What African sex workers want
There are basically three things sex workers desire, and hope for
Rather than looking at the ethical, religious or personal stances on sex work, it is important to first acknowledge that sex work has borne the brunt of a highly stigmatizing society, and one whose sexual conservativeness has often clouded, and looked in aghast as those who freely, consensually, and of course, engage in sex work for money, pleasure or other mutual benefits.
A basic activist definition of sex work is ‘sex work is the exchange of sex, or other sexual services, in exchange for money, gifts, or other sexual services.’ I will not delve into the historical lineage of sex work in Africa, or even map the many ways society and others, has tried to regulate, punish, rehabilitate, and even kill off the sex work profession.
I identify as a sex worker rights activist, and I represent a regional network called the African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA) that amplifies the voices of, and advocates for the human rights of the diverse community of sex workers living and working in Africa.
To this end, African sex workers have tasked ASWA with the task of creating awareness, while advocating for the recognition of sex work, while also protecting their human rights, and right to freedom from discrimination based on their sexual choices, and work.
At the heart of this African sex work movement are three fundamental ideals that we strive to ‘preach,’ and promote as critical in our work of representing this diverse community of sex workers, who include male, female, and transgender sex workers. We also include sex workers living with HIV, those who are differently abled, those who use and inject drugs, and those who are refugees, or migrants. Any sex worker living and working in Africa is represented in ASWA.
Acceptance of sex work as work is one of our fundamental values that we promote, and seek to have recognized. This value presupposes the recognition of sex work as a legitimate form of earning money, and other benefits accrued from it. As a form of work, or labor, sex workers are therefore entitled to equal and fairly compensated pay for their work, as well as freedom to make meaningful financial decisions with their work, as well as entitlement to benefits such as medical care insurance, banking facilities, and other economic emoluments.
Another key value is our opposition to all forms of criminalisation and other legal oppression of sex work, including sex workers, clients, third parties*, families, partners and friends. The term ‘third parties’ includes managers, brothel keepers, receptionists, maids, drivers, landlords, hotels that rent rooms to sex workers and anyone else who is seen as facilitating sex work. There is a crucial distinction between these two terms that is frequently blurred in the debate on sex work. Here, I draw your attention to the difference between legalisation and decriminalization of sex work. Under legalisation, sex work is controlled by the Government or other State authorities, and is legal only under certain state-specified conditions e.g. mandatory registration, or HIV and STIs testing, and even taxation. However, decriminalization essentially involves the removal of all laws against any form of sex work or those that touch on sex work. Thus, we must remove punitive offences such as vagrancy, loitering with the intent to commit a crime, solicitation, which are often used to arrest, prosecute, and further harass sex workers.
Save us from our Saviours!
Sex work is diverse. Sex workers are diverse. Thus, our third key take-away is the self-organisation and self-determination of sex workers. Here, I take issue with the many ‘saviours’ that have tried to rehabilitate, or offer alternative means of income to sex worker with no tangible results. Often, these ‘saviours’ ignore the fact that sex works do not need cash hand outs or sawing machines, or even the rite of Baptism, but rather safer working conditions, protection from violence and arrest, as well as the freedom from stigma, and equal pay for their services, and work.