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

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-dollar 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.

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