An ode to Dudu Dlamini: Decriminalisation of sex work is a feminist issue

Wanelisa Xaba | Mar 05, 2019
The bottom line is: decriminalisation of sex work and the violation of sex workers is not an issue for us self-proclaimed feminists. No matter how you spin shit and whatever beautiful form it takes after, it will still be and smell like shit.

And our sex worker exclusive feminist radical feminism (SWERF) is shit. This might probably offend you, the whole “your feminism is shit” part. But it is perfectly natural to be uncomfortable and angry when our privilege and oppression is called out. Power though the defensiveness. Stay and read on. Be a good feminist babes.

I want to tell you about a Black feminist warrior who carries a burning spear called Sis Dudu. Sis Dudu is a sex work activist working with SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force) and the founder of Mothers For The Future. At the World Aids Conference in Amsterdam, Sis Dudu Dlamini won the Prudence Mabele Award for her advocacy work. The Prudence Mabele Award is an award named after a South African womxn’s rights activist who advocated for people living with HIV/AIDS. Sis Dudu travels the world advocating for the decriminalization of sex at the United Nations level. Sis Dudu works tirelessly for decriminalization of sex work in South Africa. She and many other activists (i.e Nosipho Vidima, Lee Daniels…) are the names of internationally renowned feminists who remain on the margins because their oppressions are not hip enough for our social media accounts. And as part of taking responsibility I will outline how I am implicated in the erasure of sex workers in feminism.

In 2014 in the leafy suburb of Kenilworth in Cape Town, a certain White man drove past a Black woman, Cynthia Joni walking back from a her place of work and he decided that she needed a beating. That White monster was Tim Osrin and true to his legacy of White masculinity with roots emanating from Jan van Riebeeck down to Verwoerd, used a Black womxn’s body as an object to satisfy his genocidal hunger games. After media backlash, Osrin claimed that he thought Cynthia was a sex worker. Somehow I got a hold of the news on social media and from a place of rage I started to mobilise SAY-F members and other feminists in Cape Town to go picket at the court hearing.

In the beginning of the protest it was clear that there two groups of protesters, us the feminists and the sex work activists from SWEAT. I remember my irritation at SWEAT...Why had they not contacted us so we can team up? Were they hijacking the protest? Of course Tim Osrin was wrong for attacking Cynthia because she was a sex worker BUT….

At that critical moment I failed to learn an important lesson: our “Black womxn’s bodies are not sites of violence”, “1994 changed fokkol” (intellectual property of Blackwash) and “South African Young Feminist Activists” placards were very exclusionary. We were enraged that a Black womxn was violated. That was our primary concern. Our feminism was sex worker exclusionary (SWERF). We were not primarily concerned that the incident spoke about deeper issues about the brutal violence sex workers have to endure and how it speaks to the urgent need for the decriminalization of sex work.

Although we ended up blending and connected at the protest on our collective outrage at the White barbarity of Osrin, deeper issues about the invisibilization of sex work violations in our collective feminist spaces remained unresolved. Sex work is not sexy enough for us (to wear doeks and) to protest against. Sex work is not hip enough for our twitter accounts. Sex work just takes this whole radical thing too far! All oppression is connected but...all signal are unavailable for sex worker rights.

Fast forward four years, I am sitting with Sis Dudu (who was also at the protest four years ago) and sharing a Stuyvesant Blue on a balcony and she calls me out, “You do a lot of writing. You are in a position to support us. Sex worker rights are womxn’s rights. It is a feminist issue”. This is true. I had not managed to connect my feminism as directly linked to decriminalization of sex work. Many of us do not realize that our feminist and politics as Black womxn intersects with sex work decriminalization. As Black womxn we can even find camaraderie with racist White feminists yet ignore the human rights violations of our sisters.

There is a reason why we don’t know Sis Dudu (and her work) let alone that she was honoured on an international platform. It is part of willful ignorance and disinterest in sex worker human rights violations. Of course sex is a feminist issue. Womxn who are not protected by labour laws are purposely put in vulnerable situations where they experience unspeakable violence. Where are the Marxist feminists? Womxn experience violence or are killed while working. Where are the radical Black feminists? Sex work betrays deep issues on how we divide work as ‘moral’ and ‘immoral work’. The respectability politics that police bodies and (certain kinds of) sex. So where is the “free the nipple” feminist gang? If a womxn accountant experienced one of the many human rights violations at their place of work, the reality would be that all feminists would be up in arms. We started a whole hashtag when a Black womxn was told wearing a doek at work was unprofessional. Imagine how outraged we would be if an accountant was raped and killed at work because they were an accountant?

Maybe I am reaching. Maybe I am not. One thing remains. Sex work is a womxn’s rights issue, sex work is a human rights issue and it is a feminist issue. All oppression is connected and therefore my liberation as a Black womxn is directly linked to Sis Dudu’s liberation and human dignity. We need to ask ourselves hard questions about our camaraderie with sex workers. As Black feminists we need to ask ourselves, “Is the decriminalization of sex work part of the utopia I want to see when we have the land back?” If your answer is no, then ask yourself why not? If your response is linked to respectability/morality about sex and labour then go reflect, unlearn and “unshit” yourself.