SEX WORKERS IN SOUTH
By Susan Fox
Today, one of the only ways to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and
HIV/AIDS is abstinence. It's easy to suggest that the general population should stay
away from multiple sexual partners, but what if sex is your job?
The sex industry has been looked down upon by society for centuries, and is now seen
as a big contributor to the high HIV/AIDS rate in South Africa. Sex workers are cast
into a category of people targeted as having high-risk behavior for transmitting
In Cape Town, the sex industry is a vast and lucrative business, comprising of men,
women and transgendered people selling sex on the street and in agencies. Though
sex workers are often blamed for spreading HIV and STDs, one may be surprised how
rapidly awareness about these diseases is circulating through the Cape Town sex industry.
Sandra Adams is one of the 4,000 sex workers in the Western Cape and has eight years
of experience insisting on safe sex. Turning down men who offer her extra money for
"clean sex," or sex without a condom, has become a habit and one she refuses
to break no matter how slow the night may be.
"I don't buy AIDS," she explained. "Wherever I walk and whatever I
do, I carry a condom."
Sometimes instead of refusing clients, she uses their ignorance of the female condom
to her advantage. If a man insists on sex without a condom, she pretends to go along
with it, accepting the extra money, but doesn't tell them she is already wearing
a female condom. Usually, the man is none the wiser.
"I'm very careful about AIDS on the street," the 35-year-old said. "I'd
rather stand all night on the street than go with a guy who doesn't want to have
safe sex, when I know I don't have a female condom in my bag."
But she doesn't just carry a few condoms. Adams brings a bag full with her when she
goes out so she can share with other girls and their clients. She even keeps a stash
of condoms at the corner where she stands so even if she's not there, they still
can access the condoms.
Adams gets visibly upset when she talks about other girls who don't heed her warnings
about safe sex. She says when drug addiction is involved, which is a constant concern
on the streets, they become so desperate for money that they neglect their own safety.
In her opinion, these girls ruin it for the others who want to practice safe sex.
Adams says she is wary when the same man she saw leave with her friend the night
before and didn't use a condom, now comes to her and expects the same.
The youngest girls on the street, usually about nine or 10 years old, are also the
least likely to use protection. These girls are more likely to engage in risky sexual
behavior because they don't understand the risks, they are less experienced and therefore
have less bargaining power, and are often involved in drugs.
In 1994, an organization was formed to educate sex workers about their rights and
Adams was one of the first sex workers to get involved with the Sex Worker Education
and Advocacy Task force (SWEAT).
Shane Petzer, a co founder of SWEAT, saw that sex workers living without access the
law or health services and therefore creating a cycle of misinformation about HIV/AIDS
and human rights violation. He hoped that by improving human rights, health standards
would also improve and the industry would grow healthy and strong, because, as Petzer
puts it, "An unhealthy sex industry makes an unhealthy society."
Today SWEAT is South Africa's only sex workers union, providing advocacy, HIV testing,
as well as outreach projects. Sex workers themselves write stories for a newsletter
called SWEAT scene to educate others about important issues such as drugs, condoms,
new legislation and dangerous men to watch out for.
Glynis Rhodes is the co-ordinator of SWEAT's outdoor outreach, which includes condom
distribution and HIV/AIDS and STD education on the streets. Time is the biggest problem
field workers face, so speaking quickly and to the point is essential.
"We keep it to a limited time because we're; doing it on their working hours,"
Rhodes explained. "Sometimes they go running off after a car while you're; explaining
syphilis to them."
Slips of paper with pro-condom messages such as "If it's not on, it's not in"
are handed out so the girls can quickly read it and throw it away.
But sexual health awareness is not limited to the streets, nor is it limited to women.
Timothy Hebblewhite volunteers for SWEAT in male agencies, running health and HIV/AIDS
education, pre- and post-HIV test counseling.
One agency where Hebblewhite conducts many lectures is Knights, a massage agency
near Sea Point. There, HIV testing is advised and safe sex is policy.
When he hires a new employee, the owner, Ian ver Meulen, sits him down with a list
of rules. Top-most on the list is safety and responsibility.
"I trust them to use condoms because I warned them from the start not to have
a party but to look after themselves," ver Meulen explained. "We have to
trust each other because we can't trust anybody who walks through that door."
The education doesn't;0t stop there. Nearly every month the boys are presented with
a lecture, whether it is tips on how to sneak safe sex with a client who doesn't
agree to it, or a presentation about STDs from a doctor, to keep the information
fresh in their heads. Pamphlets about STDs and HIV/AIDS are left next to the massage
beds for the clients to browse through.
"We talk about it every day," ver Meulen said. "That's the only way,
you can't just sit back and relax."
Unlike many other businesses, this agency acknowledges the fact that HIV is in the
workplace. HIV testing is done regularly for all employees, and the results are released
"The problem isn't with the people who come in and say they are positive,"
he said, explaining why he never turns away HIV positive clients or employees, "Because
it can be done carefully and safely. The problem is when you don't know."
"You can't predict who has HIV and who doesn't" ver Meulen added, "So
rather be open-minded about it."
Shaun Gordon, a sex worker at Knights, acknowledges that testing is more feasible
in agencies as it is a structured environment. Awareness projects encourage group
awareness and responsibility, he said, and allow for discussion about diseases and
"Agencies are starting to be safe sex areas," Gordon said. "It's safer
to sleep with a sex worker than to pick up a boy in the bar."
Since he was 17, Gordon has worked in numerous escort agencies from Johannesburg
to Cape Town and has seen the rising level of awareness among his co-workers. Although
some boys feel they are immune from diseases because they are healthy, most boys
are more aware than their clients.
"Sex workers are more educated in STDs than the outside world because they are
more experienced and interested to learn," he said.
Copyright 1999 Moxie Magazine All Rights Reserved