Chased off the streets of the Federal Capital Territory by government officials, the Abuja prostitutes have found a new platform to operate: the Internet.
Puffing hard on a slowly dying cigarette even in the hot afternoon seemed to be a faultless action to her. Even with the heavy dose of mascara on her face, the youthfulness of the persona could not be hidden, no matter how hard she tried. But evident lines of stress, perhaps engendered by her chosen profession, crisscrossed her light skinned face. Despite the sordidness of the discussion she seemed to be at peace with herself and with the world around her. ‘Cindy’ [not real name] is an Abuja sex worker who was chased off the streets of the capital city by furious city officials; but she has now found a new means of plying her trade away from the prying eyes of the world. To people like Cindy, the Internet has offered ample succour for the teeming displaced sex workers in the capital city, at least for those who are enlightened enough to know how to use this important resource.
Nowadays she has become inseparable from two gadgets which follow her everywhere she steps into. "Whether am at home or outside the confines of my house, my BlackBerry phone and laptop always go along with me," she says. "I can’t imagine myself without these two items. At time I even forget to take my handbag along, but these - no."
She displays a worn out BB phone and a mini laptop with uncommon flourish. But what does she do with these? With a twinkle in her eyes she looks conspiratorially at the reporter before she goes on.
"These are my mobile offices. With these two I have been able to make more money than I would have made walking the streets," she says. "It is safer and more reliable. It does not cost me much to operate, but the money I make at the end is enough to make up for what I have lost since being chased off the streets by Bala Mohammed."
As she talks heatedly, her phone beeps intermittently. Subsequently, she picks up calls coming in. Going by the haggling going on repeatedly between her and the unknown callers one could have been led to think that she was conducting business transactions with partners. But her business is of a different kind.
She appears to be in a good mood to talk today as she goes into the sordid details of a new mode of operation of prostitutes, months after they were cleared off the streets of the city.
"I am a member of many of these social networking sites," she opens up. "What most of us do is to subscribe to these sites as members. We put up a profile picture that is sexy and in a matter of days we get men in the city and other parts of the country making overtures to us. What many of them want is sex, although they won’t tell you immediately. After a few interactions we are able to strike a ‘deal’ with them.
"We either set up a meeting at a nearby hotel depending on the money such a person is willing to pay, or, if you feel comfortable about it, you can invite the person to your place, but at a much higher rate," she adds.
With a computer and an Internet-connected phone, many sex workers in Abuja have started optimising the benefits of the online world to practise their illicit trade. What they simply do is to subscribe to any of the tens of dating and social networking sites, most of which are free to join (although a few charge the subscriber via any mobile network platform). They then put up pictures, in most cases showing sensitive parts of their bodies, on their profile pages in order to lure male subscribers. A simple flirtatious comment from either of the subscribers, or an exchange of phone numbers, could be a precursor to a deeper commitment. So while a few sex workers dart in and out of shadows on major streets of the capital city in a dual attempt to patronise and elude the tentacles of city officials, internet prostitution appears to be slowly gaining grounds amongst them.
Some of the sites that now attract many of these women and men interested in short ‘flings’ include Zorpia, Badoo, Netlog, hi5, Meelovia, Naijapals and a host of others springing up daily. They do not inform the operators/moderators of the sites of the illicit side of their transaction, and as such the operators may be oblivious of it. Mails (requesting for the sites’ operators’ reactions) sent to the feedback portals of most of the websites were not responded to as at press time. However, most moderators of these sites espouse the virtues of decency and honesty. Badoo and Zorpia, for instance, have clear warnings against engaging in indecency on their sites. Naijapals, too, has a similar warning: "You must use the service in a manner consistent with any and all applicable laws and regulations," it warns. Facebook on its own has a ‘report link’ where such abuses could be placed by concerned users.
None of these prevent the Abuja ‘comfort ladies’ from having their field days. A regular Internet user, Nonso Diobi [not real name], recalls his experience on one of the social networking sites he logged on recently as a member. "I was attracted to the profile picture of a particular lady and decided to become friends with her. We had barely exchanged pleasantries when she shocked me," he says.
"She asked me if I wanted to do ‘short time’ which she said was N10,000 only or TDB [till day break] which she said was N20,000. Not being a novice in these things I knew what she meant as soliciting for sexual partners. It was when I interacted with other friends of mine that I learnt that it was now a normal stuff on the Internet today," he says.
Another has this humorous contribution: "I met a girl on gistpage.com. After we became friends I invited her out. But the next thing she sent to me was a bill asking me how much I am willing to pay to have sex with her…"
Zakari Aliyu, media spokesperson of the FCT Social Development Secretariat, empowered to remove sex workers off the streets, says the unit is not aware of the current trend. He, however, emphasises the authorities’ readiness to continue sensitizing women to stay off prostitution: "You know, of course, we cannot monitor the Internet in order to stop prostitution. But what I can tell you is that we are not relenting in our efforts to stop the trend and the results show this. We still carry out sensitisation in these areas even till date."
Emman Shehu, director, International Institute of Journalism, Abuja, notes that there is little the authorities can do to curtail activities on the Internet, as such would greatly affect individual liberty. He says people should take responsibility for their acts online. In a recent interaction, he enthuses, "My belief is that anyone who uses the internet should know that he (or she) has a sense of responsibility. He or she is meeting people they don’t know, so they have to be discerning. It’s like going to a party and meeting many people. There is no censorship in meeting these people".
Gregory Gilderman, a researcher who has done extensive work on the upsurge in internet prostitution using a shadow subject Brittany, says the trend may soon overrun many parts of the world. "While critics have charged classified sites with facilitating sex trafficking, for women like Brittany, who have freely chosen prostitution and whose clients freely choose them, the Internet has made the transactions fast, simple, and discreet," he writes.
"New research suggests it hasn’t merely moved online and indoors those who once worked the street, but done something more transformative: created a different sort of sex worker — more educated, younger — and a bigger market of women selling sexual services online... sex work for women between ages 20 and 40 has mostly shifted from an outdoor activity involving street walking to an indoor activity involving online solicitation and communication. Second, because is it much easier to buy and sell sex, there are simply more prostitutes, and clients, than there were before," he adds.
A sex worker, nicknamed ‘Mabel’, says that ‘survival of the fittest’ is the singsong for most of them today. "We just have to survive. I do not engage in useless chatter on the Internet. I do business there. I am not there to make friends but to make money," she says. "So once I notice that you are wasting my time I cut you off".
It is ironic to note that while the authorities are patting their backs for a job well done for driving prostitutes off the streets, the affected daughters of the night — just like the proverbial cat with nine lives — may have perfected a seamless framework behind closed doors via new technology to perpetuate their ancient trade.