On my recent trip to Austria, we accidentally ended up in a bar where prostitutes are hanging out and waiting for customers. The reason why we did not figure out what is going on is that these bars are not called clubs or brothels or anything that would lead a tourist to believe what the bar is about. In Vienna, these bars are called bars to meet singles and prostitution is generally legal except on streets in residential areas. Naturally, signage of the bar we ended up in was in German, which made it even more difficult to realize what is going on if your German is basic like ours, and if you really did not expect something like that.
At first, we entered the bar for one drink after two long conference days. It seemed like those cosy and relaxing places in Amsterdam where people just come for one or two drinks after a long day, and enjoy drinks in a dark and relaxing atmosphere with some good jazz and/or blues. When we entered, a lady was sitting at the bar talking to the bartender who served us (after a few seconds of hesitation), and they looked as if they are a couple having an argument so we made a joke asking if he is in trouble. He just laughed, and she did not say anything but kept complaining about something. She used the music box to put some music on, and then we used it too.
At first, we enjoyed the atmosphere in the bar because it was very relaxing and the music was great. The lady from the bar did not talk much, but she made a comment about our taste in music and she sang songs that she’s put and those that we’ve put too. Her favourite song was Scot McKenzie’s San Francisco that she’s put on the playing list several times during the evening.
As tired people, also foreigners, we did not really pay attention to whoever is in the bar, except for the already mentioned lady who sat right opposite from us at the bar, and our table was fairly close to her. She also had a small conversation about music with us hence, she took our attention. We saw there are other people in the bar, but it was too dark to see who else is there, and we were not really interested to observe other people.
At one point, the lady from the bar jumped to dance, as well as all other woman in the bar. That was the moment we realised all guests of the bar were women. I remember now, from the retrospective, that there were some young guys sitting with women when we first came, which is why we did not suspect anything. However, when the dance started we were trying to figure out why so much enthusiasm since it was the third time San Francisco was playing. We realised that the lady from the bar is dancing in a front of one man who came alone to the bar, and that all other girls are turning to him when dancing while one girl sat right opposite of him and just looked at him in a way that can be described as provocative (but not vulgar). While we started to look at each other with questions in our eyes, the doubts were cleared when we heard our lady from the bar offering oral sex to the man, and grabbing him for his penis. Soon afterwards, he went to sit with a girl who sat opposite of him, and all excitement and dancing stopped. All girls went back to their places, and we noticed that all girls sit separately not having any drinks, or talking to each other.
What is quite interesting about this selection of women is that the man and the girl he selected did not go anywhere. They sat on a table in the corner right opposite of us, on the other side of the bar, and they looked as a couple that just met. He bought her a drink, they were talking, and then kissing and making out, while she was occasionally reaching his chest and cuddling him by putting her hand inside his shirt. It did look as if she is trying to avoid kissing in the mouth, which is what we have all read about prostitutes many times but he was persistent and this has happened nonetheless. Is it possible that some people are paying to have a few hours of imagination of having a girlfriend?
It is a well-known fact that some people pay for talks and for combatting the feeling of being lonely even though they later feel disappointed, i.e. I’ve read about men paying prostitutes only to have someone to talk to ( see here and here), and I also read about older people who take long taxi rides to be able to talk to the driver (I can’t find a reference now; I read it somewhere many years ago). However, what research on men who pay for sex (Farley et al, 2009) revealed is that some men do seek some sort of a relationship with a prostitute, a girlfriend like thing, and it seems that this club in Vienna is trying to make profit by making it look these men are buying a relationship due to the emphasis of a bar name on singles (as I figured out later after looking in the bar’s name more closely due to my very basic German). I also remember our lady from the bar saying she is single to the men she was trying to get interested in herself. The mentioned research on men who buy sex obviously identified men who buy sex for pleasure and who explicitly want women to refrain from enjoying in sex and who are aware than sometimes they are paying for sex to women who are trafficked, however, there are some who pay for an illusion of a relationship. This is precisely the kind of place we run into in Vienna. I did some research afterwards only to find some studies report on the so-called girlfriend experience as a part of variety of services offered in the sex market (Farley et al, 2009, p. 17). I find it striking that some people think they can buy a feeling of love and belonging, and that they seek communication and interaction in these bars.
Going back to the San Francisco lady, after her defeat she kept monitoring the couple but the look in her eyes did not seem angry to me. It seemed more as a disappointment and pain. The chosen lady was clearly much younger, slimmer and probably prettier because she looked quite fresh. All other girls that I observed after realising what is going on, including lady from the bar, looked a bit exhausted and as if they are fundamentally sleep deprived. In other words, the consequences of night work were visible on all girls other than the one that was chosen for interaction. However, the look of pain and rejection was striking for me. I read about prostitutes before but I never saw things this way. You do see and read many things including how they suffer from depression and all sort of psychological problems (see Farley et al, 2009), but you do not think that not being selected for interaction can cause pain and a look of rejection. I also wondered is it the pain because of rejection, or perhaps because there will be nothing to eat because of it? Or, there will be beating by a pimp if she has one (there were no other men in the bar)?
The lady from the bar, however, approached us again after the failure to get the guest of the bar interested, and started to talk to us asking where are we from, what we do, and if we like Vienna. She then hesitated for a moment and then gave us her hand, and introduced herself saying her name. We accepted the hand, and answered her questions. She then told us that she works in the caring industry emphasizing particularly it is a difficult and demanding job. That indeed left a bitter taste in our mouth, especially because of the way she said it and the fact she looked aside when saying what she does for living. She also quietly added it is a very difficult job full of pain. We then talked about music, and after some time she said she needs to go. She took her suitcase (we did not notice the suitcase before) and left greeting us kindly. We were left wondering if she even has a place to stay given the fact she told us she is from another continent. I did a little research only to find out that data shows 75 % of prostitutes are homeless (Farley et al, 2003). I am also wondering, up to today, if caring is a translation for prostitution, i.e. if many prostitutes say they work as carers because in a way they are carers just not social workers who help ill people but workers who help in caring for sexual needs of men who are willing and able to pay for sex, and apparently companion. In retrospective, I am also wondering what is more painful for these girls; having sex for money or playing a girlfriend role for money even though they know there is no relationship, and that these men would never consider having a serious relationship with any of them, as research also revealed (Farley et al, 2009).
We set off to leave soon, and after we have paid and said goodbye to the guy in the bar, when we were already at the doors one girl who was sitting there alone and who was looking at me throughout the night (I noticed this earlier), just quietly said goodbye to us giving us a small smile. We replied with smile, and as a response a bigger smile came to her place, however, sadness in her eyes and something else that I can only interpret as gratitude for ignoring what we saw and still hanging out with one of the girls, is something I will never forget. I think I would have to rip my doctoral diploma in Sociology in pieces if I did anything else, but the incident made me think about the treatment these girls receive from the society. Unfortunately, research shows that the social treatment of prostitutes is nothing but a horror. Apart from doing a job many do not really want to do but end up doing for various reasons (trafficking, blackmail, family violence that prevents development, homelessness, etc.) as many books and testimonials prove (see e.g. Moran 2013 & Raymond 2013), these girls also face social exclusion and judgement from other members of the society. I knew about all this before, but it was not an experience-based knowledge, but something you just kind of know and possibly see in movies. However, this experience has changed my life forever and I can’t stop wondering if the world will ever change, and if people will ever stop taking the right to judge, cause pain, and create illusions instead of going out there and interacting themselves, sharing good stuff and accepting each other as they are.
Thank you for reading.
Farley, M.; Bindel, J, & Golding, J. M. (2009). Men who buy sex: Who they buy and what they know. Available at: http://i1.cmsfiles.com/eaves/2012/04/MenWhoBuySex-89396b.pdf (Accessed 24 September 2015).
Farley, M.; Cotton, A.; Lynne, J.; Zumbeck, S.; Spiwak, F.; Reyes, M.E.; Alvarez , D., & Sezgin, U. (2003). Prostitution and Trafficking in 9 Countries: Update on Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Journal of Trauma Practice 2 (3/4), 33-74.
Moran, R. (2013). Paid For: My Journey through Prostitution. Dublin: Gill & MacMillan.
Raymond, J. C. (2013). Not a Choice, Not a Job: Exposing the Myths about Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade. Potomac Books, University of Nebraska Press.