Interview: Theatre is a powerful way to promote sex workers’ rights

Clinton is outside, leaning against a pillar. He is wearing a black shirt and rimmed glasses.
Last updated on: 05 March 2024

Combining sex worker rights advocacy and theatre might be new in South Africa but it has the power to change the way the sex work industry is viewed, for both audiences and sex workers themselves. Clinton Osbourn, Project Lead for the Sex Workers Theatre Group at SWEAT spoke to Aidsfonds about how telling different stories humanises sex workers and how theatre shifts the way sex worker performers see themselves.

Theatre visualises sex workers’ lives

Although South Africa has a long history of struggle theatre, merging sex worker rights advocacy and theatre is completely new here. There is so much power in people telling their personal stories and  you could see from the performance that there is a lot of talent. It’s powerful for people to be able to visualise sex workers’ lives, their interactions with the police, their experiences of violence. When you’re seeing someone speaking about their experience it just feels more real, you can empathise more with it. We see it a lot with social media, as soon as there is a video or a visual about it, it evokes so much more emotion.

Showing all their identities

But what is really important is that this theatre takes a very intersectional approach to sex workers’ lives. It shows all their identities: sex workers are also migrants, they are also HIV positive, they are also mothers, they also have different gender identities. This shows that there are so many other things happening in their lives and that for many sex workers, sex work is just their jobs and this was the best way for them to earn money for various reasons. Like how jobs are for most other people – it’s just a way to earn money and then we have the rest of our lives that we’re living. This is important because sex workers are so quickly pigeon-holed and stereotyped and telling these different stories humanises them.

How it started

The theatre group was started in 2019 as research project by the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies and the African Gender Institute. We really did things properly: at the beginning we handed out flyers in the street to sex workers inviting them to audition to become members of this group and we got people from the University’s drama department to score the auditions. We initially selected 12 people to be members of the group. Twice a week they would meet for training and each three months they would focus on a certain type of theatre – like voice, dance, movement, street performance… and then they would put on a performance.

The relationship with the University of Cape Town eventually came to an end but the theatre group continued. We’ve done a lot of performances at seminars, at conferences, at events. What we’ve noticed is that some people, even though they’re in the medical field, or social development, have never really thought about sex work before. This is new messaging for them.

A great skills transfer

SWEAT Theatre Performers perform at report launch

Something else we also did was get in touch with the Sex Worker Opera which is based in London. They flew out here in the beginning of 2019 to hear stories from South African sex workers and we’ve maintained a relationship with them. They decided they want to make a movie and we are working on a script for one with them. The movie draws on the experiences and personal lives of sex workers in different countries. The group has loved being involved with this and there has been a really great skills transfer.

No actual data about impact

With all advocacy activities it’s so hard to measure impact: we don’t know if these performances have changed the way doctors deal with their patients who are sex workers, for example. But there is a theoretical assumption that it would shift their perspective and the same would apply to the public who watch a performance. We’ve done public performances in Cape Town city centre, in Observatory and in a park in Paarl. There might be 30 people watching it and you can see the amazement and curiosity on peoples’ faces. You can see it in the crowd but no, we don’t have actual data about impact.

The real impact can be seen on the performers

What I can say is that the real impact can be seen on the performers. I know them and I’ve seen a shift in their perception of themselves. I can see how their confidence has grown, how they see their lives differently now and what is possible for their lives. It can actually cause a shift in identity. They can say, ‘I’m not only a this or a that but now I am also a dancer, I am also a singer’. This is very empowering, particularly for the people who have been part of the group from the beginning.

I can see it in their commitment. Two of the members travel the whole morning to come for a three or four hour workshop and they’re there every single time. I can see it in one of the performers who takes drugs but who put herself on a treatment programme. These are things they sorted out themselves and they didn’t do this before. These are things that come when your self-esteem improves when you actually see yourself differently.

Two SWEAT Theatre Performers perform at report launch

Clinton Osbourn is Training and Support Manager at the Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) in South Africa and the Project Lead for SWEAT’s Sex Workers Theatre Group. SWEAT has a 20-year history in organising sex workers, advocating for and delivering services to South African sex workers with the aim to reduce stigma, to reform policies and to decriminalise sex work.

SWEAT is partner of the Aidsfonds’ Hands Off programme that works to reduce violence against sex workers and of the Love Alliance that promotes health and rights of key populations. The theatre group receives financial support from the Love Alliance. We spoke to Clinton at the official launch of the 2022 Report on Human Rights Violations against Sex Workers in Southern Africa on 9 December in Johannesburg, where their theatre group performed.