In Italy, much like every single other country in the world, it's not uncommon to see girls—with or without penises—stalking street corners, watched over by some volatile pimp in a pleather jacket and a bad haircut. The act of selling yourself isn't actually a crime here, but aiding or inducing the sale of yourself is, which makes hooking kind of tricky, especially if you're not particularly into the thought of spending your evening inside a cell.
For those who want to make a little extra change in partnership with their vagina, however, Switzerland—just across the border—is a haven for sex workers, being one of the few European countries where prostitution is legal. Bar Oceano, a historical, family-run brothel in the Swiss border town of Lugano, is one of the landmarks of the Swiss sex industry, so my friend Georgio and I drove up there to have a chat with Ulisse, the brothel's 60-year-old owner, and Nicola, his right-hand man.
After being greeted by a monolithic bouncer, we were led inside to the brothel's reception. We quickly found out that Ulisse had already gone home for the day to sit in his pyjamas, but he had left his 19-year-old niece, Diandra, in charge. Diandra told us a bit about how the brothel usually functions. "The clients come into the lounge, pay the cover charge—which includes a drink—then all the girls line up in front of them."
Diandra gave us some good advice, should we ever feel like forking out cash for sex at any point in the future: "Never pick the first girl, they're always the most desperate."
You have to be registered to prostitute yourself professionally in Switzerland, which, by law, only EU citizens are allowed to do. Until last year, the Swiss government would turn a blind eye, meaning girls from all over the world (but mostly South America and Eastern Europe) would flock to its brothels, but since they cracked down, there are only Romanian girls left.
Diandra at reception.
Despite the fact that everything seems to be running by the books, the brothel still has its problems with the police. "Our girls all have visas, but the police always end up finding something they don't like," Diandra told us. "First, the room prices are too high, then they call us out on girls approaching clients, which is illegal because it's considered soliciting."
After we'd been given the full run-down, we asked to chat with some of the girls. Diandra took us through to the VIP lounge, where we were told to choose any one of the girls on offer. The first girl we spoke to was Paola, a 27-year-old Romanian who'd previously worked in Spain but had been living in Switzerland for the last couple of years. She didn't appear to have any reservations about her line of work, because "a job is a job and I do it for the money."
Paola does everything—"everything everything"—in her very pink, pungently-scented, IKEA-heavy room: pisses on people, licks feet, sodomizes men, and dresses up in costumes. Once she even dressed up in a dog costume, which makes me kind of worried for the majority of dogs wherever that particular client calls home. Many of her customers are married Italian men, but she claims she'd never set foot in Italy because streetwalkers there are “garbage, they never wash and they do it in cars.”
Sauntering back down to the lounge, we bumped into Sofia, a 26-year-old Romanian who did a seductive little spin on her heels and led us up to a room on the second floor. Sofia has lived in Switzerland for the past five years and doesn't seem eager to leave. "Oceano is the best!" she tells us. Sofia speaks seven languages, has a degree in economics, and got a job waiting tables when she finished her studies. Then she realized that waiting tables wasn't for her and decided to move to the nation of pen knives and gruyere to sell her body for cash.
But she wasn't an expert at first. Like any profession, prostitution has its own kind of learning curve. "When you first start, you're not used to doing certain things with people you don't know," says Sofia. "I took my first client to the room, didn't really know how to give a blowjob and ended up hurting him. I saw him again three years later—he left satisfied that time and complimented me on my work. I was pleased; I'm here to do a good job."
Rossana, a 31-year-old Romanian, popped her head through Sofia's door and joined us on the bed. Rossana's only been in Switzerland for five months, but has already developed a reputation for customer loyalty, with clients continuously coming back to her for her clearly unique brand of affection, cuddles, and massages. She told us that she'd like to eventually go back to Romania, open a hair salon and have a child, but plans on staying in Switzerland a while longer to save money. Just over the border, Italy also has a busy sex trade, but Rossana fears that working in Italy is unsafe. "There's always someone behind the scenes, so girls never see their money. That's why I always tell clients to come here rather than trawling the corners."
While we were talking to the girls, we heard Diandra on the phone reasoning with her daughter's kindergarten teacher because she'd forgotten to pick her up, so she rushed off and left us with Nicola, the nocturnal face of Bar Oceano. The man is a Trump-level workaholic. "I get 30 to 40 phone calls a day. I'm the accountant, the psychiatrist, the priest. and the handyman. Oh, and Iʼm the Romanian translator, but I don't even know how to speak Romanian.”
Nicola with two of Oceano's girls.
Nicola is 38 and has been working the red light scene for the last 20 years. "It was a lot more fun before," he tells us. "There used to be a load of Brazilians, who are really fun girls—I ended up marrying two of them, actually." Nicola seems a bit put out when reminded of the glory days of the Swiss sex trade. "A Brazilian woman lives for sex. She wakes up in the morning and starts thinking about sex, then goes to sleep and dreams of sex all night. The line between having sex for money and having sex for free for Brazilians is a very small one. Romanians aren't like that; they start on every client reluctantly, often treat them badly, and have to be told what to do—even told how to smile."
Nicola got into the business in much the same way as most men do: he walked through the front door as a client, then ended up picking up girls for brothels. "You know how it goes," he remarks, as if everyone in the world has done their stint in the world of international meat markets. Sensing he might be the boastful type, I ask Nicola how much money the brothel makes a month. "I don't know. We collect rent for the rooms and that's it," he says. "But it was always fun with the Brazilians—they'd go shopping every Monday with their weekend earnings, and whoever spent the most money would be the winner."
Nicola likes to tell the kind of stories that, if we weren't in a brothel in the industrial suburbs of Legano, would seem whatever the disgusting hybrid of sleazy and vulgar is (slvulgar?). We were regaled with tales of anal funnels—a client "wanted to find out how much water his girl could hold"—and the time a few AC Milan players visited: "As soon as they saw them, the girls lost all ability to reason."
All of a sudden, Nicola darted off and returned with an eager grin on his face, proudly showing off Emily—his personal favorite and the only South American girl left—like the prize Roman follis from his coin collection. "I call her Blondie because she's black but she has very refined features," Nicola tells us. Emily doesn't live in Switzerland, instead choosing to commute from Rome every day, where she lives with her mother and daughter and studies economics. Emily says that starting out was hard. "I cried and hated it—I felt dirty," she said. But after a while, she began to come to terms with her new profession and now sees it as a way of picking up some pocket money while she trains to be an accountant.
At that point, the phone rang—a client for Emily—so she thanked us and left, prompting Nicola to get up, too. His shift was about to start and he had to deal with an outbreak of conjunctivitis. "Once one girl gets sick, they all get sick."
We took that as our cue to leave, thanked our hosts, and packed ourselves back into the car to Italy. Chatting about our experience of Bar Oceano, we realized that our liberal views weren't quite as liberal as we thought they were. We used to force ourselves into believing that prostitution was just like any other job, as long as it was regulated, but we were wrong.
We perhaps naively imagined that we'd waltz into a building where the girls—who are legally and contractually prostitutes—didn't have to be so overtly whorish; more lady, less lady-of-the-night. What we found, however, was that working at the Oceano really isn't that far removed from working the streets in Italy. You get a bed and a pension, sure, but, in the end, that isn't going to change the fact that the majority of your time is spent actively trying to have sex with old, sleazy men for money.
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