Sneak Peek

Excerpt: from the chapter titled "Hookers"

On my first night of research in Durban, I sat alone and watched the action at the Riviera. My heart was pounding because I didn't know what to expect. Throughout the club, sailors and women were drinking, dancing and carousing. Within a few minutes, a young black woman named Janeiba approached me. She introduced herself and said she came from Portugal (I was betting Mozambique). She sidled up next to me with an empty beer bottle and asked for another drink. I obliged. The waitress put a beer in front of her and I paid for it.

As we introduced ourselves, I told her I was a student writing a book about "sailors and the women who love them," to which she raised a sceptical brow. When I tried to explain my intentions more directly, she remained confused. Then she told me about herself. She said she was a business student at college. We both smiled, barely disguising our mutual disbelief.

Janeiba got up and said she was "going to the toilet," leaving me alone with my Coke and her beer. I watched the girls on the dance floor as they wrapped their arms around their seamen and pressed their bodies close. But after a few minutes, other ladies started to come by my table to greet me. Vuyi, a young Zulu woman, cautiously approached, eyeing Janeiba's beer. She asked if I was "still with someone."

"Still?" I wondered.

Vuyi sensed my hesitation and sat down, placing her beer front and centre. She pushed Janeiba's bottle to the opposite edge of the table. Vuyi sussed me out for a few minutes, realised I wasn't worth pursuing, and then took her beer and moved off to another man. This happened a few more times over the next twenty minutes as other women checked out their options with me.

When Janeiba finally returned and found a woman talking to me, she glowered at her. But the woman merely looked her up and down, then glanced at her forlorn bottle and carried on chatting with me. Janeiba sucked her teeth, grabbed her warm beer and shuffled off in search of a new mark.

On the surface, this vignette seems unremarkable, a tale of chit-chat, tense bladders and opaque bottles. But translated into the language of nightclub symbolism, it reveals an intricate world of rules, claims and counter-claims. Let's decode it.

When I bought Janeiba the beer, I unwittingly helped her make a public claim on me. When I paid the waitress for her drink, she demonstrated to the other women in the club that she could recruit resources from me. Her success alerted others to the fact that, for the moment, she had sole access to me. And the women respected her claim, at least as long as she was present.

When she went "to the toilet" - an excuse to roam the club and check out other options without my knowledge - she left her bottle next to me as a claim marker to ward off rivals. For about six minutes, the time it would have taken her to actually use the bathroom, the marker worked. But after that, the other women felt free to test the strength of Janeiba's claim.

When Vuyi cautiously asked if I was "still" with someone, she showed that she recognised Janeiba's claim but wanted confirmation from me. When I failed to give it, she promptly swooped in to see whether I might be worth her time. In the process, she symbolically dislodged Janeiba's claim by shoving her bottle to the other side of the table. Though I was clueless that any of these actions had a deeper meaning, the women understood this power play and the opening it made for them.

With each new lady dropping by, the status of Janeiba's claim diminished. I could have shored up her claim by shooing the women away, but I did not recognise it myself. So when Janeiba finally returned, she realised that she had failed to maintain her shaky claim in the eyes of her rivals, let alone with me. She pouted but made no trouble. She merely repeated the effort with other men until she found one worthy of her full attention.

In general, we think of prostitutes as providing sex. But sugar girls actually spend the bulk of their working time soliciting marks - hooking them - through subtle manoeuvres like this. They spend hours each night at the clubs simply marketing and positioning themselves. This is where they win or lose in this business: if they solicit effectively, they're more likely to get lucrative sexual contracts than are their less skilful rivals; but if their skills are weak, they will struggle. Solicitation comprises all the elements of strategy, seduction and war. It is also a complex process, pursued in stages.


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