A version of this review originally appeared in issue 19 of make/shift magazine
In March 2016, South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa made a historic announcement of a nationwide scheme to prevent and treat HIV among sex workers, proclaiming, “we cannot deny the humanity and inalienable rights of people who engage in sex work.” Though Ramaphosa remained mum on the topic of decriminalization, the rousing endorsement this statement represents can’t be underemphasized. It’s impossible to imagine a U.S. politician of any importance saying something similar. The credit for this sea change in attitude goes to South African sex workers’ rights organization SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce) and sex worker peer organization Sisonke. In her book, To Live Freely In This World: Sex Worker Activism In Africa, Fordham University law professor Chi Adanno Mgbako covers SWEAT and parallel organizations in seven countries.
Mgbako deftly and concisely goes over sex workers’ rights 101 material. The epilogue’s history of global organizing comprehensively places the African movement in its broader context, from the 1970s—Margo St. James’ COYOTE and the French Collective of Prostitutes—to the 2012 Kolkata Sex Worker Freedom Festival. Mgbako explains the importance of not reducing sex work to “a single story” of victimization, the necessity of respecting human agency, and the need to understand sex workers’ rights activism as a labor movement. She traces the connection between violence and criminalization as represented by police abuse and client violence and the structural violence of social stigma, labor exploitation, and healthcare discrimination.
To Live Freely also transcends respectability politics and actively includes the sex workers often left out of our histories. One of the book’s seven chapters is dedicated to the multiple stigmas navigated by queer, migrant, trans, and HIV-positive sex workers. Mgbako makes sure to discuss sex-working queer women, trans men, and gender nonconforming people, who because of their lower visibility are too often excluded.
Many times throughout the text, Mgbako provides long oral histories from sex worker activists. In an admirable and sadly rare move for an ally, she explicitly connects this choice with the fact that she is not a sex worker herself, “and too often, non-sex workers take it upon themselves to speak for sex workers when the latter are fully capable of speaking for themselves.” I found these sections of the book and the solidarity they represented perhaps the most valuable. Kenya Sex Worker Alliance’s Phelister Abdallah’s harrowing account of gang rape by police, the moment representing her personal awakening as an activist, was particularly affecting. Yet, Mgbako never allows these stories to become tragedy porn for non-sex-worker readers—in her introduction, she avers that she only included narratives of abuse when those narratives illustrated the sociopolitical realities of sex workers’ struggle against criminalization. “There are no broken people in this book,” Mgbako declares. Instead, the author’s interest lies in displaying the “radiating strength” of African sex workers.
Indeed, Mgbako’s book proves to be most informative to seasoned Western sex worker activists when it delves into the unique strengths of the African sex workers’ rights movement. African sex worker activism is often rooted in informal self-help activity already present among local sex worker communities, which can include sharing safety information, community childcare, and pooling funds. We do have some examples of this sort of work in the West, such as bad date list systems, which were organized into the National Ugly Mug Project in Britain. But the race to professionalize often leaves Western sex worker organizations filling out applications to become 501c3s, divorced from the casual yet vital community work of sex workers who may not identify as activists. In contrast, African organizations often find their leaders in sex workers already engaged in such casual service work, such as Kholi Buthelezi, who was escorting her co-workers in Johannesburg’s brothels to sex worker friendly clinics long before she took the helm of Sisonke in 2008. In some African countries, like South Africa and Kenya, sex workers’ rights organizations also benefit from members already experienced in protest work against apartheid and colonialism.
African organizations are further enriched by the alliances they’ve developed with LGBT groups, labor movements, and harm reduction groups. Last summer, some U.S. LGBT groups announced their agreement with Amnesty International’s support for decriminalization. But historically, gentrification here has set upwardly mobile gay people against marginalized sex workers they want to expel from their “gayborhoods.” African LGBT and sex workers’ rights organizations are united in their struggle against what Mgbako identifies as political homophobia and political whorephobia. African politicians and religious leaders often equate both sex work and queerness with Western colonialist deviancy. As the author makes clear in her brief history of pre-colonial African sex work, this is a false equivalence, but that hasn’t stopped countries such as Uganda from criminalizing and persecuting sex workers and LGBT people alike with legislation such as the Anti-Pornography and Anti-Homosexuality Acts.
In the U.S., alliances between sex workers’ rights movements and anti-drug war and harm reduction groups are still few and far between. Yet, in Mauritius, local sex workers’ rights activism began through the work of harm reduction organizations such as Chrysalide, when advocates who worked with drug-using sex workers heard the stories of the abuse they experienced. In the West, labor unions sometimes actively shut out sex workers’ rights groups. In Kenya, though, sex workers have joined with an anti-poverty movement called Bunge La Mwanachi (The People’s Parliament), relating their labor to an entire class of street-based workers such as minibus drivers and street vendors.
African sex workers’ rights organizations collaborate on an international level, as well. They actively study and consult with other sex workers’ rights movements around the world: SWEAT brought in Tim Barnett, a former New Zealand Parliament member integral to that country’s decriminalization of prostitution in 2003, as a consultant on lobbying. And the Nairobi-based Sex Worker Academy for Africa, a joint project of African sex workers’ rights organizations and India’s formidable VAMP collective, formalized collaboration in the Global South.
Though sex workers’ rights movements are globally interconnected, in practice, we are still often isolated, failing to learn from each other. To Live Freely In This World serves as a source text for Western sex workers to study the success of their African counterparts. Certainly, it turns the Eurocentric notion that Western movements are somehow more advanced right on its head.