On Institutionalized Sexual Economies: Employment Sex, Transactional Sex, and Sex Work in Kenya’s Cut Flower Industry

Megan Lowthers, “On Institutionalized Sexual Economies: Employment Sex, Transactional Sex, and Sex Work in Kenya’s Cut Flower Industry,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 43, no. 2 (Winter 2018): 449-472.

Abstract

Today Kenya boasts the longest standing, largest, and most lucrative cut flower industry across Africa, concentrated around Lake Naivasha. Naivasha’s flower farms depend on a female migrant labor market that operates within a system of intense gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual-economic exchange. Female labor migrants sometimes participate in types of sexual commerce that are so entrenched within the cut flower industry that they can be termed an “institutionalized sexual economy.” Drawing on feminist ethnography and migration stories, this article documents the gendered and unequal labor continuum of sexual commerce that exists at Naivasha’s flower farms. This includes how female labor migrants exchange sex for employment at the flower farms—what I call “employment sex”—and how they engage in transactional sex with flower farm managers, supplement their incomes with part-time sex work, and move in and out of full-time, street-level sex work as their temporary flower farm contracts turn over. Examining this labor continuum of sexual commerce provides insight into the broader context of local employment options and conditions, work practices and policies, migration patterns, gender relations and unpaid labor, and the sex workers’ rights movement. This article is the first to use critical feminist theories to examine sexual commerce at flower farms and to place the sex-work-as-work debate squarely in the context of the cut flower industry. The absence of this subject from scholarship to date has contributed to a lack of sex worker perspectives, experiences, and sociocultural understandings of institutionalized sexual economies in Africa.

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