In Patpong, Bangkok's most notorious red-light district, go-go girls count their livelihood by the number of sex tourists they entertain. "Three inches, three minutes, 3,000 baht ($87)," laughs Goy, a 25-year-old bar girl. Last summer, she and her fellow pole dancers at the Camelot Castle entertained scores of men every night first in the bar, where they earn a monthly salary, then at the customer's hotel, where they negotiate their own rates. But as cash-strapped travelers turn their backs on Thailand tourism officials say revenues will plunge 35% this year the ranks of men cruising Patpong have thinned dramatically. On a recent Wednesday evening, just three tourists watched a visibly disgruntled Goy wiggle around her pole. "I haven't had a customer in five nights," she says, "and I'm lucky if someone buys me a drink."
As the recession continues to bite, sex workers from Bangkok to Berlin share Goy's frustration. "People just don't spend that freely anymore," says Anke Christiansen, co-founder of Hamburg's Geizhaus ("Das Original Discount Bordell") where visitor numbers have dropped by as much as 20% since the crisis began. "Customers who used to come to us three times a week now limit themselves to once a week." That newfound restraint has already forced some brothels to shut their doors. In the Czech Republic, where 14% of men admit to having slept with a prostitute, up to half of all sex establishments outside of Prague have closed in the past year, says Hana Malinova, director of the local prostitution-outreach group Bliss Without Risk.
The world's oldest profession isn't about to take the recession lying down. Brothels and bathhouses have launched promotions including free shuttle buses and senior-citizen discounts in a bid to arouse interest among wary spenders. As part of a new deal at Yes Sir! in Hanover, Germany, customers pay $111 to have as much sex as they want (or can) for one hour. At Geizhaus, recent promotions allowed guests to have sex for free on Halloween and Easter if they wore a costume or brought in a decorated egg. And Berlin's Pussy Club charges guests a $98 flat rate for six hours of unlimited sex, access to a sauna and an all-you-can-eat buffet.
In some places, the crisis has actually helped stimulate business. Ukraine's currency, the hryvnia, has lost about 35% of its value against the dollar and euro since the start of the downturn, a change that experts say is likely to boost the country's growing tourism sector and thereby the number of visitors willing to pay for a thrill. "The country is becoming a paradise for sex tourism before our eyes," says Yuri Lutsenko, Ukraine's interior minister, who worries about the trend. Police experts forecast that Ukraine's sex industry will more than double its revenues this year, generating $1.5 billion. But Anna Hutsol, head of Kiev-based women's rights group FEMEN, is worried that the prostitution boom and Ukraine's deepening unemployment will increase the exploitation of vulnerable women. "There are girls without jobs and foreigners with money who want prostitutes," she says.
In Bangkok, the concerns are more immediate. Pong, the female manager of Babylon Sauna, Bed and Breakfast, which depends on foreigners to stay afloat, frets that she may be forced to close. Babylon welcomed 800 visitors per day before the recession hit. That number now hovers around 500. "The entrance fee is already low, so dropping it won't make a difference," Pong says. So what's a sauna manager to do? "Pray for us," is all she can say.
With reporting by Robert Horn / Bangkok; Stephanie Kirchner / Berlin; and James Marson / Kiev