Exit! is the harrowing true story of Grizelda Grootboom’s journey into and through prostitution. Many people justify prostitution on the basis of the prostituted person’s choice. Grizelda’s story reveals the shallow irrelevance of this idea in a life blighted by childhood neglect and abandonment, rape, racism, poverty and lack of opportunity, coercion, betrayal and abduction. While Grizelda’s story is unique, there are many elements that are common to many of those who are prostituted worldwide.
From her earliest infancy Grizelda was cared for by her great grandparents in a lively old house, where her father also lived. Those were good years and Grizelda was happy. But when she was eight, her great grandmother died and the house lost its heart. Shortly afterwards her great grandfather also died and the lovely old house was marked for demolition. Her father was unable to cope and soon abandoned Grizelda.
She went to her mother, who now lived in a township with her new partner and two younger children, both boys. Instead of sending Grizelda to school, her mother treated her like a servant, forcing her to clean and cook, and fetch water from the communal tap. But it was on these trips to the tap that Grizelda managed to make friends with three other little girls and she’d get to play carefree games with balls and cans.
One evening, four youths surrounded the girls, and jostled and dragged them into an empty shack, where one by one, they raped them – starting with the oldest girl, who was 12. At nine, Grizelda was the youngest. She was the last to be raped and was terrified. Afterwards she walked home, blood streaming down her legs. When she got home her mother beat her for being late.
Tragically the ordeal ended the girls friendship – as they all grappled silently with the consequences.
“In the next few days, the playing came to an abrupt end. At the tap, we girls ignored each other.
We couldn’t even meet each other’s eyes.
For me, not knowing isiXhosa so well, it was all about the body language. Now it was the girls’ body language and the look in their eyes that told me our brief friendship was over. So we never spoke or played together again. I guess we felt that if we ever spoke about our rape, something bad would happen to us, someone would harm us. It was partly the shock, but it was also the girls not wanting to bring shame to their families.
We just stayed afraid.”
I found this one of the most poignant passages in the book, perhaps because it chimed with my own experience. The overwhelming shame I felt after being sexually abused and raped as a girl and young woman isolated me not only from my peers but from anyone who was in any way wholesome. I believed the men’s violence was my fault. It was proof of my own uncleanness and I couldn’t let anyone near me in case they found this out. And this isolation made me a sitting target for further abuse. The stark simplicity of Grizelda words capture this dynamic eloquently.
The same boys raped other girls, gradually becoming more violent as their confidence grew. The community knew exactly what was happening but blamed the girls while exonerating the boys.
Not long afterwards, Grizelda left her mother’s place and for the next seven years lived on the streets and in a series of shelters for homeless girls. She became tough and streetwise but still hankered for love and acceptance and believed her dad would give it to her if only she could find him. When she was 15 she discovered where he was living through a chance encounter with an uncle. A train ride away, she managed to visit her father, only to meet rejection yet again. On the train back to Cape Town she was raped once more.
Over the following months she saw him occasionally and they struck up something of a relationship, but this too was soon snatched away when he died unexpectedly. A short while later her best friend from the shelter was gang raped and stoned to death at a local beauty spot. After visiting the spot, Grizelda got back to the shelter late and found herself locked out. This triggered a return to living on the streets, where she made friends with Ntombi, a middle class girl.
Ntombi gave Grizelda gifts and encouraged her to come to Johannesburg, where she was studying, promising Grizelda could live with her while she got on her feet. To Grizelda, desperate to turn her life around, it seemed like the lucky break she’d been waiting for. But when Ntombi met Grizelda at the station in Johannesburg, instead of taking her to her own lodgings, she delivered Grizelda to sadistic pimps / human traffickers who tied her up, injected her with drugs, sold her to men for brutal sexual use, and left her lying helplessly in her own excrement. After a few weeks another girl arrived and Grizelda was thrown out of the house in the middle of the night.
She was then alone on the streets of Johannesburg, filthy, traumatised, with no money and hardly any clothes; desperate for the drugs she’d become forcibly addicted to.
“I was so numb. But I needed to feel numb. I needed to earn money to buy the drugs that made me numb. I was so desperate for those drugs to take me away from my thoughts.”
An older woman introduced her to the world of street prostitution and taught her the ropes. Prostitution was the only option that presented itself to the homeless Grizelda and the only way of getting the drugs she craved. The prostitution enabled her to survive and to buy drugs but there was never any money over to plan an escape to a better life.
Her dependence on drugs led to being under the power of the ruthless drug dealers who doubled as pimps.
“The minute the pimp buys her a drink in the club, he has already dropped a drug in her drink, and that’s how it starts.”
She describes her struggle to be independent from the pimps while still managing to get a steady supply of drugs. She got a regular bar job and was allowed to sleep in the bar’s storeroom but carried on seeing punters at the weekend. Things were improving and she had some stability at last. But then she fell pregnant. When she told the father, one of her punters, he quickly disappeared. It was too late for an abortion and reluctantly she gave the baby up for adoption.
She returned to the bar job and found a separate place to stay. Grief at giving up the baby added to her heavy load of anguish – and so she went back to prostitution to get the money to buy the drugs that gave her the numbness that was her only relief.
“But here I was in this life where I was paid to connect with people, to satisfy their needs but not my own. And it was all driven by this desperate addiction to drugs – the addiction that kept the cycle going, and which took away all my confidence as a person. The drugs took away my dreams of a better life.”
She started thinking that stripping might be an easier option:
“I knew that training as a stripper would be a bonus for my profession: moving up to working in the safety of a strip club is a major goal for any prostitute. It offered better income opportunities and was a way of avoiding the abusiveness of street pimps. Over the next few years I would come to learn that it had its own dangers, but at the time I thought it was a good option for me.”
She got a job in a strip club. As one of only two black strippers, she stood out to the mainly white punters and she developed routines that emphasised her African body, including one involving hot wax. The punters loved this and she was invited to parties organised by rich men, including government and church ministers. Although illegal in the strip clubs, as usual, prostitution was endemic. Stripping did not provide an escape from that life.
I found the description of the years that followed in that dark world of drugs, prostitution and stripping hard to read. She describes that time as “years lost in a haze of drugs and emotional dislocation.” She explains the perpetual battle to avoid and escape the ruthless pimps who saw her as a meal ticket. She describes the punters who paid her to submit to violent beatings, the white supremacy that imbued the whole scene, and the inescapable requirement to endlessly pander to men’s narcissistic needs no matter what the cost.
But maybe the hardest thing for me as a reader to see was how when all you’ve known from childhood is violence and betrayal and you’ve lost hope of any other kind of life, all of this brutality comes to seem normal – as just how things are – and you concentrate on making the best of things within those terrible parameters. We hear of this dynamic from many women who’ve survived years in prostitution.
When she was 26 Grizelda got pregnant again and started to think about keeping the baby and having a different kind of life. But the owner of the bar where she was working insisted she had an abortion and when Grizelda wouldn’t agree, they drugged her and performed an abortion without her consent or medical assistance.
Later the same day, while still bleeding profusely, she was told to put a sponge in her vagina to absorb the blood and to take a punter. She explained what happened:
“While I was waiting, half naked in my lingerie at the bar, I saw this guy coming towards me. And something in my aching gut just said no.
I just couldn’t do it. And that was the day I said, ‘This is it.’”
Saying no to a pimp is an invitation to get killed (that’s why most of the time the women don’t say no – exactly as the pimps intend). And that occasion was no exception. The bouncers beat her up and dumped her on the street in Johannesburg. She was picked up and taken to hospital. While recovering in hospital she was befriended by a nun who arranged for her to go into drug rehabilitation.
This was the beginning of a realisation that she didn’t want to continue in the life of drugs and prostitution, and that she couldn’t keep running from her pain. If she was to be free, she had to turn and face the agony.
The next chapters cover her struggles to build a new life for herself. This also makes painful reading. The only support that seemed available came from a variety of Christian churches, each with its own brand of hypocrisy and cruelty. For a couple of years she slipped in and out of prostitution and drug running, while she struggled to find another way of supporting herself. She began a relationship with a man from the DRC who seemed gentle and kind. She got pregnant and at his insistence had the baby. But after the baby was born, he became violent and she realised he’d only wanted the child so he could get a South African passport. Another betrayal.
More disjointed years follow but gradually she makes progress. By the end of the book, she has found decent work in a call centre, has connected with Embrace Dignity which provides support to women in prostitution, was enjoying her child, and her relationship with her mother, though not easy, was slowly mending.
Exit! is not an easy read, but it is an important one. Grizelda describes an alienated world reeling from the centuries of colonialism, the decades of apartheid, and the millennia of male supremacy. A world in which prostitution is the paramount relationship between men and women. A world in which men suck women dry and women have to hustle to survive. A world in which predation is the norm.
The ANC has recently resolved to decriminalise the system of prostitution and recognise it as regular work. In a country so ravaged by historical brutality, this is perhaps not surprising. But it is surely a terrible mistake. Oh, South Africa, your girls and young women are your future. They deserve better. And so do your young men. Giving the ruthless sex trade free rein in the current culture would be catastrophe. The sex trade is not reformable. It can never be safe. Listen to the courageous survivors who are speaking out about its brutality. Listen to the magnificent Grizelda Grootboom.
There is a better way. One based on dignity and human rights, and equality between the sexes. It’s called the Nordic Model.