Dressing down sex work

Sex work is a problem. For a feminist, it is a particularly tricky problem. I drive past ladies of the night and am fascinated by the spectacle they present to us.

They wait on icy or rainy Jo’burg street corners and challenge voyeur-motorists with direct mascara looks and alluring fishnet thighs. I try to keep eye contact as long as general road safety allows. I look at their bodies—an array of wonderful shapes and sizes—at their colourful make-up, their flimsy clothes, their beckoning body language—and I wonder how long it will be before the next sale. Before she freezes? Or will the police pick her up for a cold Hillbrow cell? Will the client drop her off in a safe place, or throw her out of the car on a quiet road when done?

Many feminists prefer to ignore sex work and its implications, and hope that the problem will just go away. Others have engaged in angry debates for years. Radical feminists often (unwillingly) join forces with conservative/religious feminists to argue that “prostitution” (their term of choice together with “exploitation” and “slave”) is inherently damaging to women and that the industry is based on coercion and subjugation. 

Their point is not difficult to grasp: as young feminists we are taught that women’s greatest struggle is against the heteronormative patriarchal system that makes us into sexual objects with no brain cells, desire or agency—a mere means to an (ejaculatory) end.

What would therefore be more supportive of this patriarchal system than a male pimp selling a female body to another man; and than women—pandering to male sexual fantasies—making themselves available in drive-through, take-away convenience?

In this vein, veteran radical feminist Catharine MacKinnon argues that “prostitution” is “the denial of women’s humanity”. Following this argument, it appears natural that the law should intervene—and intervene hard. Criminal law should prevent women from considering selling their bodies in the first place, while coming down with a vengeance on everyone who contributes towards the sex industry—clients, pimps, madams, brothel owners and sex workers alike. Those misguided girls who have fallen into the maw of immorality and male dominance should be saved, rehabilitated and guided on to the righteous path.

Yet, despite good and sometimes virtuous intentions, the oldest profession survives and thrives. In contrast to their conservative sisters, so-called “liberal” feminists and “third world” feminists focus on the context within which sex work takes places and argue that for poor women, sex work is a rational choice for survival in an environment where not many viable options exist. Sex work should be treated like other work and does not differ fundamentally from other jobs that make use of people’s bodies—such as being a gold miner, a physio-therapist, a domestic worker or, following Martha Nussbaum’s line of argument, a university professor.

These feminists take issue with the fact that a woman who sells sex on a street corner can be thrown into jail whereas a middle-class woman who exchanges a nice dinner at an expensive restaurant for sex with her blind date goes unscathed. Indeed, criminalising sex work undermines women’s human rights, increases the stigma that attaches to sex work and makes women more vulnerable to violence, abuse and contracting HIV. These feminists argue that a pragmatic approach would be to decriminalise the industry, safeguard sex workers’ rights and provide better education and employment options for women.

Yet, the lady with the bright skirt on Rosebank’s Oxford Road doesn’t care much about the feminist debates, the blogs, the academic journal articles, the symposiums and the moral panic that is building around sex work and the World Cup. She has two children to feed and the police to avoid, while having to deal with passing teenage boys who hiss isifebe (slut) at her and try to feel her up.

She is nursing bruised ribs where her boyfriend kicked her last week. There wasn’t much help from her local clinic—the nurses know what she does for a living and turn their backs on her when she enters the waiting room.

Nor much support from the police, as “you people cannot be raped” and “you got what you deserved”. Her mother lives in rural KwaZulu-Natal and thinks the monthly remittance comes from her waiting on tables in the City of Gold.

She waits for a client—hopefully decent—to stop, to roll down his window and introduce her to a heated car. One who will pay her upfront, who will pay her her rate and who will respect her request to use condoms. One who will be quick, and who will drop her off on this corner where her co-workers are waiting for her return.

She could certainly do with less feminist talk, ideological indecision and fascinated stares. And more with concrete, concerted action to improve her material situation and the options available to her.

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