Selling Sex by Selina Palm

Selling Sex by Selina Palm


We live in a highly commoditised society. And yet despite the rules of the market prevailing as a matter of course over so many aspects of our life, most of us believe that there are some things that morally should not be for sale. To sell one’s kidney, for example, is seen as a sign of desperation; to sell one’s child a sign of inhumanity. And to sell one’s body (as prostitution for so many years has been rather inaccurately depicted), is seen as a sign of, well, something intrinsically degrading and dirty.

The oldest profession in the book has been through many manifestations in its enduring life, as have the various responses to it. Often it has mirrored wider or repressed attitudes to sex within society. While modern societies increasingly shrink from labelling the women who sell sex merely as fallen women or immoral sluts, many have moved instead to the language of victimhood. ‘Whores’ may have gone from being termed bad girls to badly treated girls, nevertheless rescue and rehabilitation is still the goal.

My journey into the heart of my own confused prejudices about women who sold sex started when I was in my early 20s and went to live in the Philippines as a Christian volunteer working with street children. For the first time I met and talked to many women my age who sold sex as their main economic activity. This experience challenged many of my own norms, and exposed me in an unnervingly real way to the experience of what Edward Said terms ‘the Other’ – something so outside your own frame of reference that it is easy to scapegoat it in ways that are stereotypical and damaging.

Upon reflection more than 10 years later (informed by much further academic study on the issue since), what still strikes me most forcibly about those first meetings was the condemnation that many of these girls expected from me and their touching surprise and delight at not being automatically shunned. It was one of those rare moments where I viscerally ’got’ the way Jesus probably behaved amongst ‘sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors’, those notorious actions that got him into so much trouble with the religious establishment of his day. He literally embodied his acceptance of the humanity of the marginalised in a way that may have had transforming and healing power. I think he saw differently.

The women I met challenged my tendency to see them just as victims. Their lives were often unbearably tough, their economic circumstances – as with much of the developing world – were frankly appalling, and the risks of selling sexual services were significant. But despite that most of the women I met wanted their choices recognised and acknowledged. They wanted what they did to be seen as work and to be protected as such and for them not to be seen as somehow sub-human because of this choice. I found that many women who sell sex resent being depicted by society as bad girls or victims. They do not believe that this reflects the nuanced reality of their lives or the way in which they do in fact negotiate power within sexual transactions. They don’t want to be labelled as people who sell themselves – rather than a bodily service – and point out that this defining of their person often contributes to their dehumanisation and stigmatisation. Of course no-one denies that there are multiple victims within the sex industry but many sex workers argue that criminalising them all and painting them all as victims in fact makes it harder for those real victims within the trade – the children, the trafficked, the abused, the raped – to be able to receive any enforceable protection from the law.

I believe that prostitution can also throw public light on the much wider phenomenon of transactional sex – notorious across the African continent. Sex for security, sex for food, sex for stuff, sex for a good night out. When we scapegoat the person of the prostitute as the most extreme form of this sex, we are often saying more about ourselves and our own assumed norms than we realise. Prostitution also throws light on what it means to be a ‘good girl’ – in the same way that other ‘transgressions’ of femininity such as lesbianism can – and it often elicits powerful negative responses as a result. I realised how relevant this issue is in the lead up to the Word Cup as I attended a university seminar by a visiting ethics (white male) professor who argued forcefully that all attempts to recognise prostitution as work were morally bankrupt. Subsequently, an article appeared in the Mail and Guardian entitled ‘Not all sex workers are victims’, and pointed out that there is a level of hypocrisy in a society that refuses to recognise sex as a commodity with a price and yet continues to value women primarily on their physical appearance and sexual availability.

I left the Philippines feeling saddened that sex workers often feel more dehumanised by those who are trying to ‘rescue’ them than by the pimps, johns and brothel owners who I fully expected to see as the bad guys of the story. I realised that the stereotype of the prostitute as a sexually abused child growing inevitably into the life of prostitution, probably with a drug habit to fuel her desperate acts, was curiously at odds with the many actual women I met – sober, tough, business-minded, young mothers who looked at their admittedly constrained options for work in our unequal and exploitative world and made their difficult choices accordingly. I learnt valuable lessons from the sex workers I met who helped me journey into the possibility of what my choices might have been in another life of less privilege. They enabled me to leave not with answers but with a determination to try and see differently; to be wary of the paternalistic attitudes that come from being too quick to box others as victims, and left me with a desire to journey in empathy with those often most marginalised in our society today.
For more information on this issue in Cape Town, check out www.sweat.org.za