Dudu Ndlovu is talking to me about the sex industry. As Public Education Co-Ordinator at Embrace Dignity, she speaks eloquently of an industry often relegated to the realm of “personal choice”. But Dudu describes another perspective on this industry: that hierarchical structures, rather than individual choices, play a far greater role in driving South Africa’s sex industry.
While critiques of the sex industry are often framed as “anti sex” or “moralizing”, Dudu points out that Embrace Dignity’s position is not based on an aversion to sexuality, but the context of inequality within which “money for sex” transactions take place. She explains that the majority of those who work within the industry are poor, black, and female. In addition, marginalized members of society, such as disabled and LGBTI persons, are often overrepresented in the sex industry.
Dudu explains that within society, multiple structures and systems operate to organize people in hierarchies based on various criteria. These structures and systems include racism, capitalism, and patriarchy (to name a few). The operation of these systems determines peoples’ available choices and the environments within which they find themselves. Within the sex industry, there is a confluence of these systems and structures; this accounts for the fact that it is the most vulnerable members of society that are typically represented in the sex industry. For instance, studies show that 80% of prostituted persons are female .
Dudu explains the highly gendered nature of the sex industry with reference to capitalist patriarchy. Commodification is inherent in both capitalism and patriarchy; within capitalism everything, including the human body, can be made into a commodity. Within patriarchy, “women’s bodies and women’s lives are seen as an extension of men…there is an understanding of women as an extension to men’s identities.” This understanding of women leads to a culture of male sexual entitlement. When capitalism and patriarchy intersect, the result is that women’s bodies are rendered no more than consumable items.
It might be argued that not only does gendered disadvantage reinforce the likelihood of being in the sex industry, but that the sex industry reinforces gendered disadvantage. This position is articulated by Gunilla Ekberg who states, “Prostitution doesn’t just have individual impacts on women in prostitution. It impacts all women in that society. If you have a country that thinks it’s appropriate and acceptable that women are to be for sale then you normalize the idea that men have the right to buy and sexually exploit, not just a particularly marginalized subclass of women, but all of us.”
Regardless of your position on the broader implications of the sex industry, one aspect of the trade is undeniable: money. This is a crucial aspect of power relations within the sex industry. As Dudu explains, a truly mutual exchange requires two equal individuals. This is not the case in situations where one party has money while the other party does not – as is the situation between buyers and sellers of sex. Similarly, there is no equality where one party holds institutional power while the other does not. Those primarily represented within the industry – women, people of colour, and marginalized persons such as the disabled and LGBTI – do not hold institutional power, while those who buy sex are primarily men who do hold institutional power. Thus, “inequality is the bedrock of the sex industry.”
Whether or not one believes the industry is inherently exploitative, its current and historic harms are well documented. Dudu directs my attention to a nine country study which found that 68% of South Africans within the sex industry reported being threatened within a weapon, 66% reported being assaulted, and 56% reported being raped. Of the 56% who reported being raped, 58% reported being raped more than 5 times.
The study highlighted the high levels of violence endemic in the sex industry. It also highlighted the fact that those within the sex industry were likely to come from abusive backgrounds; over the course of their lives, 69% of the respondents had been exposed to several types of violence, 56% had been beaten as children, and 66% had experienced sexual trauma. This is significant as it indicates that, for many in the sex industry, formative sexual experiences were “not cultivated in pleasure and self discovery” but trauma and violence.
Critics might argue that critique of the sex industry “demeans the agency of sex workers.” However, one could argue that it is in fact the sex industry which demeans the agency of those within it, by limiting their options for survival. According to the study Dudu cites, 89% of respondents said they wanted to leave prostitution and would do so if they had other options. Given this statistic – and the enormous level of gender based violence within the industry – the need for exit programs seems clear.
Embrace Dignity has been involved in an exit program which provided women leaving the industry (referred to by Embrace Dignity as “sisters”) with support and shelter, classes to assist in attaining matric, upskilling in catering and leatherwork, internships at Embrace Dignity, and grants for small businesses. The NGO is now involved in supporting survivor initiatives – such as S.E.S.P (Survivor Empowerment Support Program), as well as a shelter and home for sisters in the transitional phase of leaving the industry. Most sisters attain a certificate in the Alternative to Violence program through Embrace Dignity, and are able to work as facilitators in workshops held by the NGO. In addition, Embrace Dignity advocates for the Equality Model (also known as the Nordic Model), which decriminalizes sellers of sex while criminalizing buyers.
The work of NGOs such as Embrace Dignity is highly important in addressing the harms of a gendered industry reproducing gender-based violence against those working within it. As Dudu states, “There is no choice when you have no other choices.”
If we wish to end GBV, we must surely focus attention on improving the options of those whose lack of choice makes them particularly vulnerable to abuse.