Massage Parlours and Teenage ‘Sex Workers’

Recently my attention has been drawn to two articles in the local Cape Town newspaper highlighting ‘Sex Work’ in the city.

The first is entitled “Teenagers Ply their Trade as Sex Workers” and starts off by telling us that there are 1,300 sex workers registered in Cape Town. It then goes on to tell the story of a 15 year old girl working in the streets of Belville who ‘became a prostitute’ 2 years ago… at the age of 13.

While I admire the reporter who made the effort to look into what sex for sale means in Cape Town, I doubt I am the only one who is disturbed by the language used in the beginning of this article. The fact that teenagers are called Sex Workers, and a 13 year old ‘became a prostitute’ shows that something is deeply wrong with our perception on underage prostitution.

The idea of calling prostitution ‘Sex Work’ stems from the thinking that Sex Workers are involved in a legitimate trade and by calling it work one can move away from the stigma of prostitution.

Whatever your views on Sex Work VS Prostitution, I am totally appalled that the term Sex Work would be connected to teenagers. People who are not yet legally old enough to even make a decision to be in prostitution. If the thinking is that the term sex work is a more legitimate and appropriate term for prostitution, then by connecting it to teenagers, a population of people who still need permission to go on school trips, we have legitimized teenage prostitution. Recognizing the sexual exploitation of children is a major problem in Cape Town which often goes unaddressed. When you put the words teenager and sex worker together, you have actually undermined the need for assistance and exit strategies to be made available for children in prostitution. You are normalizing a situation that should never be made normal.

When they go on to tell the story of a 15 year old who became a prostitute at 13, they make it sound as if at 13 she made a decision to enter prostitution. Having worked in Belville area on multiple occasions, I have yet to meet a prostituted woman, adult or child, working in that area who was not controlled by a violent pimp. Some of the worst sex trafficking stories we have heard have come from Belville, where teenagers have been beaten and forced to sleep outside, forced to take tik, strip searched for their money, deprived of food, made to sleep in the same beds that they work in, and while they are working the streets, they are constantly watched by their pimps who carry guns. This way they know to never run away. Whatever this 15-year-old’s situation is now, the language used in this article only further perpetuates the idea that she made a choice to be in prostitution, and that she is really a difficult teenager who was sentenced to a juvenile facility. I doubt that is the full story and quite frankly think writing in that language does a disservice to the many underage girls who have been exploited on the streets of Belville and denied the help they need.

We have another word for 13 year olds who are prostituted, it’s called Human Trafficking.

The second article was also about sex work, but this time regarding a brothel which disguises itself as a massage parlour. In this article the journalist pretends to be a young girl applying for a job as a masseuse at what is actually a brothel. This is interesting, because it shows how easily women who are in desperate need of employment could end up in prostitution when they are really just looking for a job. What the article doesn’t tell you is that this brothel has put ads in the newspaper (the same one which ran the article), claiming to be looking for masseuses and receptionists, and also the newspaper runs advertisements geared towards this brothels clients encouraging them to make an appointment with their new girls.

It is fascinating to see Cape Town’s newspapers start the conversation around sex work/prostitution and sex trafficking, and I am impressed by journalists who are willing to go the extra step to investigate what really goes on. I just hope they will also be willing to address the fact that their own places of employment are financially benefitting from the advertisements of these brothels, and of course, I hope they will consider changing their language to properly represent this issue.

What are your thoughts? Agree or disagree with Sex Work vs Prostitution? What should we call underage prostitution? Is it beneficial for articles like these to be printed or are they more detrimental? Let me know… 

6 Responses to “Massage Parlours and Teenage ‘Sex Workers’”
  1. mfuleni says:

    Thanks for giving perspective. I think you’re 100% correct.

  2. I agree, but really you could get more deep in the fact that a 13 yearl old human being gets forced to enter that activity, than how a reporter or any of us can call them. Prostitution and sex work could be something normal in this world, or qualified by any goverment and society, but never under any circumstances including kids, and I can see you agree with me, so let’s go searching the real and ultimate problem on each city and country.

  3. justsaskia says:

    Check out this blog: passed on by abolitionist Nikki Junker, she also discusses the language used to address these issues – let her know what you think.

    Also, by request, here is a link to the first article: the online version of the article has changed the word ‘Sex Worker’ to ‘Prostitute’.

  4. Very important word you’re sharing here, sister. Very important. Thank you for laying this out so well as you did.

  5. Reblogged this on Crossover at Eagles Point and commented:
    An awesome advocate brings attention to the wrong language used by the media, which is so indicative of society’s complete missing the boat on beginning to understand what is sometimes, as in this case, even right before their very own eyes.
    Amazing, isn’t it, how deafeningly blind we can be. (Makes me wonder how the Messiah felt when those who sought for Him couldn’t even see Him when He was standing right before them, performing miracles and pouring rivers of life from between His lips. Well…how many of us have also felt that way, like we were just a shadow amongst people? Another blog, another time…)
    Please read what this dear sister has to share…

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] A few months ago I wrote a post strongly stating that Canada should not legalise pimping. But I still feel like we need to design laws that will protect those in a vulnerable position. For example, the Netherlands recently created a law that, starting in 2012, will prevent women under the age of 21 from working in prostitution. I think that is a brilliant law when working in a country that says a woman can make a choice to be a sex worker. If that is the cultural standpoint of your country, then ensure it is woman making that decision, not teenage girls. Teenagers are never ‘sex workers’. […]

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