‘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


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.

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  1. 1.

    Under Section 20(1A)(a) of the Sexual Offences Act, Act 23 of 1957, all parties engaged in the buying and selling of sex are committing a crime. The Act reads as follows: “20. Persons living on earnings of prostitution or committing or assisting in commission of indecent acts. (1A) Any person 18 years or older who …. (a) has unlawful carnal intercourse, or commits an act of indecency, with any other person for reward…shall be guilty of an offence”.

  2. 2.

    In the World Cup study that surveyed 2239 male, female and transgender sex workers across four sites in South Africa, 43.4 % (n = 971) were found to be cross-border migrants and 56.1 % (n = 1257) were internal migrants. Only 11 sex workers or 0.5 % worked in the same province that they were born (Richter et al. “Investigation into the demand and supply of adult entertainment and paid sex during the 2010)

  3. 3.

    Photographs, collage, painting, film, video, drawings, digital storytelling, and other visual forms of representation

  4. 4.

    There are three main outreach clinics specific to sex workers in inner-city Johannesburg: Hillbrow Community Health Centre, Esselen Clinic and the mobile clinic. The participants in this study mainly spoke of the Esselen Clinic and often referred to it as the ‘Sex Worker Clinic’.


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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.

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Elsa Oliveira.

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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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Oliveira, E. ‘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. Urban Forum 28, 43–57 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12132-016-9281-0

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  • Migration
  • Sex work
  • Johannesburg
  • South Africa
  • Participatory visual methodologies