Editor’s Note: Twitter outrage has become commonplace (while Facebook has become some form of family friendly place to air achievements, family portraits and unpopular opinions with relative safety). On the upside these ‘outrages’ have effected changes, as more and more people are using this platform as an avenue to hold governments to account and share histories that would have otherwise been lost in obscurity (particularly Black History).
Nigerian feminists have been using social media to educate Nigerians at large about social inequalities and highlight how cis-heterosexual men are at the top of the foodchain, how they use their privilege to keep women and sexual minorities oppressed.
The latest topic being discussed with a lot of passion is the rights of sex-workers/runs girls/side-chics (or the lack thereof). The trigger for this discussion is Falz, a Nigerian musician who embraces social consciousness, (wokeness) served with a side of misogyny.
Tracy in this article discusses how problematic Falz’s politics is.
Definition of terms
Sex Worker aka Prostitute: A man/woman/gender non-conformist or trans person who sells sexual expertise to a variety of clients. Sex workers do this professionally. By the way, sex work is illegal in Nigeria and this tends to lead to police brutality and abuse by clients or pimps.
Runs Girl: A young woman, often an undergraduate who dates rich,(married) older men. These relationships are transactional and have time limits. A runs girl doesn’t only offer sexual gratification, she also adds to the social value of the man she’s with because of her youth and attractiveness.
Side-Chic/Side Piece: This is man/woman/gender non-conformist or trans person who is dating a married person (male or female). A side piece provides the comfort of a home for clients without the responsibility that comes with marriage. Unlike the first two, side-chics/side pieces usually have a relationship with their ‘friends’ while the friend in question may provide cash or economic opportunities.
Transactional: exchange of goods or services for cash. It can also be exchange of emotional labour and investment between two or more people.
Another day, another PSA by an entertainer about the evils of runs girls. The reactions have come in with people asking, almost in anticipation of the ‘backlash’, why this particular societal problem should not be addressed amongst others, whether people are claiming that runs is a good thing, whether those people would let their daughters live that lifestyle and, as always, whether the people protesting against this message are actually runs girls themselves.
On the other side are people questioning the need to address this topic at all, claiming that what a woman does with her body is her business and asking artists to leave runs girls alone.
What I, along with others, can’t ever get my head around is the equating, or at least placing alongside, runs with crimes of corruption, fraud, theft and actual violence. I can only imagine that it is the kind of thinking that leads to garbled songs like Child of the World ( see my critique of the song here misogyny or a massive overreaction ).
First of all, what is ‘runs’ and where, on the sliding scale of the transactional nature of Nigerian romantic relationships, does it fit?
I used to lump it in with sex work but now I’m not so sure. The term appears to cover a range of relationships where there is the expectation that a woman will be kept financially by a man, often older and far richer, by mutual understanding. In return, he gets the pleasure, sometimes exclusively, of her company including sex.
The above will of course sound familiar, not just because a kept mistress is one of the oldest practices in the world (Solomon had ‘concubines’ – I really hope they were closer to runs girls than sex slaves but I am pessimistic). It also sounds familiar because of the ‘husband-provider’ model that is supposed to be God’s will for marriages (although there is scant authority for this in the Bible).
In some cultures, this starts with symbolisation at a couple’s traditional wedding, where hubby stuffs wife’s purse with cash to show his ability or willingness to provide (she of course kneels to show submission But. That. Is. Definitely. Another. Article).
In what is essentially a two-income economy, this leads to some very strange expectations and actions. A woman who works is still responsible for the family’s domestic tasks including childcare. If a man earns less (or nothing at all), he is still ‘the provider’ and anything his wife says or does which appears to undermine this is seen as pure disrespect.
Some wives hand their husbands their salaries, or money, so he appears to pay for things. When a man loses his job, he is supposed miraculously continue to ‘provide’, which mostly consists of hanging about the home making grand plans, while studiously ignoring the housework.
Couples are very reluctant to enter into relationships where the woman earns more. Rejecting a higher paid job is one of the ways women can make ‘noble sacrifices’ for her marriage. Not all Nigerian marriages of course, but this type of thinking still surprisingly persists among young people.
I say all these to illustrate the transactional nature of marriages. In addition to the ‘provider’ male partner, you have the girlfriend’s credit alerts, bills for sick relatives that materialise shortly after a relationship starts and other things. At what point does the providing that the male partner is supposed to do metamorphose into ‘transactional sex’? People who keep carping on about prostitution being is illegal are missing the point – I highly doubt runs and other kinds benevolent relationships are illegal in Nigeria.
Another question is why the anguish by entertainers and other people, who seem to have no problem with men boasting of their ability to attract beautiful women with their wealth? Isn’t putting a line about runs girls, in the middle of a song about corruption (which has led to the loss of hope for millions of Nigerians) a bit like rapping, ‘Slavery, genocide….and dressing like a chav! Those are the three things I won’t have!’?
Is it a matter of distaste – seeing young women actively vying for a position with Alhajis? Or are entertainers pestered by runs girls the second they sit down in a hotel, or other public place, and put their phone on to check instagram?
I remember being spoken to very rudely in Nigeria by a non-Nigerian older man because I asked him for a pen. Mum explained that he thought I was a – (she didn’t say runs girl, but something very similar. On that same trip, a young man tried to offer me sex in exchange for financial upkeep – so go figure. I guess I was ahead of the times).
There are valid debates, from personal moral, religious and even feminist points of view about sex work and transactional sex. However, if you have a problem with sex work and that problem only manifests in shaming and ridiculing women involved in whatever form of transactional sex – but mostly the sugar baby/runs girl variety where women tend to have more agency – and does not include –
bashing the men who participate in transactional sex or men who use money as a way of attracting sexual attention;
addressing the problem of women being forced into transactional sex by, for example, lecturers who demand sex for grades (or more precisely not unjustifiably failing a woman), or employers who harass their female employees into sex with them or their clients;
addressing the entitlement to sex after money is spent on a woman (what’s the argument men use as an excuse for marital rape in Nigeria again? Aaaaah….bride price!);
addressing the economic reasons why women are drawn to sex work, including a bad economy, gender based discrimination, and the fact that women are often sexually harassed out of money making abilities, and linking them to their hatred of sex work; or
acknowledging that women carry out real crimes – embezzlement, murder, trafficking – instead of treating sex work as the most predominant ‘crime’ committed by women.
Then, to use Adichie’s reasoning, you don’t have a problem with transactional sex, you have a problem with women and particularly women having agency and real choices about it which is why people call you a misogynist.
In fact the only thing this serves to do is demonise sex workers along with women who have sex on terms that some people don’t agree with. Actual problems, like trafficking, are ignored.
As long as they can provide enough evidence of their near-destitution to activate our saviour complex, actual prostitutes are also not often the target of these kind of attacks.
Any woman can, of course, be labelled a prostitute at any time and in the middle of any argument. On hearing this, the woman is supposed to sink down to her knees, continue sinking until she resembles a tightly wound ball of wool, cover her eyes from the sun and shriek “No! NO! Please! Not that! Anything but that!”.
Luckily we have feminists who are brave enough to tell us that actually a woman is or should be entitled to sell sexual services if she truly chooses to and if she does, she is not exactly selling her soul or body (wives do that, not prostitutes ha ha).
But the weaponisation continues of course and female entertainers routinely find themselves victims of men taking it upon themselves to announce, without a scrap of evidence of course, that they can only afford things or advance in their careers because they are paid to have sex with older or influential men. It’s the kind of thing that in reality is a warning to all women that their reputations can be ruined by associating them with sex work.
I’ll tell you what. Let’s fight it from both ends. People are free to have an opinion about sex, transactional or otherwise, but let’s end the demonisation of women who participate in transactional sex, starting by realising that most relationships have some element of the transaction about them, and let’s end the assumption that the only way women can make money is through transactional sex. As a bonus, let’s disabuse ourselves of this notion that it is women’s job to guide the universe into sexual morality and stop the hand wringing and redefining of the term ‘societal ill’. Deal?