“At Your Own Risk”: Narratives of Migrant Sex Workers in Johannesburg

Schuler, G. (2016) “At Your Own Risk”: Narratives of Migrant Sex Workers in Johannesburg Urban Forum [DOI: 10.1007/s12132-016-9282-z]

Existing evidence indicates that cross-border migrant women sex workers in South Africa are often marginalized by state and non-state actors professing to assist them. Trafficking discourses frequently conflate migrant sex workers with trafficking victims, denying them agency and silencing the women under discussion. This paper emphasizes the voices of the women themselves, drawing from the first academic research employing creative writing workshops as a methodology with migrant women sex workers in Johannesburg, South Africa.

This work responds to calls for more innovative methodologies to reach marginalized or “invisible” groups and adds to the “voices” of urban poor migrants to provide more information about the lived experiences of migrant sex workers in Johannesburg. Narratives from five Zimbabwean sex workers in Johannesburg reveal representations of sex work that are paradoxically both “good” and “bad”—ambiguous in a way the polarized discussions around sex work rarely reflect and in a way that might be best expressed through creative writing.

In a country increasingly concerned with issues of (anti-)immigration and (anti-)trafficking, these women are often positioned as vulnerable and misidentified as trafficked; however, their self-representations portrayed complex women calculating and making decisions, especially related to their health and safely. This paper concentrates on letters the participants wrote to young sex workers, which highlight the participatory aspect of this method and show the complexities an arts-based method can reveal.

About Greta Schuler

Greta Schuler is a PhD candidate in creative writing and a doctoral fellow at the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS). Her dissertation focuses on the lives of migrant sex workers in Johannesburg.

With ACMS’s MoVE project, Greta is facilitating creative writing workshops with sex workers and running the Gauteng sex worker newsletter, Izwi Lethu: Our Voice. Greta’s short stories and essays have appeared in various literary journals, including Creative Nonfiction, the Crab Orchard Review, and PANK (online). She holds an MA in Forced Migration from the University of the Witwatersrand and an MFA in Creative Writing from American University, Washington, DC.