Monday, October 1, 2007

Managing Vice

Prostitutes solicit at dockside nightclubs in Cape Town and Durban to make money for themselves. They care very little about the financial health of the club owners. The see the clubs as a business pick-up joint. And if they had it their way, they'd whisk away the guys as soon as possible and take them out for business.

The owners need women at their clubs, otherwise the sailors won't come. But they also need them to inspire the seamen to spend money on alcohol before going off for sex. Otherwise the club won't survive.

So there is a delicate balance of interests between the club owners & prostitutes. The owners put up the money for the joint, pay the levies, employ the staff, and so on. And their outlay provides a space for the women to solicit in relative safety and comfort. To cover these expenses and make a profit, they need the sailors to buy lots of alcohol. That's how they make their money. (The women pay very little money themselves, letting the seamen buy them drinks, cigarettes and food.)

The sugar girls know that their presence is all-important to the profitability of the club. Without them, sailors wouldn't bother to come. And the club owner wouldn't have a business. Thus they feel entitled to the bulk of the seamen's cash. While they like drinking and dancing with the guys at the clubs, they don't want them to blow all of their money there. They want them to save it for sex afterwards. So they try to leave with the guys as soon as possible, depriving the club of alcohol sales, but protecting their own earnings.

To arbitrate these competing needs and desires, the club owners have instituted a simple rule: if a prostitute leaves the club before 2 A.M., she must pay a fine of 100 rands ($14). This is called a "bar fee." It ensures 2 things. That bored women remain at the club (even if it is dead) so that the club retains a vibey atmosphere if any sailors might pop in. And—for women who leave with clients before 2 A.M.—the fee represents the money that the sailor would have spent on alcohol had the prostitute not taken him early for sex.

In this way, the owner doesn't allow the women to abuse his hospitality by coming and going as they please. For the privilege of soliciting at the club, the ladies must hang around even if there is no action and they must pay a fee if they take a sailor too early. After 2 A.M. though, they're free.

The women grumble about the rule, but they understand it. Heck, they even enforce it: if a woman sneaks off before 2 A.M. without paying the fee, her rivals at the club will make sure the owner finds out and fines her!

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Friday, September 7, 2007

Gentle vs. Grabby Sailors

Foreign sailors who go to dockside nightclubs in Durban tend to treat the club prostitutes with greater respect than the sailors in Cape Town. None act violently toward the women, but the seafarers who berth in Cape Town tend to handle the ladies more possessively than their counterparts in Durban. They are "grabby" in comparison. Why?

I think four reasons explain this difference:

Numbers: 60-80 women regularly solicit from the sole remaining seamen's club in Durban. The ladies often equal or outnumber the 50-100 sailors who arrive at the club each evening. This makes for a relatively relaxed atmosphere for the men. They rarely have to compete against each other for a woman's attention. Partners are usually available.

But in Cape Town, only 40-60 women (in total) regularly solicit from 3 dockside clubs. Relative to the 60-130 men per evening, the ladies are in short supply. On some occasions, the imbalance is extreme. Add alcohol to the mix and some men get anxious they may not get a companion for the evening. This inspires them to act possessively with the women. They sometimes grab or grope the ladies on the dance floor or as they pass by. It signifies a desperate attempt to get the women's attention in what is clearly a solicitor's market.

Time: In Durban, the guys are literally "here today, gone tomorrow." Because they are on container ships that have rapid turn-around times in the harbor, the typical solicitation cycle with a sailor is one night. If a guy acts rude during the evening, the women can just ignore him and focus on other men. They need not cater to him any further.

But in Cape Town, the sailors typically work on deep-sea fishing trawlers that berth in Cape Town for spells of 5-30 days. These men come to the clubs every night they're in town. The women do not feel they can snub the rude men because, within a few days, they may become valuable clients. The women do not want to close the door on any guys because, given their long stays in port, they may become sources of money in the future.

Frequency: Most sailors in Durban visit the port a few times in their lives. Or perhaps just once. They rarely go there on a consistent basis.

But in Cape Town, the trawlermen return multiple times during their South Atlantic voyages. They typically visit Cape Town every 4 months during their two-year contract. (Then they go home, get another contract, and start the sequence again.) They may be regular callers for years. This encourages the women to see solicitation as a long-term strategic process. Thus, they put up with a man's touchiness because they don't want to lose access to him as a potential client. Any of the guys might become repeat-clients for many years, a prospect too good to ignore.

Class Status: Durban is Africa's premier container port. Most seafarers who work on container vessels are middle-class or middle-class aspirant. Thus they tend to be rule-followers who behave themselves overseas. They're rarely troublemakers with locals (unlike the old cargo ship salts of yore).

But in Cape Town, most of the sailors are East Asian trawlermen, drawn from the poorer sections of China, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines (while the wealthier officers come from Japan, Taiwan & Korea). The women say that these guys party harder, have a tougher work life, and are less refined in their flirtations than the container ship seamen. They see the trawlermen as having "lower class" standards of interpersonal relations.

Thankfully, this touchiness is never violent, even if it is annoying. Cape Town's dockside prostitutes say that they do not face client violence like streetwalkers often do. But the women do wish that the trawlermen would act gentler with them like the container ship crews.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Where's the minis & high heels?

Dockside prostitutes in Cape Town rarely wear "sexy" clothing. They almost never wear minis, high heels or bright make-up. Rather, they sport casual androgynous streetwear: jeans, t-shirts & takkies (tennis shoes). This stands in contrast to Durban's dockside sugar girls who emphasize their sexy couture.

So why this difference? Why are Cape Town ladies more conservative in their attire than their Durban counterparts? I think there are two primary reasons. Maybe three.

1 - In Cape Town, most dockside ladies travel from their homes in the townships to the downtown nightclubs by public transport—buses, taxis, trains. They leave at 6:30 in the evening and return on the first taxis back in the mornings at 5am. The last thing they want to do is call attention to their work by wearing sexy clothing as they travel to and from their communities. It would attract negative attention and potentially reveal their source of income. So they seek to blend in by wearing casual clothing.

But in Durban, the women hail from upcountry locales, so they don't live at home. They reside in the blighted city center, surrounded by transient strangers of the shadowland. There's no community surveillance to worry about. They can wear snazzy clothing without their families or communities getting wind of their activities. Sexiness is not a threat to their reputations at home.

2 - Cape Town can get bloody cold at night, especially in the winter. The wind & low temperatures make slinky clothing a bad idea. So the ladies protect themselves with jeans, polo necks, hoodies, and heavy jackets.

But in Durban, the sub-tropical heat allows women to wear "come hither" attire most months of the year. In summertime, they almost have to wear such thin outfits because of the humidity.

3 - Another possible explanation might be the "Americanization" of fashion amongst coloured township-dwellers in Cape Town. While all South Africans are influenced to some extent by American cultural fads—in music, film, fashion, etc.—Cape coloureds seem to draw the deepest inspiration from the States. Especially from black American cultural styles. (In fact, when Cape Flats kids are allowed to wear casual clothes to school on Fridays, they call it "American Day.")

African women from KwaZulu-Natal also draw from American aesthetic influences, but not with the same commitment as coloureds do. They draw from a variety of ethnic inspirations: indigenous, pan-African, European & American.

So in Cape Town, dockside pros use clothing to camouflage their work while Durban women use it to advertise theirs. CT ladies dress warm to avoid the cold; KZN women dress lightly to deal with the heat. And coloured women embrace a casual style that fits with their community's cultural inspirations while Durban women adapt their attire to suit the competitive solicitous environment of the clubs.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

No sleeping on the job, ladies

In front of a Cape Town dockside nightclub, a prostitute stands alone at the entrance steps, bored. But it's freezing outside. So after we trade greetings, I ask, "Why aren't you upstairs in the club? No sailors tonight?"

She frowns, "The bouncer kicked me out an hour ago. I fell asleep in the booths because there were no guys inside. Now I have to sit out here until I can get a hundred rands to pay my way back in." Then she looks me in the eyes, slightly hopeful. "Can you borrow me a hundred bucks?"

The problem: she's transgressed an unwritten rule of club etiquette. Dockside prostitutes are free to solicit at the seamen's clubs so long as they get the guys to buy alcohol. AND—of course—so long as they stay awake! That's part of the bargain. But on nights when there aren't many guys to entertain, the ladies get restless. Some can't resist the temptation to nod off. It's a familiar sight.

As punishment, the bouncer will escort her outside. If she pays a R100 fine, she can go back in. If not, she must wait till the next night when she'll be able to solicit inside freely.

I offer an empathetic smile, but I don't bail her out. And she doesn't expect me to. In her 12 years of hooking, this has happened many times before.

After a few hours inside, I come down and find her busy massaging the feet of the hefty manageress. I laugh and ask: "Didn't get your hundred bucks to go back in?"

She winks and whispers, "I'm hoping this foot massage will do the trick."

The manageress—deeply relaxed by the pedi-pampering—pipes up: "Harder!"

But after another 15 minutes of bunion-rubbing, the manageress lets her slip back inside.

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Friday, June 1, 2007

Term "Sugar Daddy" a misnomer

The term "sugar daddy" has always struck me as slightly off. While it seems to resonate for the relationship it describes—an older man giving material benefits to a younger woman in exchange for sexual intimacy—something still doesn't fit.

I think it's because "sugar daddy" suggests that it is the daddy who gives the "sugar." By linking the words together, we end up seeing the daddy as the source of "sugar."

But it is exactly the opposite. In such a relationship, it is the younger female who gives the sugar, the honey, the sweetness: sex.

Capetonians used to understand this quite explicitly. Before they were kicked out of their homes by the apartheid government, Cape Town's mostly-coloured dockside communities (District Six & the Docklands) boasted numerous little brothels called "suikerhuisies"—literally sugar houses in Afrikaans. They provided sexual recreation to passing sailors. And, of course, no one had any doubt as to what a "sugar house" was and who was giving the "sugar."

The women who worked in the suikerhuisies were called "strooimeisies"—meaning bridesmaids in Afrikaans (literally "strewn girls"). It's a playful allusion, gentler than the terms prostitute, whore or gentoo.

It's not clear when Capetonians started using the term "sugar daddy." I imagine it came in through American movies or TV programs. Of course, it is now a global term sharing basically the same connotation.

Yet I think it confuses who gives what in such a relationship. In Western society, sugar, sweetness and honey have long been associated with sex; what the female gives. The older man gives bread or dough, which we associate with money.

But even if the term "sugar daddy" lacks precision, we're sure to continue using it: the more precise alternatives "dough daddy" and "bread daddy" just don't have the same appeal.

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Saturday, May 5, 2007

Waiting for the Gush of Seamen

When I get downtown, the dockside clubs are totally empty. No sailors anywhere. Everything else is in place—willing women, cross-armed bouncers, bored barmaids, earphoned DJs, sleepy cabbies—but their presence lacks meaning without the seamen. They are the source of their livelihoods. Needless to say, everyone feels slightly agitated.

The women lounge around in the booths and watch Animal Planet on the big screen TV. The "Crocodile Hunter" is busy taunting spitting cobras into squirting venom in his eyes. He relishes every jet of poison deflected off his glasses. Meanwhile, the club girls squirm as they watch slow-mo close-ups of snakes shooting liquid death from their hissing fangs. For the moment, it relieves the boredom, but it doesn't shake their deeper financial anxieties.

Eventually, a couple of Taiwanese sailors walk in. Three women race to them. The men sit down and enjoy the attention: their laps are never empty. And they're generous enough, buying beers for themselves and the ladies.

But after awhile, the women realize that one of them has to go. Three ladies with two sailors: not gonna work. Despite the promiscuous atmosphere at the club, the women are profoundly monogamous in their sexual negotiations: they insist that everyone pairs off. No three-somes allowed. (No one wants to split the fees.)

While the men crawl deeper into insobriety, the women follow close behind. But they also become aggressive with each other. Then it happens. Two of the girls go at each other. Fists fly toward faces, hands grab for hair, palms hurtle toward cheeks, fingernails claw at flesh, feet kick at shins, tongues hurl abuse, and lips spit at eyeballs. Their smacks reverberate across the room above the noise of the music as the two stumble, struggle, curse, and thrash about.

The bouncers watch with mild interest—quite unperturbed—then reluctantly break it up. But like on Jerry Springer, the bouncers don't separate them so far that they can't still smack each other every now and then.

The three girls—who live together!—forget about their quarry as they are escorted outside. They yell endless accusations and insults at each other while a small crowd of women gather around them (happy for the distraction). They eventually share a cab home and continue the drunken dispute there. The Taiwanese, meanwhile, just laugh, imbibe a few more beers, and accept the attentions of other ladies.

Cape Town's dockside clubs are prone to seasonal fluctuations. But usually there's at least a couple dozen sailors to go around. Tonight, virtually NO ONE came. Instead, what came out were the women's expressions of boredom, anxiety, and frustration at a totally wasted evening of work.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Breaking Up Brawling Sailors

The other night at one of the dockside clubs in Cape Town, a dozen Chinese seamen stood poised to brawl with 8 Filipino sailors.

The trouble started by the pay phones. A Filipino guy bumped into a Chinese who was busy talking to his family on the phone. The Filipino failed to apologize and the Chinese shoved him in return. They got in each other's faces, growling in their respective tongues. Then the Chinese went back to the phone while the Filipino stomped off.

Soon after, the Chinese guy complained to his shipmates who immediately demanded redress from the Filipinos. The atmosphere at the club changed. No more good times, no more touchy-feely with the ladies, no more happy-go-lucky jacks. The crews flexed their sinewy muscles, ready for fisticuffs. The women stood helpless as their johns abandoned them to stand by their mates. Their honor was on the line.

Such displays of testosterone and rigor are regular features of dockside interaction. Insobriety, jingoism, and competition over females put the sailors on edge with each other. Usually nothing happens, but if the macho tension becomes too great, bedlam can ensue.

A few months ago, a group of Vietnamese sailors stabbed a Chinese seamen to death in one of the clubs. A Vietnamese guy had a drunken dispute with the Chinese over a prostitute. When the Chinese left and stumbled over to another club, the Vietnamese sailor rounded up his mates and followed him. There they surround him while one of the gang finished him off with a single stab.

When I was in Durban last year, Korean and Indonesian sailors cracked each other's skulls with pool cues. Two women—unhappy with the fees they had negotiated with the Koreans—tried to see if they do better with the Indonesians. A big NO-NO. When the Koreans saw the women with the other guys, they waylaid them. Two had to go to the hospital. And the women left empty-handed.

So what is the club owner to do? Bouncers typically get between the opponents, establish their dominance, and send one of the parties outside. In this situation by the phone, the Chinese were escorted outside.

But the owner called the Chinese guy back inside and insisted the Filipino sailor apologize to him. The Chinese accepted with a handshake and joined his mates outside. But they refused to accept it. So the owner sent out two 6-packs of beer that mollified them. Cops and security guards kept an eye on their public drinking—shrugging off the illegality—but the problem was defused.

The next night, the same group of Chinese and Filipinos were at the clubs again, sitting right across from each other. But they carried on as if nothing had happened. Such is the power of alcohol-based conflict-resolution strategies by savvy club owners.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Sailor and His Cape Town Girl

In 2003, I sailed on two cargo ships from Los Angeles to Cape Town. On the voyage from London to Cape Town, a Filipino sailor told me about his Cape Town "girlfriend" who worked at one of the dockside nightclubs. Here's how I wrote about it back then (using pseudonyms here):

A sailor painting
When I take my walks around the ship in the afternoon, I always chat with Manuel, an Able-Bodied Seaman, who goes about his duties chipping, painting, scrubbing, and splicing. He’s a short, pudgy guy, with a low-budget Superman "S" tattoo on his jiggly tricep. But he’s very easy with the smiles. A nice guy.

Manuel comes from a wealthy family near Manila. He says his father is a big-shot businessman who could have landed him a cushy office job with a dubious “import-export” firm, but he chose the more exciting life of an sailor. Lots of Filipinos try their luck as seamen, so he did too. He’s in his early thirties now, having worked as a seafarer for nine years.

One day he asks me if I have a girlfriend. I reply I do. In fact, she lives in Cape Town. His eyes light up, “You have a girlfriend in Cape Town?! Wow, me too! Me too!” He gives me a slap on the arm, buddies now.

Then he whispers conspiratorially, “The other guys are jealous that I have a girlfriend in Cape Town, so I don’t like to speak about her in public.”

“Ahhhh, right, of course,” I feign understanding.

He whips out a few pictures of a pasty white girl with black hair and a pleasant face. He gets a far-away look in his eyes as he talks about her. “That’s Christy, my girlfriend. I love her so much. She’s Portuguese.”

Manuel met Christy at one of dockside nightclubs where she works as a "barmaid." Though the club is known as a pick-up joint for sailors looking for prostitutes, Manuel assures me that Christy has nothing to do with that. She just works with the drinks. He boasts that he is the first guy who she met at the bar that she has really ever spent time with. “I’ve done this run to Cape Town a few times now, so when I first saw her at the club, I immediately fell in love. She’s so beautiful. Just look at her, man—isn’t she beautiful?!”

I scrutinize the pictures, “Yah, a real peach, Manuel.”

“Yah, my beautiful peach," he exclaims. "So, after the first time we met, I wrote to her from the ship and even called her when I was back home. Then I saw her twice again after that when the ship came into Cape Town. We’ve remained faithful for the last two years.”

Manuel's gush of sincerity and vulnerability is refreshing. I'm happy for him. “That’s great, man. So why are you so secretive about it with the crew?"

A sailor painting
He knits his brows, “They’re jealous. They’re always laughing at me, telling me that she’s nothing but a whore, that she isn’t faithful to me, that her job allows her to meet plenty of guys who will pay money to hang out with her. They say she’s not serious, but just having a good time with me. They say I should just look for a real relationship in the Philippines, like they all do.” His eyes glisten, “But Henry, I’m in love with this girl. Look at her! She’s so beautiful!”

I look at the pictures again. In one photo, Manuel’s got his flabby Superman arms wrapped around her as they perch on a barstool. His face is the image of pure contentment. In another, she rolls her eyes at the idea of being photographed behind the bar’s cash register. The third is a portrait shot of her in front of a line of fancy skyscrapers, not in Cape Town. In the last, a dog yips at her legs in her backyard.

When I ask where she lives, the name of the suburb reveals that it is one of the areas built for “poor whites” during the apartheid era. Apparently her family came to South Africa from Mozambique in the 1970s when the liberation war sent the Portuguese colonials packing.

“So do you have serious plans with this woman?” I ask.

“I’ve asked her to marry me three times already!” he exclaims.

“What?!” I jump.

“Yes, I want to marry this girl, but she says that she wants to take her time about it. She’s still in her early twenties, so wants to have a few more experiences in her life before she gets married. But I’m in my thirties, I’m ready now.”

Hong Kong
As I keep thumbing through the few photos, I ask where the one with the fancy buildings was taken. Manuel’s embarrassed now, “This one is actually in Hong Kong.”

“Wow, so she’s well-traveled!” I enthuse.

He emits a nervous laugh, “Yah, kind of. Uh, actually, a rich Chinese businessman who she met at the club offered her a trip to Hong Kong.” He quickly reassures me, “But it didn’t mean anything, it was just a holiday. She said that she didn’t do anything with the man, but just wanted to have a different experience. You know, travel a little. But she didn’t do anything with him. Nothing. I know. I trust her.”

I battle to compose my face to look convinced, “I’m sure you’re right, Manuel.” I can see that he is struggling too, anxiety creeping across his brow. I switch back to safer ground, “OK, so…still, do you think you’ll get married?”

Manuel’s back on a high again. “Oh yes, definitely. She just needs time. And after this trip to Cape Town, I’m sure she’ll be ready.”

Manuel wants to take Christy to the Philippines, maybe even give up his sailing career so that they can live together, as proper husband and wife, near his family. He might even take up that import-export job if she comes. He’ll build her a house too! And she can have lots of dogs! Etc.

Cape Town's Table Mountain and Table Bay
He’s got two days in Cape Town this time, then another two in three weeks time. But he has no idea if he will ever come back to South Africa as a sailor. His agency can hire him out to any company on any route. It's just been Manuel’s luck to get to Cape Town enough times to fall hopelessly in love with a dockside woman.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Dockside Solicitation Strategies

One of the key aspects of my upcoming book, Sugar Girls & Seamen, concerns solicitation strategies employed by dockside prostitutes. This blog entry offers a brief look at what's involved.

Dockside prostitution is a specialized niche in the sex trade. This is because the clientele—transient foreign seamen—face different constraints than the clients of other sectors (streets, brothels, truck-stops, and agencies). Prostitutes must cater to these salty waifs in unique ways, taking into account their transience, foreignness (legally & culturally), and social needs (for male-bonding & female companionship). This blog entry highlights some of the solicitation strategies used by Cape Town & Durban sugar girls.

First, imagine the scene: a South African dockside nightclub. On any given night you'll find dozens of foreign sailors sitting around enjoying themselves with beers and whiskeys. They sit in booths, at tables, or at the bar. Every club has a dance floor, a pool-table room, and a couple of them have karaoke rooms. They meander between them throughout the evening.

From 8pm, prostitutes start to stream in. In Cape Town, they tend to be 'mixed-race' coloureds and in Durban they're mostly provincial Zulus. When they arrive, they greet their friends, ignore their rivals, and order up their first drink from their favorite spot. They chill for a few minutes, usually in pairs or small groups, and survey the scene.

As they talk, they establish what kind of action is available for the night: Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Croatians, Germans, Senegalese, Samoans, etc. Then they chat about what ships are supposed to be in the harbor and whether this will impact their evening's activities. Perhaps a returning client is on one of the ships. That would definitely raise hopes.

After awhile, some of the girls head to the dance floor to show off their curves and availability. They make sure they're visible to any promising clients. Other women head straight for a table to join a group of men, asking for a light to initiate the connection. Then they're able check them out up-close and personal. Others sit alone at the bar, looking mysterious, above the fray. If a sailor likes a challenge, he'll be enticed by the seeming disinterest such aloof women display.

This is only the first move, part of a marketing campaign to get the attention of the seamen. Once contact is established, a woman will usually settle in at a booth with a sailor and his mates. They'll greet and incorporate her into the group, offering her drinks and cigarettes. She'll oblige.

For the next 3 or 4 hours, the woman will work hard to keep her man's attention. AND she will continue checking out other options while gauging whether this guy is worth the time. Throughout the evening, she'll make provisional claims on a number of men—with one guy typically being the primary—while the men also make make claims on multiple women. A promiscuous flirtation saturates the flitty relationships at the clubs.

Conversation, dancing, drinking, smoking, and touching fill the hours. But throughout, a woman guides the sailor toward a negotiation for a sexual contract after the club. For even if the seaman treats her to drinks and cigarettes, maybe even proffering 'taxi fare' or some cash for the good times, the real money is made through a sexual rendezvous. She might score some 'taxi fare' (R30/$5) or a hundred rands ($16) for the companionship but if they can the chance to provide sexual services, they can demand R200-300 ($30-50) for poorer crewmen and R500-1000 ($80-160) for wealthier officers.

Most sailors resist the offer, stumbling back to the bosom of their ships instead. Many go to the clubs for male-bonding with their mates or for some casual comfort and companionship from a lady. Drinking is crucial too. And if they're not very well-paid crewmen, then they may be even more reluctant. But most sailors do, at some point, take advantage of the sexual services provided by the port sugar girls.

Thus, even though many women go to the clubs 6-7 nights per week, they may average about 2 or 3 post-club hook-ups. The rate is higher for Durban because the women deal with overnight container-ship sailors while Cape Town women deal mainly with long-stay fishing trawler seamen. In other words, Durban provides more sailors for shorter durations, allowing for more potential clients. In Cape Town, the fewer sailors tend to stay longer. But, even though Durban women get more clients, they also charge less, making monthly earnings between the C.T. and Durban women about the same.

In conclusion, solicitation takes hours, requiring a range of social skills. Conversational abilities are important, foreign language skills can be a big plus, willingness to touch and caress on the spot is crucial, attractiveness is a bonus (but not necessary), and savvy clientele choices are de rigeur.

Unlike other sex sectors, it's not enough to just show up and be 'available.' The women have to actively solicit in a competitive atmosphere. The difference between success and failure is hundreds of rands on any given night. Hence, in-club skills makes up the most important aspect of sugar girls' work (more than actual sexual skills). Though it is not formally paid for, solicitation not only makes the sailors feel great at the clubs, but it steers their attention toward the girls for post-club extravaganzas.

These interpersonal club activities have a big impact on the women's social lives, cultural investments, and sense of identity as prostitutes. Obviously their work incorporates so much more than just sex. Their solicitation techniques are socially complex and culturally sophisticated.

The next blog entry will compare solicitation at the dockside to that of other prostitution sectors.

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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



Wednesday, March 21, 2007

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:
  1. solicitation techniques are socially complex
  2. sugar girls' success rests on skills that are quite different from those needed in other sex sectors
  3. the needs and constraints of of foreign, transient seamen determines the logic and structure of this prostitution niche


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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



Monday, March 19, 2007

Sugar Girls & Seamen: A book

"Finally," you say, "a blog about dockside prostitution!"

Yes friend, the day has arrived. And here's why:

A few years ago, I interviewed an older coloured woman from District Six who used to "entertain" passing seamen in Cape Town. Her parents ran a "suikerhuisie" (Afrikaans sugar house, ie. brothel) and she and her sisters specialized in providing sexual recreation to West Indian and Black American sailors. That was in the 1960s and early 1970s. Then the apartheid government chucked them out of their homes along with all of the other coloureds, Africans, and Indians. She and her family were removed to the Cape Flats townships, far from the downtown docklands. Her parents gave up the business and she and her sisters went to work at clothing factories.

But today, she is a member of a powerful political party, a stalwart of its Women's League. I asked her: How did you go from being an "entertainer" in the old days to becoming an activist in liberation politics?

She said that the seamen opened her mind to the world beyond South Africa. In their sweaty post-coital embrace, the West Indian and Black American seafarers told her about the Civil Rights Movement, about Black Pride, about dignity and equality for all. In the smokey lounge, they spun smuggled James Brown records on the turntables and spoke of the racial struggles in the Americas. And they told her that, as a black woman, she was beautiful.

When I started researching my dissertation on port culture, I never imagined that dockside prostitutes might become politically conscientized by their work. But it makes perfect sense: their lives are characterized by intimate dealings with a ceaseless stream of seamen who share their cultures, ideas, languages, politics, styles, goods, currencies, and diseases. Dockside prostitutes are, in a way, the ultimate cosmopolitans. The world comes to them.

Over the past two years, I have been exploring dockside social relations. Besides sailing for two months on two cargo ships from Los Angeles to Cape Town and hanging out with all sorts of maritime personnel, much of my time has been spent considering the cultural dimensions of dockside prostitution. I've interviewed many ex-sugar girls, but have also spent countless evenings at the Cape Town & Durban nightclubs, chatting with the ladies, sailors, club owners, cabbies, cops, street urchins, and so on. Though all of these efforts were for my dissertation, I was recently asked to slide even deeper into this slippery world. I didn't say no.

A month ago I was approached by Jacana Press, a leading South African publisher (motto: We Publish What We Like), to write a popular book about the social dynamics of dockside solicitation & sex. Last week, I signed the contract. (They're stuck with me now!) Sugar Girls & Seamen is due for publication next year.

Though I am still busy fleshing out my dissertation—a mammoth task in itself—I could not pass up this chance to speak to a popular readership about my journey into this hidden world. The lives of the women, sailors, club owners, and cabbies are fascinating; my own experiences with them have been memorable, to say the least. Mind if I share them?

Despite the obvious appeal of such a topic—touching as it does on sex, culture, race, money, and bodily fluids—there is little literature available about it for the general public. Perhaps scholars assume the dockside world was scuttled after the Age of Sail or at the end of the passenger liner era. I'm looking forward to showing that, even if the romance of sail has passed, the sailors' romance has not. For a fistful of dollars, they can have all the romance they like!

I created this blog so that I can chart the progress of researching and writing the book and to critically reflect upon the process of literary creation. The blog will offer a glimpse not only into the dockside sex scene—and all of the characters in it—but will also reflect on the research and writing processes. Each week, I will add a new post that explores some aspect of the dockside world and my movements within it.

Just as entertainment documentaries show "the making of" different movies, this blog will offer a real-time exploration of my research and writing of Sugar Girls & Seamen: A Journey Into the World of Dockside Prostitution in South Africa. It will not duplicate the content of the book, but will offer brief snapshots of the dockside collage.

Strap yourself in for a wild ride!

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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