Beyond Rights and Rescue: Stories From the ‘Grey Zone’

The issue of sex work deeply divides opinions and is often framed by a dichotomous feminist-based argument of ‘prostitution’ as a form of oppression in which ‘victims’ are in need of rescuing versus sex work as a legitimate occupation with the rights related to this needing to be respected. 

In this paper, I use the following definition of sex work: 

March 30th, 2015

The issue of sex work deeply divides opinions and is often framed by a dichotomous feminist-based argument of ‘prostitution’ as a form of oppression in which ‘victims’ are in need of rescuing versus sex work as a legitimate occupation with the rights related to this needing to be respected. 

In this paper, I use the following definition of sex work: 

Sex work is any agreement between two or more persons in which the objective is exclusively limited to the sexual act and ends with that, and which involves preliminary negotiations for a price (UNAIDS, 2000) 

This research is drawn from a larger WOTRO-funded project looking at the impact of migration legislation, trafficking discourses and transnational networks on feelings of belonging among migrant sex workers in Johannesburg and Amsterdam. In Johannesburg, where I have recently conducted fieldwork, I find this dichotomy expressed through two predominant spaces of ‘support’ for sex workers. The first is the institutions and organisations offering to ‘rescue’ women from sex work such as NGOs, government shelters, et cetera. Drawing on the perspective that ‘prostitution’ – as they call it – can only be a form of exploitation, such organisations campaign to get women ‘off the streets’ and into (often unobtainable) alternative employment. Their position is further validated by the moral panic in South Africa based on sensationalised reporting about the trafficking of women and children which is often conflated with sex work (Richter, 2012). 

The second space is within the pro-sex worker organisations in South Africa including sex worker advocacy organisations run by sex workers for sex workers. The decriminalisation model typically involves repealing the existing legislation of criminal offences and penalties and instead applying existing labour and tax regulations to the sex industry, in the same way as they might apply to any other enterprise. Arguing that decriminalisation of sex work would allow for the provision of better support services and particularly healthcare access for sex workers, they aim to unite all sex workers under a banner of sex work as work. However, there is the risk that, in uniting and homogenising a diverse and fragmented group of people under the umbrella term ‘sex worker’, certain voices, particularly those who are most marginalised, can be lost. 

These marginalised voices can be found in what I refer to as the ‘grey zone’, a seamless and often invisible space that weaves through Johannesburg, encompassing and often determining the experiences of those who do not seem to ascribe or belong to either of the discourses outlined above. This includes many of the cross-border migrant women I have interviewed who exchange sex for money on a regular basis but choose not to identify themselves with the label of ‘sex work’. The latter view seems to have arisen for many reasons including the need to remain invisible in the city (from the police, immigration officers, et cetera) and because they see the transaction or exchange of sex as a temporary strategy only. Yet, at the same time, they do not see what they do as wrong and do not feel that they need to be rescued. The grey zone therefore is produced by organisations that ignore the messier realities of migrant women’s lives and the ambiguities inherent in their choices and experiences, while reproducing the marginalisation they condemn. In turn, those who feel marginalised do not turn to sex worker organisations because they do not feel that they fit the label that defines them, thus staying within the grey zone.

It is these individuals who I argue challenge the traditional ‘rights versus rescue’ debate and demand a broader understanding of those who cross borders and choose to sell sex, while problematising the ways in which their experiences are understood and represented. 

They also point us towards a different set of questions. Rather than debating whether sex work is right or wrong or whether sex workers must be rescued or respected, we should be concerned with what their lived experiences tell us – how they spill out beyond the tight boundaries set by the dichotomous debate, how they blur our current modes of understanding and show that experiences of sex work can embody risk, hope, fear, enjoyment, violence and desire. These experiences are in the grey zone and need to be heard, challenging the silences. Therefore, in this paper, I start by briefly setting out the context of migrants and sex work in Johannesburg. I then draw on some of the lived experiences of migrant women selling sex in order to highlight the experiences of women who do not see themselves as victims yet are pushed deeper into the grey zone simply because they do not see themselves as the organisations see them.

Sex Work and Migrants

Despite the fact that all aspects of sex work are criminalised in South Africa (under the Sexual Offences Act 23 of 1957, last amended in 2007) research has found that earnings for sex work are generally higher than in other jobs in the informal economy and those working full-time can do relatively well in a short period of time. The number of sex workers in South Africa is unknown and, despite increasing research efforts to document experiences, little is known about the characteristics and particularly the health needs of sex workers in the country (Richter et al., 2012). 

What is known, however, is that the largest percentage of sex workers are internal or cross-border migrants and that the majority are found in the province of Gauteng (where the city of Johannesburg is situated) (Richter et al., 2012). This is not surprising given that Johannesburg hosts the largest proportion of South Africa’s migrant population (cross-border and internal migrants). Most of these migrants, especially those who are undocumented, choose to engage in informal livelihood strategies including sex work because of their difficulties in accessing the formal labour market. However, given the lack of regulation in the informal sector, migrants are easily exploited and face a number of vulnerabilities including abuse from the police, the risk of being arrested and detained for not having the correct documents, risk of deportation and discriminatory treatment when accessing accommodation, healthcare and other support services. 

For cross-border migrant sex workers in particular, research has shown that, despite some advantages in certain aspects of their work compared to their internal and non-migrant counterparts, such as having higher education levels, predominantly working part-time at indoor venues and earning more money per client, they face high levels of risk and violence when carrying out their jobs, in particular abuse and brutality from the police. This precarious existence can be described as a ‘double vulnerability’. As migrants, they face many of the risks and exploitations noted above and, in addition, they must deal with the stigma that is attached to sex work (Agustin, 2007; Gould & Fick, 2008). This double vulnerability can be examined further within the criminalised context of sex work in South Africa and the moral panic around trafficking which hardens attitudes towards sex work, while presenting a misleading picture of those who engage in transactional sex. 

The ‘Rescue’ Project

The misleading picture of women who cannot make choices and cannot look after themselves is peddled most prominently in the anti-trafficking discourse in South Africa. Human trafficking has proved to be a popular global cause drawing on a larger discourse around the securitisation of nation-states, concerns around movement across borders and a criminal underworld. The Palermo Protocol defines trafficking as: 

The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation (United Nations, 2001).

In South Africa, the anti-trafficking rhetoric is particularly vociferous following the moral panic that emerged in the wake of claims about increased trafficking during the 2010 World Cup and South Africa being placed on the US trafficking watch list (Delva et al., 2011). This is despite the fact that research on trafficking is scarce and that the data that does exist is often acquired through methodologically unsound methods (Gould, Richter & Palmary, 2010). 

While appealing to moral and emotional sensibilities around poor women and evil men, trafficking draws attention away from wider problems in South Africa including the exploitation of workers in the informal economy, poor access to healthcare and education and the criminalisation of sex work. Furthermore, those who have chosen to cross borders and sell sex, even when their choices are constrained, are pushed further into the grey zone because of the moralising that condemns what they do. 

Their experiences and choices are part of what Agustin (2007) refers to as the ‘uncomfortable truths’ around the experiences of migrant sex workers, truths that highlight ambiguities, temporalities and complexities that do not sit comfortably with the discourses on trafficking and sex work that seek to apply the labels of ‘perpetrators’ and ‘victims’ as identities rather than temporary conditions (ibid). These uncomfortable truths are shown clearly in the narratives of the many migrant women who I have spoken to during six months of fieldwork. While space does not allow for a detailed reading of these narratives, below I provide short extracts from one young woman from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Angela, as well as two other women I spoke to, which highlight the constraints and the choices they faced in their experiences of travelling to Johannesburg and selling sex. In order to protect the identity of those interviewed, pseudonyms have been used.

Angela’s story

Angela began selling sex in the DRC as a teenager as a way of providing for her family. In 2010, she left her family and two young children to travel to Johannesburg where she hoped she could find a modelling job to earn money to send back home. Angela says:

[In the] DRC people said Jo’burg is nice, there is money – they tell me they like slim bodies there so I will get money. But when I come here, it’s not like that. I came [with] no English. One friend from South Africa she told me English words. She helped me to learn English and I told her I wanted to model. She went with me to a modelling agency. They were keen but they wanted English speaking and R1,000… Then I decided to do the [sex] work again as I needed money. I had to pay rent.

Having sold sex in the DRC and used sex to cross the borders into Zambia and then into South Africa, Angela started to go to clubs in Johannesburg and pick up clients. However, at the start, she did not earn much money and fell behind on her rent. She explains:

That landlord wanted to chase me out… I had sold everything to try and pay the rent… and I did not even have R1 to cook. You can’t get clients every day and I had no money for a taxi to go to the clubs. I had to borrow money and so I owed more. But then I heard about a club that needed waitresses… I took my CV to the club and they called me. The owner is from DRC. I get R100 per night working from 6.30 p.m. to 4.30 a.m. There are no breaks. I make sometimes R500 to 800 from tips. So then I paid my creditor and went back to the club. That Friday night, I met an Italian man. He wanted to pay me R2,000 to stay with him so I went and claimed toothache the next day so I could be with him.  

While this part of Angela’s story illustrates the precariousness of trying to make ends meet, it also demonstrates how sex work became a viable option for her in the face of other very limited choices and the need to survive in the city. 

Like many of the migrant women that I spoke to, Angela made a choice about coming to Johannesburg. It was not an easy choice and was not made in the light of the many other options available to her. It was a choice based on what seemed like the best way out of a desperate situation. This agency is important to emphasise. Despite several studies in Southern Africa documenting linkages between migration and informal livelihood activities (Richter et al., 2012), there has been little focus on travel and sex work and thus the voices of women like Angela are rarely heard. While recognising the importance of highlighting the violence and risks that women face in crossing borders and selling sex, if we only focus on these, we misrepresent the experiences of those who suffer but also endure and turn their situation around. 

Crista, another young woman from the DRC, describes how she started sex work at the age of 16 after being raped by a truck driver when travelling from Zambia to South Africa. She was subsequently raped again by the husband of her employer when working as a domestic worker. She also notes that, despite going into sex work ‘as I felt there was nothing else for me,’ she has found a level of freedom and independence ‘where I can do what I want and if the men are nice then I get money for something.’ Echoing these sentiments, Celeste from Zambia states, ‘I can’t get a job here. What do I do? I can’t sit on the street. So I must work… this way I am working and I am making money.’

The stories that have emerged from in-depth interviews with migrant women reflect these ‘uncomfortable truths’ of tragedy, hope, pain and loss as well as opportunity and independence. They also illustrate that choices are not clear cut and, therefore, while rejecting the rescue discourse they also do not necessarily identify with the label of ‘sex worker’ or the activism of sex worker organisations.

Realities of the ‘Grey Zone’

One of the strongest narratives among the migrant women is of the impermanence of their current situations and work. They all expressed the desire to go ‘somewhere else’. Angela wants to go to France where she wants to be a model and make more money for her children. Crista wants to go ‘somewhere else, maybe America’ while a woman named Patricia stated that she wants to find a country where she could feel safe and get a good job. 

These notions of temporariness distance the women from a sex worker identity. When I spoke to a peer educator about the criteria for membership with a support organisation, they told me, ‘You don’t have to support [decriminalisation] but you must admit you are a sex worker… you must look inside yourself and say, “This is what I do.”’ 

However, this did not sit comfortably with the women I spoke to. As Crista notes, ‘I don’t say that I am one – I just do it sometimes.’ Patricia states, ‘I go and do it and I get the money – I don’t tell others. It is my business.’ Thus, while campaigns to create safer environments for sex workers would also benefit migrant women, it is clear that there is something about the campaign for sex workers’ rights that does not seem to fit their experiences. 

Without questioning the importance of the drive to support sex workers and fight for decriminalisation, this perspective raises some interesting questions about where those who do not fully ascribe to the ‘rescue’ or ‘respect’ discourses fit in. While many of the women do not wish to be saved and spoke very negatively about the organisations intending to help them, they do not see their current work as their profession. Rather, it is temporary work that helps them to make ends meet. And while they demand respect in their work, they do not explicitly respect sex work per se or, at least, express ambivalence in their thoughts about it. Moreover, the label of sex worker for them carries far more in terms of judgment and did not speak to the levels of negotiation, desperation and balancing that they have to work with every day in the grey zone in order to feel like they belong.


It is these ambivalences that seem to set migrant women who sell/exchange sex apart from the discourses around them and further entrench them in the grey zone of life in Johannesburg. The stories that I have encountered in my research emphasise the many diversities of experience, needs, desires and lived realities of migrant women. Furthermore, they demonstrate the need for such voices in all of their multiplicities to be listened to and to continuously challenge and complicate the simplistic discourses that often frame their lived experiences and reproduce the grey zone within which they find themselves. Only then can this work be effectively framed in a manner that realises maximum economic benefit for all the women concerned – especially those in the grey zone. 


Agustin L (2007) Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry. Zed Books: New York, US.

Delva W, Richter M, De Koker P, Chersich M & Temmerman M (2011) Sex Work during the 2010 FIFA World Cup: Results from a Three-Wave Cross-Sectional Survey. PLoS One, 6(12). From: . Accessed: 14 November 2014.

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

Gould C, Richter M & Palmary I (2010) Of Nigerians, Albinos, Satanists and Anecdotes. South African Crime Quarterly, 32, 37-44.

Richter M (2012) Sex Work as a test case for African feminism. BUWA! 

From: . Accessed: 12 July 2014.

Richter M, Chersich MF, Vearey J, Sartorius B, Temmerman M  & Luchters S (2012) Migration Status, Work Conditions and Health Utilization of Female Sex Workers in Three South African Cities. Journal of Immigrant Minority Health, 16(1), 7-17. From: . Accessed: 15 May 2014.

United Nations (2001) Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (Palermo Protocol). From: . Accessed: 29 May 2014. 


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