1. When you were six years old your mother let you wear perfume for the first time. You were elated, amused — you felt older than the age that your small frame betrayed. Your white headmistress told you that you smelled like a prostitute. Then, you winced with embarrassment, not because you knew what the word meant, but because of the spite that made its way from her tongue to your ear.
Disgust. Children do not know the end, but they know the beginning — they know anger, they know malice — they know which soils your words grow from.
You told your mother that you couldn’t wear perfume anymore, too scared to explain why. Now, you wonder how one smell can denote a whole profession — how “prostitute” can erase mother, woman, daughter, worker, friend. You wonder how it can erase a person.
Prostitute. Grown-ups know the end. They are hardly ever concerned with the beginning. They forget which soils their words grew from.
2. You grow up believing that sex workers need God’s grace. The body is holy, is a temple, is the Lord’s so surely “giving it away” so many times means brokenness and desperation. When your church forms a ministry to “rehabilitate the prostitutes,” by giving them other ways to generate income like weaving baskets and bracelets, to leave behind reasonable income and instead weave baskets and bracelets in a place where artisanship is paid like a hobby and not a lifeline.
You, a middle-class, almost-woman at a private school, tells your mother that you want to join it — that you want to be a voice for the voiceless and yet you have never met a sex worker, you have never spoken to a sex worker. You never once think that sex workers are not victims, not trafficked, not depraved, not broken. You never once think to ask them what they need.
3. Consulting is work, medical work is work, engineering is work, writing is work, sex work is work, nursing is work, homemaking is work, teaching is work, sex work is work, cooking is work, writing is work, research is work, sex work is work….is work…..is work.
Sex work is real work.
4. When you are 13, a man who is meant to be your friend slips his hands into your jeans. You writhe in pain, you tell him he is hurting you, you smack his hand away, you push him away as if anything can deter a man who is determined to take. That night, you do not know it, but you learn what consent is and you learn what it is not. You learn what a body is and what it is not. It is not everything.
So when a sex worker says this is what she wants to do, shut up and listen.
5. To be progressive is to keep on moving, to make social reform happen gradually. In the year 2017, only two whole countries have fully decriminalized sex work. Sex work is the oldest profession in the world. What does progressive mean?
6. After spending a day researching sex workers, the ground no longer feels so clean anymore. After learning about how they are brutalized, stigmatized, raped, murdered, forgotten, you think about how many brutalized bodies have fallen on the ground below your feet for being prostitutes and yet it is stainless, clean except from the dirt disregarded from sheathed feet. The ground, like the state, hides women’s pain well. Nothing is clean.
7. Anisa Adam, Mamoeti Mosoati, Fikile Chauke, Nelisiwe Thwala, Nomatheku, Nodumisa Sibiya, Sarah, Amanda, Nozipho, Nontobeko Valencia, Anita Mambumba, Pinkie Siphamla. Remember to say her name.
8. A woman is beaten to death on the streets of Cape Town, a tourist city, a beautiful city, the mother city. This man’s blows split her liver in half, inducing a heart attack that ends her life. Zwelethu Mthethwa is a visual artist of note, but Nokuphila Kumalo is a sex worker. He has a daughter, but she is a sex worker. He has had 21 exhibitions around the world, but she is a sex worker.
From day one, sex workers are situated as enemies of morality and real productivity, so this narrative is not surprising, it is taught from day one. But one day someone will write:
A woman is beaten to death on the streets of Cape Town, a tourist city, a beautiful city, the mother city. This man’s blows split her liver in half, inducing a heart attack that ends her life. Nokuphila Kumalo had a son, but Zwelethu Mthethwa is a murderer. She was a friend, but he is a murderer. She was a sex worker, and he is a murderer.
9. Women are dying. Dying as children, as girlfriends, as wives, as students, as lawyers, as engineers, as accountants, as believers, as sex workers, as women, as people. Men are killing us and your morality won’t save us. Your morality will not save a sex worker.