Prostitution: The Skin Trade

Poverty, chaos and porous borders have turned prostitution into a global growth industry, debasing the women and children of the world

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Patrick Zachmann

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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 naiveté 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."

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