Sex work is often cited as the oldest trade among humans. Many people love sex as an act, some keep it on the down-low, while others want to love it but cannot resign themselves to the shame and guilt engraved in their minds around it. Then there are those who want sex but have a hard time getting it the conventional way.

The latter resort to paying for sex – yet somehow the burden of scorn falls on the people who provide those sexual services. A misinformed public then perpetuates the notion that sex work is a disgraceful avenue towards quick cash. However, the lines blur when we learn that the trade is not limited to young women or men but extends to include older women and senior citizens as well. Simply put, older women who trade in sex are a reality the world over.

Humanising sex work

Despite all the work being done to raise awareness in society about sex workers as people worthy of respect, they are often still treated as lepers. They have to deal with daily persecution or a life of secrecy to avoid society’s judgement. Opinions range from people proclaiming that nothing, not even the most extreme levels of poverty, justifies sex work, to outright condemnation of those who do trade in sex with no room left for analysis or argument.

Read: Recriminalizing sex work in South Africa

However, when you consider that transactional sex is, in fact, not limited to young people but includes women of all ages, room for wider engagement is created. A video posted by Citizen TV, Kenya, shed light on some of the dire circumstances that leave people no choice but to engage in sex work. Somehow, based on the comments shared on that video, the general public seemed more empathetic towards older women trading in sex than their younger counterparts. Perhaps the empathy is driven by individuals’ own affection towards their older female relatives, or a general kindness that people tend to adopt for the elderly.

Prostitutes are a common sight in the Johannesburg CBD. Photo by Tseliso Monaheng.

For example, old legislation that prohibited women from owning land unless they had a male custodian left many women desperate for means to get by on. Thankfully, the reform of such laws is being enforced through new policies and practices. In other cases, traditional practices across the continent tend to favour men, reinforcing women’s vulnerability and lack of security. Couple this with a lack of support from family plus a lack of education and you have the perfect recipe for older women taking up extreme measures to survive.

The High Cost of Human Sexuality

The situation extends beyond Africa’s borders, with elderly women in economies such as South Korea also involved in the trade. Given that their bodies are no longer in their prime, and the fact that they operate in already impoverished communities, these older women literally work for food in some cases. Older women in Zimbabwe work for as little as US$0,30, because a poor economy dictates it.

On the other side of the spectrum you find older women who trade in sex because they love having sex and are business savvy. These women are empowered in their sexuality and take pride in their abilities to seduce and give pleasure. They position themselves to not be modest about their asking prices for services rendered because they know they are a novelty. These women capitalise on fetishes that some young men have about older women, exploiting the insecurities that some of these men harbour when it comes to approaching women their own age. In rural areas, they target men who have an appetite for sex but a limited means of acquiring it due to being so remote and isolated.

While some people are willing to give the benefit of doubt to sex work prompted by poverty, most of society is in no way prepared to do the same for sex work prompted by enjoyment. We are raised to treat sex as a sacred, private and personal thing, so the idea of it being treated as a commodity that can be traded is heresy.

Though the transaction involves two parties, in the case of heterosexuals – a man and a woman – the shame associated with it is carried almost exclusively by the woman.

It is particularly intriguing that even though the transaction involves two parties, in the case of heterosexuals – a man and a woman – the shame associated with it is carried almost exclusively by women. In fact, it is so easy to associate sex work with women that labelling a woman a prostitute during an altercation is one of the most frequently used jabs the world over.

Grey Areas

Any sexual activity comes with the risk of contracting disease. Yes, one can contract an STI in a monogamous relationship, but the risk is certainly magnified when more than one partner is involved. Many sex workers face physical threat and abuse from clients. Even when people write about sex work as a social issue, the language is often self-righteous and biased.

Even when people write about sex work as a social issue, the language is often self-righteous and biased.

It is hard enough for young girls and women to come out of the shadows to share their stories. The mere effort by some of these older women to ‘come out’ in videos and interviews is a signal that they want their side of the story to be heard. They want help, if it is available. And in the case of those who do it because they want to, they want to be left alone.

We live in a free-market (read ‘capitalist’) world. Based on this and this alone, the exchange of sexual services for money is legitimised. Nevertheless we keep dealing with sex work as a symptom of a lack of morality, showing only selective compassion and understanding for those who are victimised. Most of us love our grandmothers dearly and cannot fathom them being driven to what would strikes us as ‘a desperate last resort’ to survive. That said, it should not take ‘grannies’ being involved in the trade for us to start feeling some empathy for those who work it.