“You see that word Ashewo, I hate it!”Gift, a sex worker.
It is a daredevil attempt arguing that you have not heard someone asking you to stop using the word, ‘ashewo’.
Well, the argument is a testament to a prevailing negative attitude towards the world’s oldest profession – prostitution, which to this day a good number of countries consider illegal. Nigeria to some degree is part of this tragic statistic.
I became curious about sex work as seen through the eyes of the sex workers themselves after reading the book Woman at Point Zero by late Egyptian feminist thinker and novelist, Nawal El-Saadawi. The protagonist, doomed from the first page to be executed, arrived at an observation that left me thinking for years later about what could be at the root of the disdain many tend to have for sex work.
I now knew that all of us are prostitutes who sold themselves at varying prices.
She noted something else too that sent me into a spiral of questioning some of the things I believed about the better social standing of a ‘pious’ woman compared to a ‘fallen’ woman.
I knew … that men force women to sell their bodies at a price, and that the lowest paid body is that of a wife.
An evening in my cups
Last year, in a moment I was certain was a low moment – perhaps my lowest yet – as I navigated grief and rage in an alcoholic haze while cooped up in a friend’s place located next to a red-light district in Kaduna, I made a friend.
“You will have a crushing hangover if you continue drinking that gin at that pace,” she piped.
Her name is Bibi, and we had met the previous night while I was with my friend who was a good client of hers. Bibi is a sex worker of a kind my mother did not tell me about.
Compassion is a gift my mother gave me years ago. She planted the seed of compassion for sex workers in my heart while I was still barely a teenager by explaining to me that most sex workers are only in the trade because they have no other alternative. This made sense to my then conservative-leaning mind. Surely, I concluded, no one will put themselves through the humiliation of sex work, as it obtains in Nigeria, if they have a choice. Bibi put that mindset over on its head.
A graduate of Sociology from my alma mater, Bayero University Kano, Bibi chose prostitution after doing the cost-benefit analysis and deciding sex work will be more profitable than an entry-level graduate job. And she was having a blast with it from what I could see.
A varied perspective
How do you humanise sex work in a puritanical culture that approves of sex only in the context of holy matrimony? It is not an easy thing to do. It could seem impossible a feat to achieve unless you have a wealth of faith in human kindness. Thankfully we have that in abundance in the YNaija team.
For years, celebrating Women’s History Month meant lining up high-flying career women in celebration of all that women have the potential to be in a fast-evolving world where the status quo continues to shift from traditional ideas of what it means to be a successful woman.
It is said to women, in colourful campaigns and emotion-provoking photoshoots, “We have come so far, look at all the possibilities open to you now!” We also say without saying, “There are many ways to be a woman, but in this variety, there is no room for too stark difference.”
This year, YNaija in partnership with Community Health and Research Centre (CHRC), Yaba, decided to put that over on its head and celebrate women in unconventional and rarely celebrated jobs, and what better job that is rarely considered a job to spotlight than sex work?
A need years in waiting
Despite being on the frontline of supplying a much-needed service to society, sex workers in Nigeria mostly only make the news on the back of one tragedy or another.
Fresh in our memory is the arbitrary arrest of 65 women on April 27, 2019, in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), many of which accused police officers of sexually assaulting them. A gory detail that made the news at that time was that the police used nylons in place of condoms and took turns to rape the women they arbitrarily arrested for “proclivity,” – whatever that means in legal terms.
While prostitution is illegal in most of Northern Nigeria, no law in the constitution expressly bans it in the rest of the country. To be clear, the Criminal Code of the Federal Republic of Nigeria criminalises “procuring and other related offences” but this, while slightly affiliated with prostitution is not the same as prostitution.
It is also noteworthy that a Penal Code Act of the FCT does provide against prostitution, defining prostitutes as vagabonds who upon conviction can be sentenced to one month in prison or fined or both.
It begs the question, is it a crime to do something you enjoy – as is the case of one of the interviewed sex workers in this documentary – and get paid for it? If so, why doesn’t this also apply to cobblers, food vendors or politicians?
From the horse’s mouth
Women and men engage in sex work, but women are the recipients of most of the negative attitude towards sex work in Nigeria. The answer to this is as complex as existence, but that the question exists at all should give us pause if we ever feel the impulse to cringe at the idea that someone – male or female, will sell sex as service.
Some of the women interviewed for this documentary have been in the business for over a decade. Many wish to retire, largely because of the negative perception tied to the trade.
Salami Rashidat for instance worries about her daughter, and how the work she has done for the past 15 years to cater to the same child could limit her prospects in life were her mother’s profession to be discovered. “What if I meet her father in law and he is a past client? Who will marry her like that?” She asked.
Her daughter knows her work, and she has been unequivocal about making her understand never to partake in her kind of job. “I have taught her not to do this work.”
Gift, popularly known as Damsel, doesn’t feel the same way about her work. She enjoys it, and while she may not advise others to join it due to the risks – cue for harassment, STIs, abuse and difficult working conditions, she will advise those determined to join to take care of their well-being while at it.
Sex work has weathered countless civilisations and will weather countless more to come. For as long as the need remains, someone will rise to the challenge to provide the service of pleasure.
While we continue to fight for women’s liberation from the yoke of patriarchal constraints, we must remember that expecting women or any human being for that matter to be a monolith – for women, one that is proper and homely only – is dehumanising them. Treating sex workers with disdain and using derogatory language like ‘Ashewo’ which Gift and others noted they especially despise, is dehumanising them.
We must consider that perhaps some of the ‘values’ we hold about the kind of work that deserves our regard are flawed. Because if you have no problem with someone subjecting their body to the vicious wear and tear caused by hard labour for meagre pay, but you’re put off by the idea of someone consciously providing sexual service for pay, then what you have a problem is the nature of the job and not the danger in it.
Sex workers are women and men. They are human. They are deserving of equal dignity and protection under the law. Perhaps it is time that the Labour Law of the country makes room for sex work in its hallowed space. For the sake of humanity.
We met sex workers and had a conversation…