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The lives of Czech and Romani male prostitutes

Prague, 28.4.2012 23:02, (ROMEA)

Some are college students, others are drug-addicted, others are abandoned boys without parents from the children's homes and juvenile "diagnostic centers". Some want nothing more from life than luxury and will do anything to get it, no matter how extreme. What do male prostitutes in the Czech Republic - be they Czech or Romani - have in common? Have they always been able to make their own choices in life?

"At one time I made five or six thousand crowns a night. Today? No way!" 21-year-old Honza says. He has been a "streetwalker" since he was 16. I am getting to know him at Prague's main train station, which is often called the biggest intersection for male prostitution in the country, but the fact that this description no longer really applies to it is clear to the dirty-blond native of Rakovník. The days when young male prostitutes used to stand around the station and make good money offering sexual services to well-heeled men are said to be long over.

"There are boys here who'll service an undiscriminating customer for just CZK 200. In the bushes. That's why I often travel to Hamburg, the prices there are at a completely different level, something like around EUR 200 per day," Honza says. The boys from the area around Prague's Wilson Station are usually from communities of drug-addicted people. They know all the local homeless people, the female prostitutes and their pimps very well. The vast majority of them take drugs themselves or sell them, just like Honza.

Honza takes a drag on the Marlboro I offer him. He will tell us his life story for CZK 300.

"As a child I played competitive football and until I was about 15 I lived a completely comfortable life, except for the fact that I grew up without my mother, who passed away when I was five. I stayed living with my Dad after that, but he's no longer alive now. He got killed in a car when I was 16," Honza begins. He goes on to recall what launched him into the life: His upbringing in the institution where he was placed after his father's death.

Honza frequently ran away from the children's home in Tábor, and his first steps led him to the main train station in Prague. He lived on the street and took showers either at the station or in the homes of his first clients. "When you are a 16-year-old hooker you enjoy a really good standard of living, but by the time you are over 20, if you do drugs, you have absolutely no chance. Then you get paid ridiculously low amounts of money, at least here at the station," he says. He believes real money can only be made in the luxurious (or mid-level) gay clubs for which Prague is rather notorious.

The "hourly rooms" for gentlemen who want to enjoy themselves with young boys in Prague are also infamous. Those running gay enterprises bet on that; the rooms are always immediately adjacent to the clubs. "The most famous one in Prague is Pinocchio, they just changed the name to Tempel. It's not far from here," Honza points out, exhaling smoke from what must be his sixth cigarette. "Believe me, I'd like to stop this, not do drugs, not sleep with old guys, live a normal life, but first I have to make money."

Honza's fate is far too similar to the stories of male Czechoslovak prostitutes contacted by journalist Cyril Valšík during the 1990s. "It was not until 1982 that I learned the prostitution of male minors even existed, but then I read an article about this problem in the newspapers. When I filmed a television documentary about the children's homes and diagnostic institutes, the topic came up again, in a much more concrete way," Valšík writes in his book, entitled "Your Boy - A Prostitute?" (Váš kluk prostitut?). Besides the 1997 film "Mandragora" by the Polish director Wiktor Grodecki, Valšík's book is one of only a very few works from this country about the issue of male -often labeled homosexual - prostitution.

"It's not homosexual prostitution because the vast majority of boys who make a living with their bodies on the streets or somewhere else are not homosexually oriented," explains Lászlo Sümegh, who started distributing clean injection needles and condoms to young homeless boys in the center of the Czech capital in 1995. Now he runs an organization based in the Vysočany neighborhood of Prague. "Give them a chance..." reads an enormous sign posted on the building at number 7, K Moravině street. Another sign in the windows reads "The House of Opportunity" (Dům Šance). Until July 2008, the organization was located on Nepomuckého street in Prague 5. However, for reasons that remain obscure, the Prague 5 municipal leadership canceled the lease held by the Projekt Šance (Project Chance) civil association.

It was not the easiest thing to schedule an interview with Lázslo, who runs the association. Last March he won the Křesadlo 2010 prize for his many years of activity on behalf of youth. What's more, one must be sufficiently prepared for the interview. At roughly two meters tall, this guy with the effeminate gestures doesn't mince words. He is used to people trying to trip him up. His own social work clients have robbed and threatened him more than once. Originally a professional textile artist, he has spent many years as a social worker and street worker with all sorts of children and young people who end up on the street without any help. A significant portion of his social work clients are male prostitutes.

Our interview was scheduled for 17:00. "There won't be so many people here. I'll have more time for you," Lázslo says. Shortly after 17:00 he comes out from the next room in which he regularly meets with his social work clients, most of whom are former prostitutes, both female and male, the vast majority of whom have been on drugs. Some of them are Romani. The social work clients can cook food and spend their free time at the center, talk about their problems and work in the workshops. You won't hear vulgar language here - each curse word costs you CZK 20.

"The vast majority of children living on the street come from the children's homes. When they are thrown out of the homes at 18 and go into the larger world, they leave their family behind. They are used to eating five or six times a day, they've grown up in an institution, so understandably they have become institutionalized. Once you throw these young people onto the street, what happens? They start looking for another institution. Then the evil closes in on them - they find an organization that lets them eat for free, shower for free, but will never lead them to do anything independent," László Sümegh says, adding that society is not interested in making sure that only a few children will have to grow up in children's homes. "They're building more of them. That's the basic problem," he says decisively.

One of László's social work clients now appears in the doorway, called Milly. He is a young transsexual, a native of Olomouc, who ran away from a diagnostic institute. This is his sixth year in Prague. He was also a "streetwalker", first at the main train station, and then in Prague's gay clubs. "I used to make as much as CZK 10 000 a night. Today you don't have a chance of making that much. Some people still think we pay for everything with gold bank cards, that we have a high standard of living," says Milly, who is wearing a light layer of make-up on his face and has gently plucked eyebrows.

"You know, it's really euphoric for those young people. They think the supply of customers willing to pay exorbitant prices will last forever," Lázsló says, interrupting him. Milly stopped working as a prostitute when he realized customers were getting used to paying a maximum of only CZK 200 for their satisfaction. Some were only willing to pay in bowls of soup - but even they were still the decent ones. "Some of them wouldn't even talk to you. You did your job and then they beat you until you bled and refused to pay you. Horrible humiliation. I wouldn't wish that on anyone," he says.

Then there is the Romani man who, for understandable reasons, wants to remain anonymous. We'll call him Roman. He's 22 years old. He grew up in the Smíchov neighborhood of Prague, living in an apartment with his mother, who worked as a cleaning woman, his younger sister, and his grandmother.

"We lived in pretty deep poverty. Mom did cleaning in several places so she often wasn't home in the afternoons. My sister and I spent a lot of time outside on the street with our friends. When I was 11, I started smoking cigarettes from time to time, but neither my mother nor my grandmother knew. Someone brought marijuana to the park so we could try it. I tried it and to this day I remember how much it made me laugh. I didn't do any drugs after that for some time, but then marijuana started turning up more and more often," Roman recalls of his first drug experiences from childhood.

He goes on to tell us that fairly shortly afterward he experimented with much harder drugs: "When I was 12, a family moved in to Plzeňská street who sold heroin. It was terribly easy to buy it." He looked for money wherever he could. Sometimes he took something valuable from home, like his grandmother's gold rings, and pawned them, but that couldn't go on forever. From time to time he robbed people, taking their mobile phones at tram stops, and then he tried telling hard-luck stories for money, but he soon feared doing even that.

"I kept hearing that boys were going to the Podolí quarter on business. At first I didn't know what that was, but then I understood that there were older guys there paying young guys to jack them off. At first the very idea of it was repugnant to me, but the boys who were doing it had a lot of money. They never had to steal anything. They didn't have to fear running out of money. One boy told me that if you don't think about it, if you think about something else during it, it's not that bad," says Roman. He says he is heterosexual, like the vast majority of male prostitutes.

"Young boys are rather excitable. Many of them are capable of achieving an erection through fantasizing, heterosexual fantasies, or through mechanical stimulation. On the other hand, most of these boys' customers don't need them to have an erections, they don't care. The customers use them as objects of sexual satisfaction," explains Czech sexologist Petr Weiss.

In the end, Roman decided to make money just like his friends were at the swimming pool in Podolí. He was 12. "I was a pretty boy, everyone said so, and I really did not have any problem with making money there. Soon they started talking about me in Smíchov, saying I was in business. I was able to buy nice pants and shoes, and sometimes I gave my mother something. I think she knew, but we never discussed it," he says.

According to David Tišer, who is one of the Czech Republic's first (if not the only) Romani LGBT activists, young Romani men are actually in demand in the Czech Republic and Slovakia when it comes to prostitution. "Essentially, they represent one of the few exotic offerings Czech customers might come across," Tišer believes. He says that more and more young Romani men who have fallen into prostitution and are seeking a helping hand have been turning to him recently.

Roman later fell even deeper into drugs. His body was demanding greater dosages and he needed to increase his income: "I started wandering around Prague, going to the main train station. That was where I had anal sex for the first time. It was horrible, but I got more money for it. I was 14 and it wasn't as easy for me to get customers anymore because even younger boys were going there. Sometimes I also sold letters [editor's note: a small envelope containing drugs that looks like a miniature letter]. However, someone must have snitched on me, probably because they envied the fact that I was making more money than they were, and the police caught me. They locked me up, and by the time I got back out, I was old." (At that time Roman was almost 17.) "I wandered around the main train station," he says, "but there was enormous competition. So I started selling drugs again, and I got sent to prison once more. Now I am completely out. I'm 22, I don't use anymore, but nothing is interesting to me and I don't know what to do."

There is a kind of hierarchy within the prostitute community. Boys who make money in gay clubs, or in the worst-case scenario at the train station (like Honza, Milly and Roman) are considered the lowest layer. Those who offer their services online are in the higher layer. Services are offered through ordinary discussion fora, chat rooms, erotic dating services and gay dating services - the most famous of which is probably iBoys.cz. Services are also offered directly through specialized web pages offering gay escort services. For example, the subscription-only website www.escortboys.cz reportedly offers access to about 3 000 active users. All one has to do is pay a registration fee by bank transfer and set up a profile including one's measurements, photographs, and the prices one charges for each service. The customers then place their orders.

Romani LGBT activist David Tišer says the highest "caste" is represented by prostitutes who make money abroad in luxurious gay clubs, primarily in Austria and Switzerland. "I know cases of young Romani men who leave for Switzerland. They start making money in a club, and later they find an older Swiss man. They might live in his home for a week, for example, then spend another three days back home in the Czech Republic and then return to Switzerland for a week. They support their entire families on the money they make there," Tišer says.

During two weeks in Switzerland a "luxury prostitute" can make up to CZK 100 000. These are primarily boys who want a high standard of living, take very good care of their physical appearance, and don't turn their noses up at luxury brands of clothing - quite the opposite. They don't use heroin, but sometimes take cocaine, which is less likely to ruin their looks.

"After my first 14 days I brought home CZK 90 000, even though I spent a lot of money there too," says a 20-year-old Romani man who wants to be called Tommy. Until the age of 15, he lived in South Bohemia, but in order to preserve his anonymity he does not want to say which town. He once had a promising career ahead of him as a ballet dancer and was accepted to the ballet conservatory after elementary school. His parents paid for his schooling and his family was completely ordinary.

"We were well-off. I always had everything I wanted. To this day I'm terribly spoiled," admits Tommy, who reportedly has always loved luxury items. That was essentially the main reason he decided to privilege escort services over ballet. No one in his family knows what he does. "My mother would kill me," he says with a bit of a smile.

Tommy has his own way of explaining to those back home how it is that he wears the most expensive brands of clothing, drives a new car, and sometimes gives money to his parents: "I tell them I have a rich boyfriend who is keeping me." Tommy claims he really does have a boyfriend, who is not Romani, but says he really doesn't have money to give away. His boyfriend does not much approve of Tommy's work, but allegedly has also gotten used to the luxury it provides them.

Tommy started working as a prostitute in Switzerland when he was 18. At first it was through an agency, which took care of his flights and arranged a luxurious apartment for him. He paid 40 % of his earnings back to the agency. "It's not much, because everything there is terribly expensive, but over time it pays better than if you yourself were to reserve a room somewhere," Tommy explains. He has built up his own clientele in the land of good chocolate, many banks, and precision watches. "I mainly travel to their homes, not to the agency's apartments," he says, adding that the customers, usually elderly gentlemen, don't pay him for sex only. "Sometimes they just want to talk, other times they want a massage, but naturally they also demand sex, including kissing. I don't have a problem with it. I feel better when I imagine the money."

According to the distinguished Czech sexologist Petr Weiss, most prostitutes, female and male, say they are able to distance the selves from their work and to experience real sex in a personal relationship. "Nevertheless, I am not of the opinion that it is possible to so easily build up that kind of barrier when it comes to sex. The things a person experiences in that work are not always very pretty. If someone wants to make money, he or she must participate in many activities which are unpleasant. I believe that leaves its traces on the person's own sex life, on his or her relationship to people," Weiss says.

When Tommy was asked whether he believes his work contravenes his "Romipen", his Romani identity or traditional Romani values, he says it doesn't: "What does that have to do with it? I am Romani, I know that, but it doesn't meant I can't do this work. I make money that others only dream of."

Gwendolyn Albert, Tomáš Bystrý, Tomáš Bystrý, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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