Almost everything I’ve read about Maya Angelou since her death lists her various occupations and achievements, with some permutations. Zapiro’s cartoon in last Friday’s Mail & Guardian, for example, had: “Poet, playwright, survivor, warrior, activist, Africanist, singer, songwriter, memoirist, novelist, actor, orator, director, dancer, teacher, preacher, filmmaker, trailblazer, humanist, humorist, phenomenal woman.”
There are two titles that she bore, if only briefly, that to me are conspicuously absent: madam and sex worker. (A few obituarists have mentioned her sex work, but only in passing.)
In her late teens, soon after leaving her mother’s home in San Francisco to make it on her own in Los Angeles, the young Angelou found herself in business with an older lesbian couple: she managed the brothel and its finances, and the couple turned tricks. Angelou was scared out of the industry but years later, in Stockton, California, she met the sweet-talking but dishonest Lou, who lured her into sex work – this time as a sex worker herself.
Angelou spoke freely and unabashedly about her engagement in “prostitution” – her word. She described her experiences in the autobiography Gather Together in My Name, which picks up where I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings leaves off. As Peechington Marie of Tits and Sass, a blog about public commentary on sex work, points out, it seems Angelou’s secret past was a secret kept by everyone but Angelou herself.
We take it on ourselves to feel on her behalf the shame we think she should feel but that she didn’t, at least not later in her life. We demonstrate by omission the discomfort we have with sex work.
In South Africa, we can’t afford this revisionist remembering of a great public figure. Our sex workers suffer legal disenfranchisement and a host of human rights abuses. The Centre for Gender Equality argues that the criminalisation of sex work in South Africa violates constitutional rights to human dignity, control over one’s body and freedom to choose one’s occupation.
Sex workers are seen as victims of circumstance by the generous, and as morally corrupt by the less so. Neither attitude is helpful.
Seeing sex workers purely as victims robs them, in public perception, of the ability to make their own decisions or to have decided willingly to go into sex work. Pitying sex workers fails to see sex work as work, which prevents sex work from being integrated into a broader conception of labour regulated by the state.
Seeing sex workers as scum robs them of humanity and dignity and opens them up to rape, unlawful imprisonment and other abuse.
A 2012 report by the Women’s Legal Centre states that one in six sex workers is sexually or physically assaulted, and one in three is harassed by the police. Censure prevents them from accessing good health and social services. This is of larger public health concern as we try to combat HIV and Aids.
A report by the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation pegs HIV prevalence among sex workers at 44% to 69%, estimating that 20% of new infections in 2010 were related to sex work. Sex workers are designated a key population group in South Africa’s national response to Aids, but progress in this sector has been slow.
One step towards guaranteeing sex workers’ rights is decriminalising sex work. Here, too, there has been slow progress, despite its being under discussion by the Law Reform Commission since 1994. It would give sex workers legal recourse against abusers and would be congruent with public health goals. It would signal that sex work is a labour issue, rather than a moral one.
Speaking on radio show In Context, Angelou explained why she wrote about her sex work: “I wrote about my experiences because I thought too many people tell young folks: ‘I never did anything wrong. Who, moi? – never I.’ … They lie like that and then young people find themselves in situations and they think: ‘Damn, I must be a pretty bad guy. My mom or dad never did anything wrong.’ They can’t forgive themselves and go on with their lives.”
This lesson is as important to a sex worker who feels shame as it is to those of us who have negative attitudes towards them. Even Angelou, at the early stage of running a brothel, when asked where she would receive clients, reacted with judgmental incredulity: “Me, turn tricks? What did she think I was?”
Angelou was a phenomenal woman, but not despite having been a sex worker. When we celebrate her life, we are well served to contemplate, as well, those who we reproach or pity or ignore, and to relinquish the petty prejudices we guard.
A former Rhodes Scholar, Renugan Raidoo is a co-ordinator for the South African National Aids Council’s LGBTI sector