16 Days Campaign: The stigmatisation of Sex Workers

30 11 2006

16 Days Campaign: The stigmatisation of Sex Workers

Pambazuka News 279 Feature
By Nicole Fick


Mods note: Stigmatisation and discrimination against sex workers are
important issues to be aware of in the context of equal access to quality
health care services and the attitudes of health workers. Health care is not
a guaranteed service for sex workers, whose work, in addition to being
illegal, is considered ‘immoral’ by many. The HIV/AIDS epidemic is of
particular importance, with countries who openly and practically address the
institution of sex work and the needs of sex workers (for example by
providing condoms, access to voluntary counselling and testing, and by
applying harm reduction) experiencing greater success in curbing HIV
prevalence rates overall. Addressing violence against sex workers should
form an integral part of HIV/AIDS-related interventions in this

During the 16 days of activism campaign to end violence against women  and
children, some thought needs to be given to adult sex workers, who
experience violence on a number of levels: from police, agency  bosses,
clients and on a domestic level like other women. Sex workers  are isolated
and stigmatised and this prevents them from being able  to access the
protection services of the police. It also means that law enforcement
agencies often discriminate against sex workers, denying them assistance
when they experience violence and crime.

Stigma can be defined as a brand, a mark of shame or a stain on one’s
character. Social stigmatisation of an act entails severe disapproval from
society for behaviour that is considered to be outside the bounds of social

The normative message that society has traditionally given to women is
that sex is only acceptable within marriage or at least within a significant
relationship. [1] This message can be understood as part  of society’s
attempt to keep women’s sexuality controlled within the bounds of marriage.
Sexual relationships that do not occur within  marriage, or at least within
a committed relationship, are seen as deviating from this social norm. The
further a relationship is from the norm-setting nuclear family the more
likely it is to be  categorised as “abnormal”.

Thus, for example, unmarried heterosexual couples are still close  enough
to this norm to be considered nominally acceptable, while  homosexual
relationships fall further outside of the norm and are  thus often seen as
“suspect”. Sex with a stranger, as part of an  economic transaction, is as
far away from the norm as you can get.[2]

Selling sex is thus seen as “abnormal” and therefore morally wrong  and
sex workers as a group are stigmatised.[3] It is significant, however, that
the resultant “whore” stigma does not only apply to sex  workers and is
often attached to any woman that is sexually assertive  or seen as impure or
unchaste.[4] Gail Pheterson speaks of the  “whore” stigma as a stigma that
aims to silence and degrade those that it targets, emphasising their
“shameful differentness”.

This stigma also prevents women from “freely exploring, experiencing  and
naming their own sexuality for fear of being called a whore”.[5]  The sex
workers in this study spoke of their “shameful differentness” and of their
own experience of feeling stigmatised.

“I don’t think anyone is born a prostitute, so I think at any given  time,
doesn’t matter whether she has been brought up ill treated or  abused or
whatever, she never actually has that image in her mind of her doing that
you know… because society condemns it… you still  look in the mirror and
you still know that you are inevitably you are  still selling your body for
money… so you have got inner conflict already you know trying to lift your
spirit and not breaking yourself  down.”

“I know that people believe – that there’s that perception out there  –
that prostitutes are filthy.”

For one participant one of the main things that she finds difficult  about
her work is coming to understand what she does and justifying  it to
herself. Another participant spoke of her feelings of guilt after having
been with a client and how it makes one question one’s worth as a person:

“You have all got a conscience and conscience means that you will,  that
after you have been with a client you obviously will feel dirty. You feel
like am I worth this or whatever? Especially, especially  when how the
clients, some of the clients do treat you ….. You will  finish a booking,
sometimes when you have finished a booking you just have to get out.”

At the same time, one of the participants speaks articulately about how
being involved in sex work allowed her to think more critically about this
kind of stigma and how she has started to explore her own  sexuality:

“I’ve come to terms with my own sexuality, I think. I’ve definitely sort
of realised that it is just, well in my opinion, a physical act of pleasure.
It’s OK for a woman to actually enjoy sex. There I’ve  grown in leaps and
bounds, but just coming from … a conservative  upbringing, you know as a
woman you are brought up not to sleep  around. And then you’re a slut and a
whore and so on…”

Consequences of stigma

The way in which the participants quoted above speak about themselves
illustrates how stigma can sometimes become internalised. Often the
perceptions that others have of us can become the perceptions that we  have
of ourselves. Resisting the internalisation of these derogatory perceptions
is difficult and it can be easier just to accept these insulting labels than
to challenge them.[6]

Persons engaged in sex work are often blamed for social problems or
perceived as victims.[7] Some of the myths and stereotypes that exist about
sex workers are that they are dirty and spread disease, that  they all come
from dysfunctional families, that they all abuse drugs and alcohol, that sex
work is always associated with or the cause of  other crimes, or that sex
workers are women that need a sexual outlet.

Participants in the study use some of these stereotypes to describe
themselves when they talk about themselves as “dirty”, or when they  make
the assumption that sex workers come from families where they are ill
treated and sexually abused. They also expressed their awareness of the
condemnation of society, as well as their own feelings of guilt and self
blame for doing the work they do:

“I think it’s sort of coming to understand or justifying what you do. And
then sort of coming to terms with it. And forgiving yourself or you can
sugarcoat it any which way you like, and justify it as much  as you can, but
it still is what it is, you know.”

“… many a times we feel down and… we feel broken because of the  type
of business we’re in…” “They just, we all just feel that we are not, we
are not good enough, you know, and that makes you just let yourself go. I
know I’ve let myself go… I just felt I wasn’t  worthy of anybody…”

Participants in the study also spoke about experiencing feelings of guilt
and self-judgment, particularly when they had just started doing sex work. A
number of researchers describe this internalised  stigma as one of the worst
dangers that people engaged in sex work face and they assert that it is
mainly stigma that causes psychological distress for sex workers.[8] One
participant describes  this experience as follows:

“What I really find difficult is the stigma, the stigma that gets
attached to you, by society. They don’t understand why, and people…
That’s the thing that I find the worst is the stigma of the work.”

Some of the psychological consequences of internalised stigma are
difficulties with self-esteem, feelings of shame, despair and
powerlessness.[9] A participant in the study spoke of people she  works with
who become depressed as a result of the stigma attached to the work and who
then use drugs as a means of escape:

“Yes there is, self esteem, just because you’re in the industry, you
don’t, yes this is probably the last thing that a lot of people will
consider doing, okay… As we feel dirty when we have been with a client,
some of my colleagues, or ex colleagues that actually went into a
depression. Like in the sense of, this is not really for me and, and their
way is also to cut it off, doing like abuse in order  for you to escape from
what you are doing…”

Research has shown that one of the main strategies employed by sex workers
to cope with stigma is distancing. One of the distancing techniques used by
some sex workers is to avoid referring to what they do directly, referring
to it as “working” and never directly mentioning the sexual aspect of their

This has also been our experience, with some sex workers preferring  to
speak of themselves as “working girls” rather than “sex workers”, thereby
distancing themselves from the sexual nature of the work they do in the way
that they speak about the work.

Most of the women we work with also use a pseudonym as their working name.
Taking on a different name when working is another distancing strategy that
allows sex workers to separate their identity when working from their
private selves. A sex worker interviewed in Campbell’s study explains it in
this way:

“My street name is not the name I take home with me. At home I am  just an
ordinary person like my name is…” [11]

Participants in this research also spoke of keeping their work  identity
and their home identity separate from each other.

“Ek is nie ‘n hoer nie. Hierbinne doen ek my werk. As ek buitekant toe
gaan, is ek ‘n hele ‘different’ tipe mens. Ek vat nie eers ‘n man  se nommer
buite nie…”

[I am not a ‘whore’. I do my work here inside this place. When I go
outside, I am a totally different person. I don’t even take a man’s number
outside this place…]

When people are stigmatised for doing something, it is natural for  them
to attempt to hide the activity or the attribute for which they  are being
stigmatised and to attempt to pass as “normal”.[12] But hiding is not always
effective as a strategy to cope with stigma. Passing for “normal” requires
constant alertness to ensure that you  don’t expose yourself and so can
create additional anxiety and isolation. Although our experience at SWEAT
shows that some sex workers are open about the work they do, many hide the
nature of their work. Eleven of the seventeen participants in this research
spoke about the difficulty of keeping the work they do a secret from family
and friends as well as more generally in their everyday interactions. A
participant in the study indicated that hiding the work she does is
important to protect her children, who are still at  school, from stigma.

“No one knows I do this work. First of all, it’s like, when I leave this
house, it’s like I’ve got my own life outside.”

“Nobody knows in the community that I am doing this kind of a job…”

“Difficulties in my personal life, is basically the fact that we have to
lie about this. And people do start asking questions. It gets a bit

“No. We don’t actually describe this work to people. You lie.”

“And some people say, what type of work do you do and then you feel a
little afraid to say, no, I’m a sex worker and then you just say, I work
under (name of an organisation)… Do you understand? And  because you don’t
want to have people looking down on you…”

Participants also spoke of their constant worry and anxiety that  someone
they know will find out about the work that they do:

“… hoping that your parents doesn’t find out, friends doesn’t find  out,
that kind of thing, you know.”

“Other things worrying me, is basically people coming in here that  may
know me or my family. Probably one of the main things…”

“So you’re always lying and making up excuses… ‘Where you going?’  ‘I’m
going to work.’ …especially with your friends as well, when  they wanna
drop you off at work. Now you have to let them drop you at the hotel. And
then you have to walk, always check, not actually  running yet. Hoping no
one’s gonna see you.”

This was confirmed by participants in the study who spoke of their  fear
that a member of their family would drive past while they were  standing in
the road, working. Those working at agencies said that they worried about
their boyfriend walking in at the agency where they work. This constant need
for subterfuge can have an isolating effect on sex workers.

One participant indicated that she purposefully doesn’t initiate  contact
with people in order to avoid having to constantly lie or to deceive them
about what she does.

“You don’t allow someone in your life. I cut most of my friends, most  of
my family. And of course it’s not something … You can’t explain where
you’re going, you can’t make friends when you’re in this business. There’s
always lying, deceiving. And I don’t like that, that you can’t. So while
you’re in this business you’re actually very cut off from the world and
people. You don’t really actually make friends or allow people, as you would
if you weren’t in the business. I love making friends, but you just don’t.
You actually reflect being a bad friend or, but you’re not really, you just
don’t know how to tell them, or you don’t want to tell them, or you think
they won’t be  able to handle it, so you don’t go there. You just avoid
friendships at all costs.”

Participants spoke of the kinds of stresses that the hidden nature of
their work also places on their personal relationships. Two participants
spoke about difficulties with trust in their personal relationships:

“Yes. I guess because we’ve both been in the industry, and we know  the
emotional stress that it leaves behind, in the personal  relationships, it
kind of messes you around. Trusting-wise. That kind  of thing.” “You
struggle trusting men… As you should. Alsostanding  behind the door as
well you know… if you understand what I mean. You’re doing something that
you don’t actually want other people to know. Therefore they can’t trust you
100% and therefore you won’t trust them 100% because you are deceiving them
in the first place.”

Difficulties were also experienced by participants in hiding what  they do
from their intimate partner although, as one participant  says, it is a
difficult situation to cope with, whether your partner knows about the work
you do or not:

“I think that every girl that works in this industry that has either
families that know about it or has a partner, and if the partner knows about
it, it makes it even worse. I think it makes it difficult if the partner
doesn’t know about it. Because then you sort of, you’ve got to watch what
you do, your times, you know the whole story. And I’ve got such empathy for
them. I can imagine it’s like not easy at all. And if you have a partner
that knows about it, there’s always, always little fights and tiffs and
things like that.”

Sometimes hiding the work they do makes it very complicated for sex
workers to manage their personal and social lives. For one  participant this
means planning her social life in order to keep the people in her life who
know of the work she does completely separate  from those who do not know:

“I don’t have any friends of the past that have stayed in my life  that
I’ve kept this from… Friends that don’t know are the friends that I’ve met
while I’m in the industry. And that gets a bit tricky because then you have
to start lying about what you do, your working hours, where you’re working,
what do you do, that kind of stuff. So  that’s a bit tricky. … Try not to
intermingle the friends because then everybody’s got to be on their toes and
nobody really, everybody likes to relax. Say if I go out and have a braai or
something I’ll  only invite the friends that know, what each other do cause
it’s …  more relaxed.”

Managing a life where you hide the work you do is not only stressful, but
it also makes it more difficult to use normal sources of social support like
family or friends if you have a problem or something that you need to talk
about.[13] A participant in this study spoke of  not being able to share
even day-to-day difficulties with family or friends:

“In sex work even the girls downstairs in the street, some of them  don’t
have some people to speak to… Because obviously their family doesn’t know
what they’re doing, and you can’t actually go and speak to your mother
regarding what happened at work, as if you’ve got sort of a normal job… So
you can’t go to your mother, oh this happened  on the streets today. I’m
sure she will chuck you out of your, out of the house.”

> — This is an extract from a report by Nicole Fick of the Sex Worker
Education and Advocacy Taskforce entitled “Coping with stigma,
discrimination and violence: Sex Workers talk about their  experiences

The full report is available on http://www.sweat.org.za/docs/coping.pdf 


SWEAT is a non-profit organisation situated in Cape Town, South Africa. We work with sex workers around health and human rights. We also lobby and advocate for the decriminalisation of adult sex work in South Africa.

SWEAT is involved in direct outreach work with sex workers around health and safety as well as public awareness and advocacy work.

Read more about our advocacy work or our programmes.




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