Despite public health interventions targeting sex workers in an attempt to increase condom use, HIV still remains a significant health issue for those involved in the sex industry in many countries. In this paper, we analyse data collected as part of an ethnographic study of sex work in Soweto, South Africa. We show that the main problems with consistent condom use are clients who threaten violence if sex workers insist on condoms, clients who are 'rough' and refuse to stop intercourse when the condom breaks, and clients who offer to pay more money for unprotected sex. These issues relate to unequal gender norms that disempower female sex workers and dismiss the importance of consent in sexual relationships. The criminalisation of sex work increases vulnerability and reduces sex workers' agency as sex workers are reluctant to report crimes committed against them. Persistent 'whore stigma' adds to this dynamic by dehumanising sex workers. In conclusion, we advocate for decriminalisation and posit that public health interventions aimed at increasing condom use and reducing HIV rates need to specifically engage clients, address unequal gender norms and involve local communities to tackle stigma directed against sex workers.
Keywords: HIV prevention; South Africa; gender inequality; sex work; violence.