“The police & I”: a sex worker’s story

Jonathan Dockney

6 August 2013

Richard is a 38-year-old, gay male sex worker. He was born in East London and has been based in Cape Town since 1999. He has been in “the business” (the sex work industry) for over 20 years.

He started sex work at age 15. He did housecleaning for a woman after school, for which she would give him food or money. He said that when some of the woman’s friends would visit. They would get drunk and force Richard to have sex with them. They would also pay him.

Richard says he “did not have a choice”. The circumstances of his childhood were difficult and forced him to support his family from an early age. His father was an alcoholic who died in 1998 and as a result, he had to help his mother support his siblings. His mother sought work in Johannesburg and would often leave them for long periods, forcing Richard to take care of the house and family. He dropped out of school at 16 and decided to “go to the streets” to survive.

By the time he moved to Cape Town, his mother had stopped providing for Richard and his younger twin brothers. He got back into sex work, as he could not find other work.

In 2001, he began working with the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT). Here he learned about the industry, and relied on other sex workers he met for advice and support. He says that he does not have a problem with being a sex worker as long as he is able to survive and support his brothers.

A study by SWEAT published in April estimates that there are about 130 to 180 thousand sex workers in South Africa and that 90% of them are female.

According to reports by the Women’s Legal Centre (WLC), SWEAT and Sisonke, sex workers are routinely mistreated and discriminated against by the police. The Sexual Offences Act of 1957 and Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2007 criminalise sex work in South Africa, and municipal by-laws are also used to police sex work. Criminalisation makes sex workers vulnerable to exploitation, harassment and violence.

Richard says he was picked up in Cape Town one evening by a group of police officers. The police put him in the back of their police van and took him to an isolated area nearby, where, he alleges, they forced him to have sex with them and then beat him up.

After the incident, he went to Killarney Medical Centre for medical assistance. The doctors encouraged him to open a case. However, at that time, he says, he was “terrified”. His family did not know that he was a sex worker or that he was gay. He therefore decided not to open a case.

At least 70% of the sex workers who approach the WLC file complaints against the police. According to Stacey-Leigh Manoek, a WLC attorney, these complaints include physical and sexual assault, unlawful arrest and detention, and being denied their basic rights while in prison, such as access to phone calls, food and water.

SWEAT runs campaigns on police brutality and sex worker rights. In 2012, the Deputy Minister of Police, Ms Makhotso Magdeline Sotyu visited the SWEAT offices to find out first-hand about police brutality against sex workers.

Lieutenant Colonel Andrè Traut handles communications for SAPS in the Western Cape. He acknowledged, by email, that there have been allegations of police harassment against sex workers. However, he says, police are “sensitised on the issue and are adequately trained to deal with situations of this kind.” He encourages people to report harassment to police management. He also says, “Be advised that prostitution remains an offence and despite allegations against our members, we will not be deterred from addressing this offence.”

Despite these challenges, Richard says that he is happy and has found a home in SWEAT. He hopes one day that he will have a job that can better support him. Sex work is stressful, says Richard, as some clients do not pay well and sometimes he feels that his life and safety are at risk. According to a WLC report, the murder rate for sex workers is six times higher than the general population.

He says that he has fallen in love once before with another man, when he was about 17 years old. He had to keep it a secret from his family. Today, he is out to his family. However, he says that he is victimised by some family members and at his local church. Most of all, he says, that he would like people to see him as a “nice person” and to stop judging him for being a sex worker and gay.