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Police, clients and partners responsible for most rapes of sex workers - study

A study by MRC and Wits University researchers, with the assistance of sex workers, found that almost 60% of sex workers had been raped in the past year either by clients, police or other men.

10 September 2021 - 06:00
A new study has found that female sex workers remain the most vulnerable to rape, which is often perpetrated by their intimate partners, their clients and the police.
A new study has found that female sex workers remain the most vulnerable to rape, which is often perpetrated by their intimate partners, their clients and the police.
Image: Anthony Moleneux

A Cape Town sex worker, Sisipho, has lost count of how many times she has been robbed of her earnings or assaulted by her clients.

The 25-year-old mother of one, who has worked as a street-based sex worker for the past three years, admits that not a day passes by without her thinking that she might be raped.

“I think about the possibility of rape all the time, but what can I do? I have to earn money to put food on the table for myself,  my child and my mother.

“Rape has happened so many times to other women that I work with. A friend of mine was recently raped and murdered, and that left us so heartbroken and scared. I’ve been robbed and beaten by the very same clients, who give me money only to take it back violently afterwards. Most of the time you have no choice but to give them the money or risk being raped or arrested by the police,” she said.

According to a new study by the South African Medical Research Council (MRC), female sex workers in Sisipho’s position remain the most vulnerable to rape, which is often perpetrated by intimate partners and the police.

The study, which was done by the MRC and Wits University researchers with the assistance of sex workers, found that almost 60% of sex workers had been raped in the past year either by clients, police or other men. 

Researchers also found that about 70% of sex workers had experienced physical violence in the past year while 23% had been gang-raped. Of more than 3,000 sex workers surveyed almost 50% were raped by clients, 30% had been raped by other men and 32% were raped by their intimate partners. The police were responsible for about 14% of rapes. In two of the 12 sex worker sites that were surveyed in 2019 over a third (37.5%) were rapes that were allegedly by the police, and in another site nearly two thirds or 60.4% were attributed to the police.

Rape by an intimate partner was associated with food insecurity, childhood trauma, post traumatic stress disorder, depression, homelessness, alcohol and drug use, having entered sex work as a child and been in sex work for longer. To deepen an understanding of the risk factors for rape among sex workers, MRC’s lead researcher Prof Rachel Jewkes and colleagues worked through sex worker outreach services at sites where sex was sold, including the streets, beaches, brothels and taverns. Research assistants were themselves sex workers — an approach which enabled access to sex workers who are often difficult to reach and engage due to sex work being illegal in SA.

“It was more empowering for participants and reduced research-related risks,” she noted.

Jewkes said the latest research had shown that across the country female sex workers were particularly vulnerable to rape and other violence from a range of men, including former intimate partners, police and clients.

“We have shown the widespread occurrence of such violence, albeit with some regional variations and districts with a particularly high prevalence. A key finding from our research is the need for sensitisation training for the police and more effective police service management so that officers are held accountable for their behaviour towards sex workers and shown that they cannot abuse their position with impunity,” she said.

Just like Sisipho the majority, or 66%, of sex workers that took part in the study had concealed their work from their families, including their intimate partners. Sisipho said this made her worry: “No-one in my family would know should anything happen to me while I’m at work. I don’t want to tell them what I’m doing as that would hurt my mother and my child.” she said.

While she took precautions such as leaving her earnings with colleagues, Sisipho believed as long as sex work remained criminalised there was no way of completely avoiding rape.

“Every time I go to work I pray that I will come back home safely. It’s a very unsafe environment to work in, and things are made worse by the police who either threaten us with arrest or want to exploit us even more by demanding sexual favours.”

Sex worker advocate Megan Lessing, media advocacy officer at Sex Work Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) says sex workers are often held accountable for their own violations.
Sex worker advocate Megan Lessing, media advocacy officer at Sex Work Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) says sex workers are often held accountable for their own violations.
Image: Supplied

Megan Lessing, spokesperson for Sex Work and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat), said street-based sex workers were particularly vulnerable. Not only were they stigmatised by communities, but this stigma often resulted in their being victims of gender-based violence. 

“Often sex workers are not even regarded as victims because they are not what people regard as a victim that you can sympathise with. When we report that a sex worker was murdered or raped the first question that often comes is ‘what was she doing there, why is out this time of the night, what was she wearing, and why is she doing this kind of job?'

“As sex workers we are often held accountable for our own violations. You must account why you were raped. We don’t have the safety to just to reach out and assume that I will be helped or there will be some sort of mobilisation around my violation.

“We often don’t get justice, and when we do we celebrate it as it almost never happens. Justice for sex workers often ends at the police station, and often sex workers can't even go to the police station because at times police officers are the perpetrators,” she said.

Lessing said it was this lack of justice that Sweat was calling for decriminalisation of sex work.

“Decriminalisation is the only human rights framework approach that will bring sex work under the labour laws and make it constitutional,” she said.

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