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…