A productive tension in the messages from Nelspruit and Makhado

In March of 2017 Elsa Oliveira and I facilitated the first workshop in a new project with participants who were involved with some of our past workshops. This new project is called the Sex Worker Poster Project, and it is a MoVE Project (MoVE) in partnership with Sisonke. Elsa and I were assisted in the facilitation of this project by Katlego Rasebitse, the Media Liaison Officer for Sisonke in Gauteng. This blog entry provides some thoughts on the partnership that underpins the research and social activism of the Sex Worker Poster Project, makes a note of that project’s linkages with a past project in the same MoVE-Sisonke partnership, and reflects on what can be a productive tension between activism, and research.

Duladula & My Baby (2017) A selection of posters from the first workshop, The Sex Worker Poster Project, Nelspruit. | The participants who were involved in this workshop are Doe Doe, Duladula, Freedom, Kagee, KG Loo, Less31, My Baby, and Zazazi.

The nature of the partnership
MoVE is a project based at the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at the University of the Witwatersrand. The aim of MoVE is to involve migrants in the co-production of knowledge and affect using socially involved, participatory arts-based methodologies that integrate social action with research in ways that are unrestrained by traditional notions of research and dissemination. MoVE sometimes partners with Sisonke, the only sex worker movement in South Africa that is run by sex workers, for sex workers. Sisonke aims to unite sex workers, improve living and working conditions, fight for equal access to rights, and advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa. In this partnership between MoVE and Sisonke, the Sex Worker Poster Project continues the general research interests of the ACMS: the attempt, through research undertaking, to challenge, build upon and expand representational forms, and procedural mechanisms used in working with, and portraying the lived realities of migrant groups such as sex workers.

Finding a foothold in the Sex Worker Zine Project
A key aspect of the long-term partnership between MoVE and Sisonke is in building on the experiences gained in past projects. This continuity and expansion in projects occurs in terms of project conceptualisation and planning regarding the visual-narrative drive of projects, and in terms of the facilitation methods employed and workshop activities undertaken.

The Sex Worker Poster Project follows up on the Sex Worker Zine Project which Elsa, Katlego, and I facilitated just about two years ago. The zine project was based on the desire by Elsa Oliveira to challenge the notion of a single story in the conception of what sex work entails. Oliveira’s drive in this project was influenced by the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2017), who argues that although a single story may not be entirely fictitious, it remains a rather partial representation, and entails the danger of dispelling another story, when it becomes the only story.

The polemics on sex work often assume highly patronising and moralising tones. As Elsa Oliveira and Jo Vearey (2017) noted in their introduction to the Sex Worker Zine Project publication, the danger in following the single story regarding sex work is that people such as migrants become negatively stereotyped as burdens and criminals. Even though research has shown that the criminalisation of sex work leads to issues around health and safety for sex workers, there is a pervasiveness of negative stereotypes around sex work. Oliveira and Vearey argue that these negative stereotypes bolster the arguments that lead to detrimental policy decisions by increasingly conservative and restrictive neoliberal political leaders who chose to criminalise sex work, because negative stereotypes create a climate in which prejudiced positions gain social acceptance. The most recent example of bad policy decisions that are not grounded in good research is the highly inappropriate report released on 26 May 2017 by the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC) titled Sexual Offences: Adult Prostitution (South African Law Reform Commission, 2017). The following extract from the report makes clear the commission’s general position towards sex work:

33. The Commission further believes that any effort to integrate prostitution into formal employment laws and structures would encounter inherent difficulties. It is particularly mindful of the challenges experienced in comparative jurisdictions in this regard. The Commission recommends that prostitution should not be recognised as a reasonable means to secure a person‘s living in South Africa, and from a formal labour perspective should not be considered to be work or decent work. This stance aligns with the partial criminalisation model found in the Nordic countries and Canada and the total criminalisation model currently in place in South Africa (para 2.452).

Although this report was published in 2017, it was written by the SALRC in 2015, and was based on much older research (Urgent: Alert to All Sex Work Allies 26 May 2017, 2017). In a Sweat position paper, published the same year as which the SALRC report was written, Ishtar Lakhani (2015) makes a strong case for the decriminalisation of sex work. Lakhani ends this paper with the following statement:

We conclude that the current legal system criminalising of sex work in its entirety is impractical and ineffective. The law needs to be reformed to make it consistent with South Africa’s constitutional obligations from a human rights perspective. The decriminalisation of sex work can reduce sex workers vulnerability to violence at the hands of police, clients and intimate partners and contribute to eliminating stigma that is a barrier to service delivery.

The pointed damnation of the SALRC report from activists within the sex worker community, as well as from social researchers, lawmakers and politicians who are sensitive to the complexities of the field, is creating message that the report’s adaptation of a Swedish Model for the criminalisation of activities surrounding sex work is not appropriate for a South African context. The report is also inappropriate in the sense that while presenting an unjust and harmful policy direction for sex workers, it is being framed by the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development as its response to the concerning regularity of gender-based violence and the loss of life to women in South Africa (Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, 2017). This violence seems to be woven into parts of the fabric that makes South Africa, and has been making the headlines again over the last few weeks. Gender-based violence, however, will not be ended by moralising policies that attempt to curtain the business of selling sex.

The SALRC report should be understood as a continuation of a broader discriminatory context in South Africa towards people who sell sex for a living. It is within this discriminatory context, and with the will to resist this injustice, that The Sex Worker Zine Project from two years ago intended to create complex portrayals of migrants who sell sex. While in no way a panacea, the challenging of stereotypes could be argued to be an important aspect of activism which fights for the decriminalisation of sex work, and of research that supports this type of activism. The Sex Worker Zine Project attempted to challenge stereotypes by generating multiple stories, through a participatory arts-based workshop process, about the lived realities of migrants who sell sex. The visual-narrative stories contained by the zines include many types of stories: personal accounts of home life; supporting families through sex work; the codes and procedures of working as a sex worker; the dangers faced by sex workers from police and from clients; the implications of stigmas and conservative cultural traditions on sex workers; the need to decriminalise sex work; the practice of searching for healthcare as a sex worker. Some stories are inspirational, others are informative, there are some filled with anguish, and then there are others filled with joy. These stories do not make one story, but together, they make clear a collective strength of people working to find ways to survive. These stories, furthermore, did not emerge quickly. Elsa and I facilitated a two-week making-reflecting process with the participants. While this workshop could have continued into more weeks had there been scope in the project, the period we had was sufficient to allow the participants’ chosen stories to emerge slowly, and gradually shift into their current public forms.

The Sex Worker Zine Project had 24 participants, and was undertaken in South Africa, in a small city named Nelspruit, which is in the Mpumalanga province, and in a large town named Makhado, which is in the Limpopo province. It is in these locations, and with mostly the same participants, that we continue with the Sex Worker Poster Project.

[To read the rest of this blog visit: A productive tension in the messages from Nelspruit, and from Makhado.]

About Quinten Williams

Quinten Edward Williams is a Johannesburg based artist. Arts-based research projects provide him with the opportunity to work with nuanced relationships that are embedded in specific places. Projects such as the Sex Worker Zine Project allow Quinten to expand his art practice beyond the painter’s studio, linking up with social justice movements.