By Gatonye Gathura
By operating online, gay sex workers in Nairobi say they have escaped police harassment but jumped right into the hands of blackmailers.
“I am not sure which is worse, the police or blackmailers,” says Alex a peer educator in a government sponsored HIV programme in Nairobi.
When cornered by the police, Alex says gay sex workers can always bribe their way out but still remain anonymous to the public.
But with blackmailers, Alex says it can have devastating and long tern consequences especially if you are exposed to friends and family.
A study published early this month in the Journal of the International Aids Society, reports increasing use of social media by men who have sex with men and transgender in African cities.
The researchers from Kenya, South Africa and the UK, had assessed the use of social media among 919 gay men and transgender in Nairobi, Kenya and Johannesburg, South Africa.
They found 70 per cent of participants from Nairobi and 60 per cent from Johannesburg to use social media to socialize and seek sexual partners.
Only 14 per cent in Nairobi and 21 per cent in Johannesburg reported never having done so.
For many participants across both cities, interacting with men in social media environments was considered safer than attending physical locations.
“This was especially true for participants in Kenya who reported that police raids or general hostility towards gay bars or hotspots were commonplace,” wrote the authors.
But social media sites, participants said were not without their own risks. Of particular concern was the use of sex related pictures and the possibility of such been recognized by non-gay friends and family or being used for the purposes of blackmail.
“In social media the majority of them are looking for money. The others are blackmailers,” said a 22-year-old study participant in Nairobi.
The authors say concern for blackmail was pervasive among many, such that some were hesitant to share any personal information or images of themselves until they felt safe with the person they were interacting with online.
Some of the adopted safety measures include screening potential online partners to ensure they are legitimate gays.
Such would include requesting that they send multiple photographs of themselves to ensure they had not simply adopted another person’s photograph.
Facebook remained the most popular socializing site for gays in both cities at 58 per cent in Nairobi and 38.2 per cent in Johannesburg. WhatsApp was the second most popular site at 46.0 per cent and 42.9 per cent, respectively.
Grindr, the study shows was the most frequently cited gay-specific service in both cities, used by 8.2 per cent in Nairobi and 8.1 per cent in Johannesburg.
Original study is available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/jia2.25603