BY TANAKA MREWA AND ABIGIRL KHUPE
Male prostitution is something of a legend in Bulawayo, it is spoken about in hushed tones and its prevalence is hardly acknowledged.
However, investigations in the city have revealed that a number of men, who perceive themselves as straight, nicodemously creep out to enjoy same-sex liaisons with male sex workers.
Although sex trade in Zimbabwe is often associated with men paying for sex with women, there seems to be a nascent but growing trend showing that some men are also soliciting for sex from other men under a cloak of darkness.
Male sex workers have come up with code names for the men who have sex with other men (MSM), calling them green pepper — because they change colour — and “After 9s” because they only seek sexual partners after 9PM.
Although homosexuality is still viewed as something taboo in Zimbabwe, a number of gay people in Bulawayo have somehow found comfort in their sexuality and find no shame in using it as a means of making money.
They offer sex services to fellow homosexuals and to those who wish to “experiment”.
CITE embarked on an investigation into the operations of male sex workers, who target men interested in sleeping with other men but do not want to have gay tags hanging around their necks.
The male sex workers said on a good day they make up to RTGS$100 and on bad ones as little as RTGS$ 20.
Sam Nxumalo*, a chatty young man in his mid-20s, who has mannerisms of a woman, said there were respectable men who solicit for same-sex liaisons.
He said such men did not want to be described as gay and so they used the cover of darkness to fulfil their fantasies.
“There are men known as MSM, they are not gay, they just enjoy services from fellow men.
“They go to female sex workers they trust and ask to be connected with us,” Nxumalo said.
“Of the men who seek services from sex workers, at least 20% do not come to us. The rest do and once they start, they cannot stop.”
He said some men get addicted to the extent of taking them to their houses and introducing them as distant relatives.
“These men’s wives will not be suspicious of us. Our regular clients invite us to their houses where we are introduced as distant relatives and get accommodated for several days. This is where we make the most of our money,” Nxumalo continued.
“We take advantage of the unsuspecting women and render services over weekends and leave. Constant house calls make the façade believable.
“At times, we get our clients through agents and this is prevalent when there are functions.
“The clients will be respectable members of society or foreigners.
“We get packages of up to USD$300 for entertaining them.
“You can make this money over two to three days. It’s a pity, though, that these functions are not too often.”
Another male sex worker, Phill Phiri* who is a transgender, said men who indulged out of curiosity do not have a full understanding of the characteristics of the male sex workers’ sexuality.
He said they differ from gays and bisexuals, hence, their needs and preferences are different.
“When we hook up, we want to be treated as feminine,” Phiri narrated.
“The problem is these men, who come to experiment, sometimes expect us to perform masculine roles, which we cannot.
“In some cases, we get beaten up and it’s unfortunate we can’t report such issues, as police officers always mock us.”
Phiri said because of their feminine traits, they were often victims of bullying.
“We dress up in female clothes, we feel feminine we can’t help it,” he said.
“We even wear makeup, at times better than most women.
“We are always an easy target for the society and hence we live on insults and criticism all the time.”
Phiri then went into detail on how they lure their customers.
“We carry ourselves with such elegance, we have a reputation to maintain,” he said.
“Our main prey are those males who regard themselves as straight.
“We take advantage of them and put up a show they have never experienced.
“The fact that we are also male makes it a whole lot easier because we know exactly what they expect and we deliver better than women.”
Munashe Shoko*, a gay sex worker said it was difficult for men to parade on the streets as women do and this confined them to clubs, bars, homes or through agencies.
“To market ourselves better, we sit in groups in bars or clubs,” he said.
“We are invisible on the streets.
“Some of the more established male sex workers work from their homes because most of our clients — especially the straight ones, do not want to be seen picking us up in the bars.
“Such clients are usually well up family men looking for adventure.
“They see to it that they pay extra as a way of ensuring our mouths stay shut.
“Most of them badmouth gays during the day but come night-time, they search for us high and low.
“Due to the amount of money they pay, us we bear with their daytime insults.
“These clients also want society to view them as straight.
“They sneak us out of their houses in the wee hours of the morning before neighbours and those they live with wake up.
“There are some who demand acts that we can’t perform and turn violent when we don’t play along. Others refuse to pay us totally.”
Shoko said male sex workers have fewer squabbles amongst themselves compared to their female counterparts, as they are a small group that prefers to move in numbers for security reasons.
“We are prone to attacks from members of society, so if we move in numbers, we are able to stand up for each other in cases of violent attacks,” he explained.
The sex workers said the worst kind of brutality they face are a gang and “corrective” rapes in addition to violence and non-paying clients.
One of the participants testified that he and a colleague were gang-raped by a group of nine men, claiming they wanted to fix them for being gay.
He said two of the men posed as clients and lured them to a residential flat in the CBD where they were sexually assaulted.
Another concern is that because of the stereotypes linked to their sexuality, they often are shunned at healthcare centres.
“We are exposed to sexually transmitted infections,” Phiri said.
“Most of us use pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to be free of HIV, but when we get to the clinic for our medication, they make fun of us.
“As a result, most male sex workers shy away from seeking medical attention and they die.”
CITE also sought to find out from female sex workers how they were coping with this “invasion” of what has long been their terrain.
Praise Shone*, a 39-year-old commercial sex worker, who has been in the industry for 12 years now, said they were feeling the pinch from the competition.
“Business is generally low because of economic hardships, but sharing the few clients with men is only making it harder,” she lamented.
“They claim males are more fun than us.
“At times they come to us seeking assistance to be hooked up.
“They are shy to pick them on their own.”
Sihle said although it bothered them at first, they were now getting used to the idea that there were men who want to engage in male sex work.
“There’s nothing shocking anymore,” she said.
“Some of our former clients have permanently crossed over to the male side.
“What they termed experiments when they started have now become a habit and they are constantly coming back for more.”
Ruth Ngarande* said she did not fear being pushed out of business.
“What is certain is that same-sex service costs an arm and a leg and is usually afforded by well up people who pay well,” she said.
“We also face similar scenarios from our side where women solicit for same-sex services.
“It is amazing how women pay more than men.
“Maybe it’s because they are afraid we could expose them.”
The sex workers said in a bid to maintain their territories, they set up social clubs, where they get together with males to know who is who is the sex trade business.
A Bulawayo based non-governmental organisation, Sexual Rights Centre (SRC), confirmed that through its work it had noticed that a substantial number of men were involved in sex work in the city.
“We work closely with the sex workers both male and female. They come here at the centre where they meet up and discuss the challenges they face and share ideas on how to assist each other,” said an SRC official who requested to remain anonymous.
“Female sex workers have pointed out that a substantive number of their clients request to be hooked up with male sex workers.
“The male sex workers themselves as you heard through discussions point out they have quite a number of clients.
“There are also several instances where female clients request for female sex workers.”
The SRC has various platforms where it helps sex workers resolve conflicts, especially when they fight over territory and clients.
“We hold coffee mornings, solidarity circles and gentleman’s clubs,” the official added.
“Here they share the challenges they face and ways of overcoming them.
“These are also opportune platforms for new players in the industry to mix and mingle with those who have been there so they can learn the ropes.”
She said commercial sex workers, both male and female, faced many challenges including violence by clients and lack of access to health services.
“We have had about six murder cases since last year emanating from vicious clients. When we make reports, the police are less keen to come to our rescue,” the official added.
“Another major challenge is accessing adequate medication for the sex workers.
“The Ministry of Health accesses medication in the name of sex workers to cure them of sexually transmitted infections but when they get to the clinics, they are told there is no medication.
“We end up referring some of them to such institutions as PSI but they can only accommodate so much.”
She said male sex workers were the most affected as they were shunned by society and were stigmatised at health centres.
“We need to understand the society has reservations towards gay people and some still stigmatise HIV positive people,” the official said.
“Most of the male sex workers, when they fall sick, shy away from seeking treatment in fear of being discriminated.
“They only emerge when their condition has extremely deteriorated and there wouldn’t be much the centre can do at that stage.”
Homosexuality is frowned upon in Zimbabwe, but the laws are silent on gay relations.
Same-sex is considered immoral and is listed under Part III of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act Chapter 9:23.
The list of sex offences does not include homosexuality.
The only crime that pertains exclusively to homosexuality is sodomy, but the dictionary definition of sodomy is not exclusive to homosexuals.
In Zimbabwe, sodomy is only criminalised for men who have sex with men.
Laws criminalising homosexuality in Zimbabwe carry penalties of up to three years in jail, and police often arrest gays before setting them free without preferring any charges.