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Sex work, why we do it: Jamaicans tell their stories


prostituteThe stories tumble from lips clamped around cigarettes, legs hiked casually over the arms of chairs, eyes staring far into the distance, sometimes squinting as they struggled to remember the young girls and boy they once were with ordinary dreams before the lure of sex work and dancing under bright lights called them.

“When they told me that I would be paid for having sex, I kind of felt bad, because as a young girl growing up, your parents always talk about these things. But being an open-minded person I thought okay, I am going to give it a try.

“The first time I had to do it I was like, nervous. But knowing what I wanted and knowing its just for the money I just went ahead and put the fear behind me, said Apple (not her real name).Apple said her gateway into sex work was via a newspaper advertisement for a masseuse to work at massage parlors.

Apple and 15 other Jamaican sex workers, including one male, told their stories of deception, exploitation, of flirting with the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and physical harm and their struggle with shame to Panos Caribbean. The oral testimonies, which are presented as first person accounts in a 48-page book, capture the emotions and the sometimes hellish conditions they are forced to work in just to make a living doing work that is an illegal activity in Jamaica.

Five key issues came to the fore in the publication: Oral Testimonies of Jamaican Sex Workers: Push and pull factors of sex work; Gender issues; Working conditions of sex workers, including exploitation of employees, sexual abuse, pay, clientele; STIs and HIV/AIDS and the legalization of sex work, specifically, the implications of the existing Jamaican law which makes sex work illegal.

A sixth underpinning issue, however, is that of human trafficking in Jamaica. Some sex workers who told their stories to Panos Caribbean said they were told that they would not be required to have sex as part of the job, yet they were placed in situations where they were required and compelled to sell sex.

However, most of them said they entered sex work because of the potential to make a lot of money quickly. For some, their “dream jobs" quickly turned hellish and many did not earn the big salaries they were promised. They said their pay dwindled due to numerous fees and penalties they were charged by the club and massage parlor owners before they were even paid.

“You can't leave out of the building without their permission. You have to walk naked, you have to do everything that them tell you, everything them say you just have to do it, and if you don't, they charge you for it. If you want to buy hair or lotion and things like that downtown, you have to beg someone to go. Or if them let you out them only let you go out for half hour. And if you don't come back by the half hour or the hour them charge. You can't normally go out as usual. You have to stay in. You can't talk to anybody. If your child is sick you have to stay there, you can't go home. I work in Portmore, but I am from MoBay. My daughter was sick and admitted in the hospital and me couldn't leave to go to look for her. They said I have to finish two weeks before I can leave, said Ann.

The book of oral testimonies, which were collected over a four-year period, was scheduled for an official launch last month in New Kingston. Representatives of the Sex Workers Association of Jamaica, The Caribbean Vulnerable Communities, The Ministry of Health (HIV Unit), The National Taskforce Against Trafficking in Persons and the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) were scheduled to speak on the issue of sex work in Jamaica and its implications for public health as well as the importance of advocacy for sex workers and how that can be balanced with the legal implications of the activity.

The book also highlights recommendations for follow-up action by various agencies and stakeholders in order to effectively address some of the issued highlighted by the sex workers.

“We are anticipating that the book will spark public dialogue and debate which will help get the voices of these vulnerable women to the policymakers, said Indi Mclymont-Lafayette, regional director of media, community and environment at Panos Caribbean. “We hope that the recommendations made in the book will be acted upon so that we can see some positive action from this.