Urban Forum

, Volume 28, Issue 1, pp 43–57 | Cite as

‘I am more than just a sex worker but you have to also know that I sell sex and it’s okay’: Lived Experiences of Migrant Sex Workers in Inner-City Johannesburg, South Africa

  • Elsa OliveiraEmail author


A perceived opportunity for improved livelihoods has made Johannesburg a target destination for many internal migrants moving within the borders of South Africa, as well as for cross-border migrants from around the continent and beyond. As a result, many migrants—especially those with irregular documentation—engage in unconventional and sometimes criminalised livelihood strategies, including sex work. This paper uses empirical data from a 2010 mixed methods research study that included a participatory photography project with 11 migrant women from Zimbabwe and elsewhere in South Africa, who sold sex in the migrant-dense suburb of Hillbrow, in inner-city Johannesburg. By focussing on the diverse lived experiences of migrant women who sell sex, this paper examines the ways in which these women survive, engage, and experience their work and the city. Feelings of excitement as a result of new experiences, opportunities for new identities and dreams to be formed, sentiments of nostalgia, concerns and experiences of violence, pride in the ability to survive and earn an income, feelings of loneliness, and negotiations of stigma surfaced throughout the study as participants explained, represented and examined their lives.


Migration Sex work Johannesburg South Africa Participatory visual methodologies 



A special appreciation goes to the 11 participants for generously sharing their stories with me. I would also like to acknowledge the partnership with the Market Photo Workshop and Sisonke Sex Worker Movement and thank all involved for their commitment to the project. A special thank you to Dr. Jo Vearey for her helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

The study received ethical approval from the University of the Witwatersrand Research (non medical) Ethics Committee: H100 715.


The research study presented in this paper was part of the author’s MA research project, and funding was received from the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Market Photo Workshop.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.African Centre for Migration & SocietyUniversity of the WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa

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