Peter Machen meets two film-makers who are determined to shift attitudes to sex workers
In South Africa, the position of sex work and sex workers is highly contested, with most of the discussion taking place without acknowledging or consulting the actual people involved.
Womxn: Working, a documentary film that is in production, explores the world of sex work in South Africa from the perspective of the sex workers themselves.
I spoke to film-makers Tiny Mungwe and Shanelle Jewnarain about their experience making the film. And the first thing I wanted to know was why they used the word “womxn” and how it relates to the film.
“The spelling of the word is in line with an intersectional definition of womanhood that is inclusive of the various forms of gendered experience, while also acknowledging queer identity and trans identity,” says Mungwe.
“The various themes of the film come together to question the place of womxn in our society, as well as an understanding of womxn’s rights as human rights.”
SPEAKING OUT: Durbanites Tiny Mungwe is the driving force behind the film Womxn: Working, one of 22 projects that will be pitched for possible further development at this year’s Durban FilmMart from July 14 to 17. The film follows three sex workers as they fight for sex workers’ rights.
But while Mungwe and Shanelle, and others, are focused on a more inclusive society, there is a general contradiction between the progressiveness of the South African constitution and the country’s conservative morality, much of which is religiously defined despite South Africa officially being a secular country. This tendency among South Africans to impose their personal morality on other people’s freedom is perhaps expressed most strongly when talking about sex work.
“Many people seem to view sex work as immoral,” says Jewnarain, “and thus believe it is degrading and a form of abuse against women. They allow their own perceptions of morality to overshadow the voices of sex workers who do not view their work that way. I don’t think that people should be allowed to put their personal morality ahead of the basic safety of others.”
Mungwe adds that she has also become aware of how many people tend to conflate adult sex work with criminal acts such as human trafficking and child prostitution.
The long-awaited report on sex work from the South Africa Law Reform Commission, which was recently released, is highly unsatisfactory from the perspective of sex workers and it says little, other than reinstating entrenched attitudes towards sex workers. I ask the film-makers what the next step might be in terms of trying to shift social and legal attitudes towards sex work and sex workers.
SPEAKING OUT: Durbanite Shanelle Jewnarain is the driving force behind the film Womxn: Working. The film follows three sex workers as they fight for sex workers’ rights.
“There are organisations such as Sweat, Sisonke, Sonke Gender Justice and others, which are doing exemplary work in creating awareness,” says Mungwe.
“For our part, we hope the work we are doing as film-makers will contribute toward creating a dialogue and educating people about these issues.
“Over the last few years, while working on this film, we have also been challenged a great deal to question not only the status quo but also the patriarchal basis for our own beliefs.”
When exploring issues around sex work, the focus, together with issues of responsibility and “guilt”, usually falls on sex workers, rather than their clients. Is it possible that criminalising the client rather than the sex worker would have a positive impact on the industry? Or should sex work be completely decriminalised and regulated?
Jewnarain says that, based on their research over the past three years, it seems that such partial legalisation has done little to protect sex workers in the countries where it has been implemented.
In Norway police still target sex workers - particularly migrant workers - with evictions and deportation.
A sex worker holds a poster at a protest.
“This model aims to discourage clients and curb the existence of sex work, and there is no evidence that such an approach works. And it also perpetuates the idea that sex workers are victims without agency.”
Mungwe adds that a society that was more at ease with sexuality would view sex workers not only as human beings but also as people who provide a service that is in high demand.
“General attitudes about the place of women in the family and society, as well as the violent nature of patriarchy, also come into the mix,” she says, “creating layers of unlearning that we must all collectively undertake in order to have healthier sex and lead happier lives.”
I ask them whether they see themselves as woman film-makers (or womxn film-makers) or film-makers who happen to be women. Do they think women do indeed make films that are different to those made by men?
“For me, it’s a bit of both and also something of a catch-22,” says Jewnarain. “I feel that, as a womxn, I sometimes have to prove that I am capable despite my gender and, as such, there have been times when I have wanted to be seen as a film-maker who happens to be a womxn. But I can’t and do not want to deny the fact that my experiences - and therefore how my perspectives shape my work - are different because I am a womxn. This has been an ongoing challenge for me and I think this is exactly why it is important to have institutions like the Durban International Film Festival and Durban FilmMart focus on womxn-led film.”
For Mungwe, it is important to identify as a woman of colour and a film-maker because her experience forms the basis for her work.
“Many people with marginalised identities shy away from doing this as they feel it diminishes the merit of their work and the recognition it generates. But as a person interested in social justice, I don’t believe that a real meritocracy exists, and until that day comes, my identity and my work will remain connected and will never be neutral factors.
“Certainly, I think I have a unique view of the world and what it means to be a person, and I think that is reflected in the work I do.”
Durban FilmMart takes place at the Tsogo Sun Elangeni Hotel from July 14 to 17 during the Durban International Film Festival. For more information go to