The Use of Communications Technology Among Commercial Sex Workers in Johannesburg: Influences of the 2010 FIFA World Cup
Communication, Writing and the Arts
Metropolitan State University
Prior to the start of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, held in South Africa, policy makers, public health experts, and sex workers themselves noted that decriminalization of commercial sex work prior to the event was unlikely.1 As the prospects for decriminalization faded, effective communication strategies among commercial sex workers became increasingly important, as they attempted to avoid interaction with law enforcement and capitalize on the economic opportunities presented by the influx of soccer fans. This paper presents the results of a qualitative research project conducted in July and August of 2009, in and around Soweto, South Africa. As part of a larger research project which included observation and interviews with 53 formal and informal entrepreneurs, this paper focuses on the experiences of seven commercial sex workers, four female and three male, with the use of communications technology as they considered the arrival of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Using a theoretical framework suggested by informal economy studies, economic sociology, and a postcolonial approach to diffusion of innovations research, the study utilized in-depth interviews and collection of secondary documents to draw conclusions about the connections micro-scale entrepreneurs, including commercial sex workers, possess and consider when making economic and social decisions. These connections, or networks, are strengthened or weakened by an individual’s ability to access and exploit communications technology. The paper reports on how participants’ experiences with communications technology such as cell phones and the Internet create and/or influence the communication strategies they use to recruit new clients and network with other sex workers for protection and information.
The 2010 Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup (2010 FWC) in South Africa was hailed as an historic event that recast the position of the African continent and the country itself in the global economy and consciousness. Political rhetoric prior to the event reflected the intention to use the 2010 FWC to benefit all members of South African society, as suggested by then-Deputy and now-President Jacob Zuma on the eve of the bid committee’s trip to Zurich on May 10, 2004:
The benefits of this prospect to our nation would be so enormous that we would take the whole evening, outlining what contribution hosting the World Cup would make to our programme of alleviating poverty, creating jobs and generally in social upliftment…not to mention the name we would have carved for South Africa and Africa in the global world, including the impact on the eradication of stereotypes and Afropessimism.2
Just prior to FIFA’s vote on the 2010 host for the World Cup, then-President Thabo Mbeki noted that “nothing could ever serve to energise our people to work for their and Africa's upliftment than to integrate among the tasks of our Second Decade of Democracy and the African Renaissance our successful hosting of the 2010 Soccer World Cup.” The twin messages of a new (South) African identity and social upliftment proved irresistible to the FIFA selection committee and South Africa was awarded the hosting rights for the 2010 FWC on May 15, 2004. Post-World Cup assessments of the event were equally rosy.
The 2010 FIFA World Cup is generally defined in the literature as a mega-event, which refers to “one-time events that usually generate long-term profound impacts, both positive and negative, on host communities.”6 Nations and cities compete fiercely for the right to host these events; in the case of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Egypt, Morocco, and South Africa were the finalists after two other bidders, Libya and Tunisia, dropped out. As the hosting country, South Africa welcomed local and overseas fans numbering in the millions and television viewers in the billions. One of the most important aspects of the South African government’s interest in securing the hosting rights for the 2010 FIFA World Cup was the hope that it would ameliorate poverty in the country and contribute to the country’s larger development agenda, which has been in place since the end of apartheid in 1994. Pillay and Bass note, “urban development and renewal has been identified by government as a key national imperative,” and as Matheson and Baade suggest, “no reason seems more compelling…[for hosting a mega-event]…than the promise of an economic windfall.”7
Commercial sex workers in Johannesburg and elsewhere in South Africa were among those expecting to gain from the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The 2006 World Cup in Germany gave researchers and policy makers the opportunity to assess the results of a proactively managed information campaign for sex workers and fans alike. Abbany noted that for the German World Cup, more than 40,000 sex workers from eastern Europe were expected to swell the ranks of German sex workers. Reports such as these spurred fears that increased demand for sexual services during the 2006 FIFA World Cup would lead to the trafficking of as many as 40,000 women. These fears proved to be “unfounded and unrealistic,” as approximately 30 cases of trafficking were investigated and only five were linked to the 2006 FIFA World Cup. This has been partially attributed to the fact that prostitution is legal in Germany, and thus commercial sex workers there enjoy better legal coverage. Results from the 2010 FWC suggest that fears of trafficking and a massive influx of commercial sex workers were also overblown, and the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development noted that no trafficking had been reported during the 2010 World Cup.
Unlike Germany, prostitution is illegal in South Africa, and commercial sex workers and advocates in South Africa realized that decriminalization of sex work prior to the start of the event was unlikely. Commercial sex workers in South Africa have been politically active for years, especially around the issue of sex workers’ rights and health implications of decriminalization (see www.sweat.org.za; www.sanac.org.za for examples), but the arrival of the 2010 FIFA World Cup renewed interest in the issues surrounding sex work, especially in the media. Skinner noted that
While South Africa invests billions to prepare its infrastructure for the half-million visitors expected to attend, tens of thousands of children have become ensnared in sexual slavery, and those who profit from their abuse are also preparing for the tournament.
Despite this grim description, Gould and Fick, in a detailed report on the commercial sex industry in Cape Town, reported that trafficking was significantly less prevalent than had been perceived and reported in the media; they noted that
…[what] we found is that while one of the conditions of trafficking (exploitation) is not uncommon in the sex work industry, the other features of trafficking are not commonly experienced. Deception is not common in recruitment, most sex workers live and work in the same city and have done so since they started the work, and most enter the work voluntarily…indeed, surprising as it was even to us, we found that there was very little trafficking into the sex work industry in Cape Town.
The apparent contradictions between reports of trafficking by the IOM and other organizations and studies of commercial sex work suggest that more research into the practices of commercial sex workers is a necessary component of better informed policy making and ongoing debates regarding issues such as decriminalization. This study, as part of a larger study focused on small and micro-scale entrepreneurs primarily located in Soweto, contributes to this knowledge by reporting on the experiences of a small number of commercial sex workers in Gauteng province, specifically Johannesburg, with mobile communications and preparations for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Using qualitative interviews and drawing on a number of secondary sources, the study reports on the habits and use of a variety of communications technologies among commercial sex workers, and how these practices contribute to sex workers’ ability to connect to other sex workers and their clients for protection, information, and monetary gain. Others have written about the effect of the 2010 FIFA World Cup on the commercial sex work landscape in South Africa.
Commercial Sex Work in South Africa: Review
There are a number of important studies outlining the nature of commercial sex work in South Africa. Gould and Fick outlined the division between street-based and brothel-based sex workers in Capetown, finding a total of 1,209 sex workers operating in these two divisions. Fick found that the majority of commercial sex workers in Cape Town were female (93%) whose ages ranged from 18 – 54, although the preponderance were between 22 and 29 years of age.
Wojcicki  conducted a study in Soweto and Hammerskrall among females who engage in sex-for-money exchanges, and noted that “commercial sex work was not a problem in these areas,” but that it was practiced in the downtown areas of Johannesburg such as Hillbrow. This article also suggests that the “sex-for-money exchange that transpires in the tavern is accepted on some level and not understood to be the same as commercial sex work.” It is important to remember that in South Africa, the practice of commercial sex work varies from city to city; for example, sex work in Hillbrow tends to be more “hotel based” with a high proportion of migrants.
Defining the difference between decriminalization and legalization is also an important aspect of the ongoing debate regarding commercial sex work and the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Decriminalization refers to “scrapping all laws which specifically criminalise sex work” while legalization or legislation regarding commercial sex work would “involve the development of new laws dealing with sex work.” The difference between these two positions is important; the implications of legalization include the ability of the government to control the movement and practices of commercial sex workers in ways that decriminalization does not. In addition, decriminalization will allow harsher, more specific penalties for those who force individuals into commercial sex work, for those who participate in or promote child prostitution, and for those involved in the trafficking of human beings. Possible benefits of decriminalization could include increased ability of sex workers to negotiate condom use with clients, leading to greater efficacy of HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns; reduction of society’s stigmatization of sex workers, leading to less risky behavior on the part of commercial sex workers; and the possibility of sex workers being on the “front lines” of programs to prevent trafficking. Finally, in considering the issue of decriminalization of commercial sex work in terms of the 2010 FWC, Bird and Donaldson interviewed a variety of stakeholders in Cape Town to frame the debate regarding legalization and decriminalization. Their findings suggested that these stakeholders, who included representatives from Cape Town city Health, Tourism, and Environment and Development departments, among others, “mostly view[ed] pro-decriminalization in a positive light,” although they also reported that participants tended to conflate decriminalization with an increase in child prostitution and trafficking.
The decriminalization debate and the attendant implications have been the focus of much of the ongoing discussion regarding commercial sex workers in South Africa. While this is a critical issue, commercial sex workers also deal with at least two of the same challenges that other small and micro-scale entrepreneurs do: how to find new customers, and how to maintain and strengthen their networks. Part of the solution to some of these problems lies in the use of mobile communication. It is obvious to even the most casual observer of South African society that mobile communication occupies a prominent place in most people’s lives. During the course of this study, South Africans had access to four cellular service providers: Cell-C, MTN, Virgin Mobile, and Vodacom, each of which was offering both pay-as-you go and contract arrangements for cell phone users. James and Versteeg suggest that as recently as 2005 mobile phone penetration in South Africa was as low as 36.4%. They note that “mobile phones are often divided among people,” suggesting that this seemingly low penetration rate should not be used to equate subscribers to users. According to the International Telecommunications Union, however, in 2007 there were 97 cell phones per 100 inhabitants within South Africa. What’s more, some industry analysts interviewed by Reuters suggest that there is a possibility of greater than 100% penetration rate, given that many people may own multiple SIM cards which move from phone to phone. The same Reuters article notes that penetration rates in 2007 were between 60 and 70% of South Africans. For the purposes of this paper, it is adequate to acknowledge widespread use of the devices and the corresponding ability of participants to connect to clients and each other using mobile communications.
Mobile communication also includes access to the Internet, which is often achieved through tethering a mobile device to a laptop or with a cellular modem connected to a USB port on a laptop. In addition, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) include terrestrial wireless IP services such as iBurst and Neotel, as well as wired ADSL connections provided by Telkom. These are the most commonly mentioned ISPs among participants in this study; the ISP Directory (www.ispdirectory.co.za) notes 209 ISPs providing dial-up and ADSL services. Smart or semi-smart phones also allow the user to access social networking sites like Facebook, engage in low-cost chatting through the MXit service, check email, and surf the web. Previous research in this area include Donner and Gitau, who have identified three categories of mobile internet users: those who access the Internet using a cell phone are categorized as mobile only, mobile primary, or PC primary, depending on their use of other devices. Other scholars have focused their attention on the use of the devices among teens, students, and socially excluded populations. These studies have often included analysis of the use of MXit. There is no literature at present, however, which discusses the role of mobile communication in the lives of commercial sex workers.
Mobile communication has the potential to reinforce or reconfigure the relationships between people, adding to individuals’ stores of social capital. Putnam defines the concept of social capital as “connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” For commercial sex workers involved in informal economic activities, connections to members of peer networks could potentially have more impact on entrepreneurial success than could an equivalent network of formal or informal entrepreneurs in other businesses, because these economic activities are less risky and not stigmatized. Whether the use of mobile communication contributes to social capital, and the results of this increased social capital on business practices, is therefore of concern in this study.
The ability to benefit from the potential of mobile communication in terms of social capital also depends on the gender of the user. Norris and Inglehart noted that women’s involvement in organizations, a measure of social capital, tends to be limited to those organizations that reflect “traditional female roles,” while men’s tends to be more closely connected with economic opportunity and efficiency. For female sex workers, the utility of mobile communications may differ from that of male sex workers.
This article is focused on the experiences of a relatively small number of commercial sex workers who mainly do business in downtown Johannesburg. As part of a larger study which included more than 50 small and micro-scale entrepreneurs, my intention here is to shed light on the use of mobile communication technologies among commercial sex workers. The structural and cultural issues surrounding commercial sex work in South Africa, while always a moving target, have been and are continuing to be investigated by local and international researchers with strong connections to the industry. This paper is intended to supplement those studies by describing some of the characteristics and implications, especially on social capital, of the use of mobile communication among commercial sex workers in Johannesburg.
I began the study with several general research questions in mind, which were gradually refined as the research continued. Of key interest are the ways in which small and micro scale entrepreneurs, both formal and informal, understand the impact of the 2010 FIFA World Cup on their economic opportunities and challenges; how mobile communications contributes to developing and reinforcing networks among small and micro scale entrepreneurs interested in benefiting from the 2010 World Cup; and how the networks created by the use of mobile communications influence individual entrepreneurs’ decision making processes regarding the opportunities connected to the 2010 FWC and beyond. This paper is focused on the experiences of commercial sex workers prior to the 2010 FWC, with follow up research to be conducted after the event.
Participants and Setting
Prior to any fieldwork, the Institutional Review Board at Ohio University approved this study. All participants were informed in advance of an interview of potential risks and benefits of the research, as well as their right to decline to respond to any questions or to terminate an interview at any time. In addition, participants were supplied with the researcher’s contact information so that they could request their contribution to the study be removed at any time after the interview. Participants were given a monetary token (R100, approximately $12 at the time of the study) as compensation for their time. Seven participants took part in formal, semi-structured interviews, which were later transcribed and analyzed using Atlas.ti qualitative data management software. In addition, I met informally with two participants and another researcher on a separate occasion. Interviews took place in locations such as coffee shops, pubs, or at the RHRU offices in downtown Johannesburg.
In order to recruit participants, I engaged a number of approaches. The most direct was to respond by phone to classified advertisements in one of the Johannesburg major dailies. This method proved mostly unsuccessful, as only one person, Paris, agreed to meet for a discussion. It did, however, yield a number of interesting insights into the use of communications among commercial sex workers. The classified section has an extensive list of advertisements for commercial sex workers. In addition, many of these advertisements mix a phone number with a web address, and some advertise other converged services, such as an interactive strip show on the customer’s cell phone or a “flirtatious” chat session. The ongoing convergence of mobile communication, merging voice communication and an Internet presence, allows commercial sex workers new opportunities to promote themselves and provide services to potential customers. One of the strategies I used when attempting to recruit participants by phone was to explain the research as succinctly as possible, and then move to asking about the individual’s experience with the 2009 Confederations Cup, which took place in the month of June. Recent radio programs had featured at least one discussion with a commercial sex worker and her experiences with the Confederations Cup. As a trial run for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the Confederations Cup was expected to yield some insights into what would occur during the World Cup. Occasionally, this led to colorful responses, such as “the Confederations Cup was shit, the World Cup will be shit!” After the explanation and a few pleasantries, respondents generally politely declined to meet for an interview, and one or two simply cut the call. By the time I had given up on this method, I had called at least 20 numbers; many more remained on the page, but my poor success rate suggested I try another recruitment technique.
Other participants were recruited through contacts within the Reproductive Health and HIV Research Unit (RHRU) at Wits University in Johannesburg. One individual, an artisan who was staying in Soweto and a participant in the larger study, introduced me to a commercial sex worker who worked in a downtown Johannesburg hotel. Other interviews were arranged by RHRU staff. I also conducted an informal discussion with a supplier, who provided some background into the issues facing commercial sex workers who operate in brothels. I was unable to gain permission from this individual to use our discussion in this article, but credit much of my (still limited) understanding of the industry to our conversation.
As subjects of media attention in the run-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, some South African commercial sex workers had recently been “outed” to their families by careless journalists. While I was conducting this research, several participants reminded me that they had adopted the slogan “nothing about us without us” which has been most recently used in this context by Jurgens to promote the involvement of illegal drug users in HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns. The slogan also has a long history with the international disability movement to promote meaningful, participatory policy making for those with disabilities. In a research project such as this one, it reminds the researcher to include participants in the research agenda and to ensure that the final result adequately conveys the experiences of participants. I attempt in this paper to present participants’ experiences as accurately as possible, within the limitations of my own experiences as a temporary resident of South Africa.
Participants operated in a variety of locations around Johannesburg, and they each had a different strategy for locating their business activities. While Gould and Fick describe the characteristics of brothel-based and street based sex workers, the participants in this study also included those who I characterize as entirely mobile, with no favored location, and those who operated in downtown Johannesburg hotels, which do not exactly fit into Gould and Ficks’ description of a brothel. Male sex workers do work on the street, but the more covert nature of male sex work means that they are highly reliant on networks and communication for business arrangements which may take place at a location of the client’s choosing. In addition, one participant did business at a suburban house. This house did not operate exactly as a brothel, but more as a boarding house. One of the participants, Paris, told me that the house in which she worked was shared by a changing number of occupants, but at the time of our discussion, there were only two who paid the R250 daily fee for the use of a room, which included sleeping and any other use of the house. Occupants operate independently and are free to come and go as they desire, as long as the daily fee is paid. Should she decide to take a break from her work, Paris is free to do so, depending on her financial situation. She told me “I take like, long breaks…I didn’t work, like maybe 5 months break, or two months.”
Of the seven commercial sex workers who participated in this study, six are South African, and one is a foreign national from Zimbabwe. Three are male and four female. Pseudonyms suggested by participants have been used, which are shown in table 1. Results also include input from several other entrepreneurs from the larger study who contributed to the decriminalization debate and the use of mobile communications. Interviews were conducted in English; there was the occasional sentence or phrase in Afrikaans or isiZulu which I translated to the best of my ability.
Table 1: Pseudonyms and Location Preference
Recordings were transcribed and subject to textual analysis using Atlas.ti qualitative management software. Because this paper is part of a larger project which includes more than 50 interviews and at least 1000 pages of transcription, the use of such software has allowed me to keep track of thousands of individual quotations from participants, which I have coded, categorized, and thematized. The software allows me to group, search, and filter quotations and codes according to participants, which is this case allows me to focus on the experiences of commercial sex workers. One of the benefits to the use of software for data analysis is that the connection to quotations is always maintained. Selecting a specific code allows the researcher to display each of the quotations connected to it, thus reinforcing the connection to the participants’ words. As explained by Glaser and Strauss, coding requires the researcher to perform several iterations on the same data. For me, this meant coding several interviews, examining the codes I had created, refining the codes as necessary, and then returning to the previously coded interviews to check the fit of the refined codes with the selected quotations.
Validity and Reflexivity
Validity refers to the accuracy of the researcher’s interpretations of the data. As the research instrument, the researcher bears the load not only of collecting data that can be used to create a right interpretation of the behavior of research participants, but is also required to constantly reflexively asses their position in the process in order to develop this “right interpretation.” Simply having a large collection of transcribed interviews does not necessarily increase the “truth value” of the research. With the realization that this project involves what is essentially textual analysis of more than 1000 pages of interviews and field notes, I am aware that more than one interpretation of the data exists. I also contend that the number of reasonable interpretations is limited, rather than infinite, and I have used strategies such as member checking and triangulation with observation and secondary document analysis to assess that validity of my interpretations. In conducting research in the digital age, the researcher is not limited to “parachuting in,” collecting his data, and leaving to form his own interpretation of events. Instead, today’s qualitative researcher has the responsibility to continually check the results of his interpretation with members of the community with whom he has created the data. For me, this is a process of contacting participants and key informants through email, Facebook, and telephone.
When I use quotes from participants, I generally present them as they occurred in our conversation. When appropriate, I have added words to clarify or removed my own question, if it is not necessary to the meaning of the quote. I normally remove filler words such as “um,” “ah,” and “like.” Words added to clarify meaning are marked with brackets, and the use of ellipsis indicates that I have removed a word or phrase from myself or another interviewer. The choice of what quotes to use is dictated by my interpretation of the way in which the quotation fits into the overall purpose of the paper, which is to explain the use of mobile communication, its relationship with the 2010 FIFA World Cup and the effect of its use of participants’ stores of social capital.
Mobile communication among participants described in this article has several characteristics which are distinct from those who are not involved in commercial sex work. First, participants use multiple devices or SIM cards to maintain a strict separation between their work and personal lives. Five of the seven participants had either multiple handsets or multiple SIM cards which they shared with a single handset. One of the participants who presently used one handset was planning to purchase another one as soon as her finances allowed. When asked about how many phones she has, Paris answers simply that “I have, I do have two phones. And I use the other one for my personal stuff, but at the moment, I’m using this like for both business and personal…and the other one is for business.” In order to maintain the separation between work and personal lives, Paris noted that she always turns off her phones when she is with a client. Busi describes her need for two phones as follows:
Two, I have two…because, I have a lot of clients, like, during the day from now, and my phone can ring anytime, right now, that the client needs me. He will come to a hotel, or, in his office.
Researcher: So that’s how you keep it separate.
Busi: Yes, because sometimes my brother can call me and he’ll be like, joking, and then I’ll be thinking that I’m talking to a client, when I’m talking to my brother.
Busi’s family, who are in KwaZulu-Natal, believe she is a waitress in Johannesburg. Were they to find out that she is a commercial sex worker, Busi notes that her mother “will even have a heart attack.”
While every entrepreneur in the study which includes these participants uses mobile communication to communicate with clients, for some commercial sex workers, the cell phone is either the only or the most critical tool in their marketing. Jacob describes his use of mobile communication in the following passage:
My main approach, my friend, has been the cell phone. With my cell phone I do wonders, my friend. I connect, even there, on the net, I connect. And once you can have clients, like 10, they will, they will remain in that circle with you for a long time. Because you know, once I have the number for this, contact number for this one, the business can go on, long and long, years and years, with the same person. Depending on your, how you satisfy the person, how you do a business with them. So, I’ve got that level number of people who I know, when I want to do something, they can always contact me, then I do it with them.
Researcher: So tell me about that, the cell phone. Exactly how have you used it to get yourself out there?
Jacob: I pick up things from the computer, my friends phone me, I’ve got, I had a phone that has got Internet, and email and everything…so, I communicate, we arrange to meet somewhere, even in the newspapers in South Africa, you can check inside, there are some columns there where you can, have contact with somebody that, is, you even know, then, you can, the relationship can start. Even business can start that way. But, things have been easy with the net, recently, and with my phone.
The nature of male sex work also relies on the networks created by mobile devices, as suggested by Jacob:
… the other thing is that it’s under cover. You cannot pick it up easily in the society, that there are guys, who are doing that…you’ll never know us. We are picked up via the phone…we don’t cruise the street and look for clients. Our business is telephonical, most of the time. And wherever he goes, where he is going, we know we’re gonna pick up, our, our clients, and clients know where to pick us up. So, the society does not know more about it but it’s existing, plus/minus, 40%, of it, in the vicinity here.
Jacob’s experience with mobile communication includes access to the Internet through his mobile device, but this experience is not typical for all participants. Although mobile communication is an important tool for building and maintaining connections with clients, some expressed reluctance to share this information, or that they only shared it with the most important clients. For example, Sibusisiwe said,
Well, I’m that type of girl, you know. You get different girls, you know, the girls who use their phones, as a, a way of business. Well, I wouldn’t want to get personal with my clients. So I never give them a phone number…I do those, those ones which are valuable. You get what I am saying? They give me money, and stuff like that. But not everyone. You get those girls who work, only with their phones, and maybe on the computer and something like that. But I’m not that girl, you get what I’m saying?
One aspect of mobile communication which seems to maintain the somewhat impersonal nature of communication between commercial sex workers and their clients is the use of SMS messaging. Sibusisiwe, who is reluctant to share her number with clients, nonetheless reports using SMS to contact them:
Researcher: To your regulars, you SMS them?
Sibusisiwe: Yeah, they SMS me, I SMS them, yeah.
Researcher: …let’s say you were just having a slow week or, slow couple of days, do you get in touch with someone?
Sibusisiwe: Yeah. You see, it’s all about, um, I mean, thank God they made the phone. You know, the cell phone, because right now, the person can just get me at any place.
Another way in which participants use the mobile device to interact with clients is to receive airtime from them. In the present South African cellular marketplace, the party who places the call bears the entire cost of the call; this is known as the Calling Party Pays (CPP) system. Through this system, one can transfer credit to another SIM card in a remote handset; Busi and Zanele report that this is one benefit they often receive from their regular clients:
Busi: And some of the clients they will send you airtime. Like, top 5, top 10.
Zanele: You call them, can you buy me airtime?
Busi: …ask for airtime, they send it.
Zanele: And then they send the airtime.
Mobile communications also function as a way for commercial sex workers use the devices to share information amongst themselves. Msizi describes one aspect of this communication:
We communicate within ourselves for our safety and protection…so that, if there is a violent client in Yeoville, I can inform my, fellow sex workers in Braamfontein, that hey, there is this guy who’s driving in this car, this car certain number plate, registration number is this and this, don’t go out with that guy, you know? So that, ah, you know, we cannot be exposed to violence and exploitation of clients.
In addition to using SMS messages to contact clients, female sex workers who work on the street suggested that using SMS is a more secure way to communicate within their network. My discussion with Zanele and Busi, who often work on the street together, revealed the following:
Researcher: Do you SMS, or do you phone; if it was, like, 2 in the morning, would you send her an SMS, or would you phone her?
Busi: …mostly we do SMS, because it’s dangerous to pick up the phone at night.
Busi: You can kind of hide.
Researcher: So if you were to look at your SMSs, would they be mostly to other sex workers, or to clients, or, mixed?
Zanele: To sex workers.
Busi: Mostly, ah, sex workers and clients both. Both. Because we are so connected. We are working, we are working in Sandton, and they are, we have friends downtown, we have friends here in Hillbrow because, sometimes we work here in Hillbrow.
Using SMS is a critical component of commercial sex workers’ communication strategy and allows them to not only maintain contact with clients but to share information among members of their own networks.
In addition to using a cellular handset to access the Internet, participants also use a PC either at home or in an Internet café for this purpose. While some participants reported high proficiency with these devices, others either used it minimally or not at all. For example, when I asked Zake how often he checked email, he reported that he had a computer at home that is his “my personal one…I use it to run the business. You know, it’s in my home.” Msizi also noted that one could only use a personal computer at home for business, because he may email adult content to potential clients. He also noted that during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, they would coordinate with sex workers from other countries:
Emails, we are sending each other emails, telling them the environment here, how is it going to happen, what will be happening. So we know we are also having our people who will be coming, who are doing the same business that we will be doing…and they will gonna be easy for us, to, get to the people from their countries, like my friends in Argentina, when they come here with the Argentinean, it will be a client exchange. It’s gonna be easy for us, it’s a client exchange, and client interaction. They tell me how to approach the Argentinean people, and I tell them also how to approach our people you know?
Whether or not this type of client exchange took place as anticipated is not clear. Data from the time period of the 2010 FWC suggests, however, that there was no significant influx of foreign sex workers, and that most female sex workers saw the same number of clients during the World Cup as before. Other research found that “there were not significantly more clients seen per sex worker during the World Cup period” although “a proportion of the local clients of sex workers who advertise in newspapers may have been temporarily replaced by foreign clients during the Soccer World Cup.” These findings suggest that while commercial sex workers may have seen more foreign clients during the 2010 FIFA World Cup than they typically do, the financial results of the event were likely not significant enough to allow sex workers to leave the profession, as Paris suggested she wanted to do after the event.
Clearly, email and the Internet play a large role in these participants’ arrangements with clients and other sex workers. Paris also used the Internet for self-promotion and communication with friends via Facebook and email; however, in her case, arrangements with clients were generally made telephonically rather than via email. She reported that her clients “always call…they see my ad on the Internet, and they just call.” Busi reported not using email; Zanele noted that she did use it for family but nor for making arrangement with clients. When I asked Zanele whether she would use the Internet for advertising, she emphatically replied “no, no, no, no, no.” Busi said that when she started using email she would use it to communicate with clients from overseas.
I can, use it, but, with like, you are saying, with the client maybe, outside from South Africa, the client that I’ve met before, they might connect, with network, by ah, email...then maybe, yeah. OK.
Sibusisiwe also suggested that she was “computer illiterate.” While she had a contact who was showing her how to use the Internet and was setting up an online profile for her, she was unsure about whether the increased exposure was a good idea.
Well, I was, ah, learning something, there’s a guy up here who’s teaching me that day, I will get a laptop soon. I don’t know, hopefully I will learn that stuff…quickly. It’s not hard. It’s not ah, you know. It’s just, something that you can do.
Researcher: Mm hmm. Do you use the computer for anything else besides email, surfing the web? Does it, I mean, does it contribute to the business at all?
Sibusisiwe: Well, yeah, it does. Well, I’ve got this guy, who, ah, you know, who’s putting my, my profile, and everything. But I hate it because I wouldn’t want that, you know, he he.
While all participants mentioned a sharp division that they carefully preserved between their personal and work lives, Sibusisiwe and Zanele were the only participants who mentioned an unwillingness to use the Internet in the form of email or other web promotion to recruit new clients. This was partially due to the perceived risk that they would be found out by family members, and in addition, to what I interpret as an understanding of the Internet as a public place in which privacy is difficult to preserve.
Participants use mobile communication to connect to clients, to facilitate the division between their personal and work lives, and to share information within their own networks. The 2010 FIFA World Cup, and the corresponding debate about decriminalization, has had a number of effects on commercial sex workers perceptions of the benefits from the event. While all mentioned that the Confederations Cup had been a disappointment in terms of increased profits, they also all believed that the 2010 FWC would be a financial windfall. Paris, laughing, said “I think we’re gonna make a lot of money.” When I asked Sibusisiwe why she thought the 2010 FWC would be a success, she said, “people are looking forward, to it. Because everyone will be coming inside this country, I mean people, you know, I mean, come on now, people are getting ready for it.” Busi and Zanele expressed cautious optimism but noted that their success depended on the government. Busi said “government, should give us a chance, because, there are a lot of sex workers, who will come, from outside, from the States, from China, wherever. And when they come here, they will get an opportunity, to take the pound, from outside, from us.”
The perception of increased competition, not only during the 2010 FWC, is an important aspect of sex work in Johannesburg. Wojcicki and Malala reported that the competition between female sex workers in Hillbrow hotels was so fierce that women sometimes physically threatened and beat up other women and marketed themselves to clients by offering unprotected sex. The belief that foreign prostitutes will increase competition during the 2010 FWC is one of the arguments made for decriminalization by some participants. Male sex workers, on the other hand, did not mention competition from foreign sex workers and were in fact positively anticipating the opportunities connected to their ability to network with them. Their familiarity with the Internet and ability to develop connections to both clients and other sex workers overseas informed their perception of the opportunities connected to the event.
In general, male sex workers perceptions of personal safety in their working lives are much more positive than those of female sex workers, especially those who prefer to work on the street. Female sex workers reported police harassment, rape, and detention without charge, in addition to experiencing violence at the hands of clients. They also reported being more afraid than male sex workers regarding their health, as they all mentioned that condoms break and accidents happen. Male sex workers, by contrast, report that the hidden nature of their work makes it unlikely for clients to harass them, that the police are unaware of male sex work or squeamish about arresting them, and that their use of “Rough Rider” condoms protects them from diseases. In terms of their use of mobile communication, they reported engaging in an “each one, teach one” campaign to spread the word among sex workers of both genders about the utility of mobile communications for proactively sharing information about dangerous clients or police harassment. Msizi explained this campaign during our discussion:
Researcher: And this, this network that you use to help each other out, I mean, how well established is it, I mean, does everybody use it, does only a few people know about it?
Msizi: It’s few people but eh, the, we are using the thing that each one teach one, each one, teach one. Since we have undergone this, Population Council, they have trained us, mentally for a lot of things, how to protect each other, so we are doing this on SMS bundles, you know SMS bundles, sending the SMS bundles. If something is happening that side, I say hey, the police are raiding there, it doesn’t only help us male sex workers. It also helps our sisters, female sex workers, we also, we do also inform them. If I’m in a certain spot and the police are raiding for sex workers, I can send a message on that side, whereby they have not yet arrived there, to let them be alerted, that hey, on this side, the, the police are coming.
Using SMS bundles to communicate among sex workers of all genders is an appropriate use of technology, given that nearly everyone in South Africa has at least one cell phone and that sex workers have mentioned that this is an effective communication technique for sharing information.
While all participants are aware of the financial possibilities connected to the 2010 FWC, not all take an interest in the decriminalization debate. For Paris, who works from a house in the suburbs, whether sex work is decriminalized or not makes no difference to her. She said “legal, illegal, we’ll still make our money, so…” Zake also noted that “I don’t think it’s a big idea, about decriminalization. Because ah, we do things safe, safe, it’s very safe… I have to make my business very good and smooth and everything, and to do everything, clean.” Whether a sex worker will be interested in decriminalization depends to some extent to where they do business. For those on the street, like Busi and Zanele, decriminalization is a critical issue; for Sibusisiwe, who works in a hotel, decriminalization or legalization would help to reduce the level of violence surrounding commercial sex work:
I think it’s perfect. You legalize people, you know. Because ah, you don’t, there will be too much chaos…and a lot of people will be, I mean, there will be a lot of violence and that type of, you know, a lot. You get what I’m saying. If, they, they legalize, yeah, that can just be, you know…because people will be trying to get money whichever way, girls, I mean, I mean, there will be plenty of girls doing this shit.
Msizi expressed the idea of decriminalization as an opportunity to benefit from the 2010 FWC, noting that “there are some countries whereby it’s legal, and those people are using the opportunities on coming to big events like this in our country, to make those dollars, rands, and pounds. And, World Cup must also, and Confederations Cup, benefit us.”
For the participants in this study, the tension between competition and opportunities connected to the 2010 FWC, while perhaps mainly attributable to issues of gender, also followed those who used the Internet for promotion and communication (Zake, Msizi, Jacob, and Paris) and those who did not (Busi, Zanele, and Sibusisiwe). The experiences of these seven participants suggest that the increased social capital that comes from the use of these technologies, particularly the Internet and especially in terms of connections to potential clients overseas, is related to individuals’ ability to anticipate and plan more adequately for mega-events like the 2010 FWC. This is not to diminish the value of the use of mobile communication for SMS or voice communication, which play an important role in sharing information and raising awareness among commercial sex workers, as shown in the “each one, teach one” campaign. The use of these techniques which target the most accessible media, however, do not increase members’ ability to use other technologies such as the Internet. While some participants report taking part in Internet or computer classes, considering how to use these technologies within the network of commercial sex workers, either through mobile devices or PCs, to share some of the same information they now share via SMS, would contribute significantly to their ability to use the technology for networking with clients on a global scale and allow them to benefit from an increasingly smaller world. While “there was a small increase in the number of female sex workers who advertised online and in newspapers” (Richter & Delva, 2010, p. 5), more research is needed to determine the relationship between online advertising and international clientele for CSWs.
The 2010 FIFA World Cup has had significant effects on commercial sex workers’ use of mobile communications. Participants in this study discussed greater use of the Internet and email to connect to sex workers in other countries, increased awareness of the implications of decriminalization on their business during the 2010 FWC, and the possible negative effects of increased competition during the event. I argue that those sex workers who make use of the Internet for promotion and communication with other sex workers and clients outside South Africa were more likely to perceive greater opportunities connected to the 2010 FWC, despite the challenges of competition and a government unwilling to decriminalize their profession before the event. In addition, I suggest that while networks based on the most accessible technology are effective at sharing crucial information with members, addressing the technology gap within the network will assist those who do not use technologies (such as the Internet or email) to build their skills and interact more effectively with those outside their network, allowing them to benefit from increased opportunities to connect to overseas clients. It seems clear from research conducted after the event that the 2010 FIFA World Cup did not contribute significantly to those CSWs interviewed for this paper; perhaps the substitution of overseas clients for local clients resulted in a less-than-hoped-for overall economic result.
This study has several limitations and opportunities for further research. A follow-up study should include additional participants, as the number of commercial sex workers with whom I had discussions was perhaps inadequate to represent other, unanticipated outcomes. Ideally, such a study would also include increased focus on the ways in which participants use mobile devices to access the Internet and how mobile communication can contribute to building participants’ skills, especially for the Internet and other social media. Further study should also continue the comparison between those who use the Internet for promotion and communication and those who do not to determine whether these issues continue to impact participants’ perceptions of competition and challenges as mobile devices become increasingly connected to the Internet. Although the 201 FIFA World Cup was an interesting event with significant impacts a number of segments for South African society, it appears that for commercial sex workers, it was not the anticipated boom described by some in this paper. Therefore, continued study of the use of mobile communication by CSWs in South African cities should yield useful data on the relationship between the use of online technologies and the perception of opportunities, either to connect to new clients or for the purposes of empowerment.
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