THERE has been much talk about the decriminilisation of “sex work” following the proposed National Strategic Plan on Gender Based Violence and Femicide released by the government in May 2020.
The mainstream narrative is that prostituted persons want to remain in the system of sex exploitation if it is made safe. We, who are survivors of the system, see it as a system of oppression, patriarchy, classism, sexism and racism.
There is much talk about giving “dignity” to prostituted persons by decriminilising it, which is another fancy word for legalizing it. The “sex trade” – another euphemism used to cover-up the indignity of prostitution – is a multi-billion dollar industry which those who profit from it will not let go of it without a fight. The fight is fought in mainstream media where prostitution is glamourised and large sums of money are poured into sex-trade lobbyists who advocate for legalising prostitution when they themselves will never do it.
There is no dignity in prostitution. I know, I’ve been there. My story, like that of many other prostituted women resides in our backgrounds of poverty and our attempt to lift ourselves out of it (poverty) through education. When this effort fails, we turn to seeking jobs – and when that doesn’t bear fruit and the little money collected runs out, we find ourselves in a brothel or the streets selling our bodies.
What is not spoken about is what happens when the buyer closes that door – the dehumanising experience of prostitution.
From the words uttered to the prostituted person to the rape, assaults, broken bones, blue eyes, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and murders – there is no dignity in selling a person’s body. The emotional and psychological trauma of years of having sex with many men is one that breaks you down inside and mentally.
My name is Zenande Thangana I was born in a small rural area in the former Ciskei.
Like any other child, I yearned for education. I went to a local school and did my Matric. I passed and then went to a nearby University.
When I couldn’t pursue my education due to financial constraints, I opted to be a child minder for a relative who lived in the Western Cape. Unfortunately, she wasn’t paying me a salary but often gave me food stamps to send back home for which I was grateful. However, my goal in looking for work was to pursue my education.
I eventually found myself in Johannesburg where, in my search for a place to stay, taxi drivers directed me to a “hotel’ which turned out to be a brothel. And there started my life in the dark world of prostitution.
It was 2011.
I was young and much in demand. And yet I couldn’t bring myself to put a price on the services I offered – it felt like I was selling my soul to the devil. Prostitution is dehumanising and I’m not proud to have entered it. I devised a plan and asked one of the veteran prostituted women to put up the prices and she did.
From the onset, the relationship is skewed towards the buyer. The men are king. They decide what happens behind that closed door. I was never in control nor was it ever a balanced relationship of consensual adults as many would like to put it.
I apologise from the outset to the editor and the readers that I have to use the words used by the sex trade punters. But my attempt here is to give insight into the sex exploitation trade and to demystify the glamour that is attached to it.
The language of dehumanisation accompanied with assaults, rape and risk of hiv infection
I have many experiences where the buyer would beat me up before or after sex. In some instances, when they have to pay, they suddenly refuse to on the basis that “awukho mnandi” (you are not enjoyable) or “awusiyona le ndlela ebengikuzwa ungayo over the phone (you do not match their expectation when you were on the phone) or “wawuzwee ngobani inyama yomlenze iyaathengiswa?(Who taught you to sell your body?)”
At times the punter would demand their money back because they did not climax and therefore deem you useless.
The power relations are skewed towards the punters and it is guided by their buying power. The prostituted person will be blamed for the length of the sexual round. If it is too short, the punter can decide to mete out a punishment by withholding the payment. At times it may be accompanied by insults and beatings.
The prostituted person is at the mercy and call of the buyer once the door is closed. We have to live our lives constantly pleasing these men or they can demand their money back. At times, during the actual act, they even demand extras (boob touching or the extra effort in the act, more time-or that you fulfil their fantasies) – all this with a promise to pay afterwards. At times they pay and others not.
Just one day in a brothel will expose you to some of the most harmful practices, starting with the language used. Demeaning words like abomarhwaya ndunu, abomagosha completely destroy one’s sense of self respect and leave an everlasting pain and for some, tremendous mental health problems.
Then there’s the issue of the risk of HIV infection. Punters have a litany of tactics for not using a condom. They will entice you with money but if that doesn’t work, then they use their fists. The so-called security guards at brothels and hotels are themselves men and often just tell the prostituted person to give the buyer what he wants: “mnikeze koku akufunayo, ahambe ngoba ukubhadele” meaning give that man whatever he wants so he can go because he has paid you.
The last straw was when a client ordered me to go down on him without a condom. He had paid R2000 for two of us for the night and felt he could do anything. The following day was horror as I went from one clinic to the next to find PEP (HIV treatment medication taken after an exposure to HIV). I was denied help until I decided to say I was raped – it was easy to believe this since I had a blue eye and broken bones.
Those who advocate for legalising prostitution speak of laws that can be implemented to minimise harm in prostitution, such as trafficking, physical violence and unsafe sex but as I have shown here, there is harm embedded in prostitution itself. As we say, sex work is neither sex nor work, it is exploitation.
Decriminalising prostitution will only stop the police from harassing us and give us access to clinics when we have been raped and assaulted while allowing the pimps, brothel owners and buyers to continue with business as usual.
However, there is a third option in the debate on prostitution – it is the Equality Model which decriminalises the prostituted persons while criminalising the pimps, brothel owners and buyers. The big question always is what to do with the prostituted women once you abolish prostitution. The solution is to stop the demand and assist women to leave this system by giving them housing, education and skills so that they can choose a different way of making a living.
Zenande Thangana is a survivor who is in the process of picking up the pieces of her life ruined by prostitution and is on the path of regaining her full worth as a citizen of South Africa. She has been off the streets for 8 years now.