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’sÂ 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 seamenÂ 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 TownÂ 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 donâ€™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 transactionâ€¦.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 theyâ€™re takingâ€”but theyâ€™re also young people, 25 years old, and they donâ€™t think theyâ€™re ever going to die. Not every decision I made when I was in my twenties was freeâ€”. You didnâ€™t think you could be struck down. You just donâ€™t think itâ€™s going to happen to you.Â [Besides,]Â theyÂ are making more money than theyâ€™ve ever made or ever will make, actually, too. So in that environment, itâ€™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 virusâ€”they put it on the backburner. Most of the women donâ€™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 manâ€¦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, Iâ€™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 cameâ€”Japanese men are considered very clean compared to Chinese menâ€”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!