Sex at the specs: Sex workers protest in Sea Point

Abigail McDougall
Photo by Abigail McDougall.
Abigail McDougall

On 2 April activists and sex workers held a protest at the Perceiving Freedom sculpture in Seapoint to commemorate the 2003 Sizzlers Massacre and raise awareness of the need to decriminalise sex work.

Members of the public were invited to “ask a sex worker” and encouraged to tweet selfies of the protest to parliamentary leaders.

The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), Sonke Gender Justice, and Sisonke National Sex Workers Movement collaborated to organise the protest. In 2003 nine men, seven of whom were sex workers, were murdered at the Sizzlers massage parlour in Sea Point. On Thursday the group of 25 activists observed a moment of silence at the Sizzlers house. They then moved down to the sculpture, a giant pair of glasses, to continue the protest by “creating a spectacle at the spectacles”.

Ruvimbo Tenga, media spokesperson for Sisonke, explained that the murders received media attention and a public outcry, but that today this is not the case. “Sex workers are still being murdered today, but people don’t take it seriously,” she said. Sex work remains a criminal act in South Africa, which leaves sex workers vulnerable to violence and unable to access legal and health services. SWEAT, Sonke Gender Justice and the Sisonke movement advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work on this basis.

After the protest the sculpture remained decorated with orange fabric, balloons, flowers, stickers, and a sign requesting parliament to decriminalise sex work. Passers-by took selfies but had mixed feelings about sex work.

Lesley Matika, 19, lives and works in Seapoint. “Sex work should definitely remain illegal because women shouldn’t have to be treated like that for money,” she said.

Another pedestrian, Charlotte Anderson, commented that “Sex work is the oldest profession in the world and it should be decriminalised. This would make it safer for the women, and also the men”.

A third woman seemed confused by the sign, describing it as “weird”. She removed the sign to take a photo.

Tenga noted that the Perceiving Freedom sculpture was chosen because it draws attention to Robben Island, symbolic of the long struggle for freedom and justice, as well as the consequences of unjust laws. Raising awareness of the Sizzlers massacre and the current struggle of sex workers prompts questions about the success of South Africa’s democracy. “Freedom is something we are owed – 20 years later, are we getting what we deserve?” she said.

Many passers-by on the Promenade were surprised by the opportunity to meet and talk to sex workers, and they asked questions about what the activists were commemorating and the situation of sex workers today.

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TOPICS:  Gender Government Human Rights