The Cost of Sex Work: No Easy Choices

Regardless of the reason to enter sex work, the most important thing to understand – and at times it seems as though it is the hardest thing to convince others of – is that sex work is a choice! What is not a choice is the abuse, brutality, rape and death that so many sex workers face because they choose to enter a profession that is not protected by the law.


April 28th, 2015

A narrative by Vanessa Klass,

It is my choice

Regardless of the reason to enter sex work, the most important thing to understand – and at times it seems as though it is the hardest thing to convince others of – is that sex work is a choice! What is not a choice is the abuse, brutality, rape and death that so many sex workers face because they choose to enter a profession that is not protected by the law.

I began sex work in Hillbrow1, an inner-city suburb of Johannesburg, after I gave birth to my daughter in 1999. I was a seventeen-year-old single mother in a family of ten. At the time, my parents were unemployed hospice workers. We were able to buy food with my grandmother’s small pension as well as the money that she earned as a domestic worker. Life was very hard for all of us. I knew that I needed to find a way to provide for my daughter. 

I wanted to find work that would earn enough money for my family and I not to live under the stressful conditions in which we found ourselves. I prayed so much during those days. I prayed for work. I prayed for any opportunity to improve my life. I prayed that my child would not have to live without food or an education. I prayed for all the things that would relieve myself and my family from the hardships that we were experiencing. I prayed. 

Prior to coming to Hillbrow, I lived with my family in a rural area outside of Pretoria, about two hours away from Johannesburg. About a year after my child was born, a friend of mine came over to my house with information about a job opportunity in Johannesburg. She said that I could work at a hotel in Hillbrow and that I could earn a lot of money. I had to leave my family behind, including my daughter, and this was not easy. But I was eager to make money so I decided to travel to Johannesburg in order to find out what the job opportunity was all about. 

My friend was as a sex worker in Hillbrow. However, I did not know this until the day I arrived in Johannesburg. I thought that I was going to work as a hotel maid but, when I arrived in the City, my friend took me to the hotel where she explained to me that she was a sex worker. I decided that I would also give sex work a try. I began working the night that I arrived. My friend gave me a mini-skirt, explained the costs of services, taught me how to use condoms and told me to make sure that I received the client’s money before I ‘conducted business’. 

After a month of work, I decided to travel home in order to visit my family. I arrived with groceries, clothes and money for school fees for my siblings. When my family asked me where I got the money, I told them that I had met a nice man in Johannesburg and that he was taking care of me. 

I am happy that I chose to work as a sex worker. It was the best option for me because I have been able to earn a very good income. I am the head of the household and my income from sex work allows me to provide for my family in ways that other informal work, such as domestic work, does not offer. My earnings from sex work have allowed me to build a house that is big enough for my entire family. I also feed, clothe and pay for other expenses such as school fees, school uniforms and medical expenses when necessary. 

A choice not without challenges 

Although I am glad that I chose to enter the sex work profession, my experiences in sex work have not always been easy. The ‘debt’ of working in this profession is, at times, unforgiving. I have been forced to pay bribes, arrested, detained and physically abused by police officers. I have been raped by clients while they were unprotected. I have faced humiliation by medical staff when seeking health care services and I have been forced to have unprotected sex with the hotel security guards. I have had to exchange sex as a bribe and I have had to pay hotel management with sexual favours in order to be allowed to conduct business at the hotel. 

One night, while I was sleeping alone in my hotel room, a police officer broke in, woke me up and told me that I was under arrest for being a sex worker. He forced me to go downstairs to the bar area and wait in line with other sex workers that were also under arrest. There were men sitting at the bar drinking beer as we stood in line waiting for our fate when suddenly the police officer began shooting at the beer bottles with a rubber pellet gun. The bottles shattered and shards of glass hit us. Some of us were badly injured, including myself. 

After his shooting tirade, the police officer told us to get into the police car. He took us to the police station where we were detained for three days without any medical attention. I was bleeding badly and, when I asked him for something to clean up my wounds with, he said that I was ‘talking too much’ and that I didn’t have the right to ask such questions of him. Eventually we were released but we had to pay a bribe to be let out of detention. I felt very angry. I had to pay him money as if I owed him something. Regardless, we paid the R50 (approximately US$5) bribe so that we could leave the holding cells. 

A choice not without risks

In 2004, I was losing a lot of weight and decided to go to the local public health clinic for an examination. I found out that I was HIV positive. The nurse announced my status in front of everyone in the waiting room. I felt so ashamed and humiliated. This caused me to resist going on ARV treatment. I was afraid that I would face the same treatment every time I went into the clinic. 

Fortunately, after this incident, I began to learn more about HIV through the Sex Worker Programme at the Wits Reproductive Health & HIV Institute (WRHi).2 The stigma that I felt was replaced with a desire to live a healthy life and so I began ARV treatment. I am happy to say that my health experiences with medical providers have improved significantly. The bad experience I had with the first medical officer, as difficult and lonely as it felt, provided me with first-hand knowledge about the ways in which stigma, fear and lack of information keep some people from learning more about their health status and/or treatment options. Now I share my story and experiences with fellow sex workers and clients as a way to encourage them to get tested and seek treatment, if necessary. 

A choice not protected

When I first began to work as a sex worker, I did not know my rights. Although I felt that the injustices that I was facing were unacceptable, I did not know that I could file police reports when my human rights were violated. I believed this because sex work is illegal in South Africa.3 Unfortunately this is still the case for sex workers in South Africa, as well as for other sex workers around the globe. Sex workers often face abuse by clients, unlawful treatment from police and, sometimes, at the hands of medical practitioners. 

Tragically, some sex workers even face death and they do not turn to the law for protection. It was only nine years after I started to work as a sex worker that I began to learn about my rights. In 2008, a colleague asked me to volunteer as a peer educator in the Sex Work Programme at WRHi. As part of the training, I attended a Human Rights workshop where I learned about the rights of sex workers. I also learned about sexually transmitted infections (STIs), prevention and the importance of fighting for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa. I worked as a volunteer peer educator for four years. During this time, I conducted outreach initiatives to other sex workers who worked in hotels and on the streets; I taught them about prevention and health and I encouraged them to access the support services of Sisonke Sex Worker Movement.4 

In 2011, I became a Committee member in Sisonke and my responsibilities shifted towards more of a community leader within the movement. In 2012, I became the Johannesburg Outreach Coordinator for Sisonke, a position that I still hold today. 

But it still is my choice

The social injustices that sex workers face are human rights violations and the government must support and protect our decision to work as sex workers. The government does not have to agree with the work that we do but it must protect our choice, dignity and human rights. We are busy working to feed our families and the choice to work in the sex industry should not be relegated to the arenas of feminist discourse or moral/immoral diatribes but rather based on the reality that we choose to sell sex and that the choice to sell sex should not be met with stigma, violence and malfeasance. Like everyone else in the world who works for a living, I use my body. How I use my body to make a living is up to me.

Many people think that sex work is not a choice but for the great majority of sex workers around the globe, sex work is a very viable choice. In a world of few employment options, sex work offers many of us an opportunity to provide for our families, support our children and take care of ourselves. Like me, many sex workers are head of a household that must find a way to earn enough money to support themselves and their loved ones. For others, like my transgender colleagues in sex work who face enormous discrimination because of their gender identity, sex work is the most viable option when it comes to earning an income. 

That is why I insist that, regardless of the reason to enter sex work, the most important thing to understand is that sex work is a choice. The abuse, brutality, rape and death that so many sex workers face because they choose to enter a profession that is not protected by the law is not a choice. I am not saying that the law will reduce discrimination immediately or that the law will suddenly relieve us of the injustices that we face but changing the law by decriminalising sex work is a necessary and vital step in addressing our human rights violations and ensuring that there is legal recourse for those who violate our basic human rights. 

Support programmes are needed

It is my job to continue the fight against all forms of oppression against sex workers and clients, as the Johannesburg Outreach Coordinator. But I cannot do it alone. Such programmes as the one I work for are direly needed. My own experience as a sex worker in Johannesburg has improved slightly and I attribute this improvement to the presence and work of Sisonke. Police officers are less likely to indiscriminately abuse us because most police enforcement officials are aware that we know our rights. We attend court cases, assist sex workers and/or clients with police reports and we document all of the human rights violations that are reported to us. 

Unfortunately, cases of mistreatment and abuse are still rampant and even more so in areas outside of Johannesburg, where Sisonke presence is not as strong. Advocacy efforts by Sisonke have brought to light on a public scale5 some of the gross human rights violations experienced by sex workers across the country and so the pressure to decriminalise sex work in South Africa is slowly gaining momentum and support. We also work closely with researchers and other NGOs to bring sex worker rights to the forefront of local, regional and national policy discussions. 


The reasons to choose sex work are varied. What is worrying is that, although the movement to protect sex workers is gaining global momentum, sex workers are still being treated unjustly. The price that sex workers are forced to pay is unacceptable. As illustrated, the price comes in the form of bribes, rape and the ultimate price of ‘payment’ with one’s own life which is a tragic reality for sex workers across the globe. 

When I am asked what it is that I hope to achieve as an activist for sex work, my response is simple: I want sex workers to be treated as humans with dignity. I am a mother, a daughter, a sister and a friend. My work is my business and my body is mine to do as I choose. Please let me and others be so that we can work to feed ourselves and our families, without fear of harm, abuse or death. 

Before I entered sex work I prayed that I would find work and I believe I did. I have found a great job opportunity and I am proud of who I am. I am proud to be a sex worker and I am proud of all that I have accomplished since I started my work. Now I pray that one day sex workers in South Africa and beyond will no longer have to carry the unsolicited burden and the ‘debt’ because of the work that they chose. I pray that sex workers in South Africa and around the globe will no longer have to spend their hard earned money on bribes. I pray that we no longer have to pay with rape. And I pray that no sex worker will pay with their life. Until then, remember, sex workers demand rights not rescue.

Vanessa Klass s a sex worker and activist. She currently serves as the Outreach Coordinator for Sisonke Sex Worker Movement in Johannesburg, South Africa. Vanessa Klass was one of 11 migrant women sex workers that participated in a ten-day participatory photo project in 2010 entitled, ‘Working the City: Experiences of Migrant Women in Inner City Johannesburg’ (ACMS Online, n.d.). The project involved collaboration with the Market Photo Workshop6 (MPW), Sisonke Sex Worker Movement and the African Centre for Migration and Society7 (ACMS) at Wits University (ibid). Like Vanessa, many migrants that move into Johannesburg engage in informal livelihood strategies. Research clearly indicates that sex work is a viable option for many women as they seek to support themselves and their families back home; however, the current environment in which sex work takes place puts migrant sex workers at high risk of violence, discrimination, and HIV (Richter et al., 2010; Oliveira, 2011a; Vearey, Oliveira, Madzimure & Ntini, 2010). 

Elsa Oliveira s a PhD student at the ACMS. She has been working closely with Sisonke on various research projects since 2010. She is interested in the areas of gender, sexuality, migration, visual methodologies and urban health. The MoVE Project located at the ACMS is home to a range of creative research projects that aim to document the lived experiences of under-represented groups of people, including migrant sex workers in South Africa (ACMS Online, n.d.). Life stories, such as the one above, contribute to an on-going body of work that is produced during participatory research projects with migrant sex workers in the country. Through participatory creative research projects, MoVE aims to integrate social action with research. The work that is produced during participatory projects at MoVE contribute to rigorous academic research outputs and – perhaps more importantly – engage with diverse audiences in issues, stories, and experiences that otherwise may not be available for public consumption.  


Hillbrow, an inner-city suburb of Johannesburg, is a migrant epicenter in Africa and the most densely-populated suburb in South Africa. The suburb covers approximately one square mile and has a population of approximately 100,000 people but the exact numbers are difficult to determine due to the mobility of the population (City of Johannesburg, 2014).

WRHi is one of the largest research institutes of the University of the Witwatersrand and part of the Faculty of Health Sciences. Established in 1994 as the Reproductive Health Research Unit (RHRU), the Institute was formed on 1 October 2010 through a merger with Enhancing Children’s HIV Outcomes (ECHO). Their portfolio embraces not only research but also includes programmatic support, training, policy development, health systems strengthening and technical assistance at national and international level (WRHi Online, 2014).

Sex Work is prohibited under the Sexual Offences Act No. 23 of 1957. There is extensive public health research on high-risk behavior that has identified sex work as an elevated transmission area (e.g. Gould & Fink, 2008; Richter, 2010; Vearey et al. 2010; Venables, 2010). Richter et al. (2010) argues that sex workers commonly experience violence, and due to criminalisation laws sex workers are less likely to report rape, abuse and/or seek medical care.

Sisonke Sex Worker Movement is a national movement for sex workers run by sex workers for sex workers across South Africa that was launched in 2003. The movement aims to unite sex workers, improve living and working conditions and advocate for equal rights for sex workers. Sisonke is also a member of the African Sex Worker Alliance (ASWA), which unites sex workers from all over Africa. We now have Sisonke members in seven provinces. 

Recently, various television programmes in South Africa, ranging from talk shows to investigative news reporting, have highlighted, in varying degrees, some of the concerns shared by Sisonke surrounding issues of police brutality and decriminalisation. Recently, a programme that focused on the life and experience of ‘Snowy’ a transgender sex worker was aired on the Carte Blanche documentary television show on 7 April 2013 (MNet Online, 2013). 

Market Photo Workshop (MPW) is a school of photography located in Newtown, Johannesburg. The initial focus of MPW when it was founded in the 1980s was to provide photography skills, specifically focused on social documentary, to students that would otherwise not have the opportunity. Since its inception, MPW has adhered to the important of using photography as a way to educate, explore and engage in social issues. 

ACMS (formerly known as the Forced Migrations Studies Programme) is based at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. The ACMS is an independent, interdisciplinary and internationally engaged Africa-based centre of excellence for research and teaching that shapes global discourse on human mobility, development, and social transformation. Through research, teaching and outreach ACMS is a regional leader for migration on the continent, with partnerships around the world. 


ACMS Online (n.d.) About. From: . Accessed 24 November 2014.

Flak A (2011) Fictional representation of migrant women involved in sex work in inner-city Johannesburg: How does Self-Representation Compare? MA Thesis. Forced Migration Studies Programme, University of the Witwatersrand.

Gould C & Fick N (2008) Selling Sex in Cape Town, Sex Work and Human Trafficking in a South African City. Institute of Security Studies: Pretoria, South Africa. 

City of Johannesburg Online (2014) Making Hillbrow a Neighborhood. From: . Accessed 24 November 2014.

MNet Online (2013) Carte Blanche, 7 April 2014. From: . Accessed 24 November 2014.

Oliveira E (2011a) Migrant women sex workers: How urban space impacts self-(re) presentation in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. MA Thesis. Forced Migration Studies Programme, University of the Witwatersrand.

Oliveira E (2011b) A look at the experiences and perceptions of health among migrant women sex workers in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. African Women’s Journal, 2, 22-30.

Richter M, Chersich M, Scorgie F, Luchters S, Temmerman M & Steen R (2010) Sex work and the 2010 FIFA World Cup: Time for public health imperatives to prevail. Globalization and Health, 6(1). From: . Accessed 24 November 2014.

Richter M (2010) The Slippery Slope of Prostitution Hill and Being Highbrow in Hillbrow. Heinrich Böll Foundation: Cape Town, South Africa.

Vearey J, Oliveira E, Madzimure T & Ntini B (2011) Working the City: Experiences of Migrant Women in Inner-city Johannesburg. The Southern African Media and Diversity Journal, 9, 228-233.

WRHi Online (2014) Home Page. From: . Accessed 24 November 2014.


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