Sugar Girls and Seamen

I had an interesting conversation with Henry Trotter today, who has been living in South Africa for a few years now and hanging out at the docks in Cape Town and Durban, doing research on prostitutes and sailors for a Ph.D. he’s finishing up at Yale. He’s bringing out a book, Sugar Girls and Seamen: A Journey into the World of Dockside Prostitution in South Africa, next month and you can read some of his blog posts on sugar girls and seamen here.

When we were talking about sex, health, and culture in South Africa, Henry mentioned that 4 prostitutes he knew in Durban recently died of what was apparently AIDS–but their friends mentioned that they had been bewitched instead. He said that was a very different thing than what happens in Cape Town. A woman he knows in Cape Town recently died of AIDS but, although nobody talked about it, there was no doubt what she died of. It’s a different understanding of the etiology of disease.

“The implications of this are very important for health-seeking behavior. If you don’t see this as caused by sexual decisions, [then why would you seek medical help?]” he asked. “And also, for instance, in Durban, the women were more likely to have interactions with local partners than the Cape Town women, who were a little more ‘professional’ about it and tended to stick to sailors, who were from East Asia, also coming from a relatively low HIV-infection rates. The local colored and white women were getting involved with local colored and white men, where infection rate is low. But in Durban, those women were interacting with different nationalities, but also with local men. Sometimes the relationships with men were not a strict sexual transaction….There was very much a blurred line between whether this was a professional relationship or not, whereas their relationships with the sailors were a little more professional. It is ironic that one would expect prostitutes would be very wise about the risks of HIV they’re taking—but they’re also young people, 25 years old, and they don’t think they’re ever going to die. Not every decision I made when I was in my twenties was free—. You didn’t think you could be struck down. You just don’t think it’s going to happen to you. [Besides,] they are making more money than they’ve ever made or ever will make, actually, too. So in that environment, it’s pretty easy to make compromised decisions about health. They were more worried about pregnancy than viruses. All of them had given birth to babies, all of them knew what pregnancy entailed, and it was scary. They understand that risk. But the virus—they put it on the backburner. Most of the women don’t know their own status. I did come to an estimation of who was using condoms and who was not, or what was the relevant frequency. It was most important how close they were emotionally to the man…It was actually the clients that they liked the most, they would not use condoms. It was a reward on the one hand to a loyal client, but it was also a sensibility that ‘I know this man, I’ve been with him before, he must be clean.’ So they rely on other assessments of the man to make assessments about the virus. If he was clean, depending on the nation he came—Japanese men are considered very clean compared to Chinese men—these were all part of the decisions they made.”

Henry made other interesting comments and I’m looking forward to interviewing him at length when I’m in Cape Town. And I cant wait to get a copy of the book!

Comment One

  1. m

    on some unliveable african streets denial is necessary to keep on living. aids is death, and for these women to acknowledge it is to surrender while they live…so its better for them to look the other way, or look at something else altogether. witchcraft, unlike aids, they can deal with…at least there is hope, no matter how false.

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