By Susan Fox

Today, one of the only ways to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS is abstinence. It's easy to suggest that the general population should stay away from multiple sexual partners, but what if sex is your job?

The sex industry has been looked down upon by society for centuries, and is now seen as a big contributor to the high HIV/AIDS rate in South Africa. Sex workers are cast into a category of people targeted as having high-risk behavior for transmitting these diseases.

In Cape Town, the sex industry is a vast and lucrative business, comprising of men, women and transgendered people selling sex on the street and in agencies. Though sex workers are often blamed for spreading HIV and STDs, one may be surprised how rapidly awareness about these diseases is circulating through the Cape Town sex industry.

Sandra Adams is one of the 4,000 sex workers in the Western Cape and has eight years of experience insisting on safe sex. Turning down men who offer her extra money for "clean sex," or sex without a condom, has become a habit and one she refuses to break no matter how slow the night may be.

"I don't buy AIDS," she explained. "Wherever I walk and whatever I do, I carry a condom."

Sometimes instead of refusing clients, she uses their ignorance of the female condom to her advantage. If a man insists on sex without a condom, she pretends to go along with it, accepting the extra money, but doesn't tell them she is already wearing a female condom. Usually, the man is none the wiser.

"I'm very careful about AIDS on the street," the 35-year-old said. "I'd rather stand all night on the street than go with a guy who doesn't want to have safe sex, when I know I don't have a female condom in my bag."

But she doesn't just carry a few condoms. Adams brings a bag full with her when she goes out so she can share with other girls and their clients. She even keeps a stash of condoms at the corner where she stands so even if she's not there, they still can access the condoms.

Adams gets visibly upset when she talks about other girls who don't heed her warnings about safe sex. She says when drug addiction is involved, which is a constant concern on the streets, they become so desperate for money that they neglect their own safety.

In her opinion, these girls ruin it for the others who want to practice safe sex. Adams says she is wary when the same man she saw leave with her friend the night before and didn't use a condom, now comes to her and expects the same.

The youngest girls on the street, usually about nine or 10 years old, are also the least likely to use protection. These girls are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior because they don't understand the risks, they are less experienced and therefore have less bargaining power, and are often involved in drugs.

In 1994, an organization was formed to educate sex workers about their rights and their health.

Adams was one of the first sex workers to get involved with the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Task force (SWEAT).

Shane Petzer, a co founder of SWEAT, saw that sex workers living without access the law or health services and therefore creating a cycle of misinformation about HIV/AIDS and human rights violation. He hoped that by improving human rights, health standards would also improve and the industry would grow healthy and strong, because, as Petzer puts it, "An unhealthy sex industry makes an unhealthy society."

Today SWEAT is South Africa's only sex workers union, providing advocacy, HIV testing, as well as outreach projects. Sex workers themselves write stories for a newsletter called SWEAT scene to educate others about important issues such as drugs, condoms, new legislation and dangerous men to watch out for.

Glynis Rhodes is the co-ordinator of SWEAT's outdoor outreach, which includes condom distribution and HIV/AIDS and STD education on the streets. Time is the biggest problem field workers face, so speaking quickly and to the point is essential.

"We keep it to a limited time because we're; doing it on their working hours," Rhodes explained. "Sometimes they go running off after a car while you're; explaining syphilis to them."

Slips of paper with pro-condom messages such as "If it's not on, it's not in" are handed out so the girls can quickly read it and throw it away.

But sexual health awareness is not limited to the streets, nor is it limited to women. Timothy Hebblewhite volunteers for SWEAT in male agencies, running health and HIV/AIDS education, pre- and post-HIV test counseling.

One agency where Hebblewhite conducts many lectures is Knights, a massage agency near Sea Point. There, HIV testing is advised and safe sex is policy.

When he hires a new employee, the owner, Ian ver Meulen, sits him down with a list of rules. Top-most on the list is safety and responsibility.

"I trust them to use condoms because I warned them from the start not to have a party but to look after themselves," ver Meulen explained. "We have to trust each other because we can't trust anybody who walks through that door."

The education doesn't;0t stop there. Nearly every month the boys are presented with a lecture, whether it is tips on how to sneak safe sex with a client who doesn't agree to it, or a presentation about STDs from a doctor, to keep the information fresh in their heads. Pamphlets about STDs and HIV/AIDS are left next to the massage beds for the clients to browse through.

"We talk about it every day," ver Meulen said. "That's the only way, you can't just sit back and relax."

Unlike many other businesses, this agency acknowledges the fact that HIV is in the workplace. HIV testing is done regularly for all employees, and the results are released confidentially.

"The problem isn't with the people who come in and say they are positive," he said, explaining why he never turns away HIV positive clients or employees, "Because it can be done carefully and safely. The problem is when you don't know."

"You can't predict who has HIV and who doesn't" ver Meulen added, "So rather be open-minded about it."

Shaun Gordon, a sex worker at Knights, acknowledges that testing is more feasible in agencies as it is a structured environment. Awareness projects encourage group awareness and responsibility, he said, and allow for discussion about diseases and risks.

"Agencies are starting to be safe sex areas," Gordon said. "It's safer to sleep with a sex worker than to pick up a boy in the bar."

Since he was 17, Gordon has worked in numerous escort agencies from Johannesburg to Cape Town and has seen the rising level of awareness among his co-workers. Although some boys feel they are immune from diseases because they are healthy, most boys are more aware than their clients.

"Sex workers are more educated in STDs than the outside world because they are more experienced and interested to learn," he said.

Copyright 1999 Moxie Magazine All Rights Reserved