This follows - Prostitutes and Me (Part 1 of 2)
The experience with Natasha had been so ideal, everything just right, we were the same age even, like kindred spirits. I stayed in Amsterdam the next day, again walking round the red-light, looking at the ladies, this time in a new way, thinking that prostitutes may be the thing I’d been missing out on all my life. I passed by Natasha’s booth, but she wasn’t there, perhaps best.
Anyway, after Amsterdam it was off to Belgium’s Antwerp, en route to Paris. Despite Belgium’s boring rap, Antwerp is actually a pretty sleazy city. And, as it happens, it too had a red light area. Not as famous or large as Amsterdam’s De Wallen, but then where is, with that world-renowned ‘adult Disneyland’ as many have referred to it, going since at least the early 14th century, stretching over 1.6 acres. Prostitution itself was legalized there in 1988, brothels continued half-legal until 2000, then they too were fully legalised.
To Amsterdam’s 1000-plus, Antwerp has around 200 working girls at any one time, with prostitution similarly legal as in the Netherlands. Yet, other than these, something else was apparently other. It felt different this time walking round there, inspecting the girls, knowing what I may do. A little sordid, even, being out sober looking for a butterfly girl. Despite all the Amsterdam ‘courtesan’-ardour, it didn’t seem quite right.
Went out that night to a club, and was interested to see on the way out guys presumably having been unlucky in club love, making a beeline right for the brasses. This isn’t an option in London, with its scuzzy sauna sex scene, and I felt glad at the removal of what would surely be a source of confusion, do you spend those few early morning euros on another drink, try your luck on the floor one more time… Or put it towards the 50 Euro hooker fee. I refrained, almost made it out of Antwerp without having indulged my now out prosto-phile. But not quite, with a couple of hours to kill on Sunday before the bus to Paris, was strolling with intent perhaps latent, round the red light area. And there, met eyes with Sofia, as she was. I knew the score this time, through the door, into the kamer-zone, upstairs to a room like a sexual dentist’s surgery, I bounded ahead of Sofia anticipating magic to come.
True she seemed a little different upstairs, hadn’t noticed all those tattoos. We chatted for a little, Sofia was 22, from Bulgaria. Said she’d gone to Germany to work as a hairdresser, but a friend had told her how much money she could make in prostitution. Friend had told her the real money was in Antwerp, with Amsterdam a highly competitive marketplace. So, she’d come a year ago to try it. When asking if her parents knew what she was doing, Sofia responded, ornery immediately, “You think they want to know their daughter fucks strangers for money??” She told me she didn’t have a boyfriend, spent most of her free time walking her two dogs, whose names she had tattooed on her wrists.
There was something rather sad about Sofia, about the whole experience. Unlike Natasha, a confident, convivial individual, Sofia was rather melancholic, actually she seemed a bit out of it. Also, she had no eye for the clock, we must have been about 45 minutes, much talking, before I really did have a bus to catch.
The Sofia experience had been ok, but certainly taken the gloss off the idea that it was all a Natasha fairytale, and in doing so rather knocked on the head any transformation I may have had into Viz’s prossy-loving protagonist Thermos O’Flask. 2 years passed, with no further forays on my part into the world of using sex workers. Actually it didn’t seem right back in England in any case, rather an admission of inadequacy than a Secret Diary of a Call Girl adventure. Then, in 2011 it was back to Ukraine, driving this time across Europe with a 3-day stop in Amsterdam decided on.
First, arriving in afternoon Amsterdam and back mid-afternoon, I went back to where Natasha had been. Or at least I think so, De Wallen being a labyrinth of passages, narrow streets and, in 2011 with extensive rebuilding underway, more than a little feel of a large construction site decked out to satisfy the workies. Natasha was nowhere to be found in any case. Did
you hear about the man who went looking for a blonde Russian prostitute named Natasha in Amsterdam? Actually, estimates are that around 70% of the working girls in Amsterdam hail from Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria. Anyway, moving on from Natasha, having to put what had become of her as a question which would never be answered, my attentions turned to the Amsterdam evening beckoning.
With me, my friend Chris, an old hand with the pros. He’d said, speaking like a true procurer, the first night would be to survey the scene. Me, full of vim, went right into the arms of the first Russian who batted a rather glazed eye at me. Yulia. Yulia was an attractive brunette in fishnets, that and her accent sealed the deal. I was even able to answer in Russian this time, and establish the price was still 50 Euros. Going up to the 1st floor chamber saw me ready to roll the clock back to Amsterdam 2009. The start was inauspicious. The room was cold, Yulia colder. She took 60 Euros, said she’d come back with change, then repaired behind a curtain to an adjoining room where I heard voices. She reappeared after about 5 minutes, when I asked about the 10 Euros she just laughed and instructed me to lie down. As she sat on top of me, Yulia proceeded to run through the list of upgrade options I could have, right up to 200 Euros and plus.
Already getting a bad feeling about things, I told Yulia the 50 Euros, or 60, service would be fine. She rolled her eyes and puffed her cheeks before dismounting in distemper, making herself recumbent, and telling me I had 5 minutes. The time in her backroom with the unseen figure seemed to have been my time. The next 5 minutes were even worse. Looking down on Yulia’s eyes was like regarding 2 dark orbs seemingly unable to focus properly, certainly unable to show any humanity. Yulia was wasted. I was on top of a junkie. My own exit came in under 5 minutes, but it was back to a different Amsterdam. One where suddenly the glamour had been stripped right out. Chris was waiting for me, and as I relayed the nightmarish encounter to him, he chuckled ‘we all get a bad ‘un sometimes’.
Yet, it was more than that. Suddenly it was like the graveyard scene in Beetlejuice, where the deceased Maitlands see things as they really are. The girls in the windows no longer looked sexy, alluring. They were either smoking, taut, ready to pounce either on a potential client or fend off the frequent teasing or abuses of the marauding groups of males which seemed more prevalent than previous. Actually, rather than paying for their services, the majority of men seem to be there to bait the girls in some way, take a photo of them, have their photo taken with them, something understood as forbidden and which sees the affronted ladies erupt into paroxysms of verbal and more.
As for those who do purchase sex, I saw one working girl in her early 20s helping a man in so old he looked as if any moment could be his last. Other girls check their phones compulsively, as if hoping for reprieve from somewhere. Tattoos in some cases extend down arms, backs, legs. Eyes look in many cases, simply, dead.
Chris told me to sleep on it, but as we headed back the next day, I felt the same. Not only would I not use a prostitute again, I’d started to feel, not that it was any of my business to, sorry for these girls. These girls drawn by the lure of the mega-Euros a month supposedly Amsterdam hookers make. I took my seat in a pub over the canal, as Chris went into his chosen one, and looked over the array of kamers, most still open by day. It was clear, after some time of observing, that a lot of these girls were struggling for clients. At 50 Euros a pop, you’d need to do 100 clients a month to make what would be a good salary, 5000 Euros a month. Many of the girls go flat out until they drop, then take a week or so off. Let’s work on the basis of 23 working days a month. At just over 4 clients a working day, 5000 does sound very possible.
But, that’s not taking into account overheads. The girls work around 10 hour ‘shifts’, paying for that in the region of 100 Euros to rent their ‘business premises’ for each shift. Then there are their own expenses of condoms, lubricants, seductive outfits, equipment even. So, say expenses of 2800 Euros a month. This means 156 clients, or near 7 a shift, to hit 5k. Then, as of 2011, there’s tax – and of course this is a grey area, with the girls able to keep a certain amount in the garter. But they do have to pay some, they are monitored by tax collectors, there are inspections, and if we work on a conservative estimate of 20% (they legally should pay 33%), that adds 31 clients a month, meaning over 8 clients a shift.
Actually, for the top tier of prostitute, that and more is certainly possible. But, it’s not the kind of industry conducive to staying at the top for long, and men paying for sex in a hugely competitive marketplace are hardly known for their tolerance of physical shortcomings. Even a little bruising, an occupational, reduces market value. There are reports of some girls getting no clients in a shift. Natasha had been pushing it at 30, typical ‘retirement age’ for a prostitute is around 26-28. Those ‘happy hookers’ as the Fokkens, who retired last year at 70, after a given figure of 355,000 clients, are rare indeed, and even they left the game scathing as to what it has become in recent years. Reports have identified prostitutes as having a mortality rate around 40 times those not in the sex trade. An average age of death of 34 seems almost too shocking to believe, but is a figure based on academic study, of prostitutes in the USA.
Back in the Netherlands, an unwritten code of conduct among Amsterdam’s sex workers fixes the rate at 50 Euros for sex, but with the global economy still struggling post credit crisis, some have cut prices to as low as 20 Euros a go, leaving many barely able to cover the rent of their rooms. No question, that in any case, the girls are not making the real money, that’s the landlords of the premises, with the rent on Amsterdam’s approximately 400 booths earning, conservatively, 7.5 million Euros a year. And whatever the girls earn, they must live in the Netherlands, one of modern Europe’s most expensive countries, where a decent Amsterdam apartment will be a minimum of 1000 Euros a month.
As for if the girls have the notorious ‘pimps’, legislation in Amsterdam, as well as clamping down on numbers of outlets, proposing raising the age to 21, has made prostitutes register, and in doing so demonstrate they are engaged in the profession of their own free will. And it often does start out that way. But, with an estimate of over 90% of prostitutes becoming problematic drug users due to the psychologically, and physically, difficult nature of their profession, men looking to exploit them are never very far away.
Recently, there was been a call in the Netherlands to confer the same retirement benefits on prostitutes as professional footballers. A spokesman citing the “difficult physical work they do in the prime of their lives“, and that “Men prefer young women: there always comes an age when prostitutes no longer get any work.” It was, in truth, little more than a publicity stunt. Even in the enlightened, well-policed Netherlands, there have been over a dozen prostitutes killed since 1990, with often a feeling of little real public sympathy.
Chris left his engagement happy, as he’d correctly assessed, his one was a competent career pro. So, maybe it was working out for her. But, I left Amsterdam the next day feeling rather queasy. It hardly feels right to ban girls from entering into the oldest profession, when it’s pointless to do so, and some do so only out of desperate short-term need. Yet it hardly feels ok either, to stand by and watch them in an undertaking with so little chance of a happy outcome.