort to Mafikeng and from Musina to Cape Town.  

My interactions with sex workers have not just been in their workplaces, and our conversations have not just been about their work. I have met their children, their partners, their parents. We have lobbied, marched and protested together. We have danced and laughed and partied together. Some are my close friends.  I have taken them to hospital. I have attended their funerals.  

The sex workers I have met have been incredibly diverse. They have been mostly female, but also male and transgender. Mostly South African, but also migrants from other countries. They have belonged to a range of races, ethnic groups, religions and cultural backgrounds. They have earned anything from R20 to R4000 for a session. 

Some started selling sex when they were under 18, but most did not. This tallies with research which found that the average age of starting to sell sex in South Africa is 24. Most do not sell sex because they have to feed their drug habit or because their pimp orders them to do so: For most – their reason is “needing money for everyday life”. The majority of the sex workers I have met are single mothers.  The International Labour Organisation estimates that people in the sex industry support an average of 5 and 8 dependents.   

What about pimps? According to the research, most sex workers work without pimps in South Africa, and in other African countries. When I explain what a pimp is, they laugh and say “Oh, like in American movies” or “We don’t need anything like that here”. 

Finally, how do sex workers feel about their work? It is true that some hate it and are disgusted and traumatized by it. But I have met many who enjoy it and would not want to do anything else. For most though, it is just a job.  It certainly has plenty of disadvantages, but it has advantages too – flexible working hours, good money, being self-employed.  

My aim with this article is not to counter the stereotype of the “sex worker as victim” with one of the “happy hooker”.  It is to show that, like all of us, sex workers are infinitely complex human beings. To end with another quote from Chimamanda Adichi:

“The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

Mensch is a social Justice NGO, committed to capacitating and supporting our Jewish Community’s response towards Social Justice in South Africa. Click HERE to read more about Mensch.

Maria Stacey is a clinical psychologist and consultant specialising in public health, human rights and social justice, and a member of The Mensch Network. To learn more about her work click here