This blog is not about what you do know about sex workers. Rather it is what you may not know about sex workers. It is about their interpersonal lives. 
Here is  what we do know about South African sex workers (courtesy of Sonke Gender Justice/Zia Wasserman ) 
*  In  South Africa sex work is illegal.
*  The simple  version of the legal definition is  :” the selling of sexual intercourse or indecent acts for reward”.This criminalising and stigmatising language sets  sex workers up to be marginalised.
* Marginalisation makes them  more vulnerable to assault by clients, pimps and brothel keepers.
*  There are between 130 000 and 180 000 sex workers in South Africa
*  90% of sex workers in South Africa are female; and  10% are male or transgender
*  One research study showed that on average some sex workers earn

six times more than a domestic worker does in South Africa.

  • On average, female sex workers support four children or adult dependents
  • The high levels of violence is  perpetuated by clients, police and even the public.
  • In 1998 a study showed that between half and two-thirds (46–69%) of female sex workers tested positive for HIV.
  •  There is a high association with stress, self esteem difficulties, depression and suicidality

Let’s consider the interpersonal  intimate life of a sex worker, respecting that each person has a unique experience. I focus on themes identified in the literature as common to many people, women specifically, in the sex industry. The two mani themes are coping with stigma and issues with communication .

Stigma serves as a major barrier for sex workers in romantic relationships.  Because of this  stigma, the sex worker is at a higher risk of violence. And communication is deadly  challenging : to tell or not to tell a partner is an ongoing conundrum for a sex worker.  Holding the secret, carrying this guilt,  is harmful to a sex workers  health. Telling has negative  relationship repercussions.  Yet disclosure brings intimacy, commitment , support and can facilitate trust . Who does not long for intimacy in interpersonal relationships?  What to do ?

Sex workers enter the the sex industry by choice, circumstance and coercion . Please do not consider your local sex worker, online or In Real Life,  as a victim or a criminal. She is a woman/man/transgender person . I invite you to  get a  little personal with her/him/they. Ask her why she does sex work. This person will tell you that they enjoy the work, especially the financial independence , confidence boosting , a sense of power over their own sexuality , enjoyment of the sex and the clear boundaries that are set between client and sex worker.

They will also tell you that they   “check out ” or disassociate during sex acts with strangers .  That the secrecy and stigma make them self medicate with drugs and alcohol.  Leading a double life takes its toll .  Fearing rejection by family brings huge anxiety. This is exacerbated if you are  a LGBTIQ sex worker.

Literature shows that in sex workers  own interpersonal romantic relationships and friendships,  they disconnect. It appears from  research that disassociation is a commonly used coping mechanism for stigma management.  Stigma management is something all sex workers become pretty adept at doing. After all telling  a new potential partner about your profession brings up difficult conversations about monogamy , emotional and sexual fidelity.

And once you disclose, you have to deal with the jealousy of a partner. . Sex work violates expectations of fidelity in traditional heterosexual relationships.

Another interpersonal challenge facing a sex worker: he/she/they  may wonder if you are dating her/him/they personally, or have fetishised her/him/they. Perhaps the man presents as a saviour, wanting to rescue you from the job, leaving you feeling infantilised.  Hiding certain aspects of your life become another adaptive way fo dealing with the stigma.

It is emotionally exhausting as you face a higher risk of gender based violence. Partners may use your profession as a justification for violence against you. In other words the stigma of sex work places you at higher risk of violence by a boyfriend. He may threaten to leave unless you give up your sex work. It is a real threat to his masculinity, knowing other men are looking , touching , fantasising about “his” girl.

. In a study on exotic dancers’ romantic relationships with men , the majority of participants settled for partners who were financially, emotionally , and /or physically abusive, or they chose to remain single after dissatisfying dating experiences. Or were at the mercy of men who fantasied and objectified  the exotic dancer as his trophy outside the club. She felt a special connection , he brags about how he got to have sex with a stripper/exotic dancer.

Let’s consider sex workers who are mothers. The risks get a little higher. As has been shown in research, many women  get into sex work to support their children . And if found out that you are a sex worker, a criminal, your children can be taken away from you. The stigma of removal dictates a disruption to the lives of these children, way worse than having a sex worker as a mother. Or if found out, your children can be disinvited from birthday parties, socially isolated as the sexual shame is thrust upon them.

Are you whorephobic?  As a customer of sex workers, do you dehumanise sex workers? Do you refuse to respect the boundaries of sex workers The division between their professional and private spaces?

Or are you in a relationship with a sex worker and struggling to manage  your own internalised whorephobic  stigma ?

And if you are a sex worker do you suffer from internalised whorephobia? Do you  allow men to violate and abuse you as you feel powerless in intimate relationships because you feel you do not have the same right to protection and privacy as other women ? Do you feel you have to be especially sexual with the men you love for free – even if it means overstepping your own boundaries ? Perhaps you feel your work embarrasses him so he deserves to have an amazing sex life. Perhaps you allow your partner to be sexual and romantic with other people for free as you do it for a living ? Or feel you cannot request monogamy or closed polyamorous relationship. Are you clingy and desperate as you believe another person will not love you?

Whorephobia unbalances the power balance in relationships.

My wish is that when next you buy the services of a sex worker, be it on the street, in  a strip club, a Gentleman’s Club, BDSM dungeon or  from a webcam person online, you remember that she/he/they are human and deserving of your respect. Sex Workers are no different from you. They too  crave connection , sexual pleasure, and privacy.  And have a right to receive this from whom they want, either in their own public or private spaces.

for more information on sex work, contact me .