Policing Bodies
Law, Sex Work, and Desire in Johannesburg
I. India Thusi



I WAS CLERKING for the Constitutional Court of South Africa the first time I visited the Hillbrow community in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Constitutional Court is just adjacent to Hillbrow, yet many of my native South African co-clerks had never even entered this area. Several of my colleagues warned me about the danger that lurked right behind us in the Hillbrow community. There is a mythology about Hillbrow as a “den of iniquity”1 that was enough to frighten young lawyers from ever daring to enter this space, even during the daytime.2 Nevertheless, one day, disappointed by the lunch options near the Court, I decided to take a walk through this community. Immediately, I was struck by the hustle and bustle of its streets. Hillbrow is filled with high-rise apartment buildings with laundry hanging outside, graffiti sprayed on the sides of buildings, and the honking of minibus “taxis” polluting the air. Groups of young men chat outside apartment building entrances, and hawkers sell goods as diverse as bananas, chewing gum, and live chickens.

The streets are crowded with Africans from around the continent, filled with various African vernaculars as you walk down the street. During this initial visit, I saw no White people (which is unusual for many parts of Johannesburg), just many Black African faces on the pulsating streets. Hillbrow is vibrant and full of life. I ended up eating at a fish and chips spot down the road from the Court.

This visit sparked my interest in the area, clouded by its reputation for illegality and crime. Hillbrow’s high-rise buildings include residences, hotels with transient housing, business offices, strip clubs, and bars; at times, they are managed by sophisticated criminal syndicates that charge cheap, daily rents.3 Hillbrow is one of the most densely populated areas in Africa and has an estimated population of 75,000 people crammed into just 1.08 square kilometers.4 It is well known as a red-light district, although it is no longer a site for visible street-based sex work. In a 2002 survey of local hotels, 27 percent of women living in those hotels admitted to working as sex workers.5

The sense of vibration, movement, and new settlement in Hillbrow illustrates Edgar Pieterse’s view that “urban territories are as much nodal points in multiple circuits of movement of goods, services, ideas and people, as they are anchor points for livelihood practices that are more settled, more locally embedded and oriented.”6 While this book focuses on Johannesburg, it also describes “elements or processes in cities, or the circulations and connections which shape cities,” more generally, uncovering a story about sex, policing, and urban spaces common to other cities around the globe.7 This book contributes to comparative yet global perspectives on policing, feminism, and sex work, following Jennifer Robinson’s suggestions for a comparative methodology that is still global.8 Much as Kimberly Kay Hoang’s book Dealing in Desire provides global insights about Western decline and capitalism through an ethnography about prostitution in Ho Chi Minh City, this book provides global insights about feminism, race, and policing through an ethnography about prostitution in Johannesburg.

Although I began my research ambivalent about whether sex work should be (de)criminalized, the limitations of promoting human rights by policing and criminalizing conduct became evident as my research progressed. I began to seriously question whether a human rights approach to sex work should ever contribute to more policing of sex work, even if the policing is limited to sex workers’ clients. This issue is important, as there is growing concern about the appropriate role for police, if any, in society. Many people around the world are critically examining policing in response to various incidents of police violence within marginalized communities. In the past several decades, police have taken on additional responsibilities as administrators of social welfare and adopters of community policing. Yet, it remains an open debate whether policing and criminalization bring additional security and human rights protection, especially when it comes to populations that have been historically stigmatized.

It is within this social context that I examine the policing of sex work in Johannesburg. In Hillbrow, the commanding Hillbrow police station spans multiple buildings and is charged with maintaining public safety in this bustling community. The main building is six stories high. The upper levels include the offices for ranking members of the police. There are also meeting rooms on multiple floors, and brightly colored flyers near the elevator for each floor advertise the current police meetings. When people walk into the main building, they see police officers seated behind a long front counter, addressing community complaints and needs. There are usually around eight police officers behind the counter, and an endless flow of community members waiting to file complaints, certify documents, and meet with detectives. During my ethnographic fieldwork, I met with my police officer “partners” in this front lobby area to accompany them on their daily patrols of various brothels.

One evening, I interviewed Zolo, a young police officer who filed community complaints and certified documents. I began my interview by asking for his thoughts on “prostitution” (the term for sex work used by the police) and, soon after, asked him whether prostitution should be legal. Zolo conceded, “It is legal . . . mostly.”9

This comment about the “mostly” legal nature of sex work illustrates how sex work occupies a liminal space10 because the government has made the commercialization of an ordinary occurrence—sex—criminal. Sex work is difficult to regulate and is at the literal and figurative margins of proper society, occupying a place where legality and illegality often blur into one another. The policing of sex work in Johannesburg straddles the line between formal and informal. On the streets, police often appear to be acting in an informal and ad hoc manner. However, high-level organizational directives intended to regulate the obligations and duties of the police toward sex workers also influence police action and tilt the exercise of discretion to the formal. These obligations themselves reflect the tension between the law and human rights: the police must respect the human rights of sex workers, but they must also enforce the laws of the country. Sex work is illegal, but it is also time-consuming to regulate and difficult to prove that a sex work transaction occurred. Sex work involves activity that occurs in private transactions in spaces that are ordinarily private. But the illegality of sex work makes it a matter of public concern.

In this liminal space, this book examines the history of sex work in South Africa and reveals the continuities and contradictions between the discourses that have both informally and formally policed sex workers, as well as the current conditions that constitute the contemporary policing of sex workers in Johannesburg.11 Achille Mbembé and Sarah Nuttall have complained about the descriptions of the urban African metropolis as a site of terror and vice—arguing that the “loathing of Johannesburg in the social sciences should be seen as part of an antiurban ideology that has consistently perceived the industrial city, in particular, as a cesspool of vice.”12 However, even in the world of vice, there is space to contemplate resistance, alternate visions of the world, and the liberatory potential of the body. Vice is not all bad. And sex work is a site for the contestation of femininity and masculinity, desire, and—in the context of South Africa and countries like it—race. Of course, Johannesburg is not all vice, and in this book I reveal how the framing and conception of vice is itself contestable. Moreover, I aim to disrupt the tendency to treat “Africa as an object apart from the world, or as a failed and incomplete example of something else.” In searching out the realities of sex work and its policing, my study acknowledges that there are “multiple elsewheres of which the continent actually speaks” to offer insights that transcend the borders of Africa.13

This book encapsulates nearly two years of fieldwork that I carried out in Johannesburg, South Africa, and it addresses three questions about the policing of sex workers. The first two are descriptive questions about the way the policing of sex work currently occurs. The final one is a normative question about how the policing of sex work should occur. First, I examine the various discourses regarding sexuality and gender that act to informally police sex workers and to formally shape how police officers interact with sex workers. Second, I provide an ethnographic description of the relationship between the police organization and sex workers in Johannesburg. The ethnographic chapters (chapters 2, 3, and 4) expose the complexities of the state’s interactions with vulnerable citizens through this relationship. They show the possibility of negotiation between police and sex workers, which can provide provisional security for sex workers through police protection. And this relationship is often formulated in a human rights language and adopts legal language and terms. However, it is never a lasting security because it is unregulated, and police “greed,” the structural effect of working for an institution that police officers perceive to be underfunded, can tilt the relationship very quickly. Thus, the law is not the primary issue in the policing of sex workers; the informal practices that remain despite changes in the law—and that are informed by popular discourses and competing rationales—constitute the everyday practices, norms, and understandings that make up the everyday reality of the policing of sex workers. The ethnographic chapters about the nature of sex work provide the foundation for answering the final question concerning how sex work should be policed.

Practiced in the face of competing discourses and social practices, the policing of sex workers in Johannesburg demonstrates the limitations of the law as a tool for reform and its fluidity at the margins, providing context for considering how sex work should be policed. The final question is normative in that it considers what it means to adopt a human rights framework for the policing of sex work. This question goes beyond the formalistic legal treatment of sex work and is concerned with (1) how sex work should be treated from a rights perspective, (2) how it should be treated as a discursive object that reflects popular notions about sexuality and gender, and (3) how it should be treated within the dominant discourses as the subject of the gaze of feminists. In this book, I adopt a feminist theoretical approach, which is akin to a radical feminist framework insofar as it centers the role of structural discrimination and patriarchy when examining how sex work should be treated. I move away from an analysis based solely upon the individual liberty interests of atomistic sex workers. However, I arrive at a very different conclusion from radical feminists, who often argue that we should strive for a society where sex work is no longer an acceptable form of labor. This book considers how even partial criminalization of sex work reinforces notions about sexuality that are rooted in patriarchy, even when deployed by feminists. I am deeply skeptical of the feminist reliance on policing and punishment to eliminate social injustice—here, purportedly, the existence of sex work—when policing and punishment have been the state’s primary technology for facilitating social injustice. Women who face intersectional forms of discrimination are constantly negotiating various risks and constrained choices, and they should nevertheless be able to pursue the options available to them that they deem to be beneficial, including the sale of sex. Moreover, the feminist debate must go beyond questions of criminalization if it is to be concerned with the lived realities of sex workers, because their policing occurs despite the mandates of the actual law.

It is important to emphasize that I initially began my research resolutely focused on how sex workers were being policed, with little concern for whether selling sex in exchange for money should be criminalized. Sure, the question naturally arose on several occasions, but I was more interested in exploring the complexities of the relationship between police and sex workers, the possible role of transactional sex in that relationship, and whether the relationship truly was “all bad.”14 However, the question of legality became a prominent feature of my informal conversations with sex workers, police, and various actors in the industry. My own feelings about the topic naturally evolved, and my views on how we, as a society, should treat sex work began to develop. Sex work is difficult. It is messy. It triggers our emotions, as citizens of the world, concerned participants in our local spaces, as women, men, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons. It challenges much of what we have been taught about human relationships and frustrates many of our own notions of morality. It is not a neutral subject, and we all bring preconceived notions of what it is and how it looks to our debates about sex work. Academic discourses about sex work are often emotional and passionate because sex work makes us feel so uncomfortable and is the antithesis of what so many have been taught, from both a radical progressive and ultraconservative perspective.

Conservatives argue that sex work is an affront to the traditional nuclear family. It sanctions non-procreative sex. It happens outside of the marital relationship. Sex work commercializes sex. It presumably destroys marital relationships and infects spouses with venereal disease that has been harvested in the sex worker’s body. The radical progressive position is concerned with systemic reform and rejects theories of citizenship that overemphasize the individual. It is concerned with protecting vulnerable classes from the systematic oppression of a racist, heterosexist, male hegemonic patriarchy. The sex worker does not simply represent the sex worker. She represents womankind, and her choices may be detrimental to women even when they are beneficial to her. Sex work represents violence against women because it somehow victimizes the sex worker. The conservative and progressive positions are inapposite in their reasoning. However, they share one thing in common: At their very core, these arguments are premised on an understanding that sex is different and potentially oppressive for participants and outsiders alike. And so sex work, the commercialization of sex, is questionable. Sex work has no procreative value and may in fact disturb the public.

Consequently, sex work has been hotly debated among feminists and has created seemingly irresolvable divisions between scholars, most of whom are committed to a society that treats women fairly but struggle with conflicting visualizations of such a society. In between the conservative and radical views is a continuum of arguments regarding sex work—some highlight the autonomy of the individual; others emphasize the importance of economic empowerment; others recognize individual autonomy while adopting socialist and materialist feminist approaches; and any combination of any of the varying viewpoints. This range of opinions reflects how research about sex work must contend with the inherent moral subjectivity that we all bring to this research object. This subjectivity is not necessarily a flaw but rather a natural result of conducting research on such a sensitive topic.

South Africa is a particularly interesting nation to explore sex work, given its cultural identity and political history. Catherine Albertyn has outlined South Africa’s transitional period:

In December 1993, after two years of intensive negotiations, the South African Parliament ended white political domination by enacting an interim Constitution. Opening the door to the first non-racial government in South Africa, this Constitution enshrines the principles of liberal democracy and constitutionalism by establishing universal suffrage, an elected Parliament, a regionally based Senate, a strong central government with nine regional governments, an independent judiciary and a justiciable Bill of Rights.15

Given its history of minority political domination, human rights discourses are in many respects fetishized and valorized in South Africa, as they arguably should be. However, the discourse around human rights has created tensions between morality and rights preservation. For example, what is a human rights approach to sex work? Should sex work be decriminalized? Given the lack of scholarly (and feminist) consensus concerning how we should approach sex work, it is not surprising that there is a lack of coherence in the everyday policing of sex workers.

While sex work in South Africa has been explored in a variety of contexts,16 there is very little research on how police members themselves conduct and perceive the task of policing sex workers. The policing of sex workers in Johannesburg involves a variety of policing mechanisms that move far beyond the mandates of the law. Michel Foucault argued that popular discourses regulate human behavior, and people who are vocal participants in shaping popular discourses are exercising power.17 In the unique and particular area of sex work policing, both human rights discourses that have come to dominate narratives relating to the law in South Africa and activist attempts to decriminalize sex work in South Africa influence police behavior.

Popular understandings about gender and appropriate female behavior also influence police reactions to sex workers. As a general matter, South Africa is a society with complicated gender relations. On the one hand, women are frequently the heads of households, charged with providing for their families and raising children on their own.18 On the other hand, South African women are subjected to some of the highest levels of domestic violence and rape in the world.19 The society both relies upon women and in many ways subordinates them.20 Mohamed Seedat, Ashley Van Niekerk, Rachel Jewkes, Shahnaaz Suffla, and Kopano Ratele have discussed the various forms of masculinity in South African society and how they are expressed through violence as an exercise of male sexual dominance: “The dominant notions of masculinity are predicated on the control of women, and infused with ideas of male sexual entitlement. Physical violence is used to manufacture gender hierarchy (i.e., teach women their place) and to enforce this hierarchy through punishment of transgression.”21 This is especially the case when referring to the sex workers,22 as the approach to policing them is consistent with their ability to remain in “private” spaces that police deem appropriate for sex work.

Robert Morrell, Rachel Jewkes, and Graham Lindegger argue that South Africa has at least three forms of hegemonic masculinity that dictate the patriarchal nature of South African society:

[South Africa has not] one masculinity that was hegemonic, but at least three—a “white” masculinity (represented in the political and economic dominance of the white ruling class); an “African,” rurally based masculinity that resided in and was perpetuated through indigenous institutions (such as chiefship, communal land tenure, and customary law) and finally a “black” masculinity that had emerged in the context of urbanization and the development of geographically separate and culturally distinct African townships.23

These forms of masculinity reflect the complex manner in which class and race have contributed to how women experience various forms of sexism and how men are similarly affected by it. The expression of the three types of masculinity in South Africa are context-determinate and are themselves subject to hierarchization and marginalization dependent upon class and social context. These various forms of masculinity were readily apparent as I spent countless hours on patrol with Johannesburg police members while discussing their perceptions of policing sex workers. A police member’s need to assert masculinity would often lead to moments of friction between the police and sex workers who attempted to challenge a police member’s masculinity.


1. See, e.g., Leggett, “A Den of Iniquity?” 21‒22.

2. Hillbrow is an inner-city community in Johannesburg, South Africa, with a “reputation as a run-down neighbourhood ridden with drug-dealing, prostitution, slumlord hijacking and violent crime.” West-Pavlov, “Inside Out—The New Literary Geographies of the Post-Apartheid City,” 7.

3. Building “hijackings” occur when criminal enterprises illegally seize inner-city buildings in Johannesburg and function as the landlords of those buildings in the absence of the lawful landlords. Jacobs, “Building Hijackings on the Rise.”

4. Stadler and Dugmore, “‘Honey, Milk and Bile’: A Social History of Hillbrow, 1894–2016,” 444.

5. Leggett, “A Den of Iniquity?”

6. Pieterse, “Cityness and African Urban Development,” 208.

7. Robinson, “Thinking Cities through Elsewhere,” 4.

8. Ibid.

9. All names of participants in this study, other than the author’s name (India), have been anonymized.

10. Brewis and Linstead, “‘The Worst Thing Is the Screwing’ (1): Consumption and the Management of Identity in Sex Work”: “[Sex workers] are selling something which has not been fully commodified and which is usually associated with the non-commercial private sphere, governed as it is by values of intimacy, love and affect. This liminality arguably means that the place where prostitution happens, whether actual geographical location, part of the body or symbolic location (in terms of its positioning in the prostitute’s psyche), is also crucial to the prostitute’s sense of self, to their self esteem” (84).

11. Michel Foucault has discussed the role of considering history and conducting an “archeology” of history to reveal a “general of theory of productions” that explains the nature of various discourses. See Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge.

12. Mbembé and Nuttall, “Writing the World from an African Metropolis,” 354.

13. Ibid., 354, 348.

14. Newham, “Tackling Police Corruption in South Africa”: “In a study of sex workers in the inner-city area of Johannesburg conducted by the sociologists at the University of Witwatersrand, 16% admitted that they had been forced to perform sexual favours to police members in exchange for not being arrested.” (There has been considerable research highlighting the challenges that South African sex workers face: See, for example, Fick & Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Taskforce Coping with Stigma, Discrimination and Violence, 12 (noting that “sex workers are vulnerable to violence and that they have to deal with tremendous stigma and discrimination”). Further, Caroline Zulu, a sex worker and advocate, recounts her experience with the police in Daughta, “Sex Workers in South Africa”: “The police abuse sex workers, steal our money, demand sex. When the girls are arrested, the police want us to pay 300 Rand to let us free. They say it is a fine for ‘loitering.’ But they refuse to give us an official receipt for our money or a paper that says we were arrested for ‘loitering.’ Once we pay, there is no record of the charges, so we can’t go to court.”

15. Albertyn, “Women and the Transition to Democracy in South Africa,” 39, 43.

16. See for example Richter, “Erotic Labour in Hillbrow”; Stadler and Delany, “The ‘Healthy Brothel’”; Dunkle et al., “Risk Factors for HIV Infection among Sex Workers in Johannesburg, South Africa,” 256; Gardner, “Criminalising the Act of Sex,” 328; Hunter, “The Changing Political Economy of Sex in South Africa,” 689; Peltzer et al., “Characteristics of Female Sex Workers”; and Rees et al., “Commercial Sex Workers in Johannesburg,” 328.

17. Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 11.

18. Ibid., 14 (“Forty percent of households are female headed.”). “The mean age of marriage for women is twenty-eight years, whereas the majority of women have their first child before the age of twenty-one Fathers often have little or no role in the upbringing of their children. In 1993, some 36 percent of children had absent (living) fathers and 57 percent had fathers who were present. By 2002, the proportion of children with absent (living) fathers had jumped to 46 percent, while the proportion of present fathers dropped to 39 percent.” (internal citations omitted).

19. Morrell et al., “Hegemonic Masculinity/Masculinities in South Africa”: “The female homicide rate is . . . highly elevated, at six times higher than the rate worldwide, and at least half of female victims are killed by their male intimate partners. The country also has an alarmingly high level of rate of rape. Fifty-five thousand rapes of women and girls are reported to the police every year, which is estimated to be at least nine times lower than the actual number. In a population-based survey, 28 percent of men interviewed disclosed having raped” (11, 14).

20. Seedat et al., “Violence and injuries in South Africa”: “At least half of female victims are killed by their male intimate partners. In 1999, there were an estimated 3797 homicides of women, giving an overall homicide rate (24·7 per 100 000) six times higher than the rate worldwide (4·0 per 100 000)” (1011, 1012).

21. Ibid., 1013.

22. Fick & Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Taskforce, 12 (noting that “sex workers are vulnerable to violence and that they have to deal with tremendous stigma and discrimination”).

23. Morrell et al., “Hegemonic Masculinity/Masculinities in South Africa,” 11, 12. “The [South African] society is highly patriarchal, with exaggerated racialized, gender inequalities, and the normative use of violence.” Ibid., 25.