Monday, May 21, 2007

Does anybody "want" to be a prostitute?

On a recent episode of Interface (SABC 3), three women debated whether prostitution should be legalized, decriminalized or abolished. A Doctors for Life rep concluded that, since "nobody wants to be a prostitute," the trade should be abolished in South Africa.

Is this true? In a literal sense, yes. Every prostitute I've interviewed has said that they do not "want" to be prostitutes. They too see sex work to be "degrading" and know it can entail major negative consequences: social stigma, disease, pregnancy, alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, etc.

But they still do it. Why?

In South Africa, they do it mostly for practical reasons: to make a living. Many are school drop-outs from abusive families, often bearing children from adolescent relationships. Many have kids and grandparents to take care of. They face real financial pressures. But given their backgrounds, their options are limited. They can work as check-out girls at supermarkets; hang up clothing at retail stores; work as domestics; do waitressing; dress hair; sit at home; etc. Or they can sell sex. Most women choose the former options, skimming a meagre living as casuals, but maintaining decent reputations in their communities. But they never earn the money that a prostitute can.

So, while prostitutes say that they don't "want" to be prostitutes, they feel that their other options are even worse. On any given night, a dockside pro can earn the same amount of money that a checker or sales clerk earns in a week. Though they do not get men every night, the mere possibility of such one-night bonanzas is enough to make the women think twice about slaving away six days/week in "straight" work.

Moreover, dockside prostitutes can work when they want to. There's no pimps or bosses to answer to. And they get to drink, smoke, dance, and sing as part of their solicitation duties—stuff they do when they party anyway. For many, it would be difficult to give up their relative freedom for the constrictions of shift work under a boss.

Thus, to ask again: do prostitutes "want" to be prostitutes? They say "no," but their actions say, "though we understand prostitution to be immoral, damaging, and dangerous, we prefer sex work over the other options currently available."

And few, if any, desire the abolition of the trade as it is the source of their livelihood. Though few would advocate prostitution—and almost all say that they do not "want" to be prostitutes—for now, they choose to sell sex because they feel it answers their practical needs better than their other options.

Based on this, we should not jump to the conclusion that, because prostitutes say that they do not want to be prostitutes, they support the abolition of sex work. Rather, we see that though prostitutes recognize the hazards of their work, they choose it because their alternatives seem even more undesirable. And until those alternatives look more attractive, some South African women will continue to sell sex.

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