From Bangkok to Berlin, Hard Times Hit the Sex Trade
By William Lee Adams
In Patpong, one of Bangkok's most notorious red-light districts, 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 bargirl. 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 tourists have turned 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. "My base salary was 8,000 baht ($232) a month, but now they are giving me 6,000 baht ($174)," she says. "I haven't had a customer in five nights, 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 up to 20% since the crisis began. "Customers who used to come to us two or 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 Bliss Without Risk, a prostitution-outreach group in the capital. Others have simply reduced their workforce. "In villages where there used to be 10 girls, there are now two," she says. America's working girls have suffered too. The Mustang Ranch in Reno, Nev., recently laid off 30% of its staff after its highest-spending clients started staying away. (See 10 things to do in Las Vegas.)
The world's oldest profession isn't about to take the recession lying down. Brothels and bathhouses have launched promotions — including free shuttle buses, senior-citizen discounts and day passes — in a bid to arouse interest among wary spenders. "You have to offer better service these days and special packages," says Karin Ahrens, manager at Yes Sir! in Hanover, Germany, where revenues have fallen 30% since the recession hit the nation. As part of a new deal, customers there 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 solarium and an all-you-can-eat buffet. (See pictures of Berlin.)
Not everyone needs a gimmick to stimulate business. In the Netherlands, Jan Bik says the recession hasn't affected his nine brothels because they target the "common man"; clients pay as little as $42 for half an hour with a woman. And while many of his former customers have left, "people who would normally go to the expensive clubs are visiting us now, so it's evened out." Elsewhere, currency shifts have actually created opportunities for the sex trade. Ukraine's currency, the hryvnia, has lost about 40% of its value against the dollar and euro since the start of the crisis, a change that will further 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. Police experts forecast that the industry will more than double its revenues this year, generating $1.5 billion. And, says Anna Hutsol, head of a nongovernmental women's rights group called FEMEN, deepening unemployment will likely increase the exploitation of vulnerable women: "There are girls without jobs and foreigners with money who want prostitutes."
Back in Bangkok, the relative strength of foreign currencies isn't helping local businesses. The cost of traveling to Thailand from far-flung places like Australia and Japan offsets any gains from the exchange rate. Pong, the female manager of Bangkok's Babylon Sauna, Bed and Breakfast, knows that all too well, as her business depends on foreign revenue to stay afloat. Described as "the most stylish and lavish sauna ever seen" by online gay guide Pink Banana World, Babylon welcomed an average of 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