- To Live Freely in This World: Sex Worker Activism in Africa by Chi Adanna Mgbako
Chi Adanna Mgbako’s To Live Freely In This World: Sex Worker Activism in Africa is the first full-length ethnographic text on the experiences and activism of African sex workers. In it, Mgbako provides case studies from a variety of African countries where sex workers’ rights organizations range from nascent to fully formed. (These countries are South Africa, Namibia, Nigeria, Mauritius, Kenya, Uganda, and Botswana.) Instead of telling a story that consists only of violence and degradation, those too are present, Mgbako seeks to narrate the ways that sex workers are employing human rights discourses and community organizing to lead to social, political, and economic betterment in their lives. The sex worker organizations profiled in the book do not seek to “save” sex workers. Instead, they fight against unsympathetic police, local governments, and the nation-state. They also struggle against the ideologies of anti-prostitution activists who believe that all sex workers are victims of patriarchal violence and are in need of rescue.
Mgbako does not only focus on cisgendered women.1 Her study has a variety of participants across genders and sexual orientations. She takes an intersectional analysis to sex workers’ lives, looking at how a multiplicity of oppressions—homophobia, transphobia, HIV/AIDS status, class, and migrancy—often collide, leading to pervasive job, familial, and housing discrimination. African sex workers fight these through concerted organizing, taking to the streets and courtrooms to battle human rights abuses, and to empower themselves, refusing to be the victims they are often portrayed to be. Mgbako counters stereotypes of African sex workers as diseased and objects of pity through her extensive first person narratives. These clearly illustrate African sex workers across the continent as agentive as they fight for the right for sex work to be as protected as other forms of labor. Mgbako shows how African sex workers are not isolated in their organizing. [End Page 1143] They are involved in transnational community empowerment networks in the Global South through connections with sex workers in places like India.
Mgbako explains why African women’s rights organizations usually choose not to organize and support sex workers beyond pity and disdain. She points out that the exclusion of sex workers in women’s rights is a symptom of patriarchy because the division of women into “good” and “bad” serves as a way of exercising social control over all women. This is part of what Mgbako calls “political whorephobia,” a strategy that uses shame and public condemnation to crack down on sex workers and to silence them and anyone else who participates in sexual and gender nonconformity.2 She details how many African political leaders use “political whorephobia” to construct sex workers as inherently diseased and as the reasons for high rates of HIV, a way to shift the emphasis from their own shortcomings in HIV prevention and treatment. This is part of the larger politics of distraction, where anti-prostitution campaigns and crackdowns are used as evidence that governments are regulating groups they consider to be unAfrican and that they see as insults to the nation-state’s morality.
I taught To Live Freely in this World in an upper-level course, Gender and Sexuality in Africa, and the students gained a lot from it. They told me that they appreciated that Mgbako used herself as a vehicle to let others speak and that the book was based on empowerment and not degradation. It challenged their views on dominant representations of gender and sexuality in Africa, as well as gave them another set of narratives about African agency and organizing. I think To Live Freely in this World would be an excellent teaching tool in a variety of courses on human rights, African studies, gender and sexuality, and social organizing.
Melissa Hackman is a socio-cultural anthropologist who teaches in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department and the Institute of African Studies at...