On learning from sex workers

By Maria Stacey

“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) in 2010 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.

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 who were marginalised, stigmatised, 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 realised that I had been guilty of a well-meaning but patronising 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 at SWEAT, I had only known a single story about sex workers. It is probably the same story that you, the reader of this article, have always heard. That sex workers were probably sexually abused as children. They probably started when they were teenagers. They are mostly drug addicts. What else? Most have pimps or are victims of human trafficking. And presumably sex workers would rather be doing anything else and 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. The programme has made a significant contribution to preventing HIV; keeping HIV-positive sex workers healthy; strengthening sexual and reproductive health; improving human rights; reducing violence, stigma and discrimination; and improving psychosocial well-being and social capital. 

I have probably personally engaged with about 6,000 sex workers in every province, and beyond our borders. I have spoken to them in their homes, in brothels, in taverns, at truck stops, and on street corners from Komatipoort to Mafikeng and from Musina to Cape Town. 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.

Many enter the industry ‘needing money for everyday life’ and to support their family. When I ask about a pimp, they laugh and say, “Oh, like in American movies” or “We don’t need anything like that”.

It is true that some sex workers hate their work and are disgusted and traumatised. 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 Adichie:

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

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 visit www.mensch.org.za and select Network Members.

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• Published in the August 2023 issue – Click here to start reading.

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