Condoms and Videos: The Virus Reshapes Sex Work in This African Metropolis - OZY | A Modern Media Company
A woman wears a mask as protection against COVID-19 as she stands in Yopougon, a large suburb of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, during a police operation.
SourceISSOUF SANOGO/AFP via Getty

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Blow jobs are out, sex videos are in, in one of Africa's largest commercial hubs.

By Eromo Egbejule

For Serge Kouame, preparing for government restrictions on movement amid the coronavirus pandemic included rushing to his favorite erotic massage parlor in Abidjan for what he called Le Dernier — one last orgasm for the road.

Two days earlier, on March 16, the Ivory Coast government had announced the closure of several restaurants and business enterprises, and imposed restrictions on public gatherings. That soon extended to travel, with all borders closed. Starting Tuesday, the country’s government has enforced a 9 p.m. – 5 a.m. curfew. As of early Wednesday, the country had registered 73 cases, while the African continent has reported almost 2,000 cases across 43 countries. With these restrictions, most businesses in Ivory Coast — one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies for the past seven years — have temporarily shuttered.

That’s affected the country’s commercial capital Abidjan — with a population of 4.5 million people — the most. Ivory Coast’s urban population has soared from 18 percent at the time of independence in 1960 to 50 percent in 2018, with 80 percent of economic activity concentrated in Abidjan. And the battle to flatten the curve is threatening to steamroll the city’s pleasure industry too: from spas owned by foreigners whose mostly expatriate customers have returned home, to local beauticians who have now closed shop and barely have money to even stockpile necessities for the isolation period.

Nobody is asking for blow jobs anymore, just sex with condoms.

Grace, an Abidjan-based sex worker.

For this industry, the race is on to find ways to survive. For its dedicated customers, it’s time for a quick fix before it’s too late.

“It made sense to begin my isolation after this happy ending,” says 32-year-old Kouame, a banker and bachelor who claims he waited alone in the empty reception of the massage parlor, tucked away in Zone 4, Marcory — a normally bustling suburb that has become a shadow of itself.

The establishment, which offers massages at 40,000 West African CFA francs ($65) and 60,000 francs ($98) for Ivorian and Moroccan masseuses respectively, shut down last weekend. Its proprietors, who politely decline to comment publicly for fear of government scrutiny, say they have paused operations for the foreseeable future.

ICOAST-HEALTH-VIRUS

Vincent Toh Bi, the local state representative of Abidjan, talks with nightlife patrons in Yopougon, a large suburb of Abidjan.

Source ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP via Getty

One part of the city where the pleasure industry is still alive is Yopougon, Abidjan’s largest commune which has a reputation for never sleeping. Known colloquially as Yop City, bars and drinking joints still remain open long past midnight — often in violation of the government directive — but the number of patrons is a far cry from earlier in the year. Charles Doh, manager of Fondation bar — which has closed for now — laments the situation. “This is our daily bread and how we survive daily, but it’s the government resolution, so what can we do? We just trust God that things will get better,” says the father of one. “It’s good to spend time with the family but you have to keep them happy and money makes them happy.”

Elsewhere in Abidjan, small businesses are trying to tweak their modus operandi to continue to cater to the elite and middle class making frantic last-minute appointments for their guilty pleasures.

Sex workers who earlier managed to get clients through WhatsApp, Instagram and Tinder are now also taking to the streets to supplement their income. Prostitution is legal in the country, though soliciting isn’t. The number of patrons has dropped. According to two different sex workers standing on Rue du Canal, an informal red-light district in Marcory, the few who call or drive along the street to pick them up now rarely ask for sex without condoms, which costs 50,000 francs ($82). Or for fellatio for that matter, laughs one of them, who asks to be identified only as Grace.

Standing braless in a tight sleeveless orange maxi dress outside the temporarily closed Le Piment Rouge, a popular nightclub, she is only 19. She explains that she has been in business for a year but mostly only on social media — prior to the coronavirus pandemic. In a small leather bag slung casually in her right hand is a pack of cigarettes, a mask and a small sanitizer bottle that the teenager flashes nonchalantly with the aplomb of a wedding planner who has made arrangements for all contingencies.

“Nobody is asking for blow jobs anymore, just sex with condoms,” Grace says, adding that she or the client stipulates a hotel room or clients’ apartments “so they can give me soap to wash my hands before we get down.” As an unspoken rule, sex workers rarely kiss their customers or have unprotected sex with them and masks and condoms come in handy. The virus is known to spread through physical contact. Call it racism or an extra precaution, but the women say they are also avoiding Chinese and Filipino clients for now.

Still, in spite of all the uncertainty surrounding the profession, Grace is surprisingly optimistic about the future. The nighttime curfew might make it harder for her to find clients on the streets. And with greater concerns over not just physical contact, but even proximity, prostitution appears set to take a hit — globally. But Grace anticipates hot demand for a relatively new sexual offering. She and others like her who are young, lacking the marks of older peers who have been through childbirth, have what the French call la vie devant (“a full life ahead”), she explains. Consequently, occasional requests for sex videos — rather than actual sex — that are paid for via mobile money, now come her way.

With figures from the World Bank showing a doubling of mobile money accounts in sub-Saharan Africa between 2014 and 2017, the demand for such videos was always going to grow. But the coronavirus could turn this new business model for sex workers into a viral trend.

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