PRAGUE: On a recent night at Big Sister, which calls itself the world’s biggest Internet brothel, a middle-aged man selected a prostitute from an electronic menu on a flat-screen television, pressing his index finger against it to review the age, hair color, weight and languages spoken by the women on offer.
Once he had chosen an 18-year-old brunette, he put on a mandatory burgundy terry cloth robe and proceeded to one of the brothel’s luridly-lit theme rooms, an Alpine suite decorated with foam rubber mountains covered with fake snow.
Nearby, in the brothel’s cramped control room, two young technicians used joysticks to control the dozens of hidden cameras that would film his performance and stream it, live, on Big Sister’s Internet site.
Sex is free at Big Sister, but that is not cheap enough for some men. Customers get the cut rate in return for signing a release form that allows the brothel to film their sexual exploits.
Even with this financial incentive, Big Sister’s marketing manager, Carl Borowitz, 26, a Moravian computer engineer, lamented that the global financial crisis had diminished the number of sex tourists in Prague.
“Sex is a steady demand, because everyone needs it, and it used to be taboo, which made a service like ours all the more attractive,” said Borowitz, who looks more like Harry Potter than a Czech Larry Flint. “But the problem today is that there is too much competition, too many free pornography sites and people are thinking twice before making impulse purchases, including paying for sex.”
Big Sister is not the only brothel suffering the effects of a battered global economy. While the world’s oldest profession may also be one of its most recession-proof businesses, brothel owners in Europe and the United States say belt-tightening caused by the global financial crisis is undermining a once-lucrative industry.
Egbert Krumeich, manager of Artemis, the largest brothel in Berlin, said that the recession had helped dent revenue by 20 percent in November, which is usually peak season for the sex trade. Meanwhile, in Reno, Nevada, the multimillion-dollar Mustang Ranch recently laid off 30 percent of its staff, citing a decline in high-spending clients.
Big Sister is not struggling as much as some of its more traditional rivals; its revenue is largely derived from the €30, or $40 monthly fee each of the company’s 10,000 clients pay to gain access to its Web site.
But Borowitz said Big Sister hoped to offset a 15 percent drop in revenue over the past quarter by expanding into the United States. Big Sister also produces cable TV shows that air on Sky Italia and Television X in Britain, as well as DVDs like “World Cup Love Truck” and “Extremely Perverted.”
Ester, an 18-year-old prostitute at Big Sister who declined to give her last name, said that big-spending clients had diminished, but noted that she was still earning nearly €3,000 a month, enough to pay rent and to pay for her favorite Louis Vuitton purses.
“The reason I do this is for the money,” she said, after gyrating half-naked around a pole. Being filmed, she added, made her feel more like an actress than a sex object.
In the Czech Republic, where prostitution operates in a gray zone but is largely tolerated, the sex industry is big business, generating nearly €400 million in annual revenues, 60 percent of which is derived from foreign visitors, according to Mag Consulting, a tourism research company in Prague that also studies the sex industry.
Since the fall of Communism in 1989, the Czech Republic has become a major transit and destination country for women and girls trafficked from countries farther east, including Ukraine, Russia, Belarus and Moldova, the police say. Czechs and those transiting the country are most often sent to Western Europe or the United States.
Since 1989, tens of thousands of sex tourists have streamed into Prague, the pristinely beautiful Czech capital, drawn by inexpensive erotic services, an atmosphere of anonymity for customers and a liberal population tolerant of adultery.
Mag Consulting said 14 percent of Czech men admit to having had sex with prostitutes, compared with an EU-wide average of 10 percent.
Dozens of cheap flights to Prague have also ensured a steady flow of bachelor parties from across Europe. In 2005, an average of 30 flights arrived in Prague every day from Britain alone, a figure that analysts said has dropped by a third.
Jaromir Beranek, the director of Mag, said that when Germany and Britain – the two countries that send the most tourists to Prague – began to stagnate, sexual tourism suffered too.
The strength of the Czech crown against the euro, lower spending power and competition from even lower-cost sex capitals like Riga, Latvia, and Krakow, Poland, were threatening one of the country’s most thriving sectors, he said. “If you ski and there is no snow, you stay home. The same applies to sex.”
Many Czechs are more than happy to see Prague shrug off its reputation as one of the world’s top-20 sex destinations, but some in the hotel industry are so alarmed by the drop in tourists that they are lobbying the government to legalize the trade, in hope that it will help lure more clients.
Jiri Gajdosik, the manager of Le Palais, one of Prague’s top hotels, argues that regulating prostitution would help attract business by making prostitution safer. “We must ensure that the city loses its bad reputation of a city where foreigners are afraid that they will be robbed,” he said in an interview with Hospodarske noviny, a Czech financial daily.
While some critics have warned that legalization would effectively transform the Czech state into the country’s biggest pimp, the government is considering whether to emulate the Netherlands and Germany by regulating prostitution, just as it would any other industry. It is considering passing legislation by the end of this year that would require the Czech Republic’s estimated 10,000 prostitutes to register with the local authorities.
Dzamila Stehlikova, the Green Party minister for minorities and human rights who is shepherding the bill through Parliament, said that forcing the business out into the open would make it harder for human traffickers to thrive, while also helping to assure mandatory health check-ups for prostitutes. Other advocates argue that legalization would generate millions of euros in tax revenue from an industry that now largely operates underground.
Not everyone is enthusiastic, including the prostitutes themselves, who warn that being issued prostitution identification cards would further stigmatize them.
Hana Malinova, director of Bliss Without Risk, a prostitution outreach group, said she feared the current credit crunch was pushing more poor women into prostitution, since they could make more money selling their bodies – about €120 for a half-hour session at some upmarket sex clubs in Prague – than flipping burgers at McDonalds.
Even with the economic downturn, she added, prostitution was far more resilient than other industries, though the downturn was discouraging adultery.
“An Austrian farmer from a remote area who is not married will still cross the border to the Czech Republic looking for sex,” Malinova said. “On the other hand, the recession is helping to keep husbands at home who might otherwise be cheating on their wives.”
Near the border with Germany, in towns in northern Bohemia that were long blighted by a daily influx of sex tourists seeking cheap thrills, many are rejoicing in the decline.
Only a few years ago, the town of Dubi was so overrun by prostitution that a nearby orphanage was opened to provide refuge for dozens of unwanted babies of prostitutes and their German clients. Sex could be purchased for as little as €5 – the price of a hamburger in nearby Dresden – drawing a daily influx of more than 1,000 sex tourists.
The more than three dozen brothels that once operated in Dubi have been winnowed down to four, with several of the former brothels having transformed into goulash restaurants or golf clubs.
Petr Pipal, the conservative mayor of Dubi whose zero-tolerance policy is largely responsible for the change, said that installing surveillance cameras and police officers at the entrance of brothels had deterred sex tourists by depriving them of their anonymity. Rising prices for sexual services and the global financial crisis, he added, were also helping to tame demand.
“Two or three years ago, we would get 1,000 men coming here for sex on a Friday night, which is a lot for a town of 8,000 people,” Pipal said from police headquarters, where members of the anti-prostitution squad sat in a surveillance room, controlling outdoor cameras filming 13 now mostly deserted streets.
“The one good thing about the economic crisis is that it is helping to keep sex tourists away.”
Even brothels in areas of the Czech capital most popular with tourists complain that they are suffering from economic hardship. On a recent night near Wenceslas Square in Prague, dozens of young men outside a row of neon-lit sex clubs beckoned tourists with offers of complimentary alcohol and racy strip shows.
Inside Darling, a giant multifloor cabaret famous for cancan shows modeled on the Moulin Rouge in Paris, scantily clad young women stripped on a stage surrounded by leopard skin couches, flashing disco balls and French impressionist paintings of naked women.
Suzana Brezinova, the club’s marketing director, said sex tourism to Prague had been hit because prices had risen nearly to the levels of Rome. But she added that some high-spending businessmen still came to Darling to shrug off the economic doldrums, thinking nothing of splurging €1200 for a night of sexual pleasure and escapism.
“People have less money,” she said. “But hard times also mean that people want to be cheered up.”
Jan Krcmar contributed reporting from Prague and Victor Homola from Berlin.