One Former Prostitute in Cape Town, Two NGOs Battling Over How to Help Her

There's a worldwide debate going on around sex work. A 21-year old South African woman reminds us just how much is at stake.

The first time Asanda* had sex for money, there was little time to reflect on how she’d found herself in that situation. She was staying with a friend after being kicked out of her parents’ house, without a job or money. One evening, the friend said they were going to work in a restaurant. Unless she wanted to be on the street the next day, Asanda had little choice but to follow.

“I didn’t understand why she was polishing her face and putting on makeup to go work in a restaurant,” Asanda recalled.

Asanda was even more confused when they arrived at a pub and, instead of getting to work, the two of them began drinking alcohol. A while later, now drunk, they got into a car headed to a BP petrol station in Belleville, a Cape Town suburb. She noticed that girls were milling around the side of the road in short skirts, which she found odd. When they got out of the car, things became clear.

“I said to my friend, ‘What do you mean we are working here at the BP garage? They only hire men to work here,’” Asanda said. “My friend said ‘No, I’m selling myself here on the road.’”

At that moment, Asanda realized that she would be doing the same that night and she began to cry. She was 17 years old.

Asanda’s situation is the subject of frequent debate among feminists and gender rights activists. Did she simply make an economically rational decision in response to her bad circumstances? Or was she forced into a form of sexualized victimhood that seems all too common for women living under economic constraints? In other words, is prostitution a profession and Asanda a ‘sex worker’? Or is it a form of oppression, where Asanda is a ‘prostituted woman’?

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Saying that I stopped selling myself comes straight from my heart. I’m proud to say that. I feel like there’s still a future for me.[/quote]

This debate is further muddled by the fact that Asanda lives in South Africa, a country formerly and controversially referred to as the rape capital of the world. In certain provinces, more than three quarters of women report experiencing some form of sexual violence, including rape. With UN research showing a link between men who purchase sex and men who commit rape, South Africa is a prime example of a culture that’s unkind to both women and sex workers.

These semantics and statistics don’t concern Asanda much. She refers to the times she traded sex for money euphemistically as “going down to the road,” or more directly as “selling myself.” In any case, she is resolute in her decision to not do either anymore. Her story is less a depiction of what it means to be a prostitute today and more about how hard it is to avoid that life when there are few available alternatives.

“Saying that I stopped selling myself comes straight from my heart. I’m proud to say that,” Asanda said. “I feel like there’s still a future for me.”


Now 21, Asanda no longer sells sex. Tall and slim with an almost regal posture, she dresses like Rihanna and has aspirations of being a model. With her lithe build and ever-changing hairstyles, it’s not hard to imagine her strutting down a runway.

Responsible and well mannered, Asanda always apologized when her chaotic life caused her to miss a scheduled interview. For several months, she didn’t have a phone, thanks to a drug addict who sold her one that didn’t work properly. Buying a new cell phone with a SIM card for 300 rand would be the difference between registering for school and supporting her brother next month, or not.

Surrounding these interviews, which took place in the first half of 2014, there were myriad other complications: A substance-abusing father who frequently beat her mother; an education level that, in a country with a nearly 25 percent unemployment rate, excludes her from applying for a job even at KFC; a brother she still supports who was sent to the Eastern Cape to avoid the gangsterism rife in their township; and the fact that she has HIV, which she divulged simply by saying she was “positive.”

Despite all this, Asanda will tell you much of her struggle stems from her childhood. She more than once referred to being raped by her uncle as a young girl as “the thing that messed up my life.” When asked how many times this happened, she says five, with the certainty of someone who’s relived the experience too many times.

Like may rape victims, Asanda was threatened by her rapist, who warned that if she told her father, he would side with the family, not her. When she finally found the courage to tell her parents 10 years later, her father did just as her uncle predicted. They fought and she was kicked out.

Already out of school due to an argument with a teacher, Asanda was giving up hope. The night at the petrol station came soon after.


In total, Asanda spent a little over a year in the sex trade, stopping when she was 18. Though she says many of her male clients remarked that she “shouldn’t be a prostitute” because she was so young, none of them ever followed that by cutting short their rendezvous.

Asanda is frank when describing logistics of street prostitution in South Africa. Women approach men, unless a client doesn’t have money and wants to negotiate later payment. Though Asanda always used condoms, some women will have sex without, for twice the going rate.

A slow day meant earning 700 rand (about $62 U.S. dollars), but at the end of the month, when most clients had fresh paychecks, she could earn up to 2,000 rand in a day. With a going street rate of 100 rand per client, this meant having sex with 20 men in one day.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]The actual act of rape in the moment wasn’t difficult because I’ve been through it [before]. But what comes to my heart now when I think of it is this: Why does this have to happen to me so many times?[/quote]

“On those days [when I was seeing 20 clients] I was drunk—that was the only way to get through it,” Asanda said. “Yes, I would feel tired, and I [would] feel like something was happening in my body, but the alcohol meant I didn’t have to think about it.”

And then there’s the rape.

“Rape there on the road is a daily thing,” Asanda says matter-of-factly. “You get in their car, they will drive you into the bush, have sex with you, not pay you, and kick you out of the car. It happens all the time. Then you have to hitch a ride back.”

Though rape in South Africa is shockingly common and experienced disproportionately by non-white women, Asanda didn’t expect that after she gave up sex work, she would still be a victim of it.

Earlier this year, more than two years after she sold sex for the last time, Asanda was raped in a minibus taxi—an informal form of mass transit used almost exclusively by non-white residents—while heading to her township one evening. Two men, who she suspects were working together, drove her to the bush, stole her phone and money, and one of them raped her. When she talks about it, her voice drops; it’s clear the pain hasn’t receded in the way it has for the other incidences of rape she’s experienced.

“The actual act of rape in the moment wasn’t difficult because I’ve been through it [before],” Asanda told me. “But what comes to my heart now when I think of it is this: Why does this have to happen to me so many times?”


It would be hard to dispute that Asanda has experienced an egregious amount of gender-based violence for one human. What is up for discussion, however, is whether her time as a prostitute was symptomatic of a culture where inequality and gender-based violence are rampant, or simply of a job that needs improving. Does a culture that puts women up for sale also indicate to men that it’s ok to rape them? Or is the rape she experienced just proof that prostitution is a form of labor that needs to be regulated?

Asanda will tell you that she was looking for a way out of prostitution from the day she started, so she jumped at the chance when a friend told her about two separate places offering workshops and support: Embrace Dignity and SWEAT. Though they are both Cape Town-based NGOs addressing prostitution, the two have completely oppositional ideologies when it comes to dealing with prostitution, which function as a microcosm of the global debate at large. However, this seeming conflict didn’t matter to Asanda at the time; she didn’t care how, she just wanted out. Though she spent just a short amount of time at SWEAT before realizing Embrace Dignity was more likely to give her the future she desired, she initially viewed both places equally: an opportunity to gain skills, eat a free meal, and get a transport stipend (no small mater when you’re unemployed).

SWEAT stands for Sex Workers, Education, and Advocacy Taskforce. As in many countries, sex work is illegal in South Africa, but SWEAT’s primary goal is “to achieve a legal adult sex work industry,” and the organization works to improve the abuses that occur within the illicit industry. Executive director Sally Shackleton maintains that it’s not sex work itself that is inherently wrong, but the exploitation associated with it that needs to be addressed.

“We need to empower sex workers to make sure they have a voice, are able to organize, speak out about the abuses they do face, and expose the industry to scrutiny,” Shackleton said in an interview. “As long as we criminalize it, we’re disempowering sex workers, we’re ensuring that sex work exists within circumstances that are highly exploitative, and we’re rendering sex workers helpless in that process.”

Following a similar line of thinking, Holland and Germany passed laws legalizing prostitution in 2000 and 2001, respectively. At the time, these policies were seen as progressive and hailed as a step forward for the rights of women working in the sex industry. While in theory legalization is meant to give sex workers agency and, in the process, remove the need for the pimps and traffickers who often exploit them, statistics did not bear these goals out. A report by Germany’s Family Ministry five years after the new laws were enacted found that just 1 percent of women surveyed had signed a formal working contract as a prostitute. In addition, the report noted that the law had “not brought about any measurable actual improvement in the social coverage of prostitutes.” In The Netherlands, a similar police report noted that between 50 and 90 percent of sex workers in legal brothels arrived there via trafficking, a sure sign of exploitation.

As these large liberal democracies grapple with the effects of legalization a decade on, a global shift is happening around prostitution and progressive gender politics. High profile social commentators like TheNew York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof argue loudly for a new model rooted in human rights, known technically as “partial decriminalization.” In practice, this means attacking the demand for sex by punishing those johns who purchase prostitutes’ services, but not punishing the sex workers themselves. More fundamentally, this approach says that you can’t address the issue of prostitution without addressing the fact that women like Asanda are already victims of a system that has failed them, whether indirectly by offering them no better choices or directly through being trafficked into prostitution itself.

Partial decriminalization is also called the “Nordic Model” or “Swedish Model,” in reference to the two countries that first implemented it. Currently, three of the four countries with the highest level of gender equality worldwide—Sweden, Iceland, Norway—have implemented versions of the framework. In February, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution in favor of criminalizing the purchase of sex, but not the sale of it. A version of the framework has either been passed or is under review in France, the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, Finland, and Canada.

Embrace Dignity, the organization that has provided support to Asanda for nearly three years now, also advocates for a version of the Nordic Model to be implemented in South Africa, where prostitution remains criminalized. Co-founder Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge argues that a woman like Asanda can’t be called a sex “worker,” because prostitution isn’t a form of work but rather, victimhood. Asanda could only have “chosen” prostitution, Madlala-Routledge says, if she had other choices available to her.

“Inequality undermines women’s choices and prostitution perpetuates the inequality,” Madlala-Routledge said. “This is the reason there is a preponderance of poor women in prostitution and not many men. Even among well-to-do women, the idea of their bodies as commodities is the reason for the false choice.”

Shackleton of SWEAT rejects the argument of “false choice” when it comes to prostitution, as she says that it fundamentally undermines sex workers’ agency.

“People make the assumption that because sex workers often make a choice to engage in sex work because they have limited options from which to choose, this negates their decision,” Shackleton said. “If that were true, then we would negate the decisions of all poor women and we would consider all poor women unable to make decisions for themselves. It’s a very disempowering statement to make.”

Reliable numbers of what proportion of sex workers choose the work versus those that are forced into it are hard to come by. And of course, Asanda’s personal determination to leave sex work can’t be considered reflective of all women in her position. However in Germany, 12 years after legalization, Der Spiegel reported a police estimate that 50 to 90 percent of prostitutes still do not practice the profession voluntarily.

What is clear, however, is that sex work is disproportionately a profession done by women. Conservative estimates say 80 percent of prostitutes worldwide are female, with many male prostitutes only servicing male clients. It’s also widely agreed that prostitution is associated with various occupational hazards, most of them severe, that are experienced in higher numbers than other professions.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence estimates that 80 percent of prostitutes experience rape on the job, on average eight to 10 times per year. A study that examined prostitutes in five countries, including South Africa, found that 68 percent of respondents met criteria consistent with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Researchers point to a litany of other long-term consequences including reproductive problems, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV, tuberculosis, addiction, relationship issues, shame and guilt, social exclusion, and depression.

The consequences of prostitution are similar to those that all marginalized women face, according to Madlala-Routledge, which have their root in patriarchal society.

“The culture of male domination undermines the worth of women’s bodies by treating women as objects of pleasure for men and their bodies as commodities,” Madlala-Routledge said. “This pervasive sense of entitlement is at the core of the pervasive sexual violence and gender-based abuse, which disproportionately affects women and girls.”

While upending patriarchy is an ambitious goal, proponents of the Nordic Model argue that attacking demand is the only practical way to address the sex trade and its link to global gender inequality. In their respective European countries, both legalization and the Nordic Model have been in effect for a little more than a decade. Though it’s hard to quantify whether lack of sex for sale in one country means the buying of sex spikes in another, both Sweden and Norway have seen a reduction in the number of sex workers and a change in attitude about prostitution itself. In Sweden, 70 percent of citizens support the law.

In spite of the decade of experimenting in Europe, Shackleton of SWEAT remains unconvinced.

“The criminalizing of clients—while it might ideologically make sense—what it often does is nothing to assist sex workers and in fact reduces the ability of sex workers to negotiate with their clients,” Shackleton maintains. She believes that fully legalized prostitution would offer sex workers the most protective, enforceable terms under which to conduct their business.


In a short time, Asanda has come a long way, but she seemingly has just as far to go. At Embrace Dignity’s graduation ceremony in March, where she served as the emcee, it was obvious that she relished the opportunity to use a microphone and stand on stage. She was awarded a framed certificate that she gave to her mother, who was then very proud to show it off to her employer.

One of Asanda’s teachers at Embrace Dignity said that in the past six months, even in spite of the rape, she’s seen Asanda change into a person that “looks like she knows herself and maybe even has a secret about herself.”

It’s perhaps this inward sense of agency that led Asanda to turn down a marriage proposal from a man she’s dating. She revealed that it was this boyfriend, and not one of her clients, from whom she contracted HIV in the second half of 2013. But that’s not the reason she doesn’t want to marry him. She thinks getting married now would derail her plans for education and independence. Other than being a model, her dream is to move to Johannesburg or the Eastern Cape and be a personal assistant.

Though she attends a clinic regularly and her health is stable, it’s easy to see that the odds of Asanda reaching this goal are stacked against her. She doesn’t want to ever return to sex work, but she admits that the set of external circumstances under which she initially went “down to the road” are not that far off.

With her parents unable to support her, Asanda now considers herself the main breadwinner for her family. She needs to find a way to come up with school fees for herself (about 600 rand per month) and funds to send to her brother (300 rand per month). Recently, she had been left with no choice but to visit a loan shark in her township Gugulethu to get 100 rand for transport money. But with help from Embrace Dignity, she plans to apply for a bursary from a youth development agency in Cape Town.

Asanda concedes that that many of her financial problems would be solved if she agreed to get married. But it’s clear that in her time at Embrace Dignity, she’s gained something that could prove more powerful than money itself: self determination.

“Most ladies, if this guy wanted to marry them, they would be happy because then they would be the wife of someone,” Asanda said. “But I don’t think I would be comfortable marrying him. He don’t understand that I’m working, I want to study, I want to help my brother finish school. He is controlling and don’t understand that.”

Once she has a proper job, Asanda said, she’s open to getting married and having children. When I asked her how she felt about the tribal Xhosa tradition of “Lobola”—where elders in the community negotiate a bride price, which can be as much as 50,000 rand—Asanda says she is ok with it, but under one condition: She wants to have money of her own to contribute towards it.

It’s clear that after what she’s been through, Asanda refuses to be bought.

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