When ‘Choices’ Are Not Choices: Recognising the Right to Work and Alleviating the Plight of the Trapped Sex Worker

  • Alexander Beyleveld


In South Africa, legislation makes it an offence for a person 18 years or older to have ‘unlawful carnal intercourse’ for reward.[1] Given that this is the case, and for various other reasons, it is difficult to gather statistics regarding the precise number of sex workers in South Africa.[2] For the same reasons it is difficult to gather information on the various plights of sex workers generally. The South African Law Reform Commission, however, released an issue paper on adult prostitution in 2002 and thereafter a discussion paper on the same subject matter in 2009.[3] This indicates that sex work, regardless of the amount of people that take part in it, is a sufficiently important topic to attract discussions on law reform and is therefore a sufficiently important topic for academic discussion. These discussions are not merely abstract either: it was estimated in 2000 that between 5000 and 10000 female sex workers live and work in Inner-City Johannesburg alone.[4] Their issues are very much real and in dire need of practical solutions.

When questioned on their motives for becoming sex workers, here is what some individuals had to say:


‘When I came to Johannesburg, my intention was to seek employment, but after trying

unsuccessfully, I decided to become a sex worker.’[5]


‘My husband divorced me and left me with two children. I then sought advice from a friend, as I could not survive without a job. She advised me to become a sex worker, and even though I was reluctant at first, I gave in later as I realised it is better than relying on people for survival. I wish the government could create jobs for us, so that I can quit this dangerous job.’[6]


‘I have four children who are staying with me. They came to stay here because my parents died. It is hard to cope financially.’[7]


From the above responses a particular demographic of sex workers can be defined: women who turn to sex work against their will specifically to assist them financially in their role as mother and as breadwinner. Further qualifying this demographic for the purposes of this article are attributes I myself add to the list: the women I refer to are black and the heads of their respective households. They are destitute themselves but they are heavily depended on by others. They are stalked by Poverty and they turn to Sin for refuge from her.[8] They are woken in the morning by Misery and Shame sits with them at night.

It is on this particular group of women that I will focus on throughout the pages that follow.[9] In part two, I will briefly illustrate further just how vulnerable members of this group are and I will discuss one particular problem that they face, which is, choosing between illegal sex work and destitution. In part three, I will proceed to describe how economic empowerment of the group can to a large extent solve the problem posed in part two. In part four, I will discuss the use of human rights and specifically the right to work in implementing the solution posed in part three. Finally, in part five, I will comment on what a positive implementation of the right to work would mean for social justice.


[1] Section 20(1A)(a) of the Sexual Offences Act 23 of 1957 (as amended by Act 32 of 2007).

[2] Ted Leggett Rainbow Vice: the Drug and Sex Industries in the New South Africa (2002) 96-7.

[3] SA Law Reform Commission Issue Paper 19 Sexual Offences: Adult Prostitution (July 2002). SA Law Reform Commission Discussion Paper 0001/2009 Sexual Offences: Adult Prostitution (2009).

[4] Audrey E Pettifor, Mags E Beksinska & Helen V Rees ‘High Knowledge and High Risk Behaviour: A Profile of Hotel-Based Sex Workers in Inner-City Johannesburg’ (2000) 4 African Journal of Reproductive Health 35 at 36.

[5] Ibid 37.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] I refer here only to the economic aspects of poverty. When referring to ‘sin’ I mean crime, it is not my intent to comment on the morality of the acts of the women in question.

[9] I refer to these women as ‘the group’ for the remainder of this article.

May 1, 2014
How to Cite
BEYLEVELD, Alexander. When ‘Choices’ Are Not Choices: Recognising the Right to Work and Alleviating the Plight of the Trapped Sex Worker. Inkundla, [S.l.], may 2014. Available at: <https://inkundlajournal.org/index.php/inkundla/article/view/20>. Date accessed: 09 aug. 2022.