A twenty minutes’ drive along the modern Thika superhighway will lead you to Kasarani area and a further ten minutes will bring you to a sprawling Mwiki residential area synonymous with flats for rentals.
Many that live in Mwiki are average earners who commute to the city using matatus or commuter trains that have a stopover in the area.
But whereas many residents of Mwiki would wake up every morning and prepare to go to work in the city, a group of four middle-aged women who have rented a three bedroomed house in the area would be going to their phones and computers to look for clients, who will in one way or another find their way to the house, or direct them where to meet to have sex or provide escort services.
The women are sex workers who have gone digital.
The world’s oldest profession is adopting a new business model; street-walkers are heading to the information highway.
Mary (not her real name) has agreed to share her experience with me on one condition, that I don’t expose her or take any pictures of her or the house she lives in with her co sex workers.
She tells me she hails from Siaya County and her parents know that she works in a big office in Nairobi since she drives a fairly good car and she affords life’s luxuries that would otherwise be associated with those who are employed and earn good salaries.
As our conversation with her continues, her phone rings, and from her body language, it appears that one of her clients has canceled an appointment. She tries in vain to convince the client to at least send her some money since she had canceled other appointments in anticipation of his visit. She curses the clients in her mother tongue and tells me that it appears it will not be a good day for her.
Mary reveals to me that a good number of prostitutes prefer to make transactions over the Internet now, where rates are a bit higher and they are less vulnerable to arrests or assault.
“There is still street activity, but on the Internet, we do not have to operate in the shadows,” said Mary
“The Internet is also more lucrative, there is a higher price point, those that look for our services on the internet are a bit civilized and in most cases pay the agreed amount without bargaining” she added.
I asked Mary how they manage to pay the Ksh 45,000 rent for the house and she told me all the four have their share of the rent but the owner of the house knows it is her who lives there with her cousins. “As long as I pay the rent on time, the owner of the house does not care what I do here. Most of our clients are married men who would spend very few hours here,” she reveals.
But however much Mary says that the online sex business is safe, Waldah Wanjohi, a paralegal officer with Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Program (BHESP) an organization for and by sex workers thinks differently. She says it is just an alternative way of looking for clients but it poses several dangers to the sex workers. “There are online clients who will call you to their house and once you are there two or three other men will show up and still want to have sex with you, that can be considered rape,” said Waldah. “ Also you are prone to be sexually abused once in someone else control at their places of residence, he can refuse to pay you or pay less than agreed, he can have you recorded having sex with him without you knowing and share it online only for you to find your nudes circulating on the internet,” she added.
Ms Waldah advises that those disputing what her organization does for sex workers are upcoming sex workers who do not know the risks that sex work presents. “We train sex workers on so many aspects of their work including how to use condoms, how to talk to clients, how to behave in addition to providing free male and female condoms and lubricants,” she added.
But it’s not only Mary and her housemates that are embracing technology in their sex work, globally there is the emergence of virtual sex websites.
A south African sex worker operating in cape town going by the alias Lekker Hollas said her sex work began in university, where services were traded for places to sleep and food to eat.
The 30-year-old turned to sex work again during the pandemic last year.
Hollas does education on sexual health, runs a sex podcast, advocates for destigmatizing sex work, and is an actress too.
“I have been involved in workshops with sexual rights initiatives such as the Sexual and Reproductive Justice Coalition and Sex Workers’ Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat),” said Hollas.
Hollas said while online was easy money competition was stiff.
“The pandemic pushed me into practicing more (online sex work), giving me time to explore the webcam world and OnlyFans. But then the entire world got into it too and the competition got real,” Hollas said.
Hollas has a subscription of $10 (KSH 1000) a month with a variety of content from nudity to virtual sexual activities.
“It’s great to have extra income and at the start of lockdown it was sometimes the only income I had and I was extremely grateful,” said Hollas.
Hollas said affordability and access to the internet is a challenge. “In South Africa, not many sex workers have profiles online. You need to be tech-savvy and have a following,” she said.
“As the regulations changed during the lockdown, there has been no income for sex workers and one needs to be smart to survive”, she concluded.