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Who sells sex?

11 March 2016, 15:40

The woman on the street or truck stop, the agency or parlour worker... who sells sex? We take a brief look at sex, sex work and stereotypes.

A common reaction when confronted with anything or anyone who is perceived to be "different", or "other than", is to want to label and to resort to stereotypes. It is a protective measure to ensure that the self stays intact and unthreatened.

People often have a similar need to make sense of people who work in the sex industry. But a “profile” of sex workers does not exist: a wide range of people enter the sex trade to make a living.

Stereotyping is by nature superficial. It ignores the fact that sex workers, like any other workers, are multi-faceted - mothers, siblings, involved in other activities of society. This echos what we so often see with racism - assigning values and beliefs to the group, the "other", as a whole, in the process dehumanising the individual and making it easier to shun and to discriminate, purely on the basis of the person's membership to that group.

Trends that have, however, been noted in research 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 become sex workers for various reasons, the most common when it comes to consensual sex work being unemployment or a desire to improve their income.

No formal qualifications are required; it's relatively easy to find work as the demand is high; and in many cases, sex workers can determine when and how often they work, allowing for greater flexibility of their time. Sex work can also earn more than most unskilled jobs.

Substance abuse
Substance abuse is common in many sectors of the sex industry and has an important function in sex work. 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. 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
According to many research studies, including studies by the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), most sex workers 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.

It is a misperception that all people would leave the industry if they were offered alternative employment. Organisations working with sex workers have noted that alternative employment does, in most cases of consensual sex work, not have that effect as few other alternatives offer the same financial rewards and flexibility. For many, leaving the sex industry would thus mean changing standards of living.

While this is only a peek at some of the issues, and does not even begin to address the criminalisation of sex work and all its implications, it shows that the answer to the question: “who sells sex?” is as diverse as the profile of who buys it.

(Ilse Pauw, Health24 and co-founder of SWEAT, updated February 2011)

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For more information on current research projects, contact SWEAT at               021 448 7875       

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