On a hot Friday morning in Cape Town, the renovated warehouse that houses the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) and the Sisonke Sex Worker movement pumps with heat waves. The doors to the backyard have been thrown wide open. Every time a train rattles past, the audience straightens up, trying to hear what is being said.
I am one of 50 people at this Mothers for the Future fundraiser, an event that put the spotlight on sex-worker mothers and the daily problems they face.
An activist, Dudu Dlamini, tells the audience that last year a group of sex-worker mothers formed a support collective after recognising common themes and experiences in their lives. To punch her message home, little toddler feet patter past my chair. A baby at the back giggles with glee.
The first item is a play that explores the perils of sex work in South Africa, and ends tragically with the main character taking her own life. The audience shifts uncomfortably in their seats. I have watched many plays by sex-worker groups and none has had upbeat themes.
But why deceive myself? If art reflects reality, there is not much to be upbeat about. Harsh criminal penalties grant sex workers little recourse to justice or social services. Police often rape, beat and pepperspray sex workers. The public spits and swears at people they think are working the streets. Stinging insults – hoer, maghosa – abound. Double standards are rampant.
Support group members are invited to share their experiences. Some young mothers have worked for only a few years. Others are grandmothers. They have been in the industry for decades. They reflect, well, our rainbow nation. Each tells a story of hardship: abusive, non-commercial partners; cops “having fun”; being homeless and dirt-poor; and social workers who take children away because, of course, a sex worker cannot possibly be a good parent.
They describe the long, uneven hours; the anguish of not always being able to help with homework, or to get children ready for school in the mornings; police arrests; and a vindictive client who drops you far away from where you work or live.
Some years ago, a sex-worker colleague in Johannesburg co-researched a project on access to healthcare services. Her body bore the painful marks of violent clients and sadistic police in the inner city. But she persisted.
Why? She was putting her son through medical school in Cape Town. She said she would die if he found out what she did for a living. She is now married and supported. I hope that her son is now prospering in medical practice. And that he spoils her.
Some of the women start crying when they describe their lives. Others wipe away tears of solidarity and shared pain. A toilet roll is passed around.
But their faces brighten when they talk about the backing, care and inspiration the support group has given them. Their pride in themselves as parents, and how they are able to provide in sometimes desperate circumstances, is evident. Their eyes sparkle when they speak about how proud they are of their children. They describe their dreams of establishing a safe house for mothers, where their children can be looked after while they are at work. They want to set up a Saturday school where their children can get help with their homework. They advocate the decriminalisation of sex work for reasons of life and blood; to make their lives – and their children’s lives – safer.
I leave the fundraiser inspired by their strength and resolve. But a fire of ire has been kindled in my heart, directed at the lawmakers, the police and some members of the public – those who despise sex workers, who heap shame and abuse, physical and verbal, on their heads.
My anger also has a closer target – the arid theorists, in a narrow branch of feminism, who insist they represent all women’s best interests. So-called carceral or abolition feminists claim sex work is inherently violent and exploitative. They say sex workers have no agency. They are victims, unable to make (pragmatic) choices, like others who do hard work in unpleasant conditions.
To these rigid moralists, sex workers are victims to men’s lust, rather than casualties of a criminal system that wrongly punishes women who find ways to make ends meet, as we all must, in a hard and harsh world. The more fiendish of these feminists would cut sex workers off from social services and support until they repent and submit to rescue – in the name of women’s rights and dignity.
The Mothers for the Future approach challenges these stifling, harming views head on. One of the women, Angella, looks us straight in eye and says: “You can’t be a criminal if you use your own body to make a living – to make a living for you and your children.”
Marlise Richter is a policy development and advocacy specialist at Sonke Gender Justice.