By Kotie Geldenhuys
It is night-time in the city. Flashing neon lights and soft streetlamps create shadowy images across the pavement. Cars stop at traffic lights and impatient motorists sound their car hooters. But on the street corners, another picture is unfolding as the ladies of the night are waiting for their first pickup of the night, dressed to attract attention in their high heels and short skirts. Close by, dressed in tight-fitting jeans, a few young men are also strolling about the intersection, waiting for johns who would pay them for sexual favours. ("Johns" is a slang term used to refer to the male customers of a sex worker.) They are the men of the night. A white Mercedes emerges from a nearby alley, flashing its lights and making one of the young men smile before he gets in the car.
Whenever we hear the terms "prostitution" and "sex work," they conjure up images of women selling their bodies to men on the streets, in hotel rooms and at brothels. As sex work is often constructed as being an interaction between male clients and female sex workers, male sex workers are often overlooked. However, male prostitution is a daily reality for many men in South Africa. According to the South African National AIDS Council (2013), there are between 130 000 and 180 000 sex workers in South Africa. Out of these, 90% are female and 10% are male or transgender. In other countries, the proportion of male sex workers is much higher. May (2014) reports that almost 50% of all sex workers in the UK (totalling around 105 000) are, in fact, male.
Male sex work is nothing new and its long history can be traced back alongside the existence of young female sex workers and as far back as the temple settings in ancient times in Japan, Greece, India and China. In ancient Rome, specifically, there were boy houses where young male sex workers' main function was to provide sexual enjoyment to adult men who had the money to pay for their services (Herbst, 2002).
Prostitution versus sex work
According to Sonke Gender Justice (2014), the term "sex worker" is the preferred term to use since the term "prostitute" historically refers to shameful acts, carrying negative connotations and linked to inaccurate information about sex workers and the sex industry. The term "sex worker" avoids moral judgment and points to the selling and buying of sexual services as a work matter with implications for labour law and occupational health and safety rights. Sex work is also the term used by international organisations, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), and it is regarded as a form of labour or a service related to the exchange of sex or acts of sexuality for a negotiated reward. While the sex industry could include work such as stripping, pornography, phone sex, erotic massages and other services relating to sex or erotica, sex work from a legal standpoint refers to the selling of sexual intercourse or sexual acts for reward.
UNAIDS defines sex workers as: "Female, male and transgender adults aged over 18 years who sell consensual sexual services in return for cash or payment in kind, and who may sell sex formally or informally, regularly or occasionally."
An illegal job called sex work
Despite being the world's oldest profession, commercial sex work is a highly controversial topic. In a declining economy, where education and job opportunities are scarce, the motivations for joining the sex trade industry are predominantly based around survival and subsistence needs (Dunkle et al, 2004). Panday (Nd) agrees by saying that, for the majority of sex workers in South Africa, motivation for joining the sex industry is fuelled by subsistence and survival needs, and transactional sex is a lucrative business opportunity. It was further found that the client-sex worker relationship is a business deal characterised by the principles of supply and demand and the transaction of money for services.
In South Africa, sex workers generally work independently and do not work with a "pimp". Gould and Fick (2008) found that only 13% of sex workers on Cape Town's streets work with a pimp. The majority of sex workers in South Africa are street-based.
Despite the small number of South African male sex workers, the demand is large and continuously increasing (Panday, Nd). Okanlawon et al (2012) argue that in such an industry, where competition is rife, client satisfaction is a vital element in ensuring that clients return in order to keep business lucrative and flowing. If they are unable to satisfy their clients' expectations, there are always other male sex workers who will. Sex workers are then more likely to oblige and do whatever the client asks of them, in fear of losing clients, money and other business opportunities (Panday, Nd).