Saturday, March 8, 2008

Madams, Mama-sans or Matriarchs?

On my first visit to one of the Cape Town dockside nightclubs, I saw a woman in her fifties dancing with a group of younger girls. She was dressed in a mini-skirt and already drunk. When I asked a barmaid who she was, she said, "She's the pimp of those girls."

I later found out that her status was much more complicated. And the relationship she had with her girls much more complex. But it highlighted the interesting role that women have long played as authority figures in prostitution.

Westerners typically think of female vice profiteers as "madams." We tend to imagine them as brothel owners who manage a group of prostitutes in their houses. Asians refer to such women as "mama-sans." But they're also associated with running nightclubs as well.

In South Africa's dockside sex trade, however, these older ladies don’t control the younger women, like pimps do. They don’t run brothels, like madams do. And they don’t dictate the women’s actions at the clubs, like the mama-sans often do. Their role is something else altogether. I call them "matriarchs."

There are currently only a handful of matriarchs at the dockside nightclubs in Cape Town. All of them are ex- or semi-retired prostitutes who have chosen to stay in the game by providing a lodging to the younger women. They rent out rooms to ladies for around R800 (US$110) per month, then charge them R100 ($15) for every time they bring a guy home for business. In return, they feed them, help care for their kids and see to their sundry needs. Together they form a loose domestic unit.

Many younger ladies appreciate this because, even if they don’t live at home with their parents, they still desire maternal attention. They need structure because they’re not responsible enough to see to themselves or their kids (often due to drug use). So for reasonable rates, they can get maternal supervision from these matriarchs.

The girls don’t always like the conditions placed on them, but they’re always free to leave if they’re unhappy. The girls often do just that. If they're dissatisfied, they move back home, move to another matriarch's house, move in with some other girls, or move onto the streets. (The majority of sugar girls do not live with matriarchs, but almost all of them do at some time in their careers.)

Matriarchs have been Cape Town figures for a long time. Historians report that some freed slaves in the 1700s (who may have bought their freedom with the proceeds from freelance sex work) rented out rooms to local girls who entertained sailors. Today, matriarchs continue to sell lodging services to independent prostitutes. All they ask in return is that the girls pay their rent on time, that they do their business at the house (so the matriarch can get her cut of the action) and that they contribute to the welfare of the home through various chores. It's a mutually beneficial relationship.

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Sugar Girls and Seamen · Suikermeisies en Seamen · Izifebe namaTilosi · 売春婦及び船員 · 매춘부와 선원
妓女和水手 · Làm đĩ và những lính thủy · πόρνες και ναυτικοί · Gamitin sa masama at Mandaragat
Pelacur dan Pelaut · Prostituiertee und Seeleute · Prostituert og Sjømenn · Prostituees en Zeelieden
Prostituées et Marins · Prostitutes e Marinai · Prostitutes y Marineros · проститутки и матросы