I am a Sex Worker…I know why I am doing it
Last month sex workers and members of civil society organisations from seven Caribbean countries met in Port of Spain for a Caribbean Sex Worker Coalition Meeting. Over two days they hammered out a two-year agenda to address the human rights and health needs of regional sex workers. They also secured funding commitments from the United Nations system for their work plan. And they shared their stories. Their accounts give insight into the realities of Caribbean socio-economics, sexuality and gender relations that led them into sex work. And they are straightforward about the highs and lows of selling sex for a living. During March Express Woman will tell their tales. We begin with the story of a veteran street-based sex worker from Guyana, Passion.
Trinidad and Tobago Express – March 1, 2008
By Cedriann J Martin
“The first time a young girl has sex for money it is addictive,” she says. “You have to be real strong to stop.”
With that in mind, how could she consider taking in two street-wise teens who had already worked their way to the curbs and strip joints? She was a single mother. Of five girls, no less. It was a patently bad idea.
But Passion, 38, felt their desperation more than twenty years before. She started selling sex at 14. And she was immediately hooked. She sums up the background that led to her early entry into Guyana’s sex trade in a few loaded lines.
Her father died when she was three. Her mother “gave away” each of her nine children upon becoming a widow. She was handed over to an old couple without offspring of their own. For ten years life was alright. She was a high school student who dreamed of one day counting crisp bills in a cool bank. Later in the interview she reveals a persistent resentment about being denied the love of her brothers, sisters and birth mother during those years. The feeling of abandonment must have cut deeply as a child. But she says that her guardians were caring people. Things weren’t that bad.
Then things changed. The breadwinner fell ill and was no longer able to work. The trio was plunged into poverty. The disability allowance he was paid wasn’t enough to put food on the stove or Passion through school. There were hard, hungry days when there wasn’t anything to eat. Education became a luxury.
Some older friends in the area sometimes gave Passion food or money when she complained. Eventually they taught her how to fish. They were sex workers. And they recruited the 14-year-old to their trade. Passion describes her emotions after that first exchange of sex for money as an intermingling of fear and joy.
“When I did my first job I realised that I could make in one night the pension my parents were getting every month. I was glad I could get money to care for those two loving persons and keep in school, but I was also scared. I thought ‘this is what I have to do?’ ”
She wasn’t a virgin. But neither was she a veteran. Passion hadn’t been taught anything about sex or pregnancy, let alone protection.
“Nobody ever talk to me about condoms,” she says. “Nobody even talk to me about when you turning a young lady. When I started bleeding after I first had sex I was so afraid. And when my periods came I thought I couldn’t tell this woman because she would know I had sex.”
Neither her menstrual cycle nor the way she made money remained secret for long. Though still enrolled in school Passion eventually began living an extreme life. She left at nights and wouldn’t return the next day if she hadn’t made enough money. Her guardians did the math. By form four she was pregnant. She dropped out of school.
In the ensuing years Passion learned the ropes. At first, she admits, it seemed like an easy way to make money. She lived and worked in Linden, a vibrant port town where foreigners came inland for something to drink and something more. Sometimes she worked from the streets. At other times she hung out in the clubs with tourists.
“The persons you were with would know this is a (she lowers her voice slightly) sex worker. At that time foreign men treated you better and paid you more so you would look out for the foreigners,” she recalls.
But that was a deception. She now reflects that it was a difficult life. She had five children with three men but none of those relationships lasted. Passion has no illusions about the reason.
“They all knew what I did,” she says. “Eventually they just left because if you want to take a person to be your real woman you want them to stop doing this work. As a sex worker making money it’s hard to stop.”
Passion was being practical. Over the years she tried other jobs. She was a construction worker, a cook, a store clerk. The last job paid 25 000 Guyanese dollars (about TT$850.00) a month. Passion could make that on the streets in a couple nights. And she needed the money to care for her children.
She’s an attentive, no-nonsense mother.
“Let me tell you this,” she sets out “I don’t play. I put them to sit down and talk about sex all the time. All their life they’ve known what I do. I tell them this is what I am doing to get you where you are today and I don’t want you ever to think about doing this. It is not right. I do it because of the money. They have no reason to turn to it because I am there providing for them all the time.”
Companionship wasn’t the only thing Passion risked over the years. Admitting that she had unprotected sex with clients “the majority of the time”, she declares that had she started off in the age of HIV she would almost certainly be infected. Contracting a sexually transmitted infection was the jolt to behaviour change.
“Persons at the clinic talked to me and my peers talked to me about condoms and I said ‘look, I don’t want this thing to happen again’,” she explains. Men frequently offer more money for unprotected sex. These days she does not budge from her safe sex stance. But she admits it isn’t easy: “No matter how bad things are I say if you don’t have a condom I won’t have sex. At times it was really hard to say no because of circumstances. Sometimes you have bills to pay the next day and you keep thinking ‘Oh my God! What will happen?’ But no matter how hard it is you have to stand firm because of HIV.”
Now she’s had enough.
“I really want to get off the streets,” she says softly. “I know I have to stop this job and I’m trying a lot of stuff but I haven’t really come up with anything positive as yet. If I can get help from somewhere I can form an organisation to take care of these young girls having sex for money.”
That’s Passion’s dream. Her dedication and maternal instinct make it seem attainable. Already she works with Artistes in Support, a Guyanese NGO that uses street theatre to take messages on HIV, relationships and safety to sex workers. The drama happens right there on the corner while the ladies and gents of the night wait to turn a trick. She has a particular interest in helping young women with the will to exit the sex industry.
“There is hope for them. At the time I turned to commercial sex work if there was any other alternative I would have taken it. Usually I talk with the girls. I ask ‘why are you doing this work? You so pretty.’ I talk about the risks. Most of them would open up to me at the end of the conversation and say ‘I don’t really want to do this’.”
That’s the kind of exchange she had four years ago with two teens. One explained that her parents separated and her mother could no longer afford to educate her. She was selling sex to stay in school.
“She brought back my whole childhood memory,” Passion says. Against the wishes and opinions of relatives and neighbours, Passion brought the two girls into her home. One is now enrolled in a private secondary school. The other earned seven CXC passes last year and wants to be a teacher.
“I did that with the love in my heart,” Passion says. “I keep telling her I don’t want her to repay me. My peers would say ‘why you taking other people’s burden when you’ve got your own children. But I know why I am doing it.”