Shelter from the Storm

2:00 a.m., one Thursday night, somewhere in a bar in South Africa. Despite the early morning hours and the remote location of the place, the bar is well frequented by both men and women of different ages and ethnic backgrounds (this is noteworthy as in South Africa places of leisure and gastronomy are usually not as socially diverse). The atmosphere at the bar is lively as people are chatting to each other, engaged in pool billiard or relaxing in the lounge area next to the spacious bar.

A smart-looking guy in his early fifties, casual clothes, round spectacles resting in his curly hair, sits on his bar stool sipping from his double scotch, puffing a cigarette, chatting to the bar lady and to the young woman sitting next to him, looking at ease. Amidst the casual, lively and animated atmosphere, the young woman in her late twenties wearing a light greyish dress and a pink cardigan – giving her overall appearance a rather conservative touch – looks somewhat out-of-place. As she carefully observes her surroundings she meets the one or other curious and quizzical gaze directed at her. After some time, a woman in probably her late thirties wearing a tight black dress approaches the two. With a big smile and raising her hand to greet, she faces the young woman and introduces herself: “Hi, my name is Laury*. Sorry, I’m new here and I don’t know you. Are you working here too?” Obviously uncomfortable and caught by surprise, the young woman laughs and denies the question that presumably was posed to make sense of her out-of-place presence. She was just visiting and having a drink with a friend, she replies awkwardly.

As you might have guessed, the young woman in the encounter above is me. What might have been less obvious: the bar is in fact a brothel.
Going for a drink at a brothel is usually not part of my after hours fieldwork activities. But then again, this Thursday was not a usual day as it was my last day in South Africa, the last hours of in total one year of living and breathing and conducting research as a social anthropologist in this beautiful country that still manages to charm and frighten, ground and enchant me to the same extent.

So how did I get there?

Facing an insane journey back to Germany the next day that included an eight-hour layover in the middle of the night in Dubai, it had seemed to be my best option to spend my last night out, trying to get myself drop-dead tired so I would be able to sleep on the plane that was departing at noon. (Which then, by the way, I didn’t but felt like an insomniac zombie instead.) When I told my dear friend Peter about my plans, who happens to be a Community Development Practitioner by profession and a social anthropologist at heart, he decided to take charge of the situation and promised to organize a surprise night out in Johannesburg and Pretoria that would be highly enjoyable and also give some food for thought. Needless to say, I excitedly jumped into his car.

Fast forward (skipping an acoustic guitar open stage concert and a midnight tour through the streets of Johannesburg in Peter’s car): 2 a.m. in a brothel somewhere in South Africa. I immediately regretted that my response to Laury’s question, whether I was a co-worker, had been accompanied by laughter as it said quite a lot between the lines: just the possibility of someone considering that I could be a sex worker seemed absurd to me. Looking at the other women in the room, most of them were around my age, the immediate realization hit me: indeed, I could have been working here too, being dramatically underdressed for the occasion, however. Sensing Laury’s hunger for more information regarding my hanging out at a brothel, Peter explained that it was my last night in South Africa after having stayed here for a very long time doing research. Laury’s interest was sparked. She grabbed a bar stool and sat next to us.

First, she apologized. She said she was new to the business, that it was only her second day and that she was still busy getting to know all the other girls. While she was talking, I looked at her and recognized that she looked different from most of the other women whose bodies showed signs of a life which was probably marked by substance abuse and a rather unhealthy lifestyle. Laury on the other hand was in good physical shape and had a smart and sleek appearance. However, I immediately noticed the blue marks spread on her upper arms. Having conducted research on domestic violence for a substantial time, I was well aware of the likelihood that Laury herself had a lot to say about violence against women. Unfortunately, I was right. When I explained the topic of my research to Laury, she threw her head back and laughed and said that I had come to the right place. There was a lot for me to learn about domestic violence talking to the girls here, she explained, as almost every single one had a story to tell. Her own story that she related readily, was one of an unhappy childhood, being sexually abused as a teenager, meeting the ‘wrong men’, early motherhood, dropping out of university, making a living as a dancer, becoming clean after a time of substance abuse, beating cancer and now seeing no other option for herself than getting by as a sex worker. She also spoke about her experiences with women’s shelters which she did not hold in good memory. It became clear that, in general, the stories that circulated amongst the women she had come to know during her time as a dancer and now as a sex worker painted a dark picture of shelters as places of oppression, fraud and secondary victimization and therefore were not regarded as a desirable way out.

I remember being surprised how freely Laury spoke to us about her biography, about both, the hardships, the difficult decisions made and the roads not taken, and about her dreams to earn a reasonable amount of money that would allow her to reunite with her children one day, who were currently growing up with their grandparents, and to offer them a stable and loving home – something, she herself had never experienced. By the time she was speaking of her ambiguous relationship with her mother, her distress and heavy heart became all too apparent and her fingers played hectically with strands of her chin-length, pitch-black hair.

However, Laury’s eager storytelling showed that she welcomed the presence of the two strangers sitting at the bar that night as it gave her an opportunity to share her feelings and thoughts with an attentively listening audience. What I only came to realize later was that talking to us had also given her a time-out from work, a short time frame in which she did not have to engage with the men who visited the bar with other intentions than just a quick drink and a chat. When she walked me to the ladies’ adjacent dressing room – inhabiting also two toilet cubicles behind small saloon doors (so much to privacy) – she whispered in my ear: “Have you noticed that big Afrikaaner chap? He looks like a wife-beater!” I didn’t know what to say. Of course, I had noticed the big drunk guy who was standing not far away from us at the bar as he had clearly taken an interest in Laury and whose frequent gazes I had met from the corner of my eye. When I asked Laury what made her think he was beating women, she casually stated it was just a feeling. The naturalness of her character assessment and the nonchalance with which she assumed the guy to behave violently towards women left me startled. The way she dealt with the situation felt like this was just a minor yet interesting detail, as if she had just told me “That guy? He looks like he’s a golfer.”

Not long after we were back, sitting at the bar chatting, the guy Laury had spoken of approached her, his drunk body moving sluggishly. While she was still speaking to us, she tried to keep him from touching her. Without much success. With a heavy sigh and an uncomfortable, apologetic smile she told us she had to leave now and work. And so she went over to talk to the guy whom minutes ago she had pictured as a violent wife-beater. I will never forget the disgusted and painful look on her face that only showed when she turned her head to the left so that he couldn’t see her agony. After a couple of hastily chugged vodka shots, she gave the lady at the bar a quick sign, pointing her index finger up at the ceiling. With this gesture, she ordered a room for her and her companion in the upper levels of the building.
Instantly, I was overcome by a feeling of helplessness, despair and confusion. I decided it was time for me to leave as every second of watching Laury – her body stiff and uneasy while talking to that big drunk guy who continued touching her all over – had become unbearable. Too strongly I felt the wish to intervene, to just take her by the hand and run out with her. But then what? The realization that in this very moment, there was nothing I could possibly do, hit me hard.

So we said goodbye. Laury managed to free herself for a minute from the hands of her companion and gave me a hug. She told me, I should keep up the good work, do more research and take care of myself. I answered I would, if only she would take good care of herself too. Back in Germany, I often think of my encounter with Laury and I can’t help but wonder where she is and if she is fine. Besides the personal impact our short meeting has had on me, it has also sparked my interest to dig deeper and learn more about domestic violence in the context of sex work – a phenomenon I hadn’t come across in my studies until my very last day (or night) of fieldwork.

* names changed

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