Escorting: The changing face of Kenya's sex industry and the era of escorts

Escorting: The changing face of the sex industry and the era of escorts

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World’s oldest profession takes a leap

The world’s oldest profession, as prostitution is known, has morphed and is almost unrecognisable today. A few years ago, dozens of skimpily dressed women lined busy streets in major towns to hawk sex to the highest bidder, however, things have drastically changed and yearning customers do not have to step out of the comfort of their seat for sex.

Customers just need to log onto the dozens of websites featuring escorts of all sizes and shapes and then click on the profile of the target persons for a deal. The same way one can buy a hardcover book on Amazon.

In Kenya today, some of the once busy redlight districts like the famous Koinange Street are virtually empty, yet sex continues to sell like hotcakes a stone’s throw away from residential areas. What’s more, consumers now have more options than ever before and they can enjoy a wide variety of erotic services such as massage and live streamed seasons of sexual episodes, something which was unheard of five years ago.

Sex work before Covid-19

Before Covid-19 struck, Jessica Lauren was among the hundreds of skimpily dressed girls, women and men who lined up informal red-light streets in Kenya’s major towns selling sex mostly at night. Indeed, every evening, Nairobi Central Business District, for example would be littered with sex workers. Koinange Street was considered the headquarters to buy sex going by the huge numbers of sex workers who camped there the whole night and had audacity to bare it all to anyone who cared.

While this was replicated in most urban areas countrywide, bars and some hotels remained the favourite hunting spot for sex workers to operate and hunt for clients. Truck drivers, however, who are easy prey for sex workers probably due to their long travels without a companion are key customers for peddlers of sex. So inseparable are the two that commercial sex workers follow them to areas where they park their trucks for sexual escapades. As a matter of fact, this has led to formation of towns such as Mlolongo in Machakos and Salgaa in Nakuru. 

Buying Sex during Covid-19

But in one fell swoop, things changed drastically when Covid-19 struck. What started in China as a flu spread so fast leading to the ongoing global pandemic. To stop the spread, like other countries, the Kenyan government declared a lockdown to limit movement and stymie the spread of the virus.

A dusk-to-dawn curfew was declared, which led to shutting down of factories, travel, eateries, bars and nightclubs. What followed were layoffs as many others started working from home. It was a new world order, which pushed many people to start working from home to limit movement and so did sex workers.

In Bolivia, when the State eased restrictions in July 2020, despite the danger of Covid-19 remaining real, sex workers in Bolivia brothels had no option but don raincoats, gloves, bleach and see-through raincoats to protect themselves from the deadly virus and declared business open.

“The biosecurity suit will allow us to work and protect ourselves,” Antonieta, a sex worker and pole dancer told Reuters as she demonstrated how workers will disinfect poles with bleach spray between dances.

For Kenya, the straw that nearly broke the camel’s back was when traditional hunting grounds such as pubs and hotels were ordered shut by the government and trigger happy security officers started patrolling the streets to enforce the government order.

It was worse in Zimbabwe where sex workers tipped the scales even further and gave the deadly Coronavirus the middle finger than starve to death at home with no source of income.

“The majority of the people, including sex workers, are now agitated and hungry and this is what is pushing them to leave their houses,” said Itai Rusike, executive director of the Harare-based Community Working Group on Health, AP reported.

Enter smart sex

Despite everything thrown its way, the sex industry in Kenya is still standing strong amidst Covid-19 scare and Kenyan sex workers have been busy. They changed tack to survive and their agility and thinking on their feet is paying off handsomely.

Today, sex work is thriving and giving local butcheries a run for their money, the clients are following in seamlessly. Sex workers now work in suburbs where they either rent houses and get customers via the internet, or use barbershops and massage parlours as a cover for their businesses. Sex workers literally followed the consumers closer home.

Also Read: Smart Sex: Escorts go digital in Uganda and guys are loving it

According to Dr. Justus Aungo Onderi, a sociologist and anthropologist at the University of Nairobi, what societies are seeing today was meant to happen and more will follow.

“Sex workers play a role in society, which people refuse to acknowledge. People must get used to them after Covid-19 took them closer to your homes,” he said.

Indeed, the Coronavirus pandemic has since shaped the sex industry and questions abound on what the industry will look like long after the pandemic is over, but one thing is sure, the industry might never be the same again.

“As a sociologist I feel like when we look at sex work context of Covid-19 we may need to ask ourselves how did they survive. How did they adapt? And are they thriving right, they may not be the best in socio economic situation, but they are alive. They are surviving like every other Kenyan despite the fact that the conditions under which they work are significantly restrictive, they are stigmatised and marginalised.” Dr. Aungo says. 

In my view they did it because they have a certain level of agility developed over time to negotiate between the narrow spaces within the law, the economy and our social perception of them allows them to have. They have learnt, for example, to deal with police brutality in the streets. They have learnt to deal with violence in the street and they have learnt to rely on one another, that’s one,”

Dr Aungo agrees that they have learnt to read the market, find opportunities and move with the times but hastens to add that Covid did not create phone and internet hookups, it simply intensified it up, by creating opportunities to make it more common, more popular, more convenient the same way it has done with our other aspects of daily life.

Indeed, dozens of escort websites have sprung up advertising escorts of all shapes and sizes to suit every woman’s and man preferences. Whether Ugandan kakyabali or online sex videos, sex consumers are now spoilt for choice. Consumers have shifted from touching to watching in places with total lockdowns such as Uganda and Rwanda.

Leveraging technology and smartphones, majority of sex work is now conducted online thanks to cheap and stable internet as well as the privacy and convenience it comes with.

Buying sex has become simpler and easier than ever before and one can now enjoy sex with a click of a button without ever stepping out. In their dozens, sex workers have joined dating apps and escorts websites such as Exotic online, which feature escorts across the country offering sex and erotic services. These online sites have made it easy for sex workers and customers to find each other and most sex workers are no longer parading the streets looking for clients.

Similar trends have been witnessed in Uganda where Covid-19 lockdown has made it near impossible for sex workers to ply their trade in Kampala City. Social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Telegram have also been turned into sex markets. In Uganda, for example, groups selling sex on Facebook are increasing with each passing day with the most popular ones using local Kiganda names to evade being flagged down for violating community guidelines.

Once someone pays a small “facilitation fee” they are connected to the escort of their choice at a price. Escorts and sex workers have also moved in droves and set up OnlyFans page to supplement their income and satisfy ordinary Joe’s erotic tastes. They post photos of themselves posing naked or semi-nude and occasionally sells solo sex content to subscribers.

The internet has not only revolutionised what is otherwise the world’s oldest profession — prostitution — but also turned it upside down literally.

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