This question was posed on a twitter chat held during International Sex Worker Month (International Sex Worker Rights Day being March 3). The social media conversation had people from all over Africa giving their views on sex work and of course some real gems were released, with many citing religion, tradition and the need to uphold family values as reasons for disallowing the legalisation of sex work. One twitter user went as far as saying that if prostitution was legalised everyone would revert to it and there would be “no more marriages and babies”. According to this man everyone wants to be a sex worker and everyone wants to be with a sex worker, it is just the pesky legal system holding us all back.

But amid the storm of statements one did stand out that had people questioning the automatic stigma attached to sex work: What makes sex work different from a woman or man who insists on material gain from someone who is sexually interested in them to monopolise their time? What is the difference between a woman/man who has a man/woman pay his or her bills or buy him or her gifts in return for an unspoken promise of sex and someone who just asks for the cash up-front? One could argue that the second group merely show more shrewd business sense, one being more of a long-term investment plan while the other is a quick turnaround profit.

The idea took me back to the days when clubbing was something I actually did and would often expect anyone trying to “court” me to buy me a drink. In hindsight I am not proud of it but at the time it was what it was, that was just the social contract put in place. To talk to the nice lady by the bar, buy her a drink. I also recalled a time when I would use the phrase “gosh slick you could at least take me out to dinner first” when someone said anything even remotely sexual. Granted that phrase was said in jest but at the end of the day it had a great deal of social connotation to it (I learnt it from the 90s movie Baby Geniuses, so go figure).

Photo: Paul Botes, M&G
Photo: Paul Botes, M&G

The fact is people accept things all the time due to the fact that the other person offers it in the hope that they will see them in nude at some point. This is just a fact of life. And tacit or explicit acceptance of whatever it is they are offering does mean that you have exchanged goods for sex. It truly is as simple as that. Of course there are other dimensions such as love, a long, lasting relationship and other such virtuous ideas sometimes attached to this but at the end of the day that is what has happened and is not that far outside the realms of what happens “out there”.

This should cause one to question the stigma attached to sex work.

prostitutes

There are various arguments made against sex work that include the vulnerability of sex workers, the exploitative nature as well as the fact that they add to the moral decay of society and I for one agreed with many if not all of them. But this month pushed me out of my comfort zone and into the realm of interacting with sex workers and I have learned a few things.

The first is that there is an empowered element to sex work — often they set the boundaries for their interactions and can negotiate their own terms. Some sex workers actually enjoy their work. This all needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis. Not all sex workers want to be saved, not all despise their job and existence.

Sex work is also one of the world’s oldest professions, and chances are you will know someone (if not multiple people) in your life who have been with a sex worker. Prostitution has been around for thousands of years and the world is still spinning, people still have families and the sun still rises. And the honest truth is whoever uses a sex worker is going to find miscellaneous sex anyway even if all sex workers disappeared.

So at the risk of inciting mass pitchfork gatherings and torches I challenge you to think about your situation and ask yourself, have you used sex to get something you want from your spouse, lover or some other person you have an amorous relationship with? Have you in some way demanded compensation for your time by using your sexuality, gotten a drink or possibly a gift of some sort or even a meal? Did you obtain this because of your shining personality? It might be time to have a look at these instances and check the prejudices you have.

Transactional sex is far more widespread than we would as a society care to admit.