Prostitution is routinely described as the world’s oldest profession. It’s an epithet that stresses both its universality and its apparent inevitability in human societies. Regardless of cultural context, it seems—and in spite of the agency and heterogenous circumstances of the people we might call prostitutes—the practice is thus reduced to an appendage of male sexuality, a kind of spontaneous sociological generation. Like worms appearing in rancid meat, women of ill repute appear wherever large groups of morally suspect men are gathered together. As Luise White explains in the introduction to her 1990 monograph The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi, it’s this deterministic view of male lust was that inspired the anti-“white slave trade” policies of nineteenth century Europe and North America, policies that simultaneously sought to regulate and contain the phenomenon in cities and rescue those women “trapped in prostitution” by evil, violent pimps. Ironically, White notes, in ignoring the possibility of female agency in prostitution, this heavy-handed judicial approach actually resulted in more violence and exploitation without decreasing male demand for paid sex (a demand which, though regrettable, reformers presumed to be basically inelastic anyway). A century later, in societies where sex workers were for a long time rendered largely invisible, White laments that neither scholars nor policymakers have been eager to revisit past mistakes.
White’s introductory argument in The Comforts of Home is basic: European and American views of prostitution are deeply warped and culture-bound. For while prostitution is indeed a widespread phenomenon worldwide, it frequently fails to conform to the neat clichés of Western popular culture. Underscoring the parochialism of the modern Eurocentric understanding of prostitution, it’s worth noting that it was none other than the Victorian arch-imperialist Rudyard Kipling who first called it “the most ancient profession in the world,” in an 1889 short story about an Indian courtesan named Lalun. “In the West,” Kipling added—getting right to the heart of the matter—“people say rude things about Lalun’s profession, and write lectures about it. In the East, where the profession is hereditary, nobody writes any lectures or takes any notice; and that is a distinct proof of the inability of the East to manage its own affairs.”
In foregrounding the testimonies of women who worked as prostitutes in colonial Nairobi (eschewing the term “sex worker” in order to emphasize the multifarious domestic services such women often provided in addition to sex), White’s study seeks to shift focus away from prostitution as a social ill that mindlessly emerged from the African colonial city like maggots from flesh. According to White, prostitution was big business in colonial Nairobi: a stable and sometimes downright lucrative source of income for urban women from across Kenya’s ethnic and religious spectrum, as well a vital means of daily social reproduction in a migrancy-driven male economy. Crucially, pimps and brothels were wholly absent from the landscape of colonial Nairobi, and finding clients was entirely a matter of individual entrepreneurship and networking. Though its original popularity as a female profession is clearly tied to social upheavals in rural Kenya and women’s exclusion from the urban wage labor force, White insists that prostitution was usually safe and often highly profitable—as well as an important path to property ownership: “between 1946 and 1948,” she reports, “all the new African landlords in Eastleigh [a multiethnic suburb of Nairobi] were women, former or still working prostitutes.” As early as 1947, some of these women owned multiple houses and were able to purchase cars—some of the first to be owned by black people in Kenya.
Yet The Comforts of Home is much more than a polemic against the existing historiography of prostitution. Its biggest scholarly contribution is the way it positions the occupation of Nairobi prostitutes vis à vis African labor history. For White, drawing attention to the wealth and agency of prostitutes is more than sensationalism and provocation; from Marx via Frederick Cooper she understands prostitution as the sine qua non of social reproduction in the African city. “Colonial states,” White observes, “could create and maintain a wage labor force, but they could not maintain it”; they were anxious to fulfill labor needs but had little to no interest—at least before World War II—in creating an aspirational urban proletariat. Reluctant to expend their own resources on accommodating workers to this raw deal—either through improving working conditions or endorsing African family life in the city—they relied on prostitutes to provide not only sex but other domestic services like cooking, accommodation and laundry to numb the pain of daily life. Indeed, in contrast to the deep moralistic concerns that surrounded prostitution in the metropole, in Kenya White finds a colonial administration that was rather circumspect about prostitution and its importance to the life of the city. In the candid words of one Municipal Native Affairs Officer in 1938, “whereas the needs of eight men may be served by the provision of two rooms for the men and one for the prostitute, were housing provided for these natives and their families six rooms would probably be needed.” Simply put, tolerating prostitution made good fiscal sense in an overwhelmingly male city with an enormous housing shortage.
So colonial Nairobi would have looked very different without prostitution; likewise the look of prostitution there changed dramatically over time. While White makes significant use of archival records and colonial documents, it is her detailed study of the nature of prostitutes’ work that most often stands out, bolstering her core assertions about prostitution and the city. According to White, in different places and times prostitutes practiced their occupation in different ways, frequently modifying their work in order to respond to new market opportunities and challenges. The two world wars in particular were periods of growth and innovation in Nairobi prostitution. As large numbers of foreign military personnel found themselves in the city, prostitutes had to strike a balance between making themselves available to men with limited local knowledge and maintaining discretion—avoiding both official scrutiny and censure by their local community. In the long term, she argues, prostitution became more businesslike. Far from a desperate underclass, its practitioners were firmly situated in the ranks of the petite bourgeoisie; “women engaged in complex collective groups the purpose of which was to protect their earnings.” Surprisingly, White is able to corroborate much of the information she gets from female interlocutors with former male customers. As a result, we not only gain a qualitative picture of Nairobi prostitution, but information about the price of women’s services and how that changed over time, from decade to decade.
Now, almost thirty years after its first publication, The Comforts of Home remains useful as a chronicle of prostitution in colonial Kenya’s capital. Even more importantly, however, by centering the lives and decisions made by Nairobi’s prostitutes in the life of the city, it places women at the center of African labor history, drawing attention not only to their collective inventiveness and agency, but also to the colonial state’s tacit acknowledgement of their importance. Wedded to a migrant labor model that sought in vain to keep black Kenyans from putting down roots in Nairobi, administrators were unwilling to crack down on prostitution in large part because it made their own jobs easier, not to mention the fact that, as White illustrates, white men also frequented black Nairobi prostitutes. Prostitution may or may not be the oldest profession in the world, but, if White is correct, it may be one of the most important.