Seven days a week, Nthombozuko can be found at a truck stop in Epping, an industrial zone in Cape Town. She spends the night hours here servicing sex-seeking men. Although she hates her work, she hopes that prostitution might one day be seen as any other form of employment.
By Miriam Mannak, Cape Town
“Some women like this work, but I don’t. Some clients are aggressive, some don’t want to use a condom, and others refuse to pay,” Nthombozuko says.
Although this is not her dream job, the 30 year old does dream of a day when sex work can be recognized as all other forms of employment, allowing prostitutes to enjoy the same rights as the rest of the labour force – instead of being pitted against the law.
Nthombozuko started selling sex nine years ago when her mother could no longer support her six children. After quitting high school, she desperately tried to find a job to help her family make ends meet. When all attempts failed, she decided to offer sex in exchange for money.
“It was my only option,” she explains. “It is still my only option. And no, my mother does not know.”
Equal rights for sex workers
That is why Nthombozuko decided to attend the ‘Equal rights for sex workers’ workshop on the issue of feminism. Hosted by the Cape Town-based Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) last month, the event drew about 50 sex workers, both men and women.
“Feminism is about equality [between all people and workers], and not just about women enjoying the same rights as men,” said SWEAT executive director Sally-Jean Shackleton, explaining the theme of the workshop. “Sex workers want and deserve the same rights as other people, too.”
“In South Africa feminism has to go beyond wanting equal rights and power for men and women,” added feminist researcher Benita Moolman. “It should be about inclusiveness of everyone, including sex workers.”
Throughout the workshop, the attendees themselves also spoke, discussing the hardships and discrimination they face, why they want equality and the reasons they reverted to prostitution.
Anita, for example, from the township of Gugulethu, some 40 kilometres outside Cape Town’s city centre, turned to sex work after the father of her then unborn daughter left her.
This was 12 years ago. “I had to stop school and find a job,” she recalled. “There was no one to support my child and me. My mother was unemployed. Sex work was my only option. There was no work.”
“We are not criminals”
After three years of making a living in this way, Anita stopped, instead taking up a job as a domestic worker. When her employers moved overseas, though, she picked up her old profession.
Today she does not particularly hate the work, though doesn’t like it either. According to her: “Not all clients are nice, and the cops make our lives difficult. They arrest us, beat us, harass us, bribe us and force you to have sex with them in return to let you go.”
One night, when she was busy with a client, a cop busted her and tried to extort a bribe. He said he would let her go if she paid him 200 rand (about 20 euros).
Not only did Anita refuse, but she took revenge. “I called the police station, told them what had happened, and gave them the officer’s car registration plate. I heard he was suspended for six months.”
Being a mother to three daughters, Anita admits that she sometimes struggles with her identity. “My children don’t know about it, and neither does the aunt [referring to a close family friend] where my kids stay when I am working. Only one of my sisters knows. I am not ready to tell others.”
Waiting for feminism
Like Nthombozuko, Anita wants the feminist movement to take hold in the sex industry.
“We are workers like anyone else,” she says. “Criminalizing us will not make us go away. Sex is not a crime. We just want to earn a living and feed our children. The problem is that there are no other opportunities.”
While South Africa has a progressive constitution – take, for instance, the legalization of gay marriage – society is rather conservative. It is therefore doubtful that Anita and Nthombozuko will enjoy the same rights as the average office clerk any time soon.