In case you missed it, a certain bespectacled rapper has been trending on social media lately, partly because he released an album, but also because he felt compelled to reveal, in an utterly unprecedented move, that he ‘detests transactional sex’.
Multi-talented, and born into enough privilege to build an entire career off of mimicking the English-speaking accents of Yoruba people with low-quality formal education, Falz the Bahd Guy has a lot going for him. He has a distinctive sound and lots of originality (except for that one Childish Gambino ‘cover’, but that’s a conversation for another day); a sense of adventure; a remarkable ability to appeal to various demographics across age, language and class differences; and, apparently, a huge problem with women doing things he doesn’t approve of.
I’m not a big fan of pop music and don’t seek it out, but I know some of Falz’ work because it’s simply everywhere. His success and work ethic are undeniable—and so is his misogyny. Now, his fans on social media have mentioned that he actually loves women (whatever that means), so it is important to note that contrary to what many people believe, misogyny has little to do with hating women. Rather, it is about closely regulating women’s behavior through fear, shame and abuse, in order to prevent them from challenging male dominance. Like Cornell Professor Kate Manne says, “most misogynistic behavior is about hostility towards women who violate patriarchal norms and expectations, who aren’t serving male interests in the ways they’re expected to.”
Falz, with some of his music, has made it his business to address issues that negatively impact all Nigerians, like violent crime, insecurity, and the corruption of the political elite. But, I wonder, why does he feel the need to comment so often and so vehemently on, of all things, the private sexual activity of consenting adult women? To hear him tell it, it is simply because he is a vanguard of a forgotten morality; the beacon at the top of a dangerously eroded hill; the gleaming North star guiding wayward Nigerians home. Yet, far from being the North star—which we experience as fixed and unwavering—Folarin Falana is a pendulum, swinging predictably back and forth depending on how long it’s been since he last said something gratuitously derogatory about women who have explicitly transactional sex. Today, he raps on a song called Sugar Daddy and casts himself as a lead character; tomorrow he derides sugar babies. The day after, he puts out a song that defines the value of men in heterosexual relationships by their willingness to deplete their bank balances for women, then on Sunday he vilifies women who choose male romantic partners based on their wealth and generosity.
Why so much waffling, bro?
The thing with men like Falz, in a society like Nigeria, who go out of their way to decry sexual relationships that hinge on explicit exchanges, is that they think they’re being useful—possibly even original. But their shallow understanding of economics, capitalism, labor and the politics of gender makes itself evident every time they open their mouths. It is impossible to sincerely engage Falz’ claim of an ‘epidemic’ of transactional sex without discussing our social context and the inequalities it produces, and his denouncement of runs girls’ ‘self-objectification’ stops far short of any kind of meaningful analysis of the forces that produce and sustain either women’s dehumanization in general, or the sex industry in particular.
Sex work is work. By definition, labor is the production of goods and services that have exchange value, and sex work puts a material value on consensual sexual interactions in much the same way as consulting puts a material value on knowledge or professional sports put a material value on athleticism. Moreover, within patriarchal capitalism, women’s labour is systemically under- or de-valued in favour of men, whether that labor takes place in the private sphere (cooking, cleaning, schedule management, etc., all of which are feminized economic activities that people get paid for outside the home), or in the public sphere, where women are routinely paid less than men for equivalent or even harder work. Also, capitalism tends to disproportionately drive wealth towards the owner of the means of production, regardless of how ‘hard’ the person works—see, for example, every mega-rich person in the world.
As a result of all this, voluntary sex work (thanks to the radical ownership of the body that it entails) can be one of the most lucrative kinds of labor available to women, especially when their femaleness is combined with other kinds of patriarchally-defined privileges like conventional attractiveness. Survival sex work/transactional sex is also one of the few routes to economic compensation that is available to women who are routinely discriminated against and excluded from the formal labor market, such as poor, un- or under-educated, queer, or trans women.
In a heteronormative society like Nigeria, we are socialized into believing that men—regardless of their age, class, marital or other status—are interested in and entitled to sex with any and all women. However, women are supposed to have no independent sexual desires and are expected to spend their lives either abstaining, or as passive receptacles for their eventual husbands’ sexual impulses. This creates an automatic imbalance that makes heterosexual sex an unprofitable activity for women, even married ones, since men have no incentive to be good or loyal sexual partners, while women have no non-material incentive to be any man’s sexual partner, as they are believed to lose social and sexual value every time they experience sexual contact with men, willingly or not.
Further, patriarchy generally socializes men out of their ability to feel or express affection, care, vulnerability, compassion, tenderness and other emotions which make romantic interactions worthwhile, such that women who partner with men often end up in emotionally inadequate or even empty relationships. Add to this the fact that patriarchal societies equate men’s value to their economic power and women’s value to their sexual purity, then layer on our cultural inability to see women as full human beings until they marry and marry ‘well’ (i.e. ‘marry a rich man’). The end result of this dysfunctional framework is that heterosexual sex becomes a bargaining chip, a tool of exchange, and most crucially, a site of absolute dominance for men. And men love it. Many men, innately understanding the nature and consequences of this sexual inequality, leverage it as a weapon to manipulate, control, terrorize and exploit women, whether for grades, jobs, housing, or any other resources the patriarchy gives them control over.
The structural imbalance of sexual power and agency inherent in male-female sexual relations results in all heterosexual sex being transactional, with women generally foregoing their own pleasure to exchange sex for male approval, the possibility of life-long companionship, or even safety from emotional or physical violence. Within marriage, as it is constructed in our post-colonial culture, women exchange their sexual and reproductive capital for the social, economic and other benefits afforded them by the status of being wedded to a man. Even the various historical meanings of the ‘bride price’ have been flattened by colonial notions of monogamous marriage as the only legitimate avenue for sex between men and women. The payment of a bride price is therefore now understood as the completion of a purchase contract. As such, it is often used to justify marital rape, with many men invoking the bride price as an economic guarantee of sexual consent that is valid in perpetuity, regardless of the bride-cum-wife’s desires or feelings on the matter.
So, within patriarchy, men are always having transactional sex, and they are fine with it as long as they are the ones setting the terms of the transaction. Even Falz, at least going by his own music, is no exception to this. His intellectual dishonesty is glaring, as he himself regularly plays into transactional tropes in his songs, often trying to convince the anonymous, presumably female love interest, to enter into a relationship with him on the basis of his ability to fund her lifestyle, give her money, and generally improve her economic and social status. Falz’ claim to detest transactional sex, expressed by his repeated and almost exclusive denouncement of ‘runs girls’, is therefore exposed as entry-level benevolent misogyny; the low-hanging fruit of Nice Guy paternalism that decides that men can and should have a say over the kinds of choices that women make, especially when those choices deviate from patriarchal norms.
It is rather telling that, rather than grappling with the harassment, assault and violence that capitalist patriarchy and sexual inequality force women to navigate in their daily lives, Falz chooses to castigate the women who manage to outwit a sexual system designed to devalue and exploit them. But this is because people like him, regardless of how they treat their sisters, daughters, mothers, and other women they deem ‘respectable’, remain invested in a patriarchal order that is maintained by women’s suffering. Whorephobic, classist people like Falz claim to hate transactional sex, yet will generally make exceptions for female survival sex workers because, despite their deviation from the norms of sexual propriety, these women’s labor is still being exploited. They’re still poor and female in capitalist patriarchy, i.e. relatively powerless, which makes their sexual practices less of a threat, and thus comparatively acceptable. But ‘runs girls’—women who drive nice cars and who walk past Falz in the business class lounge with their sponsors—are unacceptable because they dare to beat capitalist patriarchy at its own game, via the bodies that they have been taught belong, not to them, but to any and all men.
Runs girls’ blatant exertion of sexual power and agency in a world that insists women should have neither, and their resulting ability to bypass the subjugation that is supposed to be women’s lot in life, is an endless source of bitterness for men who want to control and shame them, as well as for women who rely on the idea of (relative) sexual purity to define their own value. The obvious but mostly unspoken truth is that what people like Falz resent is women’s audacity to determine the terms of engagement in transactional sexual situations that are designed to exclusively benefit men. After all, the Nigerian public, who are loudly broadcasting their agreement with Falz’ position on the evil of runs girls and transactional sex, are the same ones who lauded the patriarchal display of male economic power as a reward for female romantic and sexual submission, in the incident we all remember as ‘Assurance’.
Unfortunately, far too few Nigerians are able or willing to develop either critical thinking skills or a thorough understanding of structural forces and how they reinforce one another to produce behavioral patterns, particularly the behavioral patterns of marginalized groups. Nor can they be blamed; this problem is due in large part to the State’s refusal to improve the abysmal quality of education available to the majority (which I hope Falz denounces on his latest album, now that he no longer needs to mimic poorly-educated people to be relevant). But if we were honest, we would admit that our casual denigration of sex workers simultaneously stems from and sustains our collective misogyny, since ‘runs girls’ exist at the nexus of femaleness and sexual agency which Nigerians believe is the junction of the road to hell. Newsflash: Buhari is our President. We’re already in hell.
To Yoruba demons—er, I mean Nigerian men—like Falz, who cut their teeth on the idea that women are ultimately subordinate to them, the notion of sexual and bodily autonomy for all people–regardless of gender or sexual practices–has little or no resonance. And why would it? Nigeria is a country that prides itself on the legislation of consensual sexual activity, having criminalized sex work and homosexual sex. Yet, we continue to lack either the legal framework or the political will to criminalize sexual violence committed by men against the women who marry them, or even to protect children from the lecherous desires of entitled perverts. Our national priorities, like those of Falz the Bahd Guy, are painfully obvious.
In the final analysis, Falz, for all his ostensible intellectualism, is just another predictable product of a patriarchal nation. He only passes as a progressive thinker thanks to his prestigious education, pedigree, and ability to make people laugh—especially by punching down at groups with less social power than he. But Nigerians deserve better than the tired posturing of self-styled intellectuals with loud opinions on subjects they know little about and do not care to educate themselves on. If Falz really feels so strongly about the objectification and dehumanization of women that he’s willing to spend his entire career addressing it, then he would do well to read, listen to and learn from “the feminists in the building”, and most crucially, keep his underdeveloped analyses of grown women’s choices to himself.