The Skin Trade

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On Saturday nights, as many as 300 young women line the margins of E55, a Czech highway near the German border. Their costumes vary: light frocks, skimpy red dresses, glow-in-the-dark Spandex pants. They speak a babel of languages: Czech, Romanian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, German. But they have only one thing to sell: sex.

For the truckers and migrant workers who ply the main road between Berlin and Prague, this particular seven-mile stretch of E55 is the "Highway of Cheap Love," the longest brothel in the world, a smorgasbord of lust. Travelers can pause at rest stops, munch on french fries and sausages and, for just $30, pick up a girl -- maybe one as young as 15 -- for half an hour in the bushes or in a truck cab or shabby motel. For the men, the encounters are alluring, if seedy, interludes at a bargain price.

For the young women, the story is different. Many have been coerced into sexual servitude. Some, abducted by con men, are raped and psychologically pummeled into submission. As they strut their wares, their pimps lurk in cars in the shadows, calculating the night's take. But not all the pimps are gangsters. Often it is Father who sits in the backup car or Mother who negotiates the deal for her daughter. Little Brother may appear with a sponge and a pail of soapy water to wash a client's car for an extra $5.

Desire has cash value; the market has no rules, possesses no scruples. From Eastern Europe to the Himalayas, from Tokyo to Tegucigalpa, transaction by sordid transaction has created a multibillion-dolla r sex trade. It is encouraged by massive socioeconomic movements: the collapse of the Soviet empire, the increase in global mobility, the wrenching disparity of worldwide incomes. But its effect is most devastating on an individual level. Poor women and children are commodities traded on the street, products bartered, haggled over, smuggled and sold as hedges against hunger or as cruel but quick routes to profit. Souls do not count, only bodies, debased over and over, unmindful of social cost or disease.

Few corners of the earth are immune to the corrupting influence of the burgeoning sex trade. Eastern Europe, once prudishly communist, is pockmarked with streetwalkers and whorehouses. Poverty has forced many of its young people to prostitute themselves in the fleshpots of the West. In Nepal's Himalayan hill villages, some 7,000 adolescents are sold each year to slave traders for the sweat-drenched brothels of Bombay. In Brazil an estimated 25,000 girls have been forced into prostitution in remote Amazon mining camps. In Italy, Nigerian streetwalkers are flooding into Bologna, while in Belgium, the neon-bright windows of Antwerp's red-light district are filled with Ghanaians in lacy underwear. Around Miami, massage parlors owned by Cuban immigrants import prostitutes from Colombia, Nicaragua and Canada.

Historically, authorities have winked at "the world's oldest profession." If 100,000 German men a year choose to visit Thailand on package sex tours, who is to object? Only recently has anyone begun to ask how many of Thailand's 2 million prostitutes are minors; how many have been sold by parents or husbands as indentured servants to brothel owners; and how many have been kidnapped from villages in Burma, Laos and southern China to service the new breed of tourist. A 1991 conference of Southeast Asian women's organizations estimated that 30 million women had been sold worldwide since the mid-1970s. Such figures are at best guesses and at worst only the tip of the iceberg. "The sex industry is a huge market with its own momentum," says Wassyla Tamzali, director of UNESCO's women's-rights department. "You have an infernal race between the client and the pimp to expand the boundaries, to find the newest experience possible. Selling a 14-year-old girl has become so commonplace, it is banal."

When the Iron Curtain disintegrated, few would have guessed that in less than five years it would lead to a massive exodus of poverty-stricken East European women, desperate to sell themselves for what rarely turns out to be the good life. Police say a quarter of Germany's 200,000 prostitutes are now from the former East bloc. Even in the puritanical Middle East, charter flights full of Russian women disembark weekly at Dubai's airport, ply their trade on 14-day visas and head home, loaded with color television sets. At the Gallery, a Brussels nightclub, a naked Hungarian couple thrash about in what appears to be a live sex act, to tape-recorded groans. Across the Belgian capital at the Aloha Club, Lenka, a 21-year-old Czech stripper, outfitted in fake leopard skin, entertains clients with $470 magnums of champagne. Half the peep shows in town are now staffed by East Europeans -- up from 1% three years ago, according to police.

In Tel Aviv the number of brothels has skyrocketed in five years from 30 to 150 -- largely because of an influx of Russians into Israel. Though some are new immigrants driven to the trade by financial troubles, most are temporary visitors who enter the country on tourist visas. Scores of ads for "entertainment services," many boasting "hot new Russians," riddle the Israeli papers. Bars in major Chinese cities now offer blond, blue-eyed Russian "hostesses," while in Tokyo, Russian girls are the latest addition to the menu in fancy "hostess" bars. In Modena, Italy, last fall, police rounded up more than 100 women from Bulgaria, Poland, Romania and points east. Allegedly lured as dancers by a self-described theatrical agent, they were then forced "to be nice to customers or else." The agent is now awaiting trial. Even war does not halt the traffic. In Kac, a cluster of rundown farmhouses in northern Serbia, dark-haired Valenka gyrates half nude at the local bar and beckons customers upstairs for one-on-one at $62 an hour. The 24-year-old emigrated from Donetsk, in Ukraine, where her meat-packer parents earned $2 a week and she could not support her baby daughter. Now married to a Serbian pimp, she says, "So many Ukrainian women would welcome the chance I am getting."

The clients' wives may not be so lucky. Turkey's Black Sea region has seen its divorce rate jump 20% in the past three years, along with an explosion of gonorrhea and syphilis -- all the result of the invasion of thousands of "Natashas," female traders from Moldova and Belarus in the former Soviet Union. . "Natasha yat asagi!" (pronounced Natasha yatashi) is the new mating call: Turkish for "Natasha, jump into bed!" The women swarm in with suitcases of cheap goods to hawk by day. By night they sell their services. The town of Hopa, which three years ago had no hotels, now has 32. "The whole Black Sea region has become a huge brothel," says Kemal Unluer, a municipal , official in Trabzon (pop. 160,000). A night with "Natasha" can cost $150, so the gold chains once common around the necks of Black Sea men are disappearing. "I love these Natashas," sighs a customs officer on the Georgia border. "God measured and created them." Hasan D., a Trabzon hotel worker, explains, "Married men do not want to practice what they see in porno movies with their wives. But they can with Natashas." As for the Natashas, Irina, a Russian art-history graduate, put it bluntly: "We are milking the Turks for all they are worth."

But for every satisfied Natasha, how many in the spreading diaspora are victims of pimps and gangs? "Almost all the women are abused," claims Antwerp social worker Patsy Sorenson, who has helped more than 40 East European prostitutes escape. "The Georgian Mafia is the most violent: rapes, threats with guns and beatings." Equally notorious in Berlin and Prague: the so-called Chechen Boys, North Caucasians who reportedly deal in weapons, counterfeit money, drugs and women. Francine Meert, head of Le Nid, a Brussels aid group, says, "Many of the girls have broken teeth. They say they fell downstairs. But there are so many of them that either this business has the worst-maintained stairs in the world or these girls are being punched." In a brothel in Bautzen, Germany, last year, women were beaten with bats and administered electric shocks. In Prague girls in the trade were cut with razors to make them submit. "The Mafia that supplies these women is more violent than anything we've seen before," says central Brussels police chief Emmanuel Herman.

The victimization is a direct result of the former East bloc's economic distress: in Russia alone, 75% of the unemployed are female. "The naivete is unbelievable," says Prague vice-squad chief Petr Vosolsobe. "The vision of earning hard currency blurs the girls' senses." Besides the usual promises of dance- and waitress-jobs, myriad ruses are used. One Russian student of German literature received an invitation to complete her education. She sold her stereo to pay for gifts for her "host family" in Germany, only to arrive and be forced into a brothel. Others are lured by traffickers posing as marriage brokers. On a Belgian television documentary last month, Tibor, a tall, handsome Hungarian pimp, revealed his method: "I went to Romania. I heard a lot of girls wanted to leave. I took the kind of girl no one would miss if she disappeared. Girls who were having trouble with their parents or who lived alone. So when they were resold, no one would look for them. It is as if I sold a kilo of bread. They buy them like that."

Women from the old East bloc are not the only ones enticed into Western Europe. In the past two years Spanish police have dismantled more than a dozen slave-trafficking rings. In January a Barcelona police inspector was sentenced to seven years in prison for forcing Guatemalan women into prostitution. He swindled them out of $4,000 each, promising legitimate jobs, and then held them captive once they arrived in Spain. In another Spanish case, 400 Dominicans brought to Lerida, Majorca and Ibiza were threatened with reprisals against their families if they refused to submit. Authorities say Dominican flesh traders often add a cruel twist: promised lucrative jobs, unsuspecting women mortgage their parents' homes at usurious rates to pay for false papers and plane fares. If they are sent back by immigration officials, or refuse to prostitute themselves on arrival, their families are turned into the street. "I thought I was going to work as a waitress," a young Dominican, transported to Greece, told BBC television, her eyes welling with tears. "Then they said if I didn't have sex, I'd be sent back to Santo Domingo without a penny. I was beaten, burned with cigarettes. I knew nobody. I was a virgin. I held out for five days, crying, with no food. ((Eventually)) I lost my honor and my virginity for $25."

One skin-trade network, investigated by police in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, lured 3,000 women from Latin America and Asia -- as well as Eastern Europe -- into prostitution in West European cabarets between 1985 and 1991. Ring members in Germany used their artistic agencies to recruit poor Filipinas in Manila, promising jobs as "folkloric dancers." After flying to Cyprus, where they were given six-month work permits, the women found their earnings confiscated to pay the airfare. Weakened by a meager food allowance, they were ordered to have sex with cabaret customers. When the women, devout Catholics who were supporting families back home, refused, they were beaten. "There were mass rapes to break their will," says Dusseldorf criminal investigator Gerd Heitzer. Eventually the victims submitted and were rotated through European strip clubs on temporary "artist" work permits granted by Swiss, Dutch, Belgian and German governments.

Trafficking victims are overwhelmingly female, but men -- whether by predilection or poverty -- are also caught up in the sex marketplace. At Paris' Orly airport last month, 15 Algerian transvestites became hysterical when French police tried to deport them without allowing them to change out of their skirts, high heels and wigs. Hauled before a judge, the men, sporting beards after a week in prison, said they were driven by unemployment to come to Paris every six months in order to feed wives and children in Algeria. The judge allowed them to change clothes, but it was too late to avoid shame and reprisals: the day of the arrest, French police had transmitted their photos to Algerian authorities. In Frankfurt last year, police raiding a bordello discovered that more than half of the 30 Thai seductresses were men who had undergone transsexual surgery. Most likely recruited by pederasts when they were young, they would have discovered that their marketability as male prostitutes shrinks as they grow out of their teens.

If European rackets are burgeoning, trafficking incidents are also cropping up in the U.S. In Houston, Korean-controlled nude-modeling studios have been supplied by flesh traders who bribe American soldiers based in South Korea. The G.I.s are typically paid up to $5,000 to marry Koreans and bring them back to Fort Hood, Texas, where they divorce them for an equal sum. The women, who speak no English, are then forced into brothels in Houston, Detroit and other cities. Compelled to repay the marriage fees and plane fares, and threatened with violence, "these women live in fear," says Harris County civil prosecutor Terry O'Rourke. A local crackdown has sizably cut down the traffic since the late 1980s, but it still continues, and crime rings are now supplanting some of the Korean women with Salvadorans. In Los Angeles the trade is export oriented: White Americans have been lured to Japan on singing, dancing and modeling contracts and then coerced into prostitution. "It's a recurring scam," says Los Angeles vice detective Fred Clapp.

In Asia the sex trade has long operated on an industrial scale. In the 1960s and '70s, Japanese men flocked in organized sex tours to Taiwan and South Korea; later on, they preferred the Philippines and Thailand. The practice still flourishes, but in the 1980s the traffic became two-way, with Filipina and Thai prostitutes migrating to Japan. Despite the efforts of citizens' groups to publicize the problem, little has been done to help the estimated 70,000 Thai "hostesses" now working in Japan as virtual indentured sex slaves in bars usually controlled by yakuza gangsters. The women, many of them ignorant villagers, are sold by Thai brokers for an average of $14,000 each and resold to the clubs by Japanese brokers for about $30,000 -- a sum they are obliged to work off, but rarely can.

Each month the Thai embassy in Tokyo repatriates about 250 escapees. But Japanese officialdom has been largely indifferent to the plight of prostitutes, and there are several recorded instances in which police, especially in rural areas, have handed escaping girls back to their abusers. Three recent murders -- Thai prostitutes who killed their "Mama-sans," or female bosses, while trying to escape -- are focusing attention on the women's plight. Citizens' groups, believing the accused are less in the wrong than the deceased, are lobbying for a fair trial. "When I arrived in March 1991, I realized I was sold," Gun, 25, wrote a watchdog group in a letter from the Shimozuma Detention Center. "My life was like an animal's. I was sold three times. I begged ((my boss)) to let me go home, but she said I owed much money and must pay it back. Every day I had to sleep with men. I was not allowed to leave even during menstruation. I was told if I escaped, they would track me, kill me -- and my parents too."

The sex trade sprouts inexorably in new areas. In Ho Chi Minh City, by one report, the number of prostitutes has recently increased from 10,000 to 50,000. Morocco has become a Mecca for Saudi sex tourists. The next tier of prosperous Asian countries is following in Japan's footsteps, with South Korea and Taiwan developing their own sex-tour operations. And last year, attesting to the growth of market economics, more than 240,000 people engaging in prostitution were arrested in China. Sex tourism takes on ever more ingenious guises as well. To Bombay, a center for inexpensive medical treatment, Arabs are flocking for such common ailments as high blood pressure or skin infections -- excuses to stay a week or a month and patronize the brothels that have sprung up around the hospitals. These establishments, catering specially to Arabs, feature dancing girls in gaudily carpeted and chandeliered halls. Once the "patient" chooses his girl, they move into a room with a bed decked in flowers, like the nuptial ritual in glossy Hindi films. The rate: between $100 and $1,000 a night.

Globally, prostitution plays a significant role in transmitting the AIDS virus. In Haiti, once a favored vacation spot for U.S. homosexuals, the virus flourished for years until political turmoil and negative publicity shut down the trade. But in many places the danger has yet to register. "If a young prostitute is found to have AIDS," says Peter Racine, a counselor who works with Honduran street children in Tegucigalpa, "they send her away to a smaller pueblo, where she continues to work." In Berlin, German streetwalkers are complaining about Polish women pouring into the city and turning unprotected tricks. Naively, the Poles -- laid off from regular jobs and trying to support families -- hope to cash in quickly and return home in a few months. Raised as Catholics, "their AIDS awareness is nil," says social worker Wiltrud Schenk. "They get embarrassed if you mention the word condom." In Bombay farmers migrate to town off-season for construction jobs. They visit the brothels -- where a third of the prostitutes are HIV-positive -- and later infect their wives. The virus is sweeping the subcontinent: from half a dozen HIV-positive cases in 1986 to a million today -- and an estimated 10 million in the next decade, when the number of people suffering from the full-blown disease is expected to rise to 1 million. Even in worldly-wise Amsterdam, half of the 400 streetwalkers -- most of them drug addicts -- are reportedly HIV-positive.

Public concern over the flesh trade is rising. Last year Pope John Paul II expressed "horror over the degrading practice of sex tourism." In 1990 he had warned that "men, women and children must not be used as objects at the expense of their inalienable dignity." And a backlash against the sex trade is taking form in several countries where it has long been entrenched. In Manila the new mayor, Alfredo Lim, vows "to eradicate prostitution," and has padlocked 300 bars. Under a new law, pimps and clients will face prison and deportation. In Karachi human-rights lawyers are mobilizing opinion against rackets that have kidnapped 200,000 Bangladeshi women into prostitution in Pakistan. In Negombo, Sri Lanka, a recent mecca for European pedophiles, Catholic priests staged protest marches until embarrassed authorities agreed to combat the trade.

The issue has been debated recently in the Swedish, Danish, Swiss, British, Thai and Cypriot parliaments. Germany last year stiffened antitrafficking laws, and Belgium is set to do likewise. France has cracked down on the use of its Minitel -- a widely distributed video-text telephone service -- for child- | prostitution ads. But police face a daunting task in stemming the sex trade. Many of the foreign-women victims, unable to speak the language of the country, are loath to file complaints for fear of being injured by pimps or deported by authorities. And faced with the difficulty of sorting out which women are prostitutes by choice and which are coerced, many officials shrug off the problem. "Almost all the girls who come to work in cabarets know what they are getting into," says a top Swiss bureaucrat. "We cannot reform the world's morals."

Despite such sentiments, this week in Vienna, in conjunction with the World Conference on Human Rights, antiprostitution groups will propose a controversial update of the United Nations' 1949 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. The proposal, to completely ban sex-for-sale -- and not just forced prostitution -- is endorsed by UNESCO. Legalized prostitution, as in the Netherlands and Germany, "is an open door for traffickers," claims Janice Raymond, an activist with the U.S.-based Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. Many experts, however, say a hard-line approach is impractical. "Prostitutes should be paid better, protected from abuse and perhaps taken into the social-security system," says Marie-France Botte, who runs rescue centers for child prostitutes in Thailand for Doctors Without Borders, the French doctors' group. "You won't get anywhere by moralizing."

The policy debates of do-gooders are a world away from Bombay's Falkland Road district, where 8,000 prostitutes are packed into rabbit-warren brothels. There, on a hot, listless afternoon, Manju flashes an inviting smile, beckoning passersby with lewd remarks and suggestive body movements. With the fair skin and lovely slanted eyes of the Nepalese, so exotic to Indian men, she attracts an average of seven customers a day. Her fee: $1 each -- of which the brothel owner, a squat, brutal woman, takes more than half. Despite her sexy put-on, her shiny blue dress cut above the knee and her vivid makeup, Manju, 20, radiates an odd schoolgirlish innocence, accentuated by the big white bow that adorns her hair. Alternately, she giggles shyly in talking about her life and grows frightened as she fears that the brothel owner might catch her conversing with a stranger.

Her story is typical. Daughter of a poor farmer in a hamlet three days' walk from Katmandu, Manju was 12 when her mother died. Unable to cope with three children, her father handed her over a few months later to two strangers: she thought she was going to Bombay to work as a housemaid. When the two men sold her to a pimp for $1,000, "there was nothing I could do," she says. "I was trapped." She is never allowed to set foot outside the brothel. Moreover, she is expected to repay her full purchase price. Rent, food and clothing are also deducted from her wages, so that seven years later, she is told she still owes $300.

Helpless, Manju, like many in her profession, is resigned to her fate. Returning home would not be an improvement. "Even if you work 24 hours a day in Nepal, you do not get enough to eat," she explains. "One can endure anything except hunger. If I were a man, maybe I would have committed murder to fill my stomach. But as a woman, I became a prostitute." It is a choice being forced upon too many. Along the highway of cheap love that now circles the globe, the cost in destroyed lives has become a blight to rival any of the depredations mankind has inflicted on itself.