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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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 GIs 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.

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