I read a lot when I was in Africa. One of the most interesting books available was Catherine Campbell’s Letting Them Die, which describes a community HIV/AIDS project that took place in a South African community called Summertown (not the community’s real name). It is really an exceptional description of the difficulties inherent in the promotion of sexual health. It’s also got a lot of interesting discussion and commentary on sex work and whore stigma, and the experience of sex workers who were interviewed for the study.

I want to emphasize right now that I don’t always agree with the writer’s approach, though I always find it interesting. This is a loaded topic, and there are some issues with the following quotations. However, I think there is a lot of wisdom as well. Quotations follow:

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A key reason why people agreed to discuss their stigmatized work so openly in the baseline interview study lay not only in their growing fear about the epidemic, but also because, in setting up the interviews, much emphasis was laid on the fact that the interviewers regarded sex work as a profession like any other, and had no desire to criticize or judge anyone for their choice of work. [page 81]

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How do people deal with having a spoiled identity, the stigma of a shameful profession? … One way was through a series of justificatory discourses. Predominant among these was the discourse of “having no option”.

S: “I give my clients respect by telling them I don’t like doing this job. I tell them I only do it due to poverty.”

W: “This is a job that lowers our dignity. We discuss this often, that we should look for other jobs. But the truth is that there are no alternatives.”

Virtually every woman said she had been “tricked” into starting the job. They all spoke of having been recruited by friends, who tempted them away from their rural homes with stories about jobs in Johannesburg, without telling them the nature of the work. They spoke of arriving and initially refusing to sell sex. Eventually they had been forced into it by a combination of hunger and the lack of transport money to return home.

… In a paper reporting on similar interviews with sex workers in Gambia, the authors use somewhat judgmental language, variously describing sex workers’ accounts of their lives as “lies”, “fiction” and accounts that “could not be trusted”. Possibly this was also the case in the Summertown study. Peoples’ stories of being tricked into sex work were remarkably similar.

… In relation to sexual health-promotion among this group, however, the objective veracity of their accounts is not the most interesting or key feature of the life histories. What is more important is how people reconstruct and account for their life choices, given that these accounts reflect the social identities that are crucial in shaping sexual behavior. In this context, the main interest of these stories of origin lies in the role that they play as a strategy of coping with a spoiled identity — the way they are used by women to distance themselves from this stigma in as many ways as possible.

These stories serve a useful role in assisting sex workers to sustain a creatively reworked notion of respect and respectability within the context of this least respectable of professions. (Yet while they perform this positive function in one respect, they serve to reinforce women’s accounts of themselves as having no option or as victims of fate. In the context of sexual health-promotion, such accounts feed into the broader sense of low perceived self-efficacy that militates against women’s empowerment in negotiating sexual encounters, and against the likelihood of insisting on condom use with reluctant clients.)

Another way in which women distanced themselves from their stigmatized profession was to make frequent reference to leaving the job. They continually referred to their intention to look for alternative work in the future, with domestic work being most frequently mentioned.

… Another option frequently mentioned by women was that of going home to their rural areas of origin. However, their accounts of what was preventing them from leaving were often contradictory. Thus, for example, women who explained in detail how they had been forced to leave home because there was no work on the white farms would then express their intention to go home shortly and work on these farms. Many people said that the only thing that prevented them from going home was that they lacked the money for the transport. Yet the money for transport was often not beyond their grasp. It was probably the case that none of them really intended to go home, but that an emphasis on the temporary nature of the work served as another strategy for distancing themselves from their stigmatized profession.

… Women did not have happy memories of home. Their home lives had often been sites of deprivation, conflict and abuse. On the one hand, their choice to become sex workers had resulted in the dangers and stresses of their current daily lives. On the other, abandoning their claims to conventional respectability (in coming to the mines, abandoning their children and setting up lives as single women with few responsibilities to anyone except themselves) represented a radical break from the drudgery and restrictions of conventional womanhood.

Buried in the interviews, amid all the talk about their intentions to return home at the first possible moment, their shame at abandoning their children and the indignity of the work was a range of comments reflecting this dichotomy. Some said how they enjoyed the wild, often riotous lifestyle of sex work, where in its good moments life felt like a continuous party. They appreciated the freedom from responsibility and decorum. Y feared she would be quickly bored by the domestic routine of cooking, cleaning and child-care that would have been required of her at home. W said she was at her happiest when drinking at the bar with her friends. P reflected the ambiguity that many women felt about the home identities they had given up in a comment in which she started off by idealizing home as “a place where one did not have problems”, but ended up by saying that she would struggle to cope with its staid routine:

P: “When I’m at home I don’t have problems. My friends and sisters are always there so I’m always happy. But I’m also scared that I might get drunk and do funny things that might make me argue with other people. At home men have responsibilities to their wives — if a man were to buy alcohol for me his wife would come and argue with me. Here there is no such problem — I don’t have to answer questions to anybody.”

Furthermore, there were numerous suggestions that the women had developed forms of symbolic resistance to the male desires they depended on for their day-to-day survival. One such strategy was to remain completely passive during the sexual encounter:

B: “Some, when they are just about to ejaculate, they ask you to “shake”. But I make him pay if he wants me to shake, he won’t just get me to move without paying for it. If the price is 20 rands I want 10 rands extra if he wants me to move.”

Another strategy was to emphasize their complete lack of interest in the clients as people, or to emphasize how personally unattractive they found many of them.

… During their more relaxed moments, women would reclaim some of their power by gossiping among themselves behind the clients’ backs, joking hilariously about penis sizes, or peculiar sexual styles, or the amusing grunting or screaming noises different men would make during orgasm. There were also references to the tedious nature of male desire.

D: “Men don’t have self-control. They are just like animals. You sleep with one now, and then he goes around the corner and sleeps with another woman …. I think it’s boring — to have a client arrive and you feel tired and make excuses, yet he keeps on pestering you with R20 in his hand.”

Despite its dangers and uncertainties, sex work gives women some independence from patriarchal restrictions and the endless responsibility and drudgery of their more conventional roles in situations of poverty. In certain respects it offers women an unusual degree of independence from male control and from the restrictions of the identities of wife, mother and home-maker. Such a sentiment was expressed directly by only one of the interviewees:

C: “I can say I am happy at the present moment because I know how to make a living. I don’t depend on anyone like I used to before, where I used to be shouted at if I had to ask anyone for help. I am happy because there is no one who is questioning me. When I do this job, I don’t have to ask anyone for anything — I just work hard, and then I can buy anything I want.”

Interviewer: “Would you like to have a boyfriend?” [Most women expressed a strong desire for a man who would fall in love with them and support them.]

C: “I can’t say. I’m no longer used to having a partner any more — I don’t think I would manage to have a boyfriend …. Since I’m no longer used to waiting for someone to give me money or to depend on. I’m used to being independent. If I were to find a boyfriend I wouldn’t manage to go home as often as I am used to doing. He would want more kids. I would have to stop selling sex — this would interfere with me caring for my family — and I can’t stand that.”

C, cited above, was an exception in the sample in a number of respects. First, she was younger and better dressed than her colleagues. Unlike them, she had experiences of sex within the relatively sophisticated urban context of hotels in the Hillbrow area of Johannesburg. Here sex work was practiced more openly, for better money and received greater recognition as a profession. Second, she was one of the few women interviewed who saw the job as a way of making money to support her family. She herself was one of the children that had been left with an old grandmother by a sex worker mother shortly after her birth, but had taken great pains as a teenager to track down her mother to her workplace in the study community [Summertown]. It was only because she wanted to live near her mother that she chose to spend only part of her time in Hillbrow and the rest of her time in Summertown. Her life’s goal was to save enough money to buy a plot in her rural area of origin and to save money so that her mother could retire from the job and have a dignified old age.

However, despite the fact that she was so atypical of the women interviewed, she was one of the few women who had the confidence and the vocabulary to express what for other women was “unspeakable”. This was the fact that, for all its dangers and stigma, their profession did offer some advantages. For most informants sex work was the profession with no name, an identity so stigmatized and so spoiled that they often avoided naming their work even to one another. Within this context women lacked the discourse to articulate the fact that, although their work was seen as a departure from the conventional and respectable identities available to women as mothers, wives, family members and homemakers, it did have something to offer women in terms of autonomy and independence. [pages 77-79]

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… there was evidence that sex work, despite its unpleasant aspects, did give women some degree of independence. It freed them from traditional feminine roles in impoverished rural areas, where women often had little power in relationships with men, and where employment opportunities for poor, unskilled, uneducated women were virtually non-existent.

“What I like about this job is that it’s an easy way of making money, everything I want I can buy. I do not pay rent and I seldom run out of money like when I was at home.” (D, sex worker)

“It’s poverty that forces us to humiliate ourselves with this work. But given that we have no choice, it’s advantageous as a job — that you can make money without having to shoplift, and risk going to jail. Fashions come and go, you see people dressing nicely and you wish to be like them.” (A, peer educator [and sex worker])

The job, for all its indignities, offered economic independence of a sort, and independence from abusive relationships with men.

“I have lived and stayed with men and benefited nothing out of those relationships except for suffering and frustration. As far as I’m concerned it’s better to do this work.” (B, sex worker)

At the same time, women were realistic about the costs of this freedom.

“We left our families and homes of our own accord. No one chased us away. We left because we wanted to govern and rule ourselves. And now we are compelled to do this job to make a living. Men are tough, sex is painful, they often have large penises that hurt you — some treat you in a dehumanising way, you lose your sense of pride as a woman and as a human being. You are treated like dirt, sometimes that hurts. This is the price we pay for seeking our independence and freedom.” (B, sex worker) [pages 89-90]