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14/06/2018 15:28 SAST | Updated 14/06/2018 16:03 SAST

Stigmatisation Of Sex Work: To Be 'Blessed And Slaying'

'This stigma is extremely violent as it posits a notion of the women not being deserving of protection by the law.'

Sex workers and allies demonstration in Johannesburg in March 2013 to commemorate International Sex Workers’ Rights Day.
Sonke Gender Justice
Sex workers and allies demonstration in Johannesburg in March 2013 to commemorate International Sex Workers’ Rights Day.

Over the past three years, a new tagline linked to a type of sex work has populated much of social media under the name Blesser Lifestyle. It is a lifestyle that has been glamourised on social media platforms, mostly on Instagram, with women posting pictures of the benefits they have received through this line of work using the hashtag #Blessed. This, in turn, has sparked controversy and discussion around whether or not it is a desirable lifestyle for women.

Debates centre on whether this "blesser lifestyle" should be accepted in our communities or shamed because it is not a legitimate form of making money and living. Gender organisations and movements such as Sonke Gender Justice, Sex Work and Education Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), as well as Sisonke, the national sex workers movement in South Africa, have been fighting for the legalisation of sex work in the Constitution since 1994, and suggest that without the stigma of illegality this debate would be moot.

Collectively these organisations have been fighting for the decriminalisation of this industry while advocating against the stigma associated with being a sex worker. They have also embarked on various projects that aim to educate society on why it is important to decriminalise the industry in an attempt to promote women's human and sexual rights.

There have been some heated debates on social media in recent weeks about entertainment socialites Faith Nketsi and Inno Morolong, after they were exposed for allegedly pimping out young adult women under the guise of these women being models signed to their scouting agencies.

The news broke after a series of screenshots were released revealing conversations in which women were confirming transactions between themselves and male clients who were willing to pay between R5,000 and R15,000 for sexual activities with the women. The controversy was further ignited when a woman came forward anonymously claiming that she was paid off to keep a gang rape incident under wraps. The incident allegedly occurred to her while she was "on duty", having been recruited by Nketsi through her "model" agency Feline Management.

The blesser lifestyle, in which women call themselves "slay queens", has become synonymous with exotic overseas travel, fancy cars and expensive food, clothing and hair care, paid for by wealthy older men, and many in society bash it as prostitution.

A societal attitude, which is patriarchally motivated, has contributed to the lack of protection of women who find themselves in violent situations with clients who feel entitled to use the sex worker's body as they please because she is a prostitute.

The ideological contestation around this line of work, or lifestyle, is based on the fact that society has double standards when it comes to what freedom of choice and bodily autonomy really means for women.

The feminist movement aims for women to be empowered, to live their desired lives and own the choices they make with their bodies, without being typecast or stereotyped solely because they are women and supposed to live and abide by traditional, religious and societal "morals".

It is important that we recognise the demand for sex work services. This mostly comes from men who are willing to pay for sexual pleasure. This is why gender organisations have been working on mobilising and educating citizens about the importance of decriminalising sex work to eradicate the stigma.

This negative societal attitude, which is patriarchally motivated, has contributed to the lack of protection for women who find themselves in violent situations with clients who feel entitled to use their bodies as they please simply because they are "prostitutes".

Referring to sex workers and "slay queens", or anyone involved in transactional sex work, as prostitutesand whoresis part of the stigmatisation that has been proven through research to be one of the fundamental causes of social inequality in this area.

Sex workers who find themselves violated in their workspaces by clients in the form of rape or physical assault are not able to report these crimes to relevant authorities as sex work remains criminalised in South Africa. This position also assumes that the women are "asking for it" as they are already performing sexual activities as a form of work. This completely overlooks the issues of consent, contractual agreement and basic human right violations, and is considered okay simply because the current stance is that what they are doing is illegal.

Pimping or the employment and managing of sex workers should not result in the employers being complicit to a violation of human rights and a rejection of their employee's bodily autonomy.

This stigma is extremely violent as it posits a notion of the women not being deserving of protection by the law, that their identities are tainted and essentially non-existent in the eyes of society. If there is any truth to Faith Nketsi having paid off one of her employees to remain silent about her rape, then that is a problem as she is complicit in defeating the ends of justice and essentially helping men get away with rape.

Pimping, or the employment and managing of sex workers, should not result in the employers being complicit in violation of human rights and a rejection of their employee's bodily autonomy.

In the context where sex work remains criminalised in South Africa, one can understand why there are denials from "slay queens" accused of being sex workers and employers. Women are the ones who remain stigmatised while absolutely no one considers that this industry would not even exist if there was no demand from mostly male clients.

Yolanda Dyantyi is the Young Women's Alliance intern at Gender Links SA, this post was originally posted on Gender Links blog. It has been edited for HuffPost.