When a regular reader in Amsterdam mentioned that his regular escort was a Nigerian immigrant, I asked him to ask her if she would be interested in telling her story. The “trafficking” narrative represents such women as passive victims, so I thought it would be very enlightening to hear her point of view in her own words. She was at first slightly reluctant because she isn’t used to writing, but I think she did such a marvelous job that I did as little editing as possible. I’ve allowed her two full days because her story is not only interesting, but important.
I’m Onioja, a Nigerian migrant. I have serious ambitions to build a good life for myself and for my kids in this wealthy white world. That’s the whole reason why I left my country, fourteen years ago, all by myself. For the first seven years I worked as a housekeeper, hotel maid, babysitter, janitor, dishwasher, kitchen prepper, model, dancer, receptionist, or other odd jobs, and in all that time I was never asked for my story; now I’ve been a top tier escort for almost seven years (at least ten times longer than any other job I’ve had), and I get this request. Why? Not because I’m a successful sex worker, I think, but because doing sex work has made me a successful migrant.
For my first three years in Europe I roved from country to country and city to city, like a lonely animal looking for the best place to build her nest and have babies. I began in Paris and saw cities like Dublin, London, Milan, Berlin, Copenhagen, and others before settling in Amsterdam when I was done with traveling and searching. For the next four years I worked sweat and blood in the same jobs, but now locked inside the same one square kilometer; it made me more miserable and depressed, but I couldn’t afford the traveling to move on. I was just barely surviving, making tiny steps forward, one toe before the other. Like most migrants I felt marginalized and stigmatized, unwelcome and exploited, only useful because we are good at cleaning up after others. I didn’t just feel like a servant, but like a machine switched on and off for one mindless activity after the other. I was a prisoner between other prisoners, black migrants like me, ordered around by mostly white managers and supervisors, with rarely a thank you. Economically and socially, we aren’t much better off than back home; we may live in a wealthy country, but always in a sort of hopeless, energy-draining servitude that won’t allow us to integrate and move upward.
The reality is that a new life in a new country doesn’t start at point zero but somewhere around minus one hundred; unless you’re college educated or well trained and certified in a certain profession, it’s practically impossible to find anything better than menial labor. You don’t know the language or how to get around, and to get any job you depend on people from your own country who’ve lived there long enough that they do, and expect to be paid for their help. But when I looked at these know-it-alls, I wondered why they themselves didn’t have what I consider a good life. Why, after living here for years, didn’t they have a single native friend? Why didn’t they speak the language well? Why didn’t they live in white neighborhoods among white people? Why did I see the same poverty and tribal hierarchies I had left behind transferred to a wealthy country? I soon understood that those guys couldn’t help me, and that staying with my own people in their ghetto would effectively kill my ambitions; so, I said goodbye and made myself untraceable. I cautiously plotted my future, taking great care not to make one wrong step; I found myself jobs and gigs, worked myself into the legal system, got all the papers I could get, began paying taxes so that I was entitled to social benefits, and began learning the language in a program for migrants. After one year I passed the exam as the best of the group and was rewarded with the full restitution of my tuition. But the whole process was grueling, and for seven hellish years it looked as if I would never get another opportunity to be myself; I slowly lost my optimism and energy, and my willpower was slowly eaten up. To force my luck, rescue my spirit and boost my resilience so that I wouldn’t give up, I decided to have a child and be a single mother. I didn’t want to marry and become a man’s possession, which would make things worse, but somehow I found a man who was willing to secretly father my children and then back away. And finally, six months after my first child was born, the Lord came to my rescue.
I’d known the owner of my temp agency for about two years, and he was hot for me; this had been my good fortune because it got me to the top of his menial-labor girls. He missed no opportunity to call me in for things we could have arranged over the phone, and I always went because I depended on his favor. I always played with the sexual tension; over the years I learned all sorts of tricks to get work from guys and keep it, but I never surrendered my one big advantage. Guys wanting to get into my panties never offered me cash but promised me paradise. Sure! Their paradise would make me even more dependent and miserable. So I never surrendered, not because I was a good girl but because I was a shrewd bitch who beat them at their own games. Well, one day when we were arranging my next gig, chatting and flirting as usual, he asked me out for dinner, telling me his wife was out of town (in other words, he wanted to sleep with me). I declined in a way that wouldn’t offend him or hurt his feelings, but then out of the blue, he said he was willing to pay me! Pay me for what? For taking me out to dinner? A voice told me to think it over, so I said I would let him know within twenty-four hours.
That night I couldn’t make a decision, but early next morning he reached me at the prep station in my restaurant; he was eager and said he hoped for a yes from me. I heard myself say, “You’re saying that it’s up to me?” I believe that the good Lord inspired me to say this; it was His sign that He had turned the tables. He flashed my future as a sex worker before my eyes, and it was a good future. Right then and there I realized I had become an independent free woman, and I also saw why: sex made guys dependent on me. They may control the world, but sex is their Achilles heel; if I played it right, sex work would give me control of my life. The restaurant prepper who now talked to the agency owner was a different woman; she didn’t know yet how it would work, but she knew exactly what to say. I took him to the restroom to talk discreetly, and asked him point blank, “Were you planning on paying to have sex with me?” After two seconds of silence he said yes, and I said, “Okay,” very casually as if it was routine. I knew I was now on top of the guy on who my life depended, no longer the other way around. We discussed his wishes and the services I provide; I dictated my rate and further conditions such as no smoking and for me no alcohol, and he accepted. I said I would meet him at the restaurant of his choice. God knows where this all came from. The following evening when it was all over, he was happy with my services and I was in a kind of shock: three hours of work under my control had earned me as much as almost two weeks of humiliating servitude. Sex work would be the God-given way out of being exploited and pimped, and into a life of freedom and dignity.
Now, I’ve heard stories, facts and rumors about pimps but have no first-hand experience because in sex work I never dealt with one and never will. I know pimping is illegal here, but isn’t the migrant labor I suffered a legal form of pimping? Don’t legal businesses make the same big profits as illegal pimps by having us work minimum wage under humiliating circumstances? What’s the difference here? Did I have a real choice to refuse a job? No. It is human exploitation and labor abuse at its worst, but socially permissible because local business depends on it; only in the sex industry it’s criminal because sex work is said to be “dirty”. But sex work can be a God-sent gift; as a sex worker I have dignity and command respect, not because I am a good sex worker but a good human being. Also, going through the long, slow process of learning the business by trial and error, inch by inch, has done more for my independence and integration than the work itself. It took a year and a half until my sex career was so solid that I could give up menial labor altogether; I cut back on it gradually and my agency owner really helped me, not only by being my first client (who was loyal for years afterward), but also by handing me jobs I could combine with being a mother and sex work.
Sex work has also allowed me to express my true personality. Back home I used to pretend to be shy and modest; I was afraid to draw attention. But that’s not me at all! I have a very big ego, maybe too big, and the clients I love being with most are powerful men with big egos, because I love being challenged as much as I love challenging them. It makes the game so much more satisfying and fun, and has made my mind more intelligent. Every day I am grateful to God that He guided me to this work and brings me the kind of clients I need to be more and more part of this culture, which is really my long-term goal. Good, challenging clients help me to develop the qualities that help me become socially more and more independent, in particular independent from doing sex work; though I love doing it, it’s only a stage in my life and I have to look ahead to the time I will eventually have to give it up. I may be a successful migrant but I am still vulnerable, so sex work is only part of my long term vision to integrating in Dutch culture to ensure my future and that of my kids.
In tomorrow’s conclusion, Onioja talks about some of the specific difficulties she faced, how she overcame them and her hopes for the future.