Johannesburg - When looked at objectively, streetwalkers, who many now euphemistically refer to as sex-workers, (the archetypal oxymoron) are the original street people.
In the interests of research, I googled “streetwalker” and got, “a prostitute who seeks clients in the street”, and so it was inevitable I would get around to interviewing one.
Well, a few weeks ago I did try to. Although, if truth be told, a bit half-heartedly. Every time I thought about doing the interview, I became concerned I might be selling some poor soul down the river by publicising her “occupation”. Something I assumed they might prefer to be kept quiet.
But, in my quest to meet a variety of street people, I twice stopped along Oxford Road to talk to “ladies of the night”. However, the minute I explained all I wanted was to interview them – in other words, no sex – they stormed off.
Well, as I again cruise around the Illovo environs, I hope no-one recognises my car when I stop to negotiate with one of the girls.
Picture: David Gemmell
I come across a tall and a short one, standing chatting. I pull over and hardly get the passenger window open, before the short one, all smiles, asks me how I am.
After assuring her I was in perfectly good health, I explain as briefly as I can I am not looking for sex, but want rather to chat to her – for which I will pay.
There is a moment of hesitation while she digests this, and then says, “Ok” and jumps in the car.
I ask if there is somewhere we can go and have coffee, but she says, “Maybe later. Let’s go to a quiet place first.” She obviously doesn’t completely buy the interview angle.
Once we find a suitable spot to stop – with me glancing around to make sure I haven’t been set up for ambush – I re-explain what I want from her. Just so there is no misunderstanding. I also mention I would like to take a couple of pictures, but am happy if she wants her face hidden.
“Oh no, I don’t mind if you take a shot of me,” she says smiling, “I am from Zambia and I am 32 and not in a relationship and I am mature; I don’t mind.”
For the first time I have a good look at her. She is an attractive young lady. Unsurprisingly she is dressed fairly lewdly, but is fascinatingly fresh and bubbly. She is also completely relaxed.
There are no displays of nervousness or anxiety and no questions about how much I am going to pay, or what exactly I’m going to write about her, or, why I prefer interviewing sex-workers as opposed to having sex with them.
Picture: David Gemmell
Paradoxically, I am the nervous one. I introduce myself. “I am Given,” she says with a broad grin.
As we chat she continuously makes the point there is nothing wrong with being a sex-worker and it is just like any other job.
Well, it’s not exactly, but I reassure her there is nothing wrong with it if both participants are consenting and want to be doing whatever it is they are doing.
And given the numbers of sex workers, there is obviously a need for them.
I ask her how she got into it.
“When I came here from Zambia I tried a few things, but couldn’t keep up with my costs.”
Then, on the advice of a friend who was doing it, she thought she would give sex-work a go.
Which seems to be an opportune moment to enquire as to what exactly “sex-work” is.
“It’s not all about intercourse (not the word she uses…),” she insists. “Many of my clients just want to touch me or take me to a club,” then with a cheeky smile adds, “or interview me,” and she bursts out laughing. But as we chat on, it seems of course they want intercourse or some form of sex.
“Yes, some of them want BJs (oral sex) or to masturbate,” she says, “but fortunately my clients are clean and people with money, so I don’t mind.”
I ask her what she thinks about when she goes all the way.
“Do you just switch off?” She smiles and says, “Oh no, it is just better to enjoy it. It is what I do. Also, I don’t sleep with someone if I don’t like them.”
Picture: David Gemmell
I must admit I am surprised she enjoys the sex. I’ve always thought prostitutes lie back and think of doing the ironing, gardening or England. Just so long as they can remove themselves mentally from what is physically taking place.
“Have you ever had any trouble with clients who get rough and hurt you?” I assume the vulnerability of her “work” situation, might lead to some bad moments.
“Never,” Given says smiling. “People like me. So I don’t have any trouble. And they always pay.”
Then there is the prostitution principle: "The value of your service completely diminishes as soon as that service has been provided".
This means prostitutes everywhere, (so I’m told…) insist on getting money up front; because immediately after the dreaded deed, a client has no need of a girl, and therefore has very little incentive to pay.
I ask Given if she insists on money up front. “Oh no,” she smiles, “afterwards they are very happy to pay me.” They often pay her more than she asks, she says.
“Do you have a pimp? Someone who looks after you, but also who takes some of your earnings?” I ask.
"No,” she says. “I do not have a boyfriend at the moment.”
It’s not clear if she had one, if he would automatically be her pimp. “Although,” Given continues, “I had an affair with an Afrikaner for two years,” another non-sequitur.
Wrongly or rightly, Afrikaners are generally perceived as being conservative; I therefore find her little confession an interesting indictment of that perception.
Some basic facts: sex with her will cost anything from R400 (“For a short time…”) up to R800 for a home visit. Most of her clients are white, often foreigners.
“I had a guy who would phone me from Germany to see if I was okay,” she says proudly. She does have some black clients, but says they prefer girls with big bottoms, and because hers is neat, don’t really go for her.
And the cost of an interview? Priceless.