WHERE LUST MEANS BUSINESS

Streets, apps and brothels: 'Illegal' sex work booming

As the authorities turn a blind eye to its existence, the world's oldest profession is thriving from the streets to the Internet. Our reporter explored the trend in Nairobi and why some people are hooked to it

In Summary

• Despite health and harassment risks, many engage in prostitution because of poverty, joblessness and some by choice

• Police dispute its prevalence, saying there are no cases reported lately, no brothels and fewer sex workers in the streets

Sex workers talk to a client on Koinange Street, Nairobi. The street has long been the capital's red light district, but the industry has evolved to different spheres.
Sex workers talk to a client on Koinange Street, Nairobi. The street has long been the capital's red light district, but the industry has evolved to different spheres.
Image: COURTESY

Not long ago at a dingy brothel behind a sports bar on River Road, you could hear a church choir two storeys above and the pastor preaching against adultery.

Today, that third-floor church is now a VIP brothel, an extension of the low-class house of pleasure that remains on the first floor.

Churchgoers complained, especially those with children who were exposed to skimpily clad women displaying their wares. The church moved. The sex trade took over.

 
 
 
 
 
 

This is just one example of prostitution thriving today. And how do the Johns find the ladies? And vice versa.

As always, word of mouth. But increasingly, the world's oldest profession is going digital. You can find a date through an app or a website. Or she can find you. Madams' black blooks are now folders in their computers

Pity the old-fashioned sex workers, who don't know how to make the best of their smartphone or God-given gifts. Or are too unimaginative to figure out how to pay a man to make a website for them.

Though sex work is illegal in Kenya, business has never been better, whether on the streets or through online connections to dingy brothels, high-class clubs or hotels. 

'Dating' apps have made it easy for sex workers and customers to find each other. Many sex workers have accounts on different sites. Devolution has also been a boon to them.

Some women do it out of poverty, campus-age girls are lured by easy money, while jobless women and children are trafficked into it. Despite the challenges faced, many end up addicted to the flesh trade, as one former sex worker put it.

"Although I was rained on, cheated, arrested and beaten by fellow sex workers, one day I'll go back. Prostitution is like witchcraft, you can't stop it once it's in your blood," said, Monicah* (not her real name), 31.

If you want more money you don't condomise it. Our clients like it raw and so do we
Maureen*
 
 
 

INSIDE CITY BROTHELS

At 3pm on a Wednesday, I posed as a sex worker at several brothels, accompanied by a male friend. I had to pay the madams Sh50 and up, and buy them at least two drinks to allow me to operate.

I wore a maroon, high-neck blouse (men will reach inside a low-cut blouse), black jeans, rubber shoes, a blond wig and gold-coloured sling bag. 

 
 
 

Visitors are greeted by dim, flickering lights, loud Ohangla music and posters of popular strippers and footballers.

At one River Road brothel, sex workers hang out and leer at potential clients.

"Hi. I like you, can I have a shot for Sh200?" Steve, a Kasarani landlord, asked me. I said Sh500. He said no way.

An officer at Lang'ata barracks said he fell head over heels in love with me, kissing and groping me.

"Can I marry you for a day? Save your contact as John on my phone so my wife won't know I'm cheating," he said.

"Meet me at the barracks on Saturday afternoon. I'll pay for your taxi and buy you as much alcohol as you can take."

I declined. In that one brothel, I got offers from 13 men before I left for the next house of ill-repute.

At a brothel in Nairobi's Kilimani area, things were different. To enrol as an escort, there were tough conditions. (Of course, I changed my clothes.) 

"You have to take semi-nude photos for our website. We need your ID card and HIV test results," the manager told me.

A sex worker poses seductively to woo customers at a nightclub in Mombasa
A sex worker poses seductively to woo customers at a nightclub in Mombasa
Image: FILE
If I were to choose a profession again, I would choose prostitution over anything ... I completed a university course and care for my son, two siblings and my mum. 
Slay queen and landlady Selina*

SELLING SEX

Streetwalker Anita* operates along Koinange Street and around City Hall. She  prefers it on the streets because she doesn't have to pay the brothel madam.

"I was hurt by the demolition of Simmers. But with the new Constitution and more MCAs, we make a lot of money," Anita said, wearing a skimpy red dress and six-inch red stilettos.

"Sometimes we lose money. Before the election, I met this noisy politician from Western Kenya, who unsuccessfully ran for Parliament.

"We went to a Kasarani hotel and we had sex the whole night. The next morning the cheapskate gave me only Sh1,000. What really makes me bitter is he didn't wear condoms."

Hurlingham streetwalker Rita*, 30, feels threatened by digital prostitution.

"In two years, I'm afraid we'll no longer have jobs. Some of us are not tech-savvy and using an android phone is a problem. I don't know how to create a website to market myself," she said.

But Phelister Abdalla (real name), a proud city mobile sex worker, said, "We're trying to go digital and I don't think it's going to hurt us at all. Everyone has their own clients, whether online or at that spot in the street or a brothel," she said.

"It depends on how you manage and package yourself. There are clients for every class. Mine are both local and international. I go everywhere, from the street to the brothels. I have private clients, too. Most book through my email."

She said sex sites are confidential and only regular visitors know where to get the services.

"We're not seeking legalisation of prostitution but a safe working environment. We want decriminalisation so we're not arrested and sex workers are treated like any other profession," Abdalla said.

Away from the streets, slay queen Selina*, 26, is living large off selling herself online. "This work has helped me complete my public relations course at a private university. I take care of my seven-year-old son, two siblings and my single mother," she said.

She said she has apartments in Kileleshwa, where she collects Sh400,000 a month. Selena travels to Bali and Bangkok for holidays.

"If I were to choose a profession again, I would choose prostitution over anything," she said.

Alex*, a pimp, said he provides well for his young family in a two-bedroom house in Lavington. He focuses on his circle of friends, who are picky about women. 

"I hook up politicians and high-end clients with sexy women. I've been in this game for five years and have connections. Whenever new kids (women) come on the block, my clients connect them to me," he said.

"Women send me explicit photos and I share them in a group, where I am the administrator. We operate on a first-come, first-serve basis. Whoever likes a lady chats with me on a sidebar, and we agree on the fee."

He charges from Sh5,000 upwards, depending on the woman's body. "The more meat she has, the more money I make," he explained.

"Nigerians, Ghanaians, Arabs and Congolese love threesomes and orgies. Kenyans are weak and most only ask for one woman. 
Mercy*, university student who runs Nairobi escort service

LIBERAL SERVICES 

Mercy*, 26, a student at a university on Thika Road, runs a digital escort service.

"I always post photos of sexy women to entice men, and each day I get three to five calls from clients," she said.

"I invite them to my one-bedroom apartment in Roysambu, where I operate with four other women. We parade so they can choose a girl." 

The client bargains, finally we agree and proceed to the bedroom.

"We provide exclusive services. From anal sex to threesomes to orgies. Anal costs Sh20,000 per hour, regular sex is Sh10,000. For a threesome, the whole night costs Sh100,000," she said.

Mercy said demands for threesomes mostly come from foreigners.

"Nigerians, Ghanaians, Arabs and Congolese love threesomes and orgies. Kenyans are weak and most only ask for one woman," she said.

"Not long ago, a 60-year-old Kenyan politician fainted during a threesome. We gave him blue pills to 'revive' him," she added, referring to his erection.

"That's when he fainted. There was no ambulance but he came around with first aid."

Penninah Mwangi (real name), the director of Bar Hostesses and Empowerment Support Programme, has no qualms with digital prostitution. 

"There's nothing wrong with sex workers meeting partners online, even marriage partners meet online," she said.

"Technology has provided opportunities for many women. Privacy has improved."

The problem is that sex work is criminalised. This puts us at high risk of contracting disease, especially when clients demand unprotected sex.
'Proud' sex worker Phelister Abdalla

Most sex workers interviewed said they don't insist on using condoms. Maureen*, a pimp and washed-up socialite, said, "If you want more money you don't condomise it. Our clients like it raw and so do we."

Don't they fear HIV-Aids or STIs?

"My girls always carry HIV kits around," Maureen said. "Before they get down to business, they do tests.

"Some clients ask us to go for a test at a reputable  hospital a week before we meet."

Sex workers face many challenges, including arrests, violent clients, diseases, harsh working conditions and even murder.

Some say police often ask for bribes and sex to avoid arrest. Abdalla blamed their plight on how sex work is treated by the law.

"The problem is that sex work is criminalised. This puts us at high risk of contracting diseases, especially when clients demand unprotected sex," she said.

Shiko*, 42, manages a brothel on River Road. She said business is booming with the proliferation of MCAs. 

"I wouldn't exchange this job for anything. Hii kazi huwezi kosa pesa," she said. 

She isn't against digital prostitution but said it's better to get a woman from the streets or brothels.

"You might hook up online and be disappointed. Some are scammers, gay,  transgender. All that glitters is not gold," she said.

Former sex worker Monicah*, 31, recently celebrated her third wedding anniversary, but she's nostalgic.

"I love my husband and son, but sometimes I miss the street," she said, before comparing prostitution to being bewitched.

Commercial sex workers demonstrate in Mombasa over increasing intimidation and killing of their colleagues
Commercial sex workers demonstrate in Mombasa over increasing intimidation and killing of their colleagues
Image: FILE
I am not aware of brothels in the CBD.
Stanley Atavachi, SCPC of Central police station

POLICE DOWNPLAY VICE

Stanley Atavachi, SCPC of Central police Station, disputed our findings. "I am not aware of brothels in the CBD," he told the Star.

"These are licensed premises, lodgings, and can be used for sex. Anybody can go there anytime." 

But any streetwalkers are arrested if there's evidence, he said.

Atavachi said prostitution on Koinange Street is "not active nowadays".

"After the demolition of Simmers, the number of sex workers has declined. Many workers now target drunks, who frequent city clubs," he said.

The police boss said no prostitution cases have recently been reported at Central police station.

He also dismissed reports of police coercing sex workers. "Police extortion is a common saying in the public domain. But I'm not aware of any police officer doing that," Atavachi said. 

"Raids are supervised by a senior officer," he said. "Maybe some go alone without our knowledge but if found out, we always take stern action against them."

Nevertheless, the world's oldest profession has proven hard to eradicate. There are estimated to be between 200,000 and 400,000 sex workers in Kenya, including 40,000 in Nairobi alone. 

Some people accuse them of breaking up families. In Kitui county last month, over 100 women held a demonstration against three women allegedly engaging in prostitution in Kakululo market, Mwingi West constituency.

Dorcas Nzisa, one of the demonstrators, said, “Once my husband is paid, he spends all his salary on those women. We have three children and he does not even pay their school fees.” 

Edited by V Graham and T Jalio 

Nominated MCA Jane Mwanzia during a past Nairobi county assembly debate to stop prostitution in the CBD
Nominated MCA Jane Mwanzia during a past Nairobi county assembly debate to stop prostitution in the CBD
Image: FILE