Op-Ed

A South African trans woman’s tempestuous journey through sex trafficking to survival

‘My experience in prostitution — a spider web of danger — included sleeping in abandoned buildings and being raped by organized crime gangsters’

Ayanda Denge.

My mother died in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, when I was just 12 years old. I was the youngest of three boys. I was devastated. I felt very alone, confused and desperate.

My brothers and I were “each man for himself,” so I was alone trying to navigate survival every day. That summer I went to the beach in Durban. In the shower house, a man asked me to wash his back and then for sex. Afterwards, he bought me ice cream and gave me 20 rands. It occurred to me that I could do this to eat, so I hung around public toilets being bought by men as a way not to starve.

At 16, I left Port Elizabeth to go to Johannesburg. I believed that it would offer greener pastures, that a man would marry me and that I could be safe. Around that time I started cross-dressing to maintain a female persona and soon began to identify as a trans woman.

But Johannesburg was rough. The streets were dangerous and my journey in prostitution included sleeping in abandoned buildings and being raped by gangsters of the organized criminal networks. Every day, you were caught in a spider web of danger. I was high most of the time and was always desperate for money to support my drug habit. On the outside I seemed happy, but inside I was broken, alone and fragile.

Although apartheid is over and we’re supposed to be free, while in prostitution I felt like a dog whose legs had been chained. That’s what the sex trade does to you: You feel you have no way out.

Most of the men who paid for me were white and privileged. The sexual acts they performed on me were so gruesome that I can still vividly recall the pain I endured. You can’t take a needle and thread to mend the heart. The money evaporates very quickly, but the scars are lifelong.

After moving on to Cape Town in 2011, my health started to decline. I noticed an abnormal growth developing on my legs, which became very itchy and heavy. I went for a check-up and was diagnosed with Kaposi Sarcoma cancer, a complication of HIV, which I already knew I had contracted.

I started chemotherapy, which proved to be rather unbearable. I was hospitalized, bedridden with cancer and lung failure. I also suffered a stroke. It was around this time that a caregiver suggested I contact the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force (SWEAT).

During the first meeting at SWEAT, I saw many faces I recognized. It was a relief. I felt connected at last. They talked about total decriminalization of prostitution — a model that is used in New Zealand. People in prostitution are decriminalized, but so too are pimps, brothel-owners and sex buyers. They said we would be safe from the police if the sex trade was decriminalized. At the time, that sounded like a very attractive proposition, so I became a mobilizer and outreach coordinator for SWEAT. I worked there for about a year and a half distributing condoms and lubricants on the streets and received a stipend. Later, I became Acting Chair of the Board of SWEAT Cape Town for three months.

As time went on, I started asking myself about the pipeline to prostitution and how it was never-ending. Something wasn’t connecting anymore. I began to feel that we were spoon-fed and indoctrinated by white privileged academics who had no knowledge of what the inhumane working conditions we had to experience were really like. I started comparing who was in leadership, who was on the streets, who was developing the messaging of “sex work” and how funds were being used.
SWEAT only gave us one sex trade policy model to consider — full decriminalization. They kept insisting that “sex work” was an employment package. When I read more about the different legal frameworks, I realized that SWEAT had never given us an overview of other approaches. Its mission also did not include exit programs or alternative employment opportunities.

Once, when I was still in the sex trade, one of the sisters I knew was sent back on the streets by her pimp five days after she gave birth. She still had stitches but needed to provide for her pimp and her newborn. I asked myself and others at a SWEAT board meeting whether they could put themselves in her shoes and whether they would characterize this as work. Soon after that I resigned.

I am now 36. My wish is to lead a trans movement across South Africa and beyond, which aims to abolish the sex trade. I want to write a book about my journey. I want change. I want the free and fair South Africa for which Nelson Mandela fought. I want the South African government to decriminalize and provide support to people in prostitution, but make buying sex illegal. This is known as the Nordic Model or Equality Model of sex trade policy, which has already been successful in several European countries and in Canada. That’s the only way people like me will be able to find our way out.

Many of my friends have died in prostitution, but I am a survivor — in many ways. I survived the sex trade, HIV, being shot, cancer, and a stroke. I want to become hope for those voiceless other victims who endured — or are still enduring — the same unbearable circumstances that I have survived.

Ayanda Denge is a sex trade survivor and works with Embrace Dignity, an organization that ends commercial sexual exploitation in South Africa.

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