A prostitute (not Elizabet) in Amsterdam. Photo by Thom Lynch
With Hungarian youth unemployment at 25 percent, it's not exactly easy to find work in the land of goulash and Gabors. But if you happen to be of Roma blood, it's apparently even harder. "I'm a Gypsy, and people see me and don't want to give me a job," said Elizabet, a 24-year-old Hungarian with Roma heritage. "Hungarians don't like Gypsies."
After failing to find a job in Budapest, Elizabet decided to head west to Amsterdam—the land of opportunity for any young, attractive girl who's prepared to rent her body out to a succession of strangers. "I came to Amsterdam last year to work as a prostitute because I can't find a job anywhere else," she told me. "If I have no money, I die."
Yesterday, VICE ran an interview with a guy who writes a blog entry every time he has sex with one of Amsterdam's prostitutes. He made it out like the city's sex workers are pulling in hundreds of dollars a session doing a job they love, but—speaking to Elizabet—it seems his experiences may have been a little unrepresentative. In her current line of work, money dominates Elizabet's entire thought process. She pays €100 ($140) a day to hire the small room and window she occupies down one of the smaller side streets in Amsterdam's De Wallen district, and she charges €50 ($70) for a 20 minute "suck-and fuck"–but will often drop the price down to €40 ($55) on a quiet day.
A good day could net Elizabet anything between €300 ($418) to €400 ($557), but good days are increasingly rare, and the reality of living as a prostitute doesn't quite match up to what she'd heard about the lives of some of the city's high-end escorts, who supposedly live the Rockefeller life for just a few hours of work a day. "I'm still poor, but it's not as bad as it was back in Hungary," she said. "Any spare money I have, I save."
She continued, telling me that it can often be hard just to break even: “Sometimes I only make enough for the room. But sometimes I don’t, and sometimes I don’t get any customers at all."
Elizabet normally starts her shift at around ten in the morning and finishes at about 6PM. She tries to avoid the night shift, for fear of drunken tourists and whatever other dangers the red-light district has to offer once the gangs are out and about, trying to hawk bags of teething powder to Australian tourists. Unlike a number of Amsterdam's sex workers, she doesn't have any protection in the form of private bodyguards or pimps, so she chooses her clientele carefully.
"I can read people, but not always,” she told me. “Sometimes I'm definitely scared, because I have no one to help me."
Regardless of her admission policy, Elizabet always spends her shifts trying to score as many jobs as possible. "I dance in the window and make kissing faces to the men who walk past, trying anything to get them to come in," she started. "Sometimes it works; sometimes not. Then they come in, I ask for their money straightaway, and I lock it up—I can't trust nobody. Then they take their clothes off and jump on the bed."
Elizabet's workplace consists of a small lime-green mattress, her gray locker, and just enough space for a sink and a chair, all of it lit by a dull green lightbulb and sound-tracked with off-brand 90s Europop compilations. The lack of anything resembling romance doesn't worry Elizabet. She told me that she's definitely not trying to be a "hired girlfriend"—a sex worker who offers the "girlfriend experience" service—and that there generally isn't enough time for small talk or sensuality anyway. "I don’t make any faces or noises. I just lie there during sex," she explained. “I’m not enjoying it, so why would I pretend I am? I normally just look up at the clock to see when their time is up. I think that's why a lot of men don’t orgasm when they come in."
Another prostitute, Madella—who moved to Amsterdam from Peru with her two teenage children—said she'd do whatever the client asks, as long as she gets paid. "They sometimes get a bit too emotional, but to be honest, I don’t care at all.
"I mainly get regular Dutch people," she continued. "Sometimes they smell really bad, and if they smell too bad I tell them to fuck off. I don't accept just anyone." When asked if she's ever had any negative reactions after turning people away—and whether she's had customers flip out on her mid-session—she said, "Not really. As long as they pay, I’m fine with it."
Continuing, she said, "The work here is good. Sometimes hardly anyone shows up—those nights are terrible. I don’t enjoy those. But other nights, it’s fine. You can make good money." I asked Elizabet if she enjoys her job, and wasn't surprised by her answer: "I like the money," she said, smiling. "Sometimes I get sad about the job itself, but what can I do?"
A large number of Amsterdam's estimated 7,000 prostitutes aren't Dutch nationals, with Elizabet guessing that around 80 percent of the city's sex workers are from Eastern Europe. In fact, the overwhelming presence of Eastern Europeans working on Elizabet's street—most of them from Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, or Russia—has led to it being dubbed "Hungarystraat."
It was Elizabet's decision to move from Hungary to Amsterdam and start working in the red-light district, but she's heard stories about women from her home country—and others from all across Eastern Europe—being forced into the sex trade by pimps and criminal organizations. "The gangs take their passports and control their lives," she told me. "They cannot escape. I feel terrible for them."
Not everyone is so sympathetic to the plight of trafficked women. Metje Blaak—a retired prostitute who now works as a spokeswoman for prostitutes in the Netherlands—lamented the fact that restrictions introduced to cut down on human trafficking have resulted in more bureaucracy for those who choose to work in the sex trade. "There are many women who choose to be prostitutes," she wrote in an email. "But the so-called 'help' for women who are forced into the job makes it impossible for free women to work, with those stupid rules and idiotic regulations."
Regardless of your views on the rules and regulations, from speaking to Elizabet, it doesn't look like they're working particularly well. Women from poor backgrounds are shipped over with the promise of work, before being forced into sex work and prevented from leaving.
Elizabet is also trapped, but only by the prospect of going home and ending up unemployed again. She dreams of returning to Hungary and starting a family, but she has no idea when she'll be able to do so. "I want to have kids and get married, but I won't find anybody here—I'm always working," she sighed. "So I don't know if it will ever happen."
Shockingly, Elizabet didn't grow up hoping to forge a career in prostitution. "When I was a kid, I wanted to be a shop mannequin, being dressed up in all of the clothes," she laughed. "My mom used to say, 'You can't do that—mannequins aren't real.' We all thought it was very funny. But now, I'm a prostitute," she said.
Elizabet seems to shares similar aspirations to anyone her age. But obviously her circumstances have forced her to follow a different career path from most of her peers'—something she's managed to keep quiet among her friends and family at home. In fact, the only person who knows about her profession is her mother. Everyone else thinks she's working in a hotel.
"My mother is the only one who knows," she told me. "She says I shouldn't do it, but I need the money, and I send the money back home to my family. I don't want the rest of my family to know; I don't think I could go back if they found out."
Madella told a similar story, saying that she spends all the money she makes on her family. "I stacked shelves in a supermarket for a few days when I first moved here," she said, "but I switched jobs soon after, because the money in prostitution is better. Really, I'm just working to make money for my family."
Despite Elizabet's apprehensions, it's not all bad—she told me she enjoys some aspects of her life in Amsterdam. "It's nice here," she said. "The people are nice, and the police, and the landlord—they're all very respectful." Ultimately, however, she's still desperate to get home to her friends and family. "I want to stop, but I can’t," she said. "I've always got money on my mind."
Additional reporting by Elko Born