The Nocturnal Dockside Scene
In downtown Cape Town & Durban there exist nightclubs devoted solely to the pleasure of seamen.
They cater to seafarers by ensuring their safety, by enticing "working girls" to solicit from the club (to "entertain" the seamen, as the owners like to say), and by barring local men who might try to interfere with the sailors' good times. From the outside, these clubs look like seedy dives. (It's the same inside.) But the nautical paraphernalia strewn about the entrance lets you know that this joint is for mariners. Somehow, the "straight" crowds that dominate Long Street in Cape Town and Florida Road in Durban know that these clubs are not for them. They stay away from this shadowland.
The club scene for seafarers dates to the 1970s when the containerization of cargo and the apartheid government's Group Areas Act destroyed the dockside communities that had serviced the passing seamen for generations. At The Point in Durban and the District One docklands (Waterkant area) and District Six in Cape Town, numerous "suikerhuisies" (Afrikaans sugar houses, ie. brothels) offered carnal delights to the transient waifs.
Once the brothels passed out, Greek entrepreneurs established clubs in the downtown areas. They struck a bargain with the local sex workers: as long as they encouraged the men to buy alcohol at the clubs for a few hours, they were free to solicit them for post-club sexual contracts.
It's a pretty fair deal. And it's been relatively stable for 30-odd years. The club owner provides a festive atmosphere for the sailors by having sexually available women around; this encourages them to party and buy drinks at the clubs. The owner is therefore able to secure his livelihood from these alcohol sales. The presence of women are central to that process. As one club manager said, "A club without chicks is dead."
So the owners have to do right by the ladies. The main thing they do is give them the right to solicit in relative safety and anonymity. Many women find this an attractive alternative to the exposure of streetwalking and the boredom of brothel work. They are also able to elude legal prosecution because solicitation techniques are indistinguishable from activities at "straight" clubs (dancing, touching, drinking, talking, singing). Thus, very few women have had any problems with the police in the last few years. (During apartheid it was another matter; but more on that later.)
But let there be no doubt: all of the women's efforts at the clubs are part of a highly competitive and complex solicitation strategy. They do not come to the clubs to "party," though it is a handy explanation if the cops confront them. They come to work. What looks like fun-n-games to outsiders is really just an attempt to make a living. No more, no less.
There are three major points you need to understand about dockside prostitution:
- solicitation techniques are socially complex
- sugar girls' success rests on skills that are quite different from those needed in other sex sectors
- the needs and constraints of of foreign, transient seamen determines the logic and structure of this prostitution niche