Selling Sex, Mothering and “Keeping Well” in the City: Reflecting on the Everyday Experiences of Cross-Border Migrant Women Who Sell Sex in Johannesburg

Walker R. (2016) Selling Sex, Mothering and “Keeping Well” in the City: Reflecting on the Everyday Experiences of Cross-Border Migrant Women Who Sell Sex in Johannesburg Urban Forum [DOI: 10.1007/s12132-016-9284-x]

In Johannesburg, a city with the largest proportion of South Africa’s migrant population, women who sell sex face multiple vulnerabilities including discrimination, criminalisation, and many levels of violence, directed particularly at non-nationals. Drawing from interviews with non-national or cross-border migrant women who sell sex on a regular basis, this paper explores experiences of selling sex, motherhood and ‘keeping well’ through the lens of the city. Noting that violence against sex workers is often identified at an inter-personal and behavioural level (attacks and abuse from clients, the police and the public), this paper seeks to make more visible the unjust and violent structures and practices of the inner-city, which impact upon and negatively shape the everyday experiences and well-being of migrant women as they sell sex. These include difficulties in accessing basic services such as healthcare and childcare, encountering widespread stigmatisation and the misrepresentation or silencing of certain voices within the sex worker movement. Therefore, questioning the ways in which the city is experienced, and in turn how practices of the city have failed migrant women who sell sex, the paper argues for a broader approach, an approach that recognises the complexities and ambiguities inherent in the lived experiences and multiple identities of migrant women themselves rather than through the frames applied to them whether it be that of sex worker, foreigner or mother.

About Becky Walker

Becky Walker is a research associate with the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS).

With a background in Social Anthropology and Development Becky’s work has largely explored women’s experiences of everyday violence in both South Asia and Southern Africa. Becky holds an Msc and PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Edinburgh where her research focused on the conflict in Sri Lanka and women’s strategies for negotiating everyday violence.

In 2010 Becky moved to South Africa to take up a Postdoctoral fellowship with the Centre of Indian Studies in Africa (CISA) at Wits University and also taught Gender and Development as a sessional lecturer in Social Anthropology. In 2013 she then was awarded a Wotro-funded postdoctoral project through ACMS that explored the multiple vulnerabilities faced by migrant sex workers in Johannesburg.

The project considered the impact of migration legislation, trafficking discourses and transnational networks on feelings of belonging amongst migrant sex workers in Johannesburg and Amsterdam. It also drew from an innovative arts based participatory project that Becky and a colleague ran in a women’s shelter in inner-city Johannesburg, and on-going research at ACMS into sex work, migration and trafficking. Becky’s current work builds on the Wotro project to explore the vulnerabilities faced by migrant mothers who sell sex in South Africa with a particular focus on the intersections of mothering, being migrants and selling sex and also, challenges encountered such as access to healthcare, stigmatisation and discrimination.

Becky has published widely from her research including a articles and chapters on everyday violence, sex work, trafficking and migration and sex work and motherhood.