31. 3. 2021

English Version | Prostitution – in the forbidden valley, prohibitions are off limits.

by Nuno Miguel Dias


May the audience be silent because this text will not dwell with the most well-known and divulgated story about prostitution. Especially because if it is the World’s Oldest Profession, we wouldn’t have the space to do so. What we will do, is take a chilled walk (short, of course), with no romanticisms nor judgment, around one of the biggest targets for prejudice. The tabu within the tabus. And yet, here it is, alive and kicking, as always.

It was a truly beautiful dress. That fit not like a glove but as a soft corset. It didn’t oppress but instead, it drew the most perfect shapes. Overflowing everything that could be commonly perceived as an object of desire. And containing, with restrained modesty, all the excess that could stain her notorious class and delicate and noble size. She walked into the saloon as if she was followed by invisible spotlights. The respected gentlemen all turned their necks, synchronized, as a bunch of flamingos. Just to see, they would swear, some sort of fireworks. Their wives carefully followed their gaze. Firing sparks in between their mascara. Mumbling inappropriate things behind their clenched, lipstick-stained teeth. Like an apparition, she walked through the grand door, lighting up the room where the party/ cocktail/ reception was happening and, still holding the arm of Lourenço Burnay, the guest of honor and well-known bon vivant from the art business world, she took a prosecco flute from a tray and, holding it lightly in between her long fine fingers, she made her way to the big chair, where she now sat, legs crossed and her foot, highly arched and taken care of, suspended in the air towards Lourenço who stayed behind talking to other guests. Trivialities, mostly. Since no one had the guts to ask him who his imponent date was, supposing it was a delicate subject following the recent, extremely complicated and widely talked about divorce featured on the latest sexagenarian. When they finally announced that dinner was served and everyone moved to the contiguous room, topped off by gigantic chandeliers and eighteen-century frescos, Lourenço bowed in front of her, offered his hand and said: “Shall we?” They were the last ones to enter and, once again, everyone without exception had their eyes on the door, bewilderment in every face. When the bird consommé was served, silence filled the room. An older lady, with proud poise, musk perfume and well-done balayage, smiled to the seductive young lady: “My name is Edite. What’s your name?”. “Kátia, with a K”, she responded, with a restrained smile and in the lowest possible tone of voice, given the quietness of the room. “And what do you do?”, Edite continued, before taking a spoon to her mouth. Without taking her eyes off the deep plate, where a chicken breast was floating alongside three carrots cubes, Kátia responded: “I’m a hooker.”

During my time in the huge and unforgettable Turkey, one of the countries in the world with more subsistent roman ruins, I went back to my high school’s passionate history lessons, with maps of yore filled with dots marking the great roman metropolis. Further south of Constantinople (the current Istanbul), and closer to Izmir, in that part of Turkey, which is much more Greek than its Russian interior, is Ephesus, one of the most well-preserved cities of the incredibly vast roman empire. Many of the houses remain intact with their terraces and frescos, even tableware and some interior decoration, huge statues in the entrance of important buildings, such as the Temple of Hadrian and Odeon, in a state of conservation that would unleash the envy of any other holder of such patrimony. On that long and incredibly unscathed avenue that leads to the majestic Library of Celso, whose important façade still holds and at one point even had inside of it twelve thousand manuscripts, the chariot wheel marks on the marble sidewalk and, on one of the stones on the side of the road, there were a few chiseled figures: a beautiful woman, a heart, a left foot (turn left) and a T (on the next crossroads). Archeologists and historians do not doubt that it is some sort of ad poster for a prostitution house. Despite the lack of certitude that prostitution is, in fact, the world’s oldest profession, publicists, on the contrary, have been around for more than two thousand years. Possibly, there were even briefings before the execution of this work. Nonetheless, the only question that remains is if it was a case of conventional prostitution or Sacred Prostitution (also known as Templar, Cult or Religious Prostitution), meaning, ritual sex consecrated to certain divinities with the purpose of fertility, as a ritual of marriage or even as a way of ascending into another state of consciousness, a very common practice within not only the Roman empire and ancient Greece, as one can verify on the existent manuscripts, but as old as religion itself, which Babylonia made famous.

Kátia with a K, on the other hand, is a modern woman and is part of a market niche that is not new but that the Internet came to consecrate, reducing in half the number of personal ad pages on the newspaper, which, until the turn of the new century, called for a tiresome search, because choosing between “2nd Chance”, “Complete” or “Natural oral ‘till the end” was not easy. They are escorts. Websites now portray sophisticated designs, are very user-friendly, and should serve as an example to many supermarkets, excuse the comparison. In fact, they represent that magical chamber of masculine delight that have always been the main salons of brothels, where clients expected an armchair to seat on until “The Madame” would come to present her “Girls”, who paraded, one by one, showing off the endowments that would lead them to be The Chosen One. They are perfect catalogs, filled with suggestive but not explicit pictures and even short videos with glimpses of shapes, some sort of videoclips that, I can imagine, might be as deceiving as the regular ones – those who have never been disappointed by a movie they watched because of the trailer may throw the first stone at Mary Magdalene, who was also a prostitute, according to the twelve apostles who wrote the New Testament. What is the difference between a luxury escort and a conventional prostitute? Mainly the price. An hour can cost from 500€ to 1.500€ in certain places, they are much more restricted, but the variables are pretty much the same as the “other type” of prostitution, let’s call it “traditional” or “street”. It all depends on what kind of sexual “service” is being talked of (anal is more expensive, with toys and fetishes too), if there is a need for dislodgment, if the hotel is chosen by her or if the “escorting” lasts for several hours. That’s the biggest difference. Because the service of luxury escorting works, oftentimes, as just that, someone is hired to accompany a client to an event where they wish to be seen with women who catch people’s eyes. I, who have never resorted to prostitution, which is what I believe everybody who has done so says, have found myself many times in situations, some of them rather exotic ones, that made me realize that, in the vast majority of times, we don’t even fathom the parallel realities around us. Because to travel is to lower one’s guard when it comes to judgment. It is the antidote to prejudice. In a reality we know nothing of, everything is exotic. And the reasons each person has will always seem as foreign as they are captivating to us.

The worldwide famous Sex Capital. No, it is not Florida during Spring Break, not even Amsterdam and its Red Light District, that today is more of a living museum where everyone goes to rebelliously photograph (since it is forbidden) the scene and never really ends up hearing the famous Suck and Fuck Fifty Euro. Yes, that’s the one, Bangkok. With 36oC during the day, 35oC at night, if so, clothes become unbearable, and the only solution really is to take them off. At any cost. Everything suggests sex. And it’s not just Pat Pong, those two or three parallel streets filled with neon signs of open legs and saying Ping Pong Show, number one, number one, advertising some sort of pomp circus show destined to showcase the potential (and trust me, imagination is not the limit) of a vagina of extraordinary capabilities, depending on which the girls will not only use it to project ping pong balls to the audience, but also to open beer bottles, smoke and a bunch of other things. There is also the Nana neighborhood, an apparently residential area during the day that, at nightfall, becomes crowded with people searching for something very particular. If we fail to look at the prostitutes’ feet, their touch already inside the bedroom would for sure alert us to the situation: travesties. Or ladyboys, in Thai. Plus, massages. Thousands of establishments dedicate themselves to this art, in every street, avenue or hidden alleys. In one or the other, there is only one certainty: after one hour of having your body “kicked”, front and back, legs and torso (Thai massage), comes the providential question: “Happy Ending?” If by any chance the answer is yes, the next question is “Oral or Manual?” Prices differ, but never go beyond 5€. For the massage, of course. But one of those nights, out of mere curiosity, I asked how much it would cost to take her to the hotel, instead of doing it there, in a “cabinet” separated from the others by nothing but an old bedsheet. She asked me what hotel I was staying at. To my answer of Centara at Central World (the mega-luxurious complex that, a couple of years later, burned to the ground in one of the Red Shirt riots), her immediate response was immediate: “Usually it would be 3€, but if we’re going to the Centara it’s free.” This all seems like a very distant reality to us. Because in Buddhist lands, the law is that other people’s lives are worth nothing. Prostitution is a profession just like any other, in a country where, let it be noted, there is also the profession of Fruit and Vegetables Sculptor. On another occasion, I really just wanted a beer with a couple of peanuts. And soup and rest. The lady in charge directed me to an armchair in front of a giant mirror which, in less than a second, revealed itself to be a vitrine behind which there was a small amphitheater where, holding a numbered plaque, more than two dozen girls were standing. Girls as in underage. Disturbed as I was, I left in such a hurry that I was grabbed, by the neck, already down the street, by two “henchmen”. I had not paid for the beer. Nor the peanuts. Despite the circumstances that led those children to fall into “the life” (which usually has something to do with extreme poverty and the need to support their parents who stayed in a very far away Thailand from that one, with bamboo forests and close to the border of problematic Myanmar), and the consciousness of immorality, according to the occidental canons, and the tourists that look for it, all this around there is, one might say, “normal”.

On the oriental African coast, right below (or above?) the Equator, is the smoldering Mobaça. And there, there is the Tembo Club, the only nightclub where a traveling foreign doesn’t incur any risk of finding trouble with gang members or being scammed. Because everything has a price, I soon realized that, amid those two hundred people, except for a couple of Germans who were there precisely for that, me, a photographer, and two barmen were the only men inside. The rest were prostitutes. Yes, all of them. Even if you have no idea what it is like to be one of the six men, whose sole intent was to have a drink (I swear), in a place with two hundred prostitutes, I’ll explain: It’s tough! It’s impossible. Forget about the Unibanco salespeople at the mall, or the pressed bags of bay leaves on Rossio. They are like moths to a flame. Unless you’re interested in hearing their life stories. There were mothers with their babies waiting, alone, at home (where I would have gone to had I not want a glass of whisky before heading to bed), refugees from the Somalian civil war, excised from Sudan (“but it still works”, they swore to me), some Ethiopians (the most beautiful women in the world, this I swear) with four and five children (one of them, more honestly, confessed she was only 16), and even an Indian woman who ran away, in a cargo ship, fleeing from her own husband’s acid attack. Closer by, in Serbia, I also had a rather interesting encounter in an unwary bar (as you might have figured by now, I have a natural talent to pick bars) with a few girls, victims of the Romanian mafia or that had lost their husbands in the Balkan war. That time, I recalled a moment when I was thirteen and found myself, in the middle of the URSS (my father was in the navy and once a year I could travel to meet him), on a bus from the harbor to the city where women, young, beautiful and available, “threw themselves” at my father’s companions. Many years later, old Zé Dias explained to me that, during the war in Afghanistan, many of the Russians who died had no remains to send back to their country, meaning it was possible to prove they were dead. Thus, many of the “war widows” tried to have another child, upon whose birth the URSS government would grant them housing with one more room, which they used to rescue their parents from Ukraine or some other Soviet Republic, harsher and with tougher conditions, so they could live in more of a “metropolis”. Needless to say, that, during that night, those ladies would make sure their offspring was assured. So much so that, usually, the ship’s commander granted those mariners the next day off. Can this be considered prostitution? No. It was just a way of going around, using the means available, the given vicissitudes.

In Portugal, prostitution is legislated. But by default. Let us explain… The activity in itself, meaning, the prostitute cannot be criminalized. Therefore, they can’t be either detained nor fined. That is not the case for third parties that make a profit with their activity, whether that may be a pimp, or a brothel that receives a percentage of the prostitute’s earnings (when what actually happens is that the brothel takes all the profit and pays the prostitute a percentage) might incur in jail time. Basically, it’s the practice of pimping that is forbidden. When certain legislation is this omissive, what comes from this is that one way or another, the prostitute is not legally in a position that allows her to get social security or be somehow protected through the mechanisms that would provide her with a future or, ultimately, some sort of social inclusion of her job as a “profession”. They are so used to being ostracized, that for sure they wouldn’t mind continuing to be looked down upon, as long as their future was safe. On the 4th of July 2020, the luxury escort (and owner of a “ladies house”) Ana Loureiro was heard at the Parliament after gathering 4 thousand names in a petition that aimed to make prostitution into a “profession with social duties and rights as any other, since only this way, legally, can they work.” At the time, one of the most widely claimed reasons by the document’s author had to do with the prostitution of underage individuals and, indirectly, human trafficking: “There are more and more younger women entering prostitution. If it is legalized, then it can be regulated. It is my intention to make this activity forbidden for those under the age of 21, for those in the country illegally and to punish clients who come looking for prostitutes younger than 21 years old, as well as those who take them back to their place.” In the lack of a better term, nothing happened. Years before, in 2003, the movement Mães de Bragança was born, where the dignified spouses of the region got together against the Brazilian emigrants that “kept their husbands’ company in the local bars, endangering their children’s sustenance”, since there were already many cases where men “feel in love and left everything behind for them”. The commotion was of such magnitude that dozens of searches and swoops were made, resulting in the shutdown of four switch houses, six jail sentences and various dozens of extraditions of Brazilian women since they were illegally in the country. But because karma is a bitch, it didn’t take long for part of the city’s life to die, bankruptcies followed as businesses grew stale and, in the end, the most dignified spouses continued to do what they always did, only now they do it in Spain.

Márcia is 23 years old and has an amazing physique. I thought she was younger. But since “there is no picture and that is not really my name, there’s no point in lying to you”, she said, with a girly voice and a chirpy accent, easy smile and contagious joy, smart humor and a quick joke always on the tip of her tongue, though the paper only referred to her as “sensual, soft, good tits”. I found it insufficient. But, from what I gathered, that’s the point. “I used to do that back in Brazil already, but because I liked it, it was not about the money.” She never encountered any unpleasant situations. Not even when she does groups: “I prefer it, but because I can stay out of it for a couple of weeks, it pays much better”. She doesn’t do house calls but lives in Amadora and has gone as far as Évora, because someone there recommended her services: “The best was when the guy wanted me to do it with his wife. He didn’t even touch me. He couldn’t, she wouldn’t let him”, she reveals, with a loud laugh. She hit the streets for only three months, a period that allowed her to save up enough money to rent the apartment she still lives in today. She has no kids and no boyfriend and isn’t exactly looking. She only wishes to return to Brazil in a position that allows her to have a future. The situation is very different for Ana (fictional name), that lives in Parque das Nações, where she does most of her business: “Of course I will go other places, but only very seldomly, only if I already know the client from other services”, she states, dead serious, in a Betty Faria voice. Portuguese, 44 (but officially she is only 35), divorced at 32 from a man that terrorized her with “horrible assaults almost on a daily”, on whose income she depended on, and found herself alone, an only child, without parents, habilitations nor work experience whatsoever. “Those were extremely hard times. I didn’t have that great of a figure, too skinny, and tried my luck every night around the Instituto Superior Técnico from 9 pm, when it wasn’t that dangerous. From 3 am forward the clients were much rougher, and I couldn’t handle it, I was too inexperienced”, she confesses. Everything about this woman was the ultimate superlative. Her presence even became imponent, compelling: “Only afterward do I give them a reason to relax, when we start the action. But it’s very important that the first impact is one that demands respect and that avoids abuse. Even that was something I had to learn”. It was not quite just that. She graduated from Sciences of Communication from a private university she paid for with her work, she drives a good car she paid for upfront and dresses in designer brands: “In this world, everything is about image. I’ve earned people’s respect. Even my neighbors’, who I doubt are even aware of what I do, especially because they never asked, which in itself is suspicious”, but she has gone through very difficult situations. “One day, a client hired me just for escorting. Supposedly, we were going to a party. And it was, but a swing one. It is curious to think that almost everyone there was not exactly in a couple. Many of these women were in the same situation as me, I even recognized one of them. Then, I noticed how wedding rings didn’t match between pairs, perhaps they were lovers satisfying their repressed wishes. Everything was going well, the night had been fun, but on the way back, he stopped the car on a back street somewhere in Alvalade and hit me so violently I didn’t even manage to reach the pepper-spray I always carry in my purse. And all because I had told someone at the house that I was not his girlfriend, but an escort. It so happens that man was his co-worker.”

Ever since, during the Dictatorship (1949), a law was drafted about Sexually Transmitted Diseases, under which any switch establishment could be shut down in case there were any suspected threats to public safety, the setbacks were numerous. In 1954, a law decree forbade prostitution overseas and, in 1962, the Metropolis followed, and all prostitution houses were closed. Until then, the practice was regulated and included regular medical check-ups for prostitutes. Only in 1982 would prostitution become legislated again, but by default, redundant in the situation it still is today, despite the 1995, 1998 and 2001 alterations (in order to encompass child prostitution and human trafficking), to the point that the European Parliament classified Portugal, in 2005, as “abolitionist” when it comes to this matter. Generally speaking, Portuguese prostitutes are less protected now than they were during Salazar’s regime. Their rights are scarce in comparison to the dangers that still lurk. Let’s not be foolish, we’re talking about women, the gender that continues to suffer, year after year, to the hands of their own husbands, who grow rooted in a troublesome notion of impunity. Plus, this is one of the “occupations” that suffer the most prejudice in society, adding to the fact that prostitutes are often sought after for fetishes which, oftentimes, are everything but pleasing. Despite how much it bothers some people, and maybe that is the reason why it is still a “tabu”, prostitutes are, etymologically, women who dominate the prostate. And that, when you really consider it, is feminine empowerment in itself. Maybe that’s why, in a patriarchal society, no one grants them the power they are due. Not even the power to rule of their own life. It’s pure fear.

*Translated from the original on Vogue Portugal's The Forbidden Issue, published april 2021.