Maria* was walking down a street in Nairobi, covered with blood, beaten up by a customer. She saw police officers and sought for help, in vain. The police wanted “their share” if they were going to help, even just to take her to hospital. This wasn’t an unique situation, around 80% of Maria’s customers are somehow violent. Consequently, she prefers to have oral sex with the customers; she has been raped more than once when she has refused anal sex during intercourse.

“They are stealing our pussies!” was shouted at the nightclub Maria worked in. It was followed by laughter of three sex workers, though they were serious. They were referring to situations where a customer didn’t want or have the money to pay them after sex. Against my presumptions, they were very open with me. “This was always my dream job, since I was a teenager. What could be better than having sex with all these guys?” We were sitting in a round table, and discussing about sex work.

After half an hour Maria seemed to realize that, I wasn’t there to pimp her to my friend who accompanied me, I was there because I was curious and she started telling me. She wished she had made different choices in life, 5 years ago. She had started dating a “wrong guy” who after a while forced her to have sex with men for money. After two years, she managed to leave him; she left when he wasn’t home, changed her phone number and moved to a different part of Nairobi, left everything to protect herself.

Problems didn’t end there, she was unemployed and she couldn’t find a job. There were no jobs and she needed to support herself. Other girls said the same, there were no jobs in Nairobi and some of them had children to feed. So Maria, as well as the other girls, had started to sell sex. With this work, they were hoping to find a rich, preferably foreign, man who could provide them with a better future. Maria and the other girls were selling sex from their own choice, they weren’t forced to do it by another person, though I wonder if there had been many realistic choices left to choose from; poverty and lack of opportunities are driving forces in the sex industry. In order to have sex for money, Maria started to use drugs and alcohol. Without a drink and being high, she couldn’t do it.

"We are People not Products" By Onyis Martin

“We are People not Products” By Onyis Martin

The atmosphere in the table had changed for a minute, the laughter had stopped and it seemed Maria didn’t want to discuss her past or her ex-boyfriend any further so we changed the topic. Though Maria might have been trafficked by her ex-boyfriend some years ago, she wasn’t willing to talk about it so I didn’t want to push her and ask more.

I was in one of the many night clubs in Nairobi, where girls were mainly selling sex and the customers were there mainly to buy sex. Selling and buying sex, despite widespread and done quite openly, is illegal in Kenya. Though sex work doesn’t automatically mean human trafficking, sexual exploitation including forced sex work and production of pornographic materials are forms of exploitation within human trafficking.

In some situations, for a buyer or bystander, it is difficult or even impossible to know if a person has been trafficked. Under threats, manipulation and possibly forced to use alcohol and/or drugs, the trafficked victims may work, not only in locked up rooms, but on streets and nightclubs, to look for customers to please. If you were for example threatened that you (or your family) would be beaten or even killed if you didn’t have sex with a certain amount of men in a night, would you be willing to find customers? In order to find customers, would you pretend you wanted to have sex with them?

Even the victims themselves doesn’t always identify themselves as victims, less likely as victims of human trafficking; many of them doesn’t know what is the definition of human trafficking is or that they are entitled to receive assistance. Some of them come from extremely violent backgrounds and aren’t able to identify different forms of violence, for example rape, as exploitation. Some of them are ostensibly free to leave and receive a small salary, but they “only” have to pay their increasing debts for the trafficker and a ticket home before they can leave. The trafficker may be the one who is “saving” money for them and promises to pay when they have gathered all the money needed.

These are some of the reasons why sometimes identifying a sex worker, who is in fact a victim of human trafficking, can be complicated. Also a quite general confusion between abuse, exploitation and trafficking exists. Though sex workers face exploitation and multiple forms of violence generally more than workers in other industries, sex work is not trafficking if the workers are selling sex from their free will, without involvement, for example, of coercion, fraud or threats. When sex workers face violence, it is a crime, but not human trafficking. They become victims of violence, but not victims of human trafficking.

In addition, there is always the danger of a single story. There are women and men in the sex industry who sell sex from their free will, there are women and men who sell sex because they don’t have better options and there are victims of human trafficking who are forced, raped or threatened. Everyone should respect every person’s right to self-determination and avoid victimization of persons who are not victims, at the same time, giving the victims their status of a victim, rather than shaming and blaming them of their own situation. Everyone should also disprove every form of violence and exploitation, regardless of person’s work, gender, sexual orientation, ethnic background, social and economical status. It shouldn’t be that difficult.

By Pauliina Sillfors

*Name changed