How to get an activist movement to keep women in prostitution
What use are sex worker groups that give out condoms and showers, but can't help women who want to exit prostitution? Ekis reports from Barcelona on prostitution and the campaign for legalisation
Anyone who visits Barcelona will realise that street life is like no other European city. Clowns and people dressed as Napoleon are a common sight, squats pop up in every block, theatre and music seems to grow out of the pavement. But this is about to end, if the authorities have their way. The city council is running a campaign called civismo, which targets graffiti, squatters, beggars, buskers and drunken behaviour in public places.
In the Raval area of Barcelona, a poor and bohemian part of town, people hate the civismo campaign. Many inhabitants live in buildings about to be demolished and eek out a living from recycling furniture, clothes and leftover food. Pakistani people own the restaurants and the call centres where you can make cheap calls back home. Large bits of card in the windows proclaim: Equador 10 cents a minute, Russia 15 cents, Romania 10 cents, Pakistan seven cents. Clocks in Raval are more likely to tell the time in these places than in Spain. Beautifully embellished wall murals cover the houses. Banners hang from the windows: this house is occupied. This is territory where the anarchist consciousness is still strong, like an inheritance from the civil war. Americans, Scots and Italians also live here, and they all say the same thing when asked what they are doing in Spain: they’ve come for the free way of life.
But there’s also another phenomenon that pervades life in the area: prostitution. It is here because it has been driven out of the more affluent neighbourhoods and because the inhabitants of Raval don’t have enough power or influence to be able to do anything about it. Wealthier men can come here, get it done with and leave without risking discovery. The presence of prostitution is evident on every street, always demarcated by ethnicity. The African street, the South American street, the Romanian street. Different mafias control the various neighbourhoods and hire out bits of the streets to pimps who stand guard and control the girls. Many of girls have been brought here by the mafia under the pretense of marriage, which is a way of getting under-age girls over the border without their parents’ permission. On arrival, their passports are confiscated and they’re forced to work on the streets. Regardless of where you’re from, the price is the same: €30 plus the bed. This can be bargained down to €20. The competition is tough and those who try for €40 will be rejected without mercy.
The civismo campaign also targets street prostitution. Barcelona’s ex-mayor Joan Clos made it clear that “prostitution must be eradicated from the streets”. What is less clear is where he imagines it will go, or if he expects it to disappear altogether.
So you guys have all been prostitutes? I ask. ‘No, No,’ they laugh as though this question were completely bizarre
Prostitution is neither legal nor illegal in Spain: income made from prostitution is not taxable, it is not considered a profession, but neither is it seen as a crime. As part of the civismo campaign, the police have been issuing fines to eradicate street prostitution using a paragraph of the law known as ‘intensive use of public way’ – the same law that’s used when issuing tickets to illegally parked vehicles. And those who are hit hardest are the women. Over the past two months, 599 prostitutes and 93 johns have been fined.
A Sunday in April, around 300 people have gathered in the middle of Raval for a day of protest against civismo. Some are handing out free food in protest against homelessness, others are speaking about the right to squat empty buildings while house prices rocket and another group of people hand out condoms. Many are wearing red t-shirts emblazoned with: “jo també soc puta”– I am a whore too — and on the back “stop the stigma”. The t-shirts are handed out by an organisation called Àmbit Dona. I approach their table. A young man, who apparently thinks wearing the shirt is a funny ploy, explains sweepingly to anybody willing to listen “everyone should be allowed to do any job they want”. A woman from Ghana standing beside him says we should all thank prostitutes – if they weren’t around, there’d be more rape. They hand me a flyer with the text: “No-one from the council has set up a dialogue with the prostitutes. This is about a collective that is historically excluded from active citizenship and has only ever had duties but no rights.”
So you guys have all been prostitutes? I ask. “No, No,” they laugh as though this question were completely bizarre. They tell me that they’re just showing their support and that even though they themselves are not prostitutes, others have the right to be.
The council clamping down on all street activity in one swoop has resulted in a strange situation whereby defenders of cultural life start identifying with prostitution and demand its right to exist. A movement has sprung up, that associates prostitution with freedom and calls it “an alternative way of life”. A very contemporary phenomenon indeed. It happens in many countries that have lived through dictatorships and their hard-line moral repression (everything sexual is subsequently viewed as freedom), but it is also prevalent throughout the world in activist movements who lack the ideological strength to formulate an overall analysis.
Àmbit Dona run a centre some blocks away. There, prostitutes can get HIV tests, free condoms, have a shower, cook and wash clothes. The following day I make my way there after arranging an appointment with the ‘sex worker activist’ Marcela de la Torres. The venue is bright, light and comfortable. It’s a nice breathing-space. I notice that the smell of garbage, which is overwhelming all over Raval and pushes its way into cafes, is not present here. While I wait for Marcela, I have a chat with a woman who’s started work experience at the centre today. She has completed an essay on prostitution in college and is completely over the moon about getting the opportunity to volunteer here. She also talks about the ‘right’ to be a prostitute. Not that it’d be anybody’s dream job, or that she would ever dream of doing it herself, but “the government shouldn’t restrict people’s choices”.
All words that have anything to do with prostitution have been replaced: whore, john and fuck have become sex worker, customer and service. In the Netherlands, pimps are nowadays known as ‘entertainment business owners’
Marcela enters the room. She’s full of energy as she sits down and immediately begins questioning me about the situation in Sweden. What does the law actually say? What effects has it had? She jots things down in a notebook and says: “It’s probably just gone underground. Suppression has never created anything positive.” The volunteer nods in agreement and Marcela continues:
“First of all we have to fight trafficking, not harass the street prostitutes. What they’re doing is not illegal! What’s illegal is trafficking – a fine law on paper but how is it meant to be implemented? Many women don’t have papers and if they report the crime, they’d be deported straight away. There’s no witness protection, nowhere they can stay during the trial and nowhere for them to be safe from the mafia.”
And this stuff about civismo, who’s that meant for?
“Basically, that’s coming from neighbours who want a clean city. They don’t understand that a woman should be allowed to do this if she wants to. At the end of the day it’s a moral question: it’s tolerated and sanctioned on an up-market level but not on the streets. We at Àmbit Dona don’t judge people. We don’t discuss why, how and where prostitution begins, we focus on how we can help the people who are in it.”
This help, she explains, is about minimising the risks of contracting STDs, getting translators so that foreign women can explain their needs and so on. Àmbit Dona was founded in 1995, contacting street prostitutes and offering help. Volunteers walked the neighbourhood handing out condoms and information. Nowadays, the centre is well known and people find their own way here. The organisation receives grants and contributions from the state, private sponsors, banks and charities.
If I’ve understood this correctly, prostitutes themselves did not set up the organisation? She looks at me with a correcting glance: “It wasn’t sex workers, no, if that’s what you mean.”
At Àmbit Dona, just like in other similar organisations involved in the legalisation campaign, this new language reigns. All words that have anything to do with prostitution have been replaced: whore, john and fuck have become sex worker, customer and service. In the Netherlands, pimps are nowadays known as “entertainment business owners”.
Following this logic, couldn’t we start calling slavery ‘work with non-monetary remuneration’? I ask.
“If you think that’s what it is, yes, you could. Now I just don’t happen to see it that way. In this case it’s about calling things by their right name. Talking about ‘prostitutes’ and ‘whores’ boxes people into one group, when what we’re really talking about is a bunch of people with all kinds of diversities. It’s a collective of people, a collective of differences. We try to see the individual person. The word prostitute is a derogatory word. It’s just as our founder Merce says, if it were men who sold themselves, they would be called gigolos and be surrounded by praise. Prostitute is a word that alienates and oppresses.”
Sometimes people come to us asking for help to quit, but we have no resources to help. The only thing we can do is make it easier for them while they’re doing the work
Isn’t it rather existence as a prostitute and the things you’re subjected to that alienate and oppress?
“No. It’s the word. Changing language also changes the way we see things. When we call it sex work, then it becomes equal to other kinds of work. If someone wants to put a price on their sex instead of their arms or whatever else, then that’s their problem. And those who do it want it to be seen as a real job. That’s what we’re campaigning for at the moment, that sex work gets work status.”
When you say they want it to be considered a real job, who do you speak for? Are you speaking for everyone?
“The majority want that, yes. Whores are not stupid, even if lots of people would like to believe that – she pauses to look at me – they know what they’re doing, what’s invested in it.”
I’m not so sure. I’ve prostituted myself at times and I didn’t think it was any old job.
Marcela immediately puts aside the notebook she’s been writing in all along. Both she and the volunteer look at me over an intense silence. The roles had already been dealt: I was the unwitting journalist while they were the spokespeople for ‘the other side’ – a large, oppressed group that had handed over their right to speech to this organisation. Now they don’t know what to think. Apparently they don’t regard prostitution as any other work no matter what they say. If I’d visited the headquarters of the maintenance union and informed them I’d worked as a cleaner for extra cash while studying, I don’t think they would have reacted in the same way. Marcela hastily adds that she’s very glad I’m not in it anymore and that neither of them had claimed that prostitution was a dance on roses, quite the contrary. “If you see the girls who come here and who’ve been working with this for a long time, the pros as we say, they’re completely run down and torn apart, and they earn next to nothing, it’s shameful. They have no defence. It’s far from ideal, that’s true.”
Do you help girls get out of prostitution?
“Unfortunately we haven’t got enough resources. Sometimes people come to us asking for help to quit, but we have no possibility to help. The only thing we can do is make it easier for them while they’re doing the work. And the biggest problem they have is the police, not the punters. There are some girls who have customers for life; good, decent guys that they’ve got a good relationship with. There are very few who beat them up or force them to have anal sex.”
How do you know? Not all people are so proud of being abused that they’d go around telling everyone about it.
“No, but I don’t think that fining the customers like you have done [in Sweden] helps either. What happens would happen anyway. We start with the individual person. Each girl has a specific situation and that’s where we’ve got to begin. We have to ask what she needs right now. In the end, everyone has the job the have and continues with this for whatever reason and we simply do not have the right to judge.
To ‘see the individual’ as Marcela says, means ‘don’t see the whole picture’. That’s to say: don’t look at the sex industry and its turnovers, what kind of needs and tendencies that are being marketed there, who is being sold, who buys and who benefits
The founder of Àmbit Dona, Merce Merono, enters and we’re introduced to one another. “She’s also been sex,” Marcela says to Merce, referring to me. Apparently ‘sex’ is the new abbreviation of sex worker. Merce tells me about the beginning, when they didn’t have the premises, no computers, nothing, they just walked the streets with leaflets. Merce thinks it’s very strange that I’m against introducing prostitution on the labour market and repeats the argument that “everyone has the right to do what they want”. It’s beginning to sound like a mantra in these circles.
“Here,” Merce says, “it’s mostly the conservatives who want to ban it – the abolitionists. They want to control what people do, how they have sex. It’s absurd. Sex is what it is. You never know what you’ll get. You can go clubbing and pick up a guy but how do you know if he’s good in bed?”
I don’t disagree with going out on the pull, I just think it’s a shame it has to be done for money, I say.
“Why? Is that wrong?” she replies.
I think so, yes.
“Are you religious?”
“Because you’re talking about good and bad. For me, theses are religious terms. I don’t think we should talk about things in terms of good and bad.”
Value judgements, just like oppressive words it seems, are something the sex worker movement wants to do away with. But if we look closer at the words and expressions the movement itself uses, what do these actually mean?
Firstly, there’s a lot of talk about the individual. (It is implicitly understood that the individual is the prostitute and not the john or pimp.) To ‘see the individual’ as Marcela says, means ‘don’t see the whole picture’. That’s to say: don’t look at the sex industry and its turnovers, what kind of needs and tendencies that are being marketed there, who is being sold, who buys and who benefits. Every time you try to get an overall view, the answer is, ‘we’re talking about the individual here’. If you then try to talk about the individual, you quickly realise that this doesn’t work either because the forbidden overall view stretches into the individual’s history as well. They don’t ask why someone ends up in prostitution or what her alternatives were. If they did, they’d figure this so-called ‘free choice’ was ‘made’ in teenage years and that she often found herself in circumstances that were not so free after all. No, talking about the individual is a red herring, and the aim is to obscure connections between things. What it means is this: there are no structures, the world is too complex to be understood, everyone is different and it’s impossible to draw any conclusions. (The fact the pimps and the mafia have to understand the structure and logic of supply and demand is another matter that is never mentioned.)
In reality, Natasja supports both her and Goran, and not only them: she also prostitutes herself to raise money for a lawyer for his brother who is in prison
Secondly, the movement uses radical rhetoric, talking of rights and discrimination, freedom and unions. This probably leads many activists (who follow the logic of word association) to believe that this is their struggle. However, if we lift this veil of words, it becomes apparent that this is a very strange understanding of rights: women only have the right to be prostitutes, but no right to stay out of prostitution! Àmbit Dona and similar organisations all over the world lobby for prostitution to be entered onto the labour market, but haven’t got the time or money to help anyone leave the sex trade. What kind of freedom of choice is this? When they speak of discrimination, they don’t mean discrimination against women, or low wages for women being a reason why many women are forced into prostitution, but discrimination against prostitution. This presupposes an ideology that that believes prostitution is a career and is discriminated against as a career. It’s a line of argument claiming to speak on behalf of the oppressed by equating them with the oppression and is on a par with helping beggars by defending begging, describing it as an ‘alternative life style’, forgetting that there often is no other choice. They claim to be advancing the prostitutes’ interests, but this only happens if they want to remain in prostitution. If you leave prostitution and face discrimination on the job market for being an ex-whore – then these organisations don’t give a shit about you.
Parts of the radical youth movement in Spain have been won over by this rhetoric and are now giving their, albeit passive, support for what is in practice married men’s right to fuck where and how they want for 15 quid. The bitter irony is that in the year 2008, an idea can be seen as radical even though it only sets out to change how people see things, not how things actually are. While they are particularly picky about not using the word prostitute, I haven’t noticed them rushing into hotel rooms and brothels shouting at johns: “Don’t call us whores!” On this front, all remains as it was. Johns still say they pick up ‘whores’, get excited about how dirty and bad they think these women are and what Àmbit Dona refers to as ‘service’ remains ‘polvo’ in everyday speech. A fuck is ‘polvo’, meaning powder or dust.
Natasja is Russian, 32 and rents a room in the same house as me. She uses both the words bad and whore so frequently that sometimes I wonder if they’re the only ones in her vocabulary. She says it in Russian, ‘bled’, and before I knew what it meant I thought it was something like the English ‘man’, until I asked. Then both her and her boyfriend Goran laughed and said it meant ‘whore’ in Russian.
“She’s always got that word in her mouth,” said Goran. “Bled this, bled that.”
Natasja works on the motorway in the outskirts of Barcelona. She and some 20 more women work for Miguel. Miguel is the pimp with the baton. He goes around making sure nothing shady happens, nothing shady except what’s expected: cars pull over; the drivers get a blow job, pay €30 and drive off. Of the €30, Miguel takes 10. Natasja says this is better than at other places and Miguel has contacts with the police so they are left alone. If you stay in the car for too long, Miguel will beat on the window with the baton. He might think you’re doing it twice and keeping the money to yourself.
Of the 300,000 prostitutes in Spain, 90% are foreign women. Many of them lack the proper papers and are in even worse circumstances than Natasja and Grace. So what is referred to as the extreme is more accurately the norm
“It went to hell,” Natasja says nearly every day when she gets home. At the beginning she used to say she earned about €200 a day, but the reality is more like 60. She has a three year-old son in Siberia who lives with his dad – a picture of clean-living who won’t let Natasja see her son until she’s straightened up her life. So now she hangs out with Goran, who says he’s a thief and lives off robbing people and banks, which I doubt. He’s always either at home or in front of the computer in the internet café; when would he be stealing? In reality, Natasja supports both of them, and not only them: she also prostitutes herself to raise money for a lawyer for Goran’s brother who is in prison. Every day at 5AM she sets off to the motorway and returns around midnight or 1AM with the last train. Her plan is to get together enough money to buy a house that she can live in with Goran, stop being a prostitute and send for her son to come live with her. The problem is that she drinks so much. If you count the empty bottles in her room you can see the saving isn’t really going anywhere.
Now she’s started doing business with another Russian, bringing girls over from Eastern Europe. He arranges for their passage to Spain and she’s meant to train them and get them into employment. She’s hoping to earn enough from this so that she herself doesn’t have to keep going to the motorway. I don’t know if these girls know where they’re on their way to. Sometimes they are stopped at the borders. When this happens, Natasja is furious: she and the Russian had already spent so much money on them.
Grace from Ecuador also lives in the same house. She has been in Barcelona for five years. She meant it to be a short stay: come, work and either return home with a bunch of money or send for her kids. None of this has happened. The thing was, to start her new life in Spain she had to borrow money and now she’s paying off various loans and contracts. Meanwhile, her children are growing older without her in Ecuador. Last month, Grace had a loose plan to go to Germany but that didn’t happen and now she is looking for work as a cleaner. This is proving to be difficult. She’s competing with hundreds of thousands of others, many of them locals, who are all after the same jobs. Before you get a complete work permit in Spain, you’re only allowed to work in specific sectors. You can be a cleaner or look after children or the elderly, but any more qualified jobs are off limits. This means that all the recently arrived people compete for the same jobs which, as a consequence, are badly paid.
One day Grace went with Natasja to the motorway. They’d been applying Grace’s make-up for over an hour and I saw them giggling and excited when I met them in the staircase walking down. A month or so has passed since and Grace has stopped actively looking for work. She sees the motorway as a temporary solution. When I talk to Grace about what the activists at Àmbit Dona say, she’s interested and says she’ll go there to get condoms. But she doesn’t want to discuss the question of free choice. “What’s there to say?” she asks. “Sometimes there are situations when you just have to spread your legs, that’s just the way it is. It’s not about liking or disliking it. If your children are dying of hunger what are you supposed to do?”
“Don’t try to be hero,” says her friend Rosa who has come over for a chat and some food. “You just spend the money on clothes. When was the last time you sent money home? If you hadn’t bought all those clothes, you’d have been able to bring your kids over already.”
“I know,” says Grace sadly. “I can’t even wear them now, they’re out of fashion.”
When I bring up these cases with the sex worker activists, they say sure, that’s slavery when you are forced to do it but it doesn’t mean there aren’t women who choose to (here we have the mantra again: she’s chosen it herself). But of the 300,000 prostitutes in Spain, 90% are foreign women. Many of them lack the proper papers and are in even worse circumstances than Natasja and Grace. So what is referred to as the extreme is more accurately the norm.
You can agree or disagree with what he says but I’m not there to make him feel bad about himself. That’s the thing. For once in their shitty lives they feel important. Someone’s listening to what they’re saying and agreeing with them. That’s what men want. That you shut up and agree with them, ha ha.
Maria is one of the often mentioned native minorities. She is 27 and a self-employed escort with a website on which you can book a date directly. The thought scares me. She doesn’t even have the chance to talk to the man and he’s already signed up and paid. What if you realise, when you see him, that you rather die than touch him, and you’ve already spent his money?
Maria’s voice on the phone is fragile and I expect her appearance to be the same but it’s not, at least not at first sight. She appears instead to be hard as rock. She’s sitting in a two-seater black Porsche Boxster and dons designer items head to toe: Dior sunglasses, Armani jeans, the whole package. We enter a hotel where the waiters are cheesy, the drinks cost seven times as much as in ordinary Spanish bars and they don’t even taste of anything.
Maria, who was born and bred in Barcelona, says she was studying to become an engineer when a friend of hers who travelled a lot convinced her to come along on one of her trips abroad. This friend went to London and Monaco with various ‘lovers’ and had loads of money. It started out with Maria seeing these ‘lovers’ on weekends, while she was studying and working extra hours in a hospital. In the end it became too tiring. Customers would call and want to see her on weekdays, then she’d be dead tired the following day.
“I made a decision then. When the bank granted me a mortgage, I’d quit my job. You had to have a job to get a mortgage. In the end I finally got one. That’s when I quit the course too and became a full-time escort.”
Couldn’t you have finished your studies and paid off the mortgage with your salary? Engineering is still quite well-paid.
“Not in Spain! €1,500 euros a month. That’s enough to survive on, but not to live. Now I’ve got a car and a flat. That’s something I could only have dreamed about before. I wouldn’t even have had the time to get a driving licence. What could I expect to happen? Meet a guy, put up with him for the rest of my life because he helps me financially, which is in the end the same thing as selling yourself! And he might not even have any money. Imagine that–meeting a guy who’s poorer than you. This Arab has offered me €1 million to marry him. First he said half a million but now it’s one. He promises me love, family life and all that, as well as the money.”
Maria looks cunningly, as if she’s been playing with the idea. Not so much whether to accept the proposal or not, but rather the idea in itself: someone has offered €1 million for her.
But then you’d be stuck with him. You might not even be allowed to go out.
Money surrounds her on all sides: downwards it creates a barrier between her and women like Natasja, who she blames for all the filth and sleaze associated with prostitution; money forms an aura around her that gives the illusion of sophistication and class and makes people suck up to her; and ahead of her it is like a temptation, an incentive that makes her forget the past and the present
“Nah… he travels a lot and when he’s away I can do what I like. I have the money for that. I told him ‘you’re insane, why don’t you find a normal girl’ but he says he only wants me, that there’s no-one like me. Sometimes it happens that they fall in love with you.”
What about you? Do you ever fall in love with them?
“No. Never. That wouldn’t work. It’s as though… as though I’ve got a wall, a certain limit. I can become friends, care about them, I mean you spend a lot of time with some, it’s a human relationship: you get to know someone and then you worry about how they’re doing… but love, never.”
So what are they like, as people, those you meet?
“They’re different.” She thinks for a while. “First, there’s the bachelor. He doesn’t want a girlfriend, doesn’t want commitment and thinks it’s easier to see me. It’s cheaper in the long run if he’s only after one thing anyway. Flirting, buying dinner and paying for movies always adds up to €200 a night anyway. Then there’s the married man. His marriage is dead, but he doesn’t want to risk his family life for sex. And then there’s the obsessed cocaine addict who parties all night, wants to meet girls, can’t get enough of anything. These are the three types.”
What do you think about these different types?
“I can’t say. They’re different. Some of them you get to know better than others. You can spend a week with someone, they pay for you to go to the loo, pay when you’re sleeping. There’s also lots of talking. They all say they communicate better with me than in their normal relationships.”
Why do you reckon that is? Do you think there’s something in the transaction that makes communication easier?
“I let him be the way he is. I mean, I’m not there to judge him, that’s important.”
And inside you?
“You can agree or disagree with what he says but that’s not my… I’m not there to make him feel bad about himself. That’s the thing. For once in their shitty lives they feel important. Someone’s listening to what they’re saying and agreeing with them. That’s what men want. That you shut up and agree with them, ha ha.”
Do you think your four years in this business have affected you in any way?
“Well, the first year I didn’t really work that much. It wasn’t like… and the second year I mostly worked weekends. I’d wake up at 7am and go to work like everyone else. It’s only really been for the past two years that I’ve been doing it full-time… what with the mortgage and giving up work two years ago that’s when…”
OK, let’s say the last two years then. Have they affected you?
She shrugs her shoulders. “Nah. I’m calm about it now. The last year I’ve cut down the number of hours now I’ve paid off the mortgage and soon I’ll quit. I’d just like to save up enough to buy a flat, maybe in Paris, London or here in Barcelona. I’ve got this friend and she lives off it. We went to Paris together once and I saw this leather dress in a shop. I was just about to say I’d take it but then I saw the price tag. Do you know how much it was? €1600. I nearly fainted. My friend said that’s nothing. She’d bought dresses for €2500.”
The minute you’re both active, if he stretches out a hand and touches you, then you’re sensuality is implied. Then you might like it or dislike it, he might have cold hands, it might hurt, or whatever. A doctor helps a patient, not the other way around. A chef cooks the food and the guest eats
Maria laughs and slaps her thigh.
Did you buy it?
“Of course I did. I’d have worn it tonight but I’ve already come in here with it a couple of times.”
I ask her a third time if she’s been affected by prostitution, but she avoids answering. It’s hard to discuss anything apart from money with Maria. Money surrounds her on all sides: downwards it creates a barrier between her and women like Natasja, who she blames for all the filth and sleaze associated with prostitution; money forms an aura around her that gives the illusion of sophistication and class and makes people suck up to her; and ahead of her it is like a temptation, an incentive that makes her forget the past and the present. There’s nothing in what Maria talks about – people, happiness, life – that’s not valued in money.
So instead I ask, what do you think of this business?
“It’s finished. It’s just a matter of time. The level of quality is decreasing all the time. When I started out, not just anybody could get on the internet. There was a difference between those on the net and those who put adverts in the papers. Now any guy can use a computer and find me. And then they call up and ask how much is 20 minutes. 20 minutes – then we’re talking about a whore. That’s not at all the same as an escort. We have dinner, talk, it’s not just sex. You need a certain level of culture, both in the men and then women. But nowadays you get girls advertising at lower prices, South Americans and Romanians, and that brings the level down. You get weirder requests.”
“Unhygienic stuff. I say no, but not everyone declines. I don’t like it when there’s men from a lower… they treat you as though you were a whore to fuck. I mean that’s not how it is.”
How is it then?
If you say it’s not about fucking…
“Can you keep your voice down? People can hear us. What I mean is that here in Spain, in Italy, people aren’t educated. In France, you’d never be asked to give a blow job without a condom. And if there’s one thing I’m really angry about it’s the pimping that goes on over here. Nobody’s doing anything about it! If you work for an agency, they take 50%. And the mafias own those websites as well. It’s bloody robbery. They’re reaping benefits from other people’s work. And what do you get in return? A bit of advertising, some towels and they answer the phone for you.”
It’s as though the vegetarian chef were forced to sit down and eat the meat with the guest and even say that he enjoyed it! By that time he may already have had to eat five meat dishes in one day, but still has to keep going: ‘Ooh! This is the best meat I’ve ever eaten!’ And if he’s not believable enough, the customer won’t return
I’ve been speaking to some organisations who work for prostitutes. They campaign for a total legalisation and introduction on the labour market. What do you think about that?
“It’s trendy now, for sure.”
She looks out into the distance and sighs.
“How could you legalise it when…No, it’s a mistake. No-one is supposed to know what’s going on. But if you paid taxes, then it’d be out in the open. And would that make the state a pimp? Legalisation would be like a cosmetic change, so that the whole sector would seem…I mean you work to survive, nothing more. That’s the reality! That’s my reality anyway. I mean, if it weren’t for the money, who’d be doing it?”
Would you rather work as an engineer if the salary wasn’t an issue?
“Of course I would! But the irony of it all is that I didn’t even choose that because I like it. That was for the money too. I thought it was a well-paid job but then it turned out it wasn’t. At the moment I’ve got a body I can make money off but I won’t be able to do that for the rest of my life.”
These organisations refer to prostitution as sex work. The idea is that by changing the word, you make people realise that it’s like any other job.
She gives me a long, dark look.
“Sex work…Well, that would be if you did something like give a guy massage or masturbate him, something in which you’re not really involved, you’re not at risk, no-one smashes up your face. That kind of stuff you can legalise, right? He doesn’t touch you, you always do the same thing, you can think about something else while you’re doing it and put on a porno movie for him to watch or something. You’re active and he’s passive. You don’t have to be sensual.
“But the minute you’re both active, if he stretches out a hand and touches you, then you’re sensuality is implied. Then you might like it or dislike it, he might have cold hands, it might hurt, or whatever. A doctor helps a patient, not the other way around. A chef cooks the food and the guest eats. The chef might be vegetarian but he’d cook meat anyway because he’s not the one eating. It’s his job to cook while the guest is there in his free-time. Prostitution means having to do everything you don’t like doing.”
Maria is getting increasingly angry now but she also seems excited by the comparison. She didn’t want to talk about the negative stuff to do with prostitution, before but now that she’s drawn a parallel with meat her indignation is uninhibited.
“My god!” she continues. “It’s as though the vegetarian chef were forced to sit down and eat the meat with the guest and even say that he enjoyed it! By that time he may already have had to eat five meat dishes in one day, but still has to keep going: ‘Ooh! This is the best meat I’ve ever eaten!’ And if he’s not believable enough, the customer won’t return.”
Isn’t that what he’s paying for, more than the meat itself–the fact that you’re pretending?
“That’s part of it, yes. You can’t exactly say, I’m disgusted and bored but OK I’ll do it anyway.”
We go outside and sit in the Porsche. Maria begins to tell anecdotes: “The other day I was in a shoe shop. There was this girl there, you could tell right away she was on the job. She had everything: Dior, Gucci; and when she opened her purse to pay there were four €50 bills in it!”
She reverses the car out of the parking space and I ask if she could imagine a world without prostitution?
“Impossible. Can you imagine a world where no-one needed money?”
She smiles sarcastically. I recall hearing something similar in John Lennon’s lyrics but can’t remember if there was irony involved then.
Some time after this article was written, I returned to Spain to look for Natasja, to tell her about my pregnancy. She was nowhere to be found. I searched everywhere. In the end I met a friend of hers at the local pub. She told me Natasja died a month ago. Her liver couldn’t handle the alcohol. Lacking papers, she was thrown into an anonymous grave in one of Barcelona’s graveyards. I still haven’t been able to find out which. Goran has left the place. I doubt that anyone has taken the time to inform her son in Siberia.
This feature originally appeared in the Swedish journal Pockettidningen R. Translation by Kristina Mäki.