Oct 19, 2017

The Italo-Nigerian sex fashion pipeline

A surprising confluence of sex work, religious pilgrimage, and Italian fashion in This Present Darkness (p. 134-5 of my copy):

An odd twist on the ethnic clustering that is typical of emigration all over the world was in the rapid appearance of a Nigerian sex industry overseas that was dominated by women from Edo State, the administrative region around the ancient city-state of Benin City ... A senior police officer who was himself born and brought up in Benin City told me that the sex trade to Italy began in the early 1980s when Nigerian Christians began to make pilgrimages to Rome in imitation of their Muslim fellow-countrymen who had long been accustomed to making the pilgrimage to Mecca. Pilgrims discovered the existence of the Italian fashion industry, much of it based on small family firms making attractive clothes at affordable prices. Nigerian pilgrims took to getting an Italian visa for a pilgrimage to Rome and using their stay in Italy to buy clothes in bulk, which they could take back and sell at a good profit. The pioneers of this Italian business happened to be from Benin City. As times grew hard, some women also discovered they could make money during their stay in Italy by selling sex, investing their profits in fashion items that they could take back to Nigeria for sale. In the early days of this business a short stay in Italy could be enough to launch a woman into a commercial career, but these pioneers soon controlled entry to the business, keeping it in the hands of Benin City women.

According to an Italian study, the presence of Nigerians in the sex industry in Italy was hastened by the spread of AIDS in the late 1980s, as Italian men who made use of commercial sex came to fear Italian prostitutes and believed that the newcomers from Nigeria had a higher chance of being disease-free. The number of Nigerian women and girls working the streets spread from Rome to other cities. Until 1991 it remained relatively easy for Nigerian women entering the business to get a tourist visa and fly straight to Rome from Lagos. The main problem for new entrants was to raise the capital for a plane ticket to Italy. This provided a business opportunity for the first generation of Nigerian sex workers in Italy, who were now established as "madams", providers of prostitutes who lived on the earnings of their girls and often invested the proceeds in a fashion shop back home in Benin City or Lagos, using their personal connections to recruit new girls for the business. This confirmed the dominance of Benin and Edo State in the trade in sex workers to Italy. When the Italian authorities introduced stricter controls, obliging the operators to develop more roundabout routes to get new workers into the land of la dolce vita, it simply pushed up the price of travel from Nigeria and increased the hold of those existing operators who had the capital and the knowledge needed to run the business. So great is the dominance of Edo State that, of the 800 sex workers deported to Nigeria from Italy in 1999-2001, 86 per cent were from Edo State and 7 percent from the neighbouring Delta State.

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