Let’s talk about sex work


“LET’S talk about sex baby, let’s talk about you and me.”

We sing about it, we boast about it, we think about it, we do it, but how often do we talk about it? So let’s talk about it. Let’s start with the industry built for and about sex — let’s talk about sex work.

Let’s talk facts first.

Let’s start with some definitions. Although our laws use the term “prostitutes”, the accepted term (by sex workers) is sex work.

Sex work is the exchange of sexual services for money in cash or kind by adults and sex workers are male, female or transgender adults who engage in this work. Please take note the use of the word adult.

Currently, the act of selling sex for reward is not criminalised in Zimbabwe.

Criminal laws, however, target acts which are potentially abusive towards sex workers, as well as acts which cause offence to, or is a nuisance for the general public.

The Criminal Code prohibits disorderly conduct in a public place; being a criminal nuisance; public indecency and publicly soliciting another person for the purpose of prostitution. The new Criminal Code repealed the Sexual Offences Act and the Miscellaneous Offences Act although police often arrest sex workers on charges of “loitering for the purpose of prostitution” which is no longer a criminal offence.

The International Guidelines on HIV and Aids and Human Rights also note: “With regard to adult sex work that involves no victimisation, criminal law should be reviewed with the aim of decriminalising, then legally regulating occupational health and safety condition to protect sex workers and their clients, including support for safe sex during sex work.

“Criminal law should not impede provision of HIV and Aids prevention and care services to sex workers and their clients”.

There are many stereotypes and misconceptions about why adult women, men and transgender persons become sex workers.

Why do people become doctors? Why do people become street vendors? Why do people become politicians?

The simple answer is that we don’t know and each individual has their own reasons so we can’t generalise about a whole workforce. The reasons range from poverty (but doesn’t everyone work because they need money?) to peer pressure.

But surely you know people who were pressured into studying a particular subject at university or following their parents into the family business) and limited choices (but in a country with such a high unemployment rate, everyone has limited choices.)

Some contend that lack of education and skills leads people into sex work — wrong.

Sex workers have wide-ranging skills and are extremely educated and could teach many married couples a thing or two about sex and sexuality.

Are they victims? — no we want them to be victims, but that doesn’t mean they are victims. I can hear you all saying, but sex work is different from other jobs. How is sex work different?

Sex work is different because for some reason people feel the need to judge the profession, the industry and the workers themselves.

There is no other profession that is subjected to such scrutiny, but I can certainly think of some professions that have absolutely no morality or value system so individuals benefit while others suffer.

On the contrary, sex workers are service providers. They provide a valuable, much-needed and much-sought after service.

Sex workers provide a service to anyone and everyone. Sex workers do not discriminate and stigmatise against people.

Sex workers can be companions, counsellors, lovers, educators and therapists.

So why aren’t they protected by the law and defended by human rights activists and trade unions in the same way?

The next contentious issue — can sex work be defined as work? The simple answer is yes. Sex work is work.

What is the definition of work? According to the International Labour Organisation: “Work is central to people’s well-being. In addition to providing income, work can pave the way for broader social and economic advancement, strengthening individuals, their families and communities. Such progress, however, hinges on work that is decent.”

As long as sex work is not recognised as work, sex workers are severely inhibited in any attempts to lobby for safe and hygienic working environments and to make their work ‘decent’, for protection under Labour Law, recourse to justice on work-related issues, protection from harassment and workplace related discrimination or entitlements such as medical insurance and sick leave.

If international labour standards were applied, brothels would be obliged to promote and restrict their workers to providing safer sex, helping to alleviate the HIV risk.

So as we talk let’s try and look beyond the simplistic argument about morality and instead strive for a different set of values that hinge on celebrating diversity, testing our boundaries and engaging in a different type of conversation that strives for inclusion and debate rather than exclusion and extremism.

Sian Maseko, Sexual Rights Centre.


  1. We are not animals and that reflects why sex must be morally done. Can you categorize the departments that are found in the sex industry. You are beginning to lose your mind! Isiwule vele akusiwo msebenzi but it is crime. I have my facts. 1. It negates on the right standing institution of marriage.
    2. It is orderless and deprives family values. Just imagine if two thirds of this generation worked as sex workers will there be families in the next generations?
    3. God condemns prostitution what you want to ‘christian’ as sex work. In other words, what you call sex work is actually sexual impurity.

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