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Reporting on sex workers: a guide

Peer educators on the Sex Worker programme.

Sex workers are often stereotyped, exposed, stigmatised and misrepresented in the media. This can have a negative impact, not only on individual sex workers, but on the sex worker rights movement as a whole. Sex workers are ordinary people working to support themselves and their families and, just like any other person, should be treated with fairness and dignity.

NACOSA’s key populations team have pulled together some simple pointers to guide journalists and media houses when reporting on sex work and sex workers.

Key facts

  • Sex workers are female, male and transgender adults aged over 18 years who sell consensual sexual services in return for cash or payment in kind. Sex workers may sell sex formally or informally, regularly or occasionally.
  • There are about 153 000 sex workers in South Africa.[1]
  • Sex workers can be female, male and transgender. In South Africa around 90% are female and 10% are male and transgender.
  • There are many types of sex work and may places that sex workers work. These include brothels, taverns and streets but also the internet and phones.
  • Some sex workers are open about the work they do but many are not and could face serious consequences if they are ‘outed’ as sex workers. This could result in violence towards the sex workers, as well isolation. It is very important to ensure that consent is received before interviewing sex workers, and separate consent is needed for photos or videos.
  • Despite calls from researchers, public health activists and civil society groups, sex work remains criminalised in South Africa, meaning it is illegal for both the sex worker to sell sex and their customer to purchase sex.
  • The criminalization of sex work is one of the main drivers of the violence, stigma and discrimination that sex workers face. As a result, they are one of the most vulnerable and marginalized populations in South Africa.
  • Sex workers are disproportionally vulnerable to violence, HIV, STIs and TB due to the criminalization of sex work. Globally, HIV prevalence amongst sex workers and their clients is up to 20% higher than the general population[2]. Research in South Africa suggests that the HIV prevalence among female sex workers ranges from 40% to 88%[3].
  • Sex work and human trafficking are NOT the same thing:
    • Sex work is when individuals consent to exchange a sexual transaction for money or goods.
    • Human trafficking is when someone is removed from a place under false pretences or against their will and is controlled, forced or coerced to engage in sex acts. Human trafficking implies force and coercion and does not involve consent.

Tips for interviewing sex workers

  • Speak clearly and simply to the sex worker when asking questions, remember they may be nervous talking to you.
  • Allow your interviewee to speak and feel free of judgment and prejudice.
  • Focus on the sex worker that you are interviewing, it will make it easier for the sex worker to focus on you.
  • If you take a photo or video of a sex worker, please ensure that you seek and get consent and a signed form.
  • If a sex worker does not want to be identified, you can offer to use a different name and to ensure any photographs do not show the sex worker’s face or other identifying features.

Reporting on sex workers

  • ONLY use the term sex worker. DO NOT use ‘magosha’ or ‘prostitute’ as this is derogatory.
  • Respect the wishes of a sex worker not to be photographed or have their real name used.
  • Avoid stereotypical images of sex workers (such as fish net stockings and high heels) – sex workers look like any normal person. Stereotypical images are derogatory and disrespectful to sex workers.


[1] SANAC, 2013. Sex Worker Population Size Estimation Study

[2] WHO. 2011. Preventing HIV among sex workers in sub-Saharan Africa. Geneva: WHO.

[3] USCF. ANOVA. WRHI. 2014. South Africa Health Monitoring Study (SAHMS), The Integrated Biological and Behavioural Survey among Female Sex Workers. South Africa San Francisco: UCSF.