Gay sex, racism, and economies of exchange in Dakar
Arnaud woofed first. He sent me only two photos in addition to his profile: one of him sitting in a chair in a courtyard with a teal tee shirt and blue pants, the other of his cock (straight, uncut, well-groomed, 5 or 6”, on the skinnier side). His profile photo — toned, shirtless, dark-skinned, bearded — seemed to possibly be of a different person from the tee shirt photo, but he denied this when I asked. In the context of Dakar, it wouldn’t have been a surprise; gay sex is illegal in Senegal and most men on the app were using fake profile photos to protect their identities.
It was Christmas day, 2019. I had arrived in Dakar the previous night for a short vacation after spending a week at an artist gathering in Ouagadougou. As we chatted, Arnaud mentioned that he lived in Brussels but traveled to Dakar frequently for work so he knew the city well. The conversation then turned to sex: he couldn’t host but he could come to the Airbnb where I was staying in the Plateau neighborhood. I hesitated without seeing more photos from him but didn’t overthink it in light of the norms of identity protection. The text of his profile painted a normative picture of the business traveler that he claimed to be: he liked hiking. Standard fare. “Sure, come over.”
Arnaud arrived in sweatpants and a hoodie — hook-up attire. I offered him something to drink and we exchanged a few pleasantries before cutting each other off mid-sentence with a kiss.
It didn’t take long for the idea of a fun, discrete adventure with a stranger to begin to fall apart. We had barely started kissing when I felt Arnaud’s hand on my head — at first gentle, then commandingly pushing my face down toward his cock. It was abrupt; listening to physical cues apparently wasn’t part of his sexual playbook. Rather annoyed, I briefly sucked his cock before reciprocating his gesture: I stood up and, kissing him again, placed a hand on his shoulder to guide his head toward my crotch for a fellatio quid pro quo. If he wasn’t interested in listening to physical cues in a dance of intimacy then I would settle for a blunt oral sex trade, but only if he delivered first; my guard was up — I didn’t want to risk feeling used like a basic sex toy. Arnaud barely put his mouth on my penis, rejecting the deal.
The evening wore on like this with each of us asserting our sexual preferences only to be met with counter proposals and counter-counter proposals, each time negotiating our way back to the lowest common denominator of place-holder kissing. We clearly had zero chemistry. Eventually, naked on the bed, I decided to just speed things up and be done with it. I jerked myself off, hoping Arnaud would do the same and then pack up and leave. He stopped touching himself as soon as I came and started to put his clothes on.
“So I just need you to pay me.”
I thought he wanted me to pay for his cab round trip. “Okay, if that’s how it works here. Like, 5,000 CFA?”
“No no no, I need you to pay me. I’m an escort. It’s 300,000 CFA,” the equivalent of roughly $500.
“It says clearly in my profile that I’m an escort.” Arnaud pulled out his phone to show me. It was true, on his profile was written in French “escort available to meet up,” slipped in at the end of an otherwise conventional paragraph about looking for smart, no-drama guys to connect with.
“Look, we’ve had a misunderstanding. I never agreed to hire an escort and you never said a single word about this to me when we were chatting.”
“Okay, I see. Yes, we had a misunderstanding. You can pay me half and we can be done here.” I found little consolation in the idea that he was doing me a favor by only charging me $250, our sexual barter now replaying itself, dizzyingly, with dramatically higher stakes.
“I’ll give you what I have and you can leave.” I had $30 worth of CFA on me in cash.
“No, that will not work.” He stood up and started opening drawers and looking through my bags for a hidden stash of cash.
I had kept it together up to that point, trying to rationally talk through the situation with this guest-turned-intruder, but watching him carelessly rummage through my bags for cash I didn’t have crossed a line.
Adrenaline rushing, I impulsively stood up and started pacing the apartment, hyperventilating, yelling at Arnaud — nearly growling — to get the fuck out, my ire fueled as much by the absurdity as by the injustice; here I was being extorted by an escort in Dakar, who I had never agreed to hire, for hundreds of dollars, for one of my most remedial hook ups in recent memory.
Arnaud looked confused for a moment — I had been shouting at him in English, the French vocabulary for unmitigated rage escaping me. Yet he seemed to get the message when, calmly and coldly, he picked up his phone.
“I’m having a problem with a client. I’m here with him now.”
I heard a voice on the other end of the line but couldn’t make out what it was saying.
Arnaud continued: “Okay, if it doesn’t get resolved I’ll send you the location and you can come deal with it.” He hung up and sneered at me, rescinding his discount, “Listen, you owe me 300,000 CFA and if you don’t pay me someone is going to come here and turn you into the police. I won’t be in trouble because he’s my guy, but you will be locked up. This is Africa, you’re not in America anymore.”
Article 319.3 of Senegal’s Criminal Code prohibits “unnatural acts” between persons of the same sex. The law carries a sentence of one to five years in prison plus a fine ranging from 100,000–1,500,000 CFA (170–2,500 USD).¹ While the law does not explicitly criminalize people for being gay, it is used to that effect.
The most famous cases to date of gay-related arrests in Senegal were in 2008. In February that year, Icône, a Senegalese tabloid, published 20 photos from a “gay wedding”: a party in 2006 with gay men in attendance where a mock wedding ceremony had taken place. Many media outlets picked up the story of the alleged gay wedding, publicizing it widely. Religious and cultural leaders in Senegal responded to the article with outrage, provoking the government to arrest many of the men featured in the photos. In December of the same year police arrested nine members of AIDES Senegal, an HIV/AIDS activist organization providing education and resources to men who have sex with men. The men arrested for attending the alleged gay wedding were released but a court convicted all nine of the men working for AIDES Senegal and sentenced each of them to eight years in prison. In neither of the two cases was there any actual evidence of “unnatural acts” — gay sex, the punishable crime.²
Arrests for homosexuality have forcefully continued since 2008. As recently as fall 2018, reports emerged of two men and two women being arrested in Dakar for homosexual activity as part of a wave of arrests against gays in the run-up to Senegal’s presidential election — an excuse for incumbent president Macky Sall to prove his anti-gay bonafides.³ (He was re-elected.)
All of this was on my mind when Arnaud threatened to turn me into the police. Yes, the criminalization of homosexuality is very real, but so are the obscene privileges conferred by my U.S. passport, not to mention my whiteness. The men and women arrested in each of the cases that I had read about seemed to all be Senegalese citizens. Would the government arrest a foreigner, specifically a U.S. citizen?
Either way, there was a second, possibly more immediate problem: Arnaud had a fixer. The implied threat of physical danger from another member of this operation superseded the explicit threat of legal peril. Even if Arnaud’s threat was more bluff than not, the mere fact that there was someone else involved in this operation changed the game. I was in over my head and I wanted out of this mess, even if it cost me $500.
Rage turning to resignation and shock, I watched Arnaud take my ID he’d found while rummaging through drawers for cash and explain that he would give it back to me after I took him to an ATM and withdrew his 300,000 CFA. I submitted.
It was nearly the middle of the night but plenty of people were still out on the street when we got outside. Senegal is 90% majority Muslim, but Christmas is still widely celebrated as a holiday across the city. The dry, arid heat had cooled off for the evening. I was happy to breathe some fresh air but felt no less trapped in public space; there was nowhere to escape to, and Arnaud obviously knew where I was staying. Numb, on autopilot, I followed him to a nearby ATM, listened to his unhurried instructions, and unfeelingly handed him his cash. “Here you go.”
“No, no, I said you had to pay me twice.” He said it casually but with an unflinching stare, his legal and physical threats implied more through his eye contact, now that we were in public, than through his voice. He had never said anything about paying him twice. It was purely a power grab. Indeed, I felt powerless — I didn’t see an out. Yet, if I paid him again would I just open the door to endless demands for more money? I chose to hope not.
The ATM only allowed me to withdraw another $100 or so. Arnaud pocketed the cash, saying he had a work-around for the balance. He opened an app on his phone where I could conveniently deposit money in his bank account from my debit card. It was obviously a bad idea to enter my card info into his phone, but I couldn’t think clearly through my emotional exhaustion. I rationalized paying him by telling myself I would get the money back after filing fraud charges with my bank.
“Alright, it looks like the payment went through. If there’s any issue I’ll contact you tomorrow and we can take care of it.” He said this as though he hadn’t extorted me, as if defrauding me was a collaborative effort between the two of us.
“Okay.” Still in shock, I didn’t know what else to say.
Arnaud handed me my driver’s license and walked into the night. As I later saw in my checking account, he had made off with a total of $1,200.
Returning to my Airbnb, I didn’t understand what had happened to me. Had Arnaud always intended to con me or had he truly thought the escort-john arrangement was mutually understood? How professionalized was the industry of blackmailing and extorting gay tourists in Dakar under the threat of Article 319? Or was I just unlucky? And, as a foreigner, would I realistically have been arrested had Arnaud made good on his word to turn me in to the police?
I reported the facts of the incident to the U.S. embassy the day after it happened, but it wasn’t until weeks later, once I was back home in New York, that I started looking for answers. I called the embassy again.
Brigid, the foreign service officer I spoke to, explained that no other Americans had reported Article 319–related extortion to her or any of her colleagues at the embassy. Either I was unlucky or others weren’t coming forward. I asked if there was a sex tourism industry for gay men coming from the West that I was unknowingly participating in (sex tourism from white European women has been well documented in Senegal⁴). Brigid wasn’t aware of one. It didn’t surprise me that she also couldn’t make any educated guesses on whether I had been targeted or simply had a misunderstanding spin out of control. When I asked what would have happened to me had I been arrested, she reminded me that the U.S. government isn’t in a position to tell another country how to enforce its laws. The embassy would have made sure that I was being treated no differently from Senegalese citizens held in prison and would have facilitated communication between me and my family in the U.S. Whether this was the whole truth, or just P.R.-speak, I don’t know, but hearing it from Brigid was enough to shake my lingering regret about not calling Arnaud’s bluff.
On September 17, 1998, Tyrone Garner and Robert Eubanks, a couple living in Houston, Texas, spent the day with John Lawrence preparing to move some of his old furniture into their new apartment. When their workday ended the trio got a few drinks and hung out at Lawrence’s place. After a drunken argument about whether Eubanks, Garner, or both would crash at Lawrence’s that night, Eubanks stormed out. Perhaps as revenge, he drunkenly called the police from a nearby public telephone and reported that a black man — his boyfriend, Garner — was “going crazy with a gun” at Lawrence’s apartment. Supposedly, when two police officers entered the unlocked apartment without a warrant, they found Lawrence and Garner having sex.⁵ In Texas in 1998 it was illegal for two adult men to have consensual sex. The two were arrested.
Individual states in the U.S. began to overturn their anti–gay sex laws as early as 1961, but in the late ’90s fourteen states still resisted the tide. In Texas, the Homosexual Conduct Law labeled the crime of “deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex” a misdemeanor offense.
Lawrence v. Texas made its way through the courts, reaching the Supreme Court in 2003, where it changed the course of history for LGBTQ Americans. The court ruled 6–3 that states could not use laws against “homosexual conduct” and “crimes against nature” to prosecute LGBTQ adults for having consensual sex in the privacy of their own homes, ending the nation’s official criminalization of gay sex.
The ruling, shockingly recent as it was, came a handful of years before I began having sex in my late teens. Never having had to consider the legal consequences of my desire, as a U.S. citizen, the criminalization of homosexuality has always seemed like a distant, orientalized abstraction to me. Even as I arrived in Senegal knowing full well about the state’s history of arrests, I unconsciously assumed, in my white privilege and U.S. exceptionalism (not to mention seronegative privilege — see below), that I wouldn’t be directly implicated by Article 319 and its ripple effects.
Criminalization of homosexuality and gay sex continues in the U.S. today in less explicit forms. Policies such as anti–HIV exposure laws have largely been weaponized against LGBTQ BIPOC. Example: the case of Michael Johnson. Johnson, a gay black HIV-positive athlete was convicted in Missouri in 2015 under charges of not disclosing his positive status to men before having sex with them. Johnson was originally served 30 years but, in 2019, a Court of Appeals judge overturned the sentence, which was longer than the state average for second degree murder,⁶ determining it to be unconstitutional and “grossly disproportionate.”⁷ Johnson, who was released from prison last year, maintains that he was honest with his partners about his positive status before having condomless sex.
A false sense of immunity to gay criminalization is only one of the self-deceptions I brought with me to Dakar. There’s also my aspirational politics of anonymous-ish sex.
“Given the mode of capitalism under which we live, life is at its most rewarding, productive, and pleasant when large numbers of people understand, appreciate, and seek out interclass contact and communication conducted in a mode of good will.”⁸ These are the opening words of Samuel Delany’s essay “. . . Three, Two, One, Contact: Times Square Red.” In the essay, Delany describes how the 42nd Street Development Project’s gentrification (or “economic redevelopment”) of Times Square in the mid ’90s corroded cross-class public life in the neighborhood to the detriment of the city’s greater social health.
Interclass contact, or “contact” as Delany also frames it, can take many forms. He gives some examples: it could be a conversation you strike up with the person behind you in the checkout line, the pleasantries you exchange with a neighbor who has brought out a chair on the stoop, or “two men watching each other masturbating together in adjacent urinals of a public john — an encounter that, later, may or may not become a conversation.”⁹ Importantly, contact is also sex — “the intercourse — physical and conversational — that blooms in and as ‘casual sex’ in public rest rooms, sex movies, public parks, singles bars, and sex clubs,” among other public spaces, from which “nonsexual friendships and/or acquaintances lasting for decades or a life time may spring.”¹⁰ When conducted across class and class-adjacent social divides (possibly, but not necessarily, including race, culture, language, heritage, geography, and more), interactions such as these cumulatively contribute to a more amicable society where people help each other out. This could take the form of neighborly heroism (you call that neighbor from the stoop when you’re locked out of your building — a mild example), key opportunities (you’re looking to hire someone, and the guy from the urinal is an appealing candidate), or something in between. Delany is adamant that “life opportunities,” personal and professional, come from encounters of contact much more often than from situations of professional networking, which he also elaborates in his text.¹¹
While Delany focuses on the disappearance of interclass public life specifically from Times Square, his essay warns against the disappearance of such life from cities across the globe undergoing some version of Baron Haussmann or Robert Moses–inspired redevelopment. Following in the footsteps of Jane Jacobs, from whose seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities Delany elaborates much of his argument, his prescription to curb this disappearance focuses first on educating people to the problem and, second, on urbanization policies: intermixing places to live, for all social classes, with businesses large and small.¹²
Delany’s groundbreaking text, published in 1999, can’t help but reflect the era in which it was written. For all of his astute analysis of how to revive interclass contact and reap its social benefits (of which I have only scratched the surface here), reading the essay, I’m struck by the absence of the internet.
It’s conveniently self-serving of me to argue that “the apps” — Scruff, Grindr, etc — can advance Delany’s project of contact today, yet here I am. On each of the apps, nearby users’ profiles are organized and displayed according to their geographic proximity to you, rather than by more sinister indexes of social, sexual, or economic capital (i.e. most profile views, most IG followers, most “woofed” [the Scruff equivalent of “liked” — see first paragraph]; on Scruff you can see some of these trends on a global scale in a different part of the app). In a city like New York, even as certain neighborhoods are more or less economically, racially, linguistically, or culturally diverse, the app’s democratizing display of users by proximity opens the door to the possibility, at least, of connecting with nearby strangers from different walks of life. All it takes is a smartphone and an internet connection.
I admit that it’s an incomplete picture. First, the prerequisite of a smartphone, ubiquitous as they are, is no small barrier to participation. Second, the question of infection: fooling around with strangers — with or without prophylactics — increases one’s risk of contracting and transmitting STIs (not to mention, in our current moment, COVID-19), which can yuck anyone’s “contact” yum. Third, there is nothing about the infrastructure of the apps that impels a user to connect with people perceived to live outside of their own class or class-adjacent bubbles, and most users — or at least most white users, who generally live by a practice of self-segregation — perhaps do not. On the contrary, racism, body shaming, and other forms of white supremacist rhetoric are all too common on the apps. Yet, as bleak as this meat market may be, the possibility of “contact” — of pursuing sex to create connection, if not intimacy, with strangers one otherwise wouldn’t encounter, is still there. While I don’t always open Scruff with this mindset, it simmers in the background. (I’m no sex-activist saint. On any given day, I, too, woof at guys — often white, but not necessarily so — whom fucking would do nothing to foster the kinds of social benefits that Delany is advocating for with “contact.”)
I’ll venture that Arnaud doesn’t share my vision of the apps as a site for advancing a gentrified facsimile of Delany’s project. If he hadn’t extorted me and had simply left the apartment after the hook-up, bad chemistry and all, I could more plausibly entertain the possibility. (I would probably also still believe that he was a Bruxellois traveler — his French had a generally Western European inflection.) But given the sequence of events, I imagine that, far from forging intimacy to each of our mutual benefit, my casual, cavalier disposition to gay sex only exacerbated the degree of difference between us. Assuming that Arnaud lives in Dakar and falls somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum (I’ll include gay-for-pay on the spectrum), then he lives under the constant threat of persecution by the state, even if he has a fixer for his business activities. He shares neither my privilege to swoop into a foreign country for a week before returning to the relative comfort of a white, middle-class–ish American life, nor, perhaps, my low-stakes attitude to hooking up; Article 319 looms. While, for me, Scruff can be a sexual-political playground, for Arnaud, the app is simply a place to look for work.
But which kind of work? If Arnaud is a sex worker — rather than a con artist posing as one — while I blame him for extorting me, perhaps he blames me for trying to steal free sex from him. If he thought the arrangement was mutually understood, then of course he would be enraged that I, a white Westerner with comparably vast access to resources and capital, would have the audacity to try and snub him his due. (If he’s a con artist, then I at least hope all his marks match my general profile of privilege — his cons a small DIY initiative of resource redistribution from the West back to the continent.)
In addition to my false sense of immunity to gay criminalization and my aspirational politics of sex-as-contact, there’s a third self-deception in my misadventures with Arnaud that has taken me months to admit to: when Arnaud walked in the door to my Airbnb, I knew he was not the person in either of his photos.
With him now standing in front of me, the catfish out of the bag, I unconsciously allowed myself the same justification of cultural relativism I had used when chatting online: different context, different norms of identity protection. I let myself believe that Arnaud was simply being extra diligent about protecting his identity by lying to me when I had asked him if his photos were fake.
The truth is, I ultimately used my awareness of one danger — the legal consequence of gay sex in Senegal and the modes of identity protection it inspired — to willingly blind myself to the glaring red flags of another.
In hindsight, perhaps even my original self-congratulatory openness to different social norms on Scruff was less about cultural relativism than about me protecting and prioritizing my own agendas of sex, of finding contact with a stranger in this new place, and, more broadly, of adventure.
Even if the stranger I invited to my place was an alleged Bruxellois, rather than a Senegalese, part of the appeal was that he “knew the city well.” I wanted to fuck and find a connection with someone who was not a local — who was in fact from Europe — to evade seeing myself as a neocolonial sex tourist, but who still functioned as a local, who bore a connection to this foreign place. I told myself I was meeting up with another fellow traveler from the West who just happened to be black, whose race was neither here nor there for me. In truth, in the context of my travels in this West African city, I was of course objectifying him for his blackness.
I assume Arnaud read me like a book. He seems to have known exactly who, and what, he was talking to, and which script to use. It brings me back, yet again, to the question: was I a mark or a john? If I was a john, Arnaud theoretically could have thought that I was in on the role play — that I had read his profile, knew he was an escort, and was turned on by this story of him being from Brussels, of him not being from Dakar. I imagine he’s familiar with the psychological gymnastics of woke-wishing whites and foresaw that I didn’t want to go full-blown sex tourist, but that I still wanted to hook up with someone somehow specific to the city. If I was a mark, Arnaud simply saw me for who I am and pressed play. Perhaps, ultimately, it’s a false binary: I’m both a mark and a john.
I’m left empathizing with the person I imagine Arnaud to be more than blaming him. I wouldn’t say I excuse or endorse his extortion of me, however, my anger lies more with the system that victimizes us both — the criminalization of homosexuality writ large — and with myself for my many self-delusions.
When I invited Arnaud over to my Airbnb, I had my politics of contact — of connecting across class and class-adjacent divides — simmering in the background. Embedded in my invitation, however, was an unchecked politic of neocolonial desire and its twin effects of widening social and economic divides and of re-inscribing the global imbalance of power that privileges my comfort, my safety, my life above Arnaud’s; arguably the opposite of contact.
Writing now in 2021, I still believe, on some level, in the project of app-enabled-contact. I admire Delany’s thesis as he articulated it in 1999 and I see the potential of the internet to advance the cause. But clearly the fantasy of contact 2.0 as I have conceived of it runs as much the risk of calcifying or even expanding class and class-adjacent social divides — paradoxically mirroring the effects of the very gentrification that Delany denounces — as of creating connections across such divides to the greater social benefit of a city, a nation, the world.
The fact that my encounter with Arnaud took place in Senegal seems almost beside the point. I could trick myself into ignoring the ways that sex with another Scruff user might do more to reinforce social divides between us than to create connection of consequence just as easily on my block in Crown Heights, Brooklyn as in the Plateau neighborhood of Dakar.
Specifically, I could trick myself into ignoring unchecked politics of neocolonial, racist, or otherwise objectifying desire in my interactions on the app just as easily at home as away.
In the middle of January I got a call from the Fraud Investigation Unit at my bank. (The morning after my encounter with Arnaud I withdrew enough cash to last the rest of my trip in Senegal, cancelled my debit card as a precaution, filed a fraud report, and moved out of my Airbnb into a hotel.) I explained my story as I understood it at the time: I was extorted by a man who may or may not have been a sex worker who I met through a hook-up app in a country where homosexuality is illegal. To my surprise, the person I spoke with didn’t passive-aggressively shame me. Yet, as I listened to myself tell the story, it was clear that I was barking up the wrong tree. In theory I should have addressed my extortion grievances to the police in Dakar, not to my bank in the U.S.
A few weeks later I received a letter in the mail: Notice of Final Determination. “We have completed our research regarding your dispute and have confirmed that an error did occur. Therefore, a deposit was made to your account on the date of this letter for the disputed amount to correct the error.”
“An error did occur.” A true statement, although ultimately more applicable to my actions than to anything in the bank’s purview.
I opened my laptop to check my account balance. Indeed, there was a fresh deposit of $684 floating in the credits column — a welcome surprise.
I called back the fraud department both to express my thanks and to cover all my bases (would I be getting back the rest of it?). The agent who picked up, Michael, expressed his sympathy for my story. Evidently my tale had made its way through the office. Michael explained that unfortunately I wouldn’t be able to recoup the funds I had paid Arnaud directly with my debit card. I thanked him for trying.
Some quick math: $1,200 paid to Arnaud minus $684 reimbursed equals $522 net paid.
In the final count, I paid Arnaud his original price.
- “Fear for Life: Violence against Gay Men and Men Perceived as Gay in Senegal,” Human Rights Watch, November 30, 2010, www.hrw.org/report/2010/11/30/fear-life/violence-against-gay-men-and-men-perceived-gay-senegal.
- “4 anti-gay arrests in Senegal as 2019 election approaches,” Erasing 76 Crimes, September 24, 2018, 76crimes.com/2018/09/24/anti-gay-arrests-in-senegal-as-2019-election-approaches.
- “Senegal draws tourists with sun, sea and sex,” The World, April 29, 2010, https://www.pri.org/stories/2010-04-29/senegal-draws-tourists-sun-sea-and-sex.
- Dale Carpenter, Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas: How a Bedroom Arrest Decriminalized Gay Americans (New York: Norton, 2012), 61–62.
- Emily S. Rueb, “He Emerged From Prison a Potent Symbol of H.I.V. Criminalization,” New York Times, July 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/14/us/michael-johnson-hiv-prison.html.
- Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard, “After Michael Johnson’s Release, What Next for Missouri HIV Criminalization?” Filter, July 11, 2019, https://filtermag.org/michael-johnson-release-next-missouri-hiv-criminalization.
- Samuel R. Delaney, Time Square Red, Time Square Blue (New York: New York University Press, 1999), 121.
- Ibid., 123.
- Ibid., 123.
- Ibid., 136.
- Ibid., 178.