According to research conducted by the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), a Cape Town organisation providing health education to sex workers, a “profile” of sex workers does not exist as a wide range of people enter the profession.
Sex work populations also differ greatly depending on whether someone works on the streets, on their own from home, or in agencies.
Trends that have been noted, however, have included limited education and substance abuse/dependence. Some studies also mention a history of sexual abuse. Many sex workers migrate from small towns to cities where they can work anonymously.
Why do people start?
People enter the profession for various reasons, the most common being unemployment or a desire to improve their income.
Sex work can be a lucrative business but prices vary enormously. A survey of 200 sex workers in 2005 indicated that some earned a minimum of R80 per day, while others earned a daily income of R1 700.
No skills or qualifications are required for the job, making it a possible source of income for most people. It is also relatively easy to find work as the demand for sex workers is great. In many cases, sex workers can determine when and how often they work, allowing for greater flexibility of their time.
Substance abuse is common in all sectors of the sex industry and has an important function in sex work. According to SWEAT research, many sex workers report that substance abuse helps them to cope with the demands of the work by, for example, lowering inhibitions, offering an escape, strengthening denial and reducing fear, especially in the case of street sex work.
The cash-in-hand nature of the business is especially appealing to those who work primarily to finance a drug habit, as money is always available. According to SWEAT research, substance abuse creates many problems for sex workers, including making them more vulnerable to violence from clients, and impairing their judgement and the ability or willingness to negotiate safer sex.
Safer sex and Aids
Most sex workers in Cape Town are knowledgeable about HIV/Aids and motivated to practise safer sex. Aside from preventing HIV transmission, condom use also reduces intimacy by creating a barrier between the sex worker and client, and distinguishes sex for love from sex for work.
Researchers do, however, caution that some may be less motivated to practise safer sex if clients offer more money for unprotected sex or if it is a regular client.
Organisations working with sex workers have noted that, in most cases, alternative employment does not prompt people to leave the industry as few other jobs offer the same financial rewards and flexibility. Leaving the sex industry would thus mean a drop in living standards.
For more information, contact SWEAT at (021) 448 7875.