By Sian Ferguson
With the price of tertiary education in South Africa being notoriously high, more and more Rhodes University students are turning to the sex industry in order to survive financially.
Like many other students at Rhodes University, Angela* and Lindi*need to work part-time in order to support themselves financially. But while most of their peers work in local restaurants or shops, Angela and Lindi are sex workers who provide services to Grahamstown’s elite businessmen.
They began doing sex work together in their first year at Rhodes University. “We advertised ourselves as escorts online. It started as a joke, but when we got offers, we thought it could be something worth trying,” Angela says.
From there on, they found sex work to be relatively lucrative and easy work. “We give sex away for free anyway. What’s the harm in being paid?” Lindi reasons. Both of them are currently doing Honours courses. “Our families are not rich and we would struggle to pay for our studies otherwise,” she says.
While Angela and Lindi’s situation might sound unconventional, they are definitely not alone. As students find themselves unable to pay for their basic necessities, sex work amongst students seems to be on the rise. A recent study shows that around one in 20 students in the United Kingdom have done sex work. While there are no such studies in South Africa, student sex work seems to be a growing trend here.
Students often find sex work to be an easy way to make a considerable amount of money. The hours are usually flexible. Lara*, who has been in the sex industry for the past three years, says, “I have a full course-load, I can easily earn about R7 000 a month, and my schedule is flexible and manageable. I doubt many students can say that.”
However, there is a downside to being a sex worker: sex work can be dangerous. Sex workers are often abused by the police, clients and other citizens. Recent research conducted in South Africa shows that female sex workers are 18 times more likely to be murdered than other women. While not all sex work is criminalised in South Africa – for example, stripping is legal – most sex workers are made vulnerable to violence because the industry is criminalised.
For this reason, various gender-related organisations have launched the Asijiki Coalition for the Decriminalisation of Sex Work. According to their website, the decriminalisation of sex work will lead to sex workers being better protected by the law. Consequently, sex workers will be less likely to face abuse and will have better access to health care.
Lara says she fully supports the decriminalization of sex work, saying that the current laws are ‘heteronormative and slut-shaming’. She believes that student sex workers are in a better position than most other sex workers – especially those who, like her, have elite clientele.
This said, Angela and Lindi are aware that they have very little legal protection, should they be abused by a client or the police. For this reason, they are starting to do sex work online. They reason that it’s safer with more flexible hours. Through channels like Tumblr and Reddit, they have managed to make over R6 000 with just a handful of clients each. Their services include personalised videos, photographs, and sending worn underwear to paying clients.
Online sex work is particularly attractive to students, who have access to a stable internet connection. Palesa*, a former stripper, recently moved to Grahamstown to study at Rhodes University, where she tried doing online sex work for the first time. “It’s safer, the hours are flexible, and nobody has to touch me,” she said. She adds that she does this work out of financial necessity, although she finds her work to be entertaining and interesting.
Sex work isn’t limited to female students. Jake* has been doing online sex work for the past 7 months. He runs his business on Tumblr, where he receives money and gifts from clients. While he does it for fun and not out of financial necessity, he agrees that many students do. He believes that his female counterparts earn more than what he does as there’s ‘less of a demand’ for male sex workers.
Palesa thinks that South Africa’s high tuition fees, as highlighted by the recent #FeesMustFall student protests across the country, cause more students to turn to sex work. “There’s a huge stigma for most people but students are usually more liberal,” she says. “It needs to be decriminalised so that students can do it safely, but still, students shouldn’t have to do it to pay for their fees.”
*Names have been changed to ensure privacy
The information in this article are not the views of the ICASA Youth Front but are the views of Sian Ferguson.