Why sex workers don’t trust cops

Research suggests sexual assault by police is rife

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Photo of woman
Lerato (name changed) tells her story of sexual assault. She is gradually becoming more open about being a sex worker and agreed for us to use her photo.

After sex worker Lerato (not her real name) was allegedly raped by a police officer in a morgue, she says she lost all her confidence in the police. The assault was just one of many forms of abuse that 55-year-old Lerato, who has worked as a sex worker for sixteen years, said she has experienced at the hands of those who are meant to “protect and serve”.

Lerato, a mother of five, entered into sex work fulltime in 2000 after moving from Johannesburg to Cape Town with three of her children. It was difficult supporting her family on the R40 a day that she took home as a domestic worker after paying for transport, so Lerato turned to full-time sex work. She did not tell her family about her decision and they still do not know that she is a sex worker.

Lerato said that while the money was fast and easy, she also had to contend with random police arrests – that sometimes resulted in being locked up for three days at a time.

When this happened Lerato said that her kindly neighbour would look after her two youngest children who had endeared themselves to the neighbour with their love of his cooking.

Other forms of arbitrary harassment that she has experienced include allegedly being picked up by police officers in Bellville and dropped in Malmesbury – some 60 km away. From there she would have to hitchhike back to Bellville, which Lerato said usually meant that she had to exchange sex for the trip home. 

Exchanging sex for release from police custody is also something that the police request from sex workers, Lerato said.

“We do that – we give them (sex), then they let you go and you mustn’t tell anyone.”

The alleged rape in the morgue occurred in 2001 when she was working in Bellville on Voortrekker Road.

A police van with two officers pulled up alongside Lerato and the officers asked what she was doing. She said she was looking for her daughter – a lie that she told to hide the truth that she was working as a sex worker. They then asked when she was going home, which was when Lerato saw an opportunity for a safe ride home and the chance to continue hiding what she was really doing on the street. They agreed to lift her and Lerato got into the car.

“I was so happy, you know police are government people,” explained Lerato.

After one of the police officers was dropped off in Bellville, Lerato expected the remaining officer to drive her home, but instead he drove to Tygerberg morgue, telling her that he was going there to check up on a colleague.

At the morgue, the officer, who wasn’t wearing a nametag, offered Lerato a beer, which she refused. Once inside, he placed his gun on a table and opened one of the shelves where the dead bodies were kept.

Lerato said that he told her that the people were just “sleeping” and that she mustn’t worry.

She explained that he opened about five drawers, showing Lerato the faces of dead people, all the while drinking a beer and attempting to kiss and hug her.

“I was scared but he said, ‘Don’t be scared’. He kissed me on my neck and hugged me. I didn’t want to panic, to shove him or shout at him,” said Lerato.

“Why is he taking the gun out? Is he going to shoot me and put me in a drawer?” were some of the thoughts that went through her head.

When Lerato was on the verge of tears he told her that they were going to be lovers and that she mustn’t be scared.

Lerato explained what she thought when the officer took out a condom: “I’m scared. We are at a mortuary, there is a gun and dead people… This guy must do everything and finish. I was already dead at that time.”

She said the rape lasted for about a painful hour and a half and that he did “everything that he wanted” to her.

When he was finished he drove Lerato home and asked her whether she had enjoyed it and if she wanted to do it again.

Finally able to cry, Lerato broke down when she got home. The next morning she went to Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and to Groote Schuur hospital.

“I was clean luckily,” said Lerato, “But there were cuts.”

No one ever caught

She opened a case against the officer and was certain that she would have been able to identify him but she wasn’t able to provide his name nor the vehicle’s registration number. The officer has never been caught.

Before the assault she said that she thought that police officers were all good and trustworthy. Now, Lerato says she hates policemen and can’t forget the frightening assault. “I don’t trust anyone anymore.”

Lerato explained how policemen have an enormous amount of power over sex workers, who are afraid to report the crimes that policemen perpetrate against them.

Ramaphosa points out policy contradiction

Research confirms the scale of the problem. A 2008 study in Cape Town showed that nearly half of street-based sex workers surveyed “have been threatened with violence by police”. 12% have been raped by police, and 28% have been asked for sex in exchange for release from custody.

In another study on sex work and the 2010 Soccer World Cup, one of the respondents told the researchers: “I remember when they [the police] arrested me in my hotel for loitering and they found me while I was sleeping and they raped me first before they arrested me”. Another respondent said: “The police harassment is too much. Every day they disturb us asking many questions and use spray guns to spray us while we are walking”.

Police confiscating condoms as “evidence” is also a widely reported phenomenon with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa pointing to it in his address at the launch of the South African National Sex Worker HIV Plan this year.

“It is a matter of concern that while the Department of Health supplies sex workers with condoms to protect them from HIV, pregnancy and STIs, it is not uncommon for the police to confiscate these condoms. We have one organ of the state providing a very necessary service and another organ of the state taking that very service away. This is not necessarily the fault of the police. This is the consequence of our inability to develop a coherent approach to the challenges facing sex workers,” said Ramaphosa.

Difficult for sex workers to report crime

Nosipho Vidima, SWEAT’s Human Rights Lobbying Officer, said that when sex workers try to open a case of police violence they are often further stigmatised, ridiculed and turned away.

She said that the sensitisation programmes that SWEAT has rolled out at various police stations have been only partially successful. She pointed out that the National Prosecuting Authority has had no sensitisation training, “so they do not know how to handle sex worker cases.”

Vidima said that it is just as difficult for a sex worker to report a crime committed by a client as it is to report a crime committed by a police officer.

“Police officers do not understand, like I think any other person in our community [doesn’t understand], that a sex worker can be raped. So police most often tell sex workers – ‘But you put yourself there’. And how did that person rape you, you said you were selling sex in the first place. But they don’t understand that within the service that a sex worker actually renders there is supposed to be consensual agreement on the service.”

The South African Police Service’s head of media communication Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo responded to our query asking for more information on particular cases of alleged police violence in order to comment. Naidoo added that, “Our police officers are aware that they must adhere to our Code of Conduct as well as the Constitution of our country. Any member failing to abide by these as well as our regulations will be likely to face criminal or departmental charges or both.”

Lerato appears in this video by the Asijiki Coalition for the Decriminalisation of Sex Work. Views expressed in it are not necessarily ​GroundUp’s.

TOPICS:  Human Rights Policing Sex work

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