Love for Sale

Health & Safety, Hotels & Resorts, Kenya, Lost Girls RTW Adventure — By on December 5, 2006 at 11:02 pm

As someone who managed to learn depressively little about international geography during my formative years, I barely knew that Kenya had a coastline, let alone a gleaming ribbon of icing white sand and its own rhinestone speckled stretch of Indian Ocean.

We hadn’t planned to follow up our recent safari by hitting a beach resort area favored by European package tourists, but after several weeks spent unencumbered by travel “extras” such as showers, clean laundry, mirrors, pillows and electricity, we were drawn to Diani Beach like media girls to a sample sale. Located in the far southeastern part of the country, D-beach promised all the creature comforts of a Caribbean holiday-without the pesky quadruple digit price tag.

After checking into the optimistically named “Beachalets” and whipping out the lip gloss for the first time in what felt like decades, Holly, Jen, Irene and I made a beeline for Forty Thieves, the Lonely Planet’s recommendation for a guaranteed good time.

Once properly settled in with a cocktail (ahhhhh…finally!), the girls and I leaned back and eyeballed the scene unfolding at the low-slung booths, saltwater-worn couches and around the enormous center bar. Behind us, a few backpackers were shooting pool and ignoring the signs warning them not to perch their beer on the table. The DJ who was mixing up a weird combo of 70s disco, Foreigner and Nora Jones was unsuccessfully trying to get the party started on the dance floor. And at the next table, two balding, paunchy Germans were thoroughly enjoying the company of their dates, two very young Kenyan girls wearing the type barely-there outfits not usually seen outside a Wet Seal or Rave. Judging by the draping of limbs and stroking of body parts, I might have guessed that these ladies were really hot for their companions-except their deadly bored stares told a different story.

A quick glance down at a pair of clunky white pumps that had no business being manufactured (let alone traipsing across a soft sand floor) got me thinking. What was going on here? How did these old white guys end up on a double date with two local girls half their age?

“Dude, those chicks are totally prostitutes,” whispered Irene in a low hiss.

Jen, Holly and I laughed until we realized that she was being completely serious. Were they really? Nooo. We were all hesitant to make a snap judgment about a situation that could be very well be innocuous. Sure, several basic fashion edicts had been violated and the ladies probably would have been more amused hand-washing laundry than making conversation with their dates, but could we all leap to the very unsavory notion that they had to be hookers?

As the night wore on, there was no doubt left in our minds.

Judging by the transactions going down all around us-several women were now openly soliciting whiskey-toting dudes with bottle cap-sized moles, yellowing teeth and hairy backs-Forty Thieves clearly doubled as a brothel. The only thing that stood in the way of it becoming the Best Little Whorehouse in Diani was the lack of rooms for rent. Drinks, cigarettes and entrees such as the aptly-named Bang-Bang Chicken were the only goods on the official menu.

We watched the foursome next to us slowly slink towards the door. Just over an hour later, Ms. White High Heels and her pal were back-sans German escorts. The girls made their way over to the fully packed bar and found two new friends looking for entertainment.

Slightly scandalized, we headed back to the Beachalets to discuss how gross men could be without even trying. But it wasn’t until the next day, when we witnessed scads of European women soliciting and enjoying the services of Diani’s famed “Beach Boys” that our jaws truly dropped.

On the beach, blue-haired old ladies with flesh bursting out of their skirted bathing suits were walking arm-in-arm with sinewy locals sporting baby dreads and flip flops. By the pool, 20-something blonde girls with cornrows and sunburned scalps enjoyed sunscreen applications from bare-chested Kenyans with toothy smiles a way with words (in six different languages). We even ran into the famed octogenarian sex kitten who accepted sexual favors from several different beach boys, then tried to pay them with English toffees instead of cash. While the sun never stopped shining overhead, it appeared that our idyllic beach paradise had a something of a dark side

Curiosity overcoming my mild repulsion, I longed to sidle up to the nearest European on a sex holiday and ask her, How much are you paying per night? Are you looking for companionship or did you fly down to Africa just to get it on?”

And, most importantly,

Why the hell would you pay for sex in a country where 1.2 million people have HIV??

After chatting with security guards, waitresses, beach bums and even a few forthcoming members of the British Army, we came to understand that alluring Diani Beach leads a not-so-secret double life. If there were a Zagat Guide for sex tourism, this place would appear on its top 10 list.

Visitors say that the aquamarine waters provide “the ideal backdrop for enhancing the mood” while the prices are “some of the lowest on the coast.”

As the scene unfolded around my beach lounger, a part of me felt sickened that girls not much older than the boarders at Pathfinder were trying earn cash by selling their bodies as many times a night as possible. Another part of me was shocked that in some twisted version of gender equality, the boys doing it, too. And the third part was just confused as to why educated men and women would fly so far and put their lives seriously at risk just to have sex with a stranger.

Apparently, folks at the United Nations were just as baffled. Anne, a 25-year old Kenyan we met a dinner one night, told us that she’d volunteered for the UN when they were conducting a study on sex tourism in the area. Her job was to infiltrate clubs and bars along the coast and learn in the “ins-and-outs” of the business….what the going rates were, how the sellers got started and the ways that they protected themselves from disease.

Through Anne’s covert opps, she learned that the majority of the prostitutes, both men and women, were well aware of HIV and were much more diligent about using condoms than the average Kenyan. They got paid precious little for their services (“the Germans say that for the price of touching a boob back at home they can get the whole body here in Diani”) and conducted their business out in the open rather than in some sleazy back room. But while the women required volume sales to stay afloat, men often got rented for the entire week to give the “relationship” time to develop.

Anne told us the prostitutes didn’t always have sex…sometimes they’d keep men company at the bar in order to get drinks and a taxi ride home. I almost smiled as she said this-how different was that from any given night at any given bar in Manhattan?

I still had mixed feelings about the whole pina colada-and-prostitution culture, but the longer I stayed in Diani, the more desensitized I became. After all, who was I, the ignorant American tourist who barely knew Kenya had a coastline, to judge?

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    5 Comments

  • Catherine says:

    Further to your post re the sex industry in Kenya, you might be interested to know that a global sex workers’ rights movement exists, including PONY and COYOTE in the States, the ICRSE across Europe, the IUSW in the UK, Les Putes in France, Daspu clothing line in Brazil, the Sonagachi Project in India, Ziteng in Hong Kong, Empower in Thailand – who have opened their very own bar. Pay a visit if you haven’t already been to Thailand.

    You can read more about the Can Do Bar at http://www.bernama.com.my/bernama/v3/news.php?id=232637

    November 27, 2006
    The ‘Can Do Bar’: A New Beginning
    By D. Arul Rajoo
    CHIANG MAI, Nov 27 (Bernama) — Can sex workers design and own a bar, or can they be employed under the labour law and bring disrepute to the labour court?
    In what is believed to be the first of its kind in the country, women workers in the entertainment industry in this northern Thailand city have established the “Can Do Bar”.
    It is owned by 10 sex workers who spent one million baht to design and operate the bar under an experimental project by the Empower Foundation, a non-governmental organisation that assists sex workers in the kingdom.
    “We pool our resources and experiences to create this bar. It’s open to all sex workers in the city, and those who contributed became our shareholders,” said Pornpit Pakmai, a shareholder and coordinator of Empower, here.
    In a city known for its karaoke, bar and other entertainment outlets that employ more than 20,000 workers, Pornpit said the two-month-old bar wanted to promote itself as a role model where workers were treated fairly under good working conditions.
    During a visit to the bar by a group of Asian journalists visiting HIV/Aids prevention programmes here under the auspicious of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Pornpit said they had no qualms about being called sex workers.
    She said any woman who wanted to work at the bar must be above 18 and expose herself as a sex worker to ensure her rights as an employee were recognised.
    “But we don’t encourage sex in our outlets. If our workers want to engage in such activities outside our premises, that is their personal matter,” said the mother of a three-year-old girl.
    Unlike many entertainment outlets where workers are treated like “modern day slaves”, the “Can Do Bar” girls work eight hours a day with an hour’s rest, voluntary overtime, 10-day paid holidays, 13 public holidays, sick leave and the right to form a union.
    Besides its usual bar setting, the place was designed to comply with Thai labour law, while workers were given training on occupational health and safety standards, as well as on emergency procedures, first aid and sound system knowledge.
    While the ground floor also has dancing polls, the second floor has an exhibition area or sex workers’ museum showing a collection of adult magazines, books, posted letters covering 400 years of prostitution in the country, a computer with Internet access and a meeting room.
    Pornpit said workers could rest on the third level.
    The bar owners are also health-conscious, providing free condoms while all workers must go for monthly medical examinations and screening for HIV/AIDS which is high in the northern region.
    “It’s too early to say whether we are successful or not. We are getting good support from NGOs who organise parties and meetings at our place,” said Pornpit.
    Being a role model is not the only aim of the establishment.
    “Opening a Sex Workers University is our long-term aim,” said 35-year-old Nui Pitlai, who confessed to having entered the sex industry five years ago.
    “Many people, including researchers, want to know about the industry, the workers and our problems. Our idea may look very ambitious but we are working towards that,” she said.
    The native of Chiang Mai said they were collecting historical facts and articles on the sex industry that could be useful for the general public.
    “It’s good for us, as we can share our experiences and problems with others, especially students, doctors, nurses and even monks. For example, doctors may feel uncomfortable to talk about sex education or usage of condoms to villagers and students,” she added.
    In fact, Nui said, she and some of her fellow workers had already been assisting government agencies to give sex education to students.
    Furthermore, Nui said Empower and the bar had become a focal point for bar girls who wanted to marry foreigners and migrate to other countries.
    “We use the Internet to contact our former colleagues who have already settled down in other countries. They can advise the other girls on the problems and what to expect if they migrate,” she added.
    For sex workers like Pornpit and Nui, the opening of the bar is one way to change the mindsets of people who consider sex workers as not human, and who can be abused and without rights to the legal process.

  • Anonymous says:

    the HIV infection rate in kenya is not 50% – come on
    http://data.unaids.org/pub/EpiReport/2006/2006_EpiUpdate_en.pdf

    also if you knew the rates of herpes and genital warts infection in the US u would probably stop having sex

  • The Lost Girls says:

    Thanks for bringing my attention to some misinformation that I received–and believed–while in Kenya. I suppose I let my own fears run away from me and (bad reporter!) didn’t double check the facts. I went onto the US State Department website and learned that the HIV rate is lower than I’d thought, but still too high!

    Regardless, I still can’t understand paying strangers for sex, whether that’s in Diani Beach, Kenya or Malibu, California.

  • Anonymous says:

    Sadly, prostitution and sex trafficking are rampant in poor countries. I’m sure you’ve seen it in Cambodia and Thailand as well, but I haven’t gotten that far in your blog.

    A lot of times its the only way the women know how to earn money. The horrible part is when they are tricked or worse, enslaved, into the industry and then its very difficult getting out.

    I agree its sick when a person travels thousands of miles to beautiful countries for that reason. I don’t care what the STD percentages are, sleeping with a prostitute is like playing Russian Roulette.

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