/ 22 December 2023

A candid look at sex work

This Body Works For Me S2 2023 1
Two-way street: Reality show This Body Works for Me follows the lives of seven South African sex workers. Photo: Supplied

‘This is staged!” is not the kind of feedback the producers of a reality show want on their YouTube channel. It is, after all, supposed to be like real life. 

I’m on a Zoom call with a person we’ll call Thandeka — she prefers not to be identified — and we’re discussing the Showmax series This Body Works for Me

It explores the lives of seven women in the South African adult entertainment industry, letting us in on their family dynamics, relationships, hustles and careers. They mainly work online and in strip clubs. 

The show, in its second season, has garnered a lot of attention because of its subject matter and the drama that follows the cast on and off-screen. 

The show’s goal is representation and for the cast to be able to share their stories from their perspectives. 

I can’t think of anyone better equipped than Thandeka to comment on the show, which she follows religiously. The 31-year-old has been a sex worker for 13 years. She works online and in brothels in Cape Town.

She loves This Body Works For Me and appreciates how accurately it portrays the industry.

“For me, I can say it’s really good, it really does work,” Thandeka says. “I was also talking with my housemates about this show — they even have favourites of who they like and everything.”

Thandeka is the doting mother of a young baby. She is taking a break from the day-night job to spend more time with her child and focus on her advocacy work.

She tells me she got her start through a sugardaddy when she was 18. He began introducing her to men who wanted to sleep with her. This led to her charging men to hook up, starting her career in sex work. 

As time went on, and Thandeka got more and more into the industry, the issues that sex workers face became clear to her.

From a young age, she has had a passion for helping people who are marginalised. As a proud member of a marginalised group — sex workers — she finds it important to do something about the injustices they face. 

Thandeka has joined Sisonke, an advocacy group which works to protect sex workers. Through Sisonke, she is also working with the lobby and human rights group Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat).

Her aim is to get sex work decriminalised to ensure the fair treatment and protection of sex workers across the country. 

Many people have strong views on sex workers. Some see them as dirty, as drug users, others see them as victims of human trafficking or GBV. 

These are not true of many sex workers, Thandeka tells me. 

A good deal of the ideas about the industry come from how the media — unfairly — portrays sex workers. Due to these misconceptions, sex workers feel excluded in most spaces.

The Showmax series has helped to counter that, Thandeka feels.

This Body Works For Me shows lots of positive things about sex workers — that they are organising each other, trying to get some unity, also, even though they have different personalities, they are all about forgiveness and they’re also human beings, working as one as they all have the same goal,” she adds.

For non-sex workers, it’s a good show to watch to get a better perspective on, and to learn more about, an industry that has been stigmatised for so long.

Because of their precarious legal status, there are no concrete numbers on how many sex workers there are in South Africa.

Estimates in Johannesburg, for example, range between 5 000 and 10 000. It varies between brothel-based, street and online sex work, as well as escorting. 

How much a sex worker earns depends on how much they charge for their services. They might charge R500 for a basic service and this can go as high as R10 000 for a hook-up. Prices are usually arranged between the sex workers and their clients.

Thandeka says sex workers are very loyal to each other. They have a strong web of support, especially street-based sex workers. They are at risk of arrest and abuse from clients and law enforcement officers. They are also at a high risk of being murdered when they work. 

Many sex workers have children and all of them have families that they care about. 

With these factors in mind, sex workers need a support system that they can rely on. 

Often there will be a chain of communication to ensure, should something go wrong, their families remain safe. They also rely on each other for help in learning how clients behave. 

Their camaraderie comes from having no one else to rely on. 

“We are discriminated against in almost all aspects of life,” Thandeka explains. “Often police will try and make illegal deals with sex workers or their clients.”

They also may face discrimination from healthcare professionals. 

Legally, they are entitled to fair treatment from law enforcement officers and healthcare professionals but issues arise because of people’s prejudices and greed. 

The best way to combat this is by teaching these professionals about their responsibilities and the rights of the people they are helping and serving, she says. 

These issues have led to the formation of a bill to decriminalise sex work. The work on the bill began in 1999, when it was first referred to the law commission. In 2001 the first report was made; the final report in 2017. 

Six years later, the final report was released to the public early this year. However, in the middle of the year, it was halted as the state law adviser had concerns about the lack of a regulatory framework.

However, Sweat spokesperson Megan Lessing says there has been progress since. 

“We’ve had some confirmation from the [justice] department because they are looking to start the redrafting of the bill process. 

“We’ve already started and we are happy there is actually confirmation from the department that is solely for those regulatory things — how to protect sex workers, how to protect brothel-based sex workers.”

There have been many questions about what decriminalising sex work could  look like in South Africa. 

Author and law professor at the University of Witwatersrand Cathi Albertyn says once the bill is passed, the transition will not be easy. 

“I’d imagine there may well need to be some legislative reform and litigation in order to clarify and regulate those kinds of relationships,” Albertyn says. 

“If that hurdle was overcome, one way or another, then the question would be, do sex workers fall under the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, and so on.”

Labour law around sex workers could be a contentious issue. First, you must be an employee for the laws to apply. Second, to be an employee, you must be employed by someone. 

Albertyn says this issue might also need legislation to be resolved. 

Globally, there are a variety of models dealing with the legal status of sex workers. Lobbyists believe the best model for South Africa is complete decriminalisation. The focus should be on regulations that protect sex workers and not police them. 

Involved parties such as law enforcement officers and health professionals should be educated on sex workers’ rights and what they need to work safely.

Everybody wants to know they are safe and free to do what they have to do to make money and sex workers are no different, campaigners feel. 

According to the Constitution, a person cannot be discriminated against because of creed, profession, class or race — but it wavers when it comes to sex workers. 

A show such as This Body Works for Me is more than merely entertainment and titillation but also helps change perceptions of sex workers, and perhaps even nudge towards improving their legal status, their rights and freedoms.

Thandeka has her eye on such a future. “For now, because I am a new mother, I’ve taken a break from sex work, so I wake up, get my child ready for the nanny, come to work … then go back home and be with my kid. I’m going to get back to sex work soon.”