HomeArticlesElsa and Nosipho: They both sell sex for a living, but in...

Elsa and Nosipho: They both sell sex for a living, but in opposite worlds

Does sex work legislation have an impact on violence and the spread of HIV? We follow two women who operate in opposite worlds to find out.

It was about 8pm on a cool spring evening when the white police van shuddered to a halt alongside Nosipho Vidima.

She was at her usual post in the tree-lined street in Morningside, Durban. Vidima was wearing a short, blue dress and leaning on the fence of one of the suburb’s Victorian-style homes.

She recognised the police officer. At least once a week he would drive past her corner and make smug remarks.

But on this night, the cop — in his late twenties — was more brazen.

“Why are you here?” he yelled from the driver’s seat.

Vidima didn’t answer. She looked the other way.

Infuriated, the officer exploded: “You’re too clever for your own good! Who do you think you are?”

He got out of his vehicle, slammed the door and threw open the rear lock-up section.

“Get in!” he bellowed. 

“I’ve lost count of how many times I have been raped by the police,” says sex worker Nosipho Vidima. “If you say no to a police officer asking for sexual favours, he threatens you.” (David Harrison)

Vidima, 28 at the time, was an opinionated woman. She knew her legal rights better than most of her colleagues because she was a part-time law student.

But Vidima was defenceless.

She was practising an illegal profession in the city that research shows has one of the highest concentrations of sex workers in South Africa.

Although Vidima knew that the laws that criminalise sex work in the country — the Sexual Offences Act and the Sexual Offences and Related Matters Amendment Act — require intrusive police methods such as entrapment to secure a conviction, this knowledge didn’t help her.

In the real world, the policeman had all the power.

“I was too scared to fight him, so I got into the van,” she recalls.

It was sticky hot and filthy inside the van. Vidima wondered if she would be kept in a holding cell at the CR Swart Square police station in town, like so many times before.

But as the vehicle snaked through the streets she saw the officer was driving towards the Burman Bush Nature Reserve, a park in Morningside.

He stopped at an isolated area, unlocked the back and instructed Vidima to get in at the passenger side.

Unfastening his pants, he commanded: “Blow job, bitch!”

Vidima took out a condom, but the officer refused to put it on. “Instead, he forced my head back and forth by pulling my hair — until I was gagging.”

Halfway through the act, in the pitch dark, the policeman ordered her: “Take off your panties and turn around. We’re now going to do what you do on the streets.”

Then he shoved his penis in her anus and raped her. 

Amsterdam’s sex worker district is located in a residential area. The operation of brothels became legal in the Netherlands in 2000. (Koen van Weel, Reuters)

Outside the air conditioned cubicle in 19 Oudezijds Achterburg street in Amsterdam’s red-light district, near the city’s oldest church, long shadows fall from the tall, thin buildings lining the inner-city canals. The summer sun hangs low in the pale blue sky.

Elsa Wilson*, 25, sits on a bright red chair with high legs. She’s clutching a bottle of mineral water.

“I fuck people for money,” she smiles. “Someone will come up and say, ‘How much?’ I say I offer a blow job and vaginal sex for 50 Euros (R780) and it’s either yes or no.”

The buying and selling of sex, as well as the operation of brothels, is legal in the Netherlands.

“If you say yes to my price, you come in, and we have a good time — in a safe space,” Wilson explains.

Nearby, the Oude Kerk (Old Church) bells chime three o’clock with heavy gongs that tremble over the Oudezijds Achterburg gracht’s glinting water.

It’s a Saturday afternoon in late August and people on bicycles with red and green baskets weave their way through throngs of tourists and the scent of tulips. 

Sex work in Amsterdam is legal. Workers register for tax and are entitled to the same benefits as other employees. (Rob Huibers for IAS)

Wilson slides off her high stool, flicks her blond hair and says: “I like that I’m able to offer a service that makes people feel physically good. I really like the connection.”

The young sex worker’s heavy makeup makes her appear older than her years. She’s dressed in an olive green corset with black lace detail suspended beneath a cerise bikini top.

“Sex work is self-fulfilling,” she says. “It’s also good money.”

Wilson, who speaks with an American accent, is originally from Austin, Texas.

She and her husband, a computer analyst, moved to Amsterdam in March on a Dutch-American Friendship Treaty visa that allows US citizens to migrate to the Netherlands as “independent entrepreneurs”.

Because sex work is legal in the country, Wilson could obtain a visa on the basis that she planned to open a sex work consultancy in Amsterdam. Her visa allows her spouse to work as well.

“My husband helps me to get ready for work in the mornings,” she says and leans against the charcoal tiles that decorate the walls of her cubicle. Then she crosses her feet, which are wrapped in shocking pink shoes with towering heels, and drawls: “I’ll be like, ‘Which of these lipsticks, babe?’ and he’ll help me choose.”

Wilson started sex work when she was 17. “In the US,” she explains, “it’s much harder than this.”

“Sex work there is [mostly] illegal, so no sex worker is safe. If you get raped, you can’t call the police because they would arrest you and probably rape you too.”

A 2017 study revealed that one in three sex workers surveyed reported that they have been raped by the police. (David Harrison)

Two years ago, about 13 000 kilometres away from Amsterdam, the reality of being a sex worker in an unprotected environment descended on Sipho*, a woman in her mid-thirties.

All aspects of sex work — the buying and selling of sex, as well as making a living by means of sex work by being a pimp or operating a brothel — are illegal in South Africa.

Sipho’s beat in western Tshwane was a place known as “The Bush,” a scrub-covered field. The unfenced grounds, from where sex workers have been selling their services for years, has a reputation for being a dangerous place.

Operating in this kind of setting is common for sex workers in countries where the profession is criminalised. “The threat of arrest does little to stop sex workers [from doing business],” a 2006 South African Crime Quarterly study found. “Instead, it forces them underground and into situations that are potentially even more dangerous.”

In the early autumn of 2016, a man posing as a client throttled and raped Sipho at knifepoint at “The Bush”.

Her story was documented by the researchers of a Sonke Gender Justice and Sex Workers Education Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) report that was released in 2017.

Numerous studies have shown that sex workers who trade in countries where such transactions are illegal, experience considerably more physical and sexual violence from clients than in states where sex work is either legalised or fully decriminalised, as regulation helps to create safer work environments.

Female sex workers in the US are, for instance, 18 times more likely to be murdered than non-sex workers, a 2004 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, revealed.

In South Africa, around one in five female sex workers in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town had been sexually assaulted in the year prior to being interviewed, the 2014 South African Health Monitoring (SAHMS) female sex worker survey found. About half of the workers in these cities had experienced physical violence.

The incident involving Sipho was not the first time a sex worker had been raped at “The Bush”.

Two of Sipho’s colleagues told the Sonke and Sweat authors that they too had been violated by a man with the same distinctive scarring on his chest that Sipho recalls her attacker having.

But sex workers were also adamant that their rapists were frequently the police themselves. One in three of the 57 sex workers surveyed reported they had been raped by policemen, and more than half said police officers had demanded bribes from them in exchange for escaping arrest or abuse.

“I have lost count of how many times I’ve been raped by the police,” says Vidima, who became Sweat’s lobbying officer shortly after her Morningside rape ordeal in 2013. “I’ve become numb. If you say no to a police officer asking for sexual favours, he threatens you. It turns the sexual favours to abuse and rape straight away.”

From interviews with a further 61 sex workers, the Sonke and Sweat researchers documented horrific examples of police forcing the women to have sex with animals, compelling them to eat used condoms and refusing to assist them after they had reported abuse at the hands of clients.

“Such treatment reflects a common perception that due to the work they do, sex workers cannot be raped or are somehow deserving of rape,” the authors conclude. “Police therefore seldom want to open a case, even when a sex worker wants to try and lay a complaint.”

Five months prior to Sipho’s rape, in November 2015, a sex worker, Queen Koketso, was found dead at “The Bush”.

Koketso’s co-workers went to the police to report the murder, as well as the presence of a suspicious man in the area. But they say the officers refused to take their statements. Neither did the police take up an invitation to attend Koketso’s funeral to record statements from women who lived and worked in the vicinity.

Instead, sex workers told researchers, the police raided “The Bush” two weeks later, setting fire to their shacks and destroying their personal possessions.

Bhekisisa asked Gauteng police spokesperson Lungelo Dlamini whether a murder docket had been opened for Koketso and whether the police took potentially relevant statements from her colleagues. We also sent him other written questions, including a request to respond to allegations that the police had razed sex workers’ homes, and if so, to explain the reasons.

Dlamini acknowledged receipt of our questions, but never responded.

Sipho never reported her rape to the police. Neither did her two colleagues.

Said national police spokesperson Vish Naidoo: “If sex workers don’t lay a complaint, how can we investigate? If they don’t report abuse or a lack of (police) service, it’s as if it never happened.”

But Sipho echoes the feelings of many sex workers in South Africa: “Even though the man raped me and stole my cell phone, I am more frightened of the police than I am of that man.”

In the Netherlands sex workers pay 21% VAT on the services they sell and up to 35% in income tax. (Koen van Weel, Reuters)

At the My Red Light brothel in Amsterdam, a soft drizzle has transformed the grey cobblestones outside Wilson’s window into polished marble.

She’s scanning a WhatsApp message on her phone.

She takes a sip of water, smooths her black stockings and says: “I’m a whore. I wanted to make sure I’m based in a country where I’m legally allowed to practise the career I’ve chosen, so that I have the right to complain when I’m treated unfairly.”

My Red Light is a window brothel — sex workers recruit clients who pass by from behind cubicles with glass doors. At the back of her nook there’s a door that leads to a corridor with rooms where clients are served.

In the Netherlands sex work is considered a legal and dignified job. Sex workers can access clinics with specially designed services that has helped to achieve low HIV infection rates among workers. (Rob Huibers for IAS)

If a customer becomes abusive, a worker can press one of the panic buttons that are a feature in every room.

“That will result in the landlord or police arriving within five minutes,” Nadia van der Linde of Amsterdam’s Prostitution Information Centre, a nonprofit organisation started by sex workers, explains. “But mostly it’s the sex workers themselves who are first on the scene to help their peers.”

Brothel owners in the Netherlands have to comply with stringent government rules. Window brothels, for instance, require operational licenses, can only do business in designated areas and must close between 6am and 8am.

Even though sex workers in these brothels work for themselves, and not for the owners of the buildings, the proprietors are not permitted to rent out rooms to anyone younger than 21, which is the legal age for sex work in Amsterdam. They also have to confirm that workers have permission to work in the country and are registered with the chamber of commerce for tax purposes.

Sex workers pay 21% VAT on the services they sell and up to 35% in income tax.

“We often jokingly say that the Dutch government is our biggest pimp because we pay tax on at least half our earnings,” van der Linde laughs.

By law, landlords have to conduct interviews with workers wanting to do business from their premises, to determine whether they’re sufficiently self-reliant. Van der Linde explains: “This involves evaluating whether workers are able to communicate in Dutch, English, German or Spanish, so that they are equipped to negotiate with clients in at least one of the most commonly spoken European languages.”

[LISTEN] This mom became a sex worker and her daughter is fine with it

Mariska Majoor from Amsterdam in The Netherlands became a sex worker when she was a teenager. Five years later, she started Amsterdam’s Prostitution Information Centre that people can visit to learn more about sex work. Mariska’s daughter Robin, 21, was born during that time. Mariska prefers for her not to be a sex worker because of the “complicated life around sex work”. Mia Malan visited Mariska and Robin in Amsterdam.

Like her colleagues, Wilson sees about six to eight clients a day.

Inside her cubicle, where she’s leaning with her back and one leg on the wall, the sex worker looks up from her phone. Across the street, next to the canal, a man in his late forties hovers in the thin mist.

Wilson is sure she’s seen him before.

A thick wedding band constricts his ring finger. The man rubs one of his arms and scouts around nervously. Then he uses a small cloth to wipe his gold-framed glasses, hitches up his bermuda shorts and strides across the lane.

The Prostitution Information Centre reports that, on average, customers spend between six and 15 minutes with sex workers and they’re mostly married and in their 30s or 40s.

“I rent a window for 80 Euros [R1256] in the day or 160 [R2512] Euros at night,” Wilson explains. “I can deduct these costs from the taxes I pay.”

When the glass door next to her window clicks closed behind the man, Wilson clambers back onto her chair, freshens up her fuschia lipstick and says: “I myself decide when I want to work and whom I’d like to work with. I can do whatever I want, whenever I want.”

A 2015 study estimates that the decriminalisation of sex work could avert up to half of HIV infections among sex workers and their clients over the decade. (Madelene Cronjé)

In 2017 Cyril Ramaphosa, the country’s then deputy president and chairperson of the South African Aids Council (Sanac), launched the country’s fourth national HIV plan. The document left sex workers, concerned scientists and human rights activists fuming.

Their outrage was sparked by the omission of what they, as well as international health bodies such as Unaids and the World Health Organisation, consider to be a crucial component for HIV prevention among sex workers: the decriminalisation of their means of income.

It was the first such five-year plan to exclude arguments advocating for decriminalisation. The strategy, coordinated by Sanac but over which cabinet holds final approval, contrasted with the national HIV sex worker plan — also launched by Sanac — which strongly endorsed decriminalisation.

Female sex workers, particularly those operating in countries where sex work is illegal, are significantly more likely to be infected with HIV than other women.

This is because they have a higher number of sexual partners and experience more violence, the authors of 2015 research in The Lancet explain, resulting in them “giving higher priority to their safety and survival than less immediate concerns such as HIV prevention”.

HIV infection rates among South Africa’s estimated 138 000 female sex workers are indeed very high: in Johannesburg almost three quarters (71.8%) of workers have tested positive and in Durban just over half, according to the SAHMS.

Decriminalising sex work — the removal of all laws against consensual adult sex work — scientists argue, will slow the epidemic among workers and their clients dramatically.

Modelled estimates published by The Lancet in 2015 show that this legal model has the potential to avert more infections than any other HIV prevention strategy among sex workers and their clients over the decade — between a third and almost half of the world’s new infections — because of the “combined effects that decriminalisation would have on violence, police harassment, safer work environments and HIV transmission pathways”.

Activists say decriminalisation was a prominent feature in the draft of the 2017 – 2022 HIV plan that they provided input for. But, somewhere between that version and the one Cabinet approved, the concept inexplicably disappeared from the document.

Health experts maintain that a mix of morals, politics and conservatism have trumped evidence. And the controversy doesn’t end here.

Two weeks after the full version of the HIV plan was released, South Africa’s law reform commission — a body that advises the justice and constitutional development minister on how to improve and develop the law — published a long-awaited review of “adult prostitution”.

To the chagrin of civil society, the commission also recommended that sex work should continue to be fully criminalised. As a second option, it proposed a widely criticised model, the partial decriminalisation of sex work, under which it would no longer be a crime to sell sex but it would be an offence to buy it.

Also known as the end-demand or Nordic model, partial decriminalisation has been shown to increase violence towards sex workers and decrease access to health services — two crucial elements that determine how fast HIV spreads.

But, in December 2017, on the final day of the ANC’s national elective conference, sex workers and scientists received new hope when the party announced it had resolved to decriminalise sex work.

Tlaleng Mofokeng is a reproductive health doctor in Johannesburg and also the deputy chairperson of the advocacy group, the Sexual and Reproductive Coalition of South Africa. She believes sex work should not be criminalised. “Just because something is undignified and you would not do it, doesn’t mean those who do it must be criminalised and punished,” she says. Mia Malan spoke by phone to Mofokeng.

However, the optimism among activists and other concerned parties has since faded.

Almost a year later, the deputy minister of justice, John Jeffery, whose department released the law reform commission’s report, told Bhekisisa the announcement was inaccurate, “if one looks closely at the wording of the resolution”. 

The resolution reads: “The calls to decriminalise sex work must be subjected to a high level discussion and engagement with relevant multiple stakeholders, and to continue to engage society on this to determine the societal norm. Sex workers must be protected.”

Jeffery says “internal discussions between government departments” are happening, and these will be followed by further public discussions about decriminalising sex work.

But he adds that it’s unlikely that the consultation process will be concluded before next year’s elections.

In another twist in July, the same month that fresh evidence of the harmful effects of partial decriminalisation on the safety of sex workers in France and Canada was released at the Inter

Mia Malan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bhekisisa. She has worked in newsrooms in Johannesburg, Nairobi and Washington, DC, winning more than 30 awards for her radio, print and television work.