Written by Khensani Mohlatlole
Image by Niels Steeman
South Africans are obsessed with sex workers. It is all anyone seems to talk about. If it is not slut shaming blessees (sugar babies), or watching Bonding and Euphoria, then we are fascinated by stories of women raking in R70k a day on OnlyFans. Of course, this obsession is a contradiction of hatred and admiration. The male gaze – a way of looking that empowers men by objectifying women – makes sure we praise women who fit into what men want, but we terrorise them for demanding respect or money in return.
And that is what sex workers do for the most part: they pander to the male gaze. However, when women step in front of a camera and they decide how they are dressed, how they are framed, and when and where men get access to that, they are manipulating the male gaze for their own benefit. When I spoke to a Joburg sex worker, Gabrielle, she said,
“It sucks, but men thinking I’m hot is financial freedom for me.”
The male gaze is almost inescapable. Whether you are sharing a selfie or walking down the street, you are probably going to be sexualised. So why not make money off of it?
Gio, another Joburg online sex worker, has always been into sharing suggestive photos of herself online. She satisfies what men want to see, but not necessarily for male approval or romantic partnership. She is just a woman, with agency over her body and how and where she presents it. She even began her OnlyFans account before there were any real payout options for South Africans: “I liked taking sexy photos. Receiving male attention and money was just a plus.”
Monetising something you enjoy doing is what hustle culture keeps telling us to do, no? The only difference is that we act like exchanging sexual service for money is somehow selling your soul; more than everything else we do to survive under capitalism.
“We make ourselves poeses all the time for [regular] jobs,” Cleo adds. A model and former stripper who has moved to sugaring to supplement her income under the lockdown, she does not see a difference between shaking ass for a cheque, and pretending to love long hours in a job interview. How many humiliating things do we endure so we can be overworked and underpaid in ‘regular’ jobs? At least with online sex work, you can have some control.
In fact, it was being a nightclub promoter that influenced Gabrielle’s decision to become a sex worker. In the nightclub, the male gaze is pervasive. Everything in the nightclub is about rewarding men for spending money on premium liquor. Girls are paraded in revealing clothes and high heels, often at the requirement of management, and club staff especially must laugh at jokes, endure groping, and make it clap for male enjoyment. “[Because of the club] I realised how profitable my body could be,” says Gabrielle.
But don’t be fooled: much more goes into sex work than just being a beautiful girl. “Sex work is not a get rich quick scheme at all,” says Swazi, a stripper who has also had to move to remote work because of COVID-19. “There are so many skills beyond the obvious ones you need to be successful. Sex work is all about selling a fantasy… You have to give [clients] something worth paying for.”
Too often the rhetoric around people sex work is that it is a last resort for people who have failed miserably in their lives (I’m looking at you, ‘I’ll just drop out and become a stripper’ tweets), or the untalented and unskilled. Any actual sex worker can confirm that if you want to be successful, there is real effort involved.
“The biggest misconception people have about online sex work is that it’s easy,” Gabrielle says. “People think it’s like taking nudes for your boyfriend but, like, it’s not.”
Gio has had girls reach out to her for help because of how well she has crafted her presence online. There are serious considerations about angles, lighting, and desirability that go into an explicit picture. It is not always hardcore porn either. Gio makes it clear that she does softcore body appreciation, which involves simulation. She spends her time looking to other sex workers for inspiration and support, paying special attention to women who are innovative and know how to expand the scope of sensuality. This work includes anything from doing lingerie hauls or reading literature aloud because men find your voice enticing, to filming your face while you are sitting on someone else’s.
“You also have to be very clear about what your persona is and stick to it. Are you the unapproachable bad bitch? Are you the soft, sexy girl who wants to please the customer at all costs? Are you the controlling dominatrix? Are you the ‘cool girl’ who likes to just hang out and have a good conversation, that just happens to be really sexy and knows how to hit a split? Are you the really, really freaky nympho that deepthroats beer bottles just to prove you can do it?”
You have to know what men like intimately in order to be confident enough to insist they pay for it. Gabrielle even adds, “If anything I’ve become more confident and comfortable in my body because I get paid for being sexy.”
Cleo cites her time taking exotic dance lessons at The Royale as one of the best times of her life. Having always felt “awkward and skinny”, learning to strip made her realise that she did not necessarily have to have a fat ass and big tits to be sexy. There was power in her own body and uniqueness, and even more power in getting paid.
Of course, even though there are many different niches online, it does not mean sex workers are immune to pay gaps and misogynoir. “It's actually really hard to [achieve] success – especially the really fast success we see examples of on the internet all the time – when you’re a Black woman. Even more so if you're not a particular type of black woman. Thicker, lighter, more conventionally attractive Black women have more success and white women have [the most] success,” says Swazi.
“I feel like I saw this a lot more clearly at the club. You just have to work five times harder, have so many more skills, be immaculately put together, and have a sparkling personality to get men in the club to feel like spending money on you is ‘worth it’.”
Gabrielle and Cleo, also Black women sex workers, both have dealt with this too. “I think people are less tolerant with me because they think I deserve less respect,” Gabrielle explains. “I’ve seen white girls charge five times what I charge. I could never get away with that.”
I wondered though if the fact that the internet has made sex work more visible is the right step towards acceptance. “The thing about South Africa,” begins Swazi, “is that just because something is ‘normalised’ or talked about more openly that doesn't mean people legitimately accept it 100%.” While working online offers a greater layer of protection than being a streetwalker, it exposes you to trolls and harassment.
For most online sex workers, they lead double lives. “There’s no way in hell I’d tell any family members about my work, I just know there’s no way they would receive it well,” Swazi asserts. “They see this kind of thing as a moral issue.”
For Gabrielle, the possibility of being found out by her family is a constant fear. It’s something she could possibly be disowned for.
But what happens if you’re exposed?
For Gio, she had to validate her job to her conservative mother after an anonymous troll outed her. Though she was able to sway her mother to tolerance, how or whether she revealed her occupation was a choice she was denied. Now she deals with her family no longer looking at her the same. But, she adds, no one can really shame her for it anymore either.
Hopefully, one day, we will live in a South Africa where our obsession with sex workers means not only accepting them but advocating for their rights too. In the meantime, as Gabrielle posits, “I’m still deserving of respect even if people don’t give it to me.”
Please consider donating to the Sex Worker Empowerment and Enabling Environment Program or the sex worker Advocacy Law Reform Programme. You can find more information on how to assist South African sex workers at SWEAT.
Written by Khensani Mohlatlole (she/her)
Khensani is a writer and bag lady living in Johannesburg. She’s often musing about fashion, sustainability, sex and pop culture and whether or not the simulation broke in 2012. Usually you can find her on the internet ready to talk to anyone about anything. Otherwise, you can find her trying to make needlework cool again or watching Gossip Girl for the 106th time.
Illustration by Rendani Nemakhavhani