The journal African Affairs just published my review of the following book: To live freely in this world: Sex worker activism in Africa, by Chi Adanna Mgbako (New York: New York University Press, 2016). I republish the review integral below.
Africa has a rich history of social and political activist movements. This book documents the latest chapter in this history: the recent emergence of an African sex workers’ rights movement. The latter is part of the global movement, but it is also a ‘continuation of a rich tradition of informal local sex worker activism’ (p. 5) while building on the histories of civil society mobilizing and activism against oppression in the form of colonialism and apartheid, and collaborating with other social and human rights movements.
The book aims to contribute to the field of sex work studies, which so far has mainly focused on Asia, Europe and North America, and to the work of African feminist scholars, who so far have remained generally silent about sex work. Mgbako is very much aware of the heated debates about sex work in feminist circles. Basically these debates center on the question whether sex workers are inherently violated people who need to be rescued out of their dehumanizing work, or whether they are people with agency making a well-informed decision to engage in sex-work, but are dehumanized by the conditions in which they have to carry out their work due to its criminalization. Mgbako takes a clear position, developing a strong argument for the latter. The methodology of her research has been informed by this position: written in a strongly narrative mode, the book foregrounds the stories of sex workers themselves. This choice is informed by the feminist epistemological principle of taking women’s experiences seriously. The research underlying the book was conducted in seven countries across the continent (Botswana, Kenya, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Uganda), in both urban, semi-urban and rural sites. This ensures that a diversity of contexts, experiences and perspectives are included. Interviews with more than 200 sex workers, activists, and allies were conducted, supplemented with participant observation of protest marches, human right training, and health outreach to sex workers.
The book consists of an introduction, seven chapters and an epilogue. Chapter 1 challenges what Mgbako describes as ‘anti-prostitution activists’ single story of sex work’ (p. 22) – a narrative according to which sex work is an inherently violent, coercive and oppressive industry. This narrative is critiqued for conflating sex work and human trafficking, victimizing sex workers, and denying them agency. Mgbako contrasts this to the narrative of sex worker advocates, which insists on the acceptance of sex work as labour and the recognition of sex workers’ human agency even amidst limited economic opportunities. The theme of criminalization is explored in chapter 2, arguing that sex workers experience many human rights abuses, originating from the same source: sex work’s illegality and the social stigma surrounding it.
Chapter 3 nuances the dominant idea that sex work is a women’s issue, foregrounding the experiences of male, transgender and queer sex workers and their suffering from multiple, intersecting forms of stigma. This is further explored in relation to migrant sex workers and HIV positive sex workers. Each of these groups is particularly vulnerable to the human rights abuses that sex workers in general are likely to suffer from. The theme of intersectionality is picked up again in chapter 5, but then from a positive perspective: the constructive engagement of the sex worker movement with feminist, LGBT, HIV and other social justice and human rights movements on the continent. Both chapters draw critical attention to the complex intersections of gender, sexuality and other categories of marginalization and activism. As such they have the potential to make a contribution to debates not only in feminist but also queer studies scholarship, yet this potential is not fully exploited.
Chapter 4 highlights various forms of informal and formal political resistance and the movement’s successes and struggles in creating visionary leaders and active constituents. South Africa and Kenya are presented as offering two models of sex work movement building, the former driven by top-down support from external funding partners, while the latter is an example of bottom-up grassroots (yet under-funded) mobilization. Chapter 6 examines the key organizing strategies, clustered in three areas: provision of health and legal services to sex workers; public outreach to promote societal understanding of sex workers’ issues; efforts concerned with rights-based law reform to decriminalize sex work. Detailed attention is paid to South Africa, where courageous sex worker activists have engaged in a high-profile campaign for decriminalization modelled after the example of New Zealand (where sex work falls under general employment labor laws, with minimal state regulation). Mgbako argues insightfully that such decriminalization is a crucial first step, but should be followed by positive, progressive laws and policies ensuring sex workers’ human rights. Chapter 7 examines the opposition from anti-prostitution activists, conservative religious leaders and politicians that sex work activists encounter. Yet in line with the overall theme of agency, the chapter also showcases how these activists resist the strategies deployed against them. One example that I found particularly fascinating is the response to religious opposition to sex work in the form of a “sex worker prayer”, and I would have been interested to learn more about religion and spirituality as a site of sex workers’ empowerment and agency. The Epilogue, importantly, highlights the transnational links between African activists and the global sex workers’ movement, and the emergence of South-South collaborations. Crucial questions regarding postcoloniality and the decolonization of global sex work activism are latent here and throughout the book, but could have been addressed more explicitly.
This monograph presents the first book-length study on sex workers’ activism in Africa, and it makes an important contribution, not only to feminist debates about sex work, but also to the scholarship of social movements and activism in contemporary Africa. A major strength is the book’s narrative approach, foregrounding the stories of sex worker activists themselves. A possible downside is that this allows little space for the author to take a critical distance to the research subjects. The voice of the sex worker advocates and the voice of the researcher seem to merge seamlessly in this book. The activists’ position in the feminist debates about sex work appears to be the position of the author herself. Although I sympathize with the arguments in support of this position, at times I would have liked a more complicated picture. For instance, when the author claims that ‘there are no broken people in this book’ (p. 13), one wonders whether this is because there are no broken sex workers in Africa, or because they are not part of the organizations through which participants were recruited? If the latter is the case, that raises critical questions about the politics of representation and inclusion/exclusion in the sex workers movement – questions that are critical in relation to any social and political activist movement.