Wednesday, March 7, 2001

James Pitkin

Sexual politics

In a city known for its streetwalkers and erotic clubs, a councilman prepares legislation that would finally make prostitution a regulated trade

City Councilman Rudolf Blazek admits he's tempted by Prague's ladies of the night.

Tempted to legislate.

"When I see prostitutes on Perlova and Skorepka [streets]; when I know there are more than 60 sex clubs in Prague, that there are hundreds of prostitutes," he says, "I don't see any other choice."

Frustrated by the hazy legal borderline the high-heeled business currently walks, Blazek wants to regulate prostitution as a trade. It would be the Czech government's first-ever attempt to take control of a realm the underworld currently rules by default.

"Right now there simply is no policy on prostitution," he says. "The state isn't organized at all. We accept prostitution, but it isn't controlled."

The Night By Numbers

  • Prostitutes nationwide: 5,000
  • Sex clubs nationwide: 840
  • Sex clubs in Prague: More than 60
  • Annual sex-industry profit: 3 billion Kc

Blazek is in the early stages of drafting a bill that could see prostitution become a lawful industry in the capital as early as 2003. If he has his way, brothel owners would need a license, prostitutes would carry certificates of health and, of course, taxes would be levied.

But not if Eva has any say. On a bitterly cold night, the baby-faced 20-year-old from Brno stands alone under a looming Gothic archway in downtown Prague. Informed of Blazek's designs, she balks defiantly.

"No way!" she shakes her head vehemently. "What are they thinking? I stand out here and freeze. This job is hell on my nerves, and they want me to pay taxes for that? I'd never do it, and no one would ever get me to register myself."

Eva, however, is a cog in a big industry; one of about 5,000 women plying the trade nationwide. The Interior Ministry estimates the proceeds from prostitution at 3 billion Kc ($81 million) annually. For a heavily indebted government, that's a hefty sum to abandon to the black market.

"That money is earned by people who own sex clubs," says Blazek, "and those people often have close ties to criminal organizations. So I think the regulation of this money, and setting conditions to own a sex club, is necessary."

Legal limbo

Blazek's proposal follows an established trend in Western Europe. Holland led the way when it legalized prostitution as a profession in 1988. Prostitutes are members of the Service Sector Union, and began paying income tax in 1996.

In neighboring Germany, prostitutes are legal and receive state medical insurance. Cities designate areas and times for brothels to do business. Similarly in Austria, prostitutes are registered, undergo biweekly health checks and pay income tax.

The proposal

Although his bill is still in its preliminary stages, city councilman Rudolf Blazek would like to see prostitutes be registered, pay a flat annual tax for a business license and receive mandatory monthly health examinations, including AIDS tests. Brothel owners would also need licenses, and brothels would be subject to regulations similar to those for hotels or restaurants.

While the West has gradually moved to regulate the industry, former Soviet-bloc nations lag behind. In Romania, for example, prostitution remains illegal. The situation in staunchly Catholic Poland mirrors the one in the Czech Republic — the sex trade remains unregulated, in a kind of legal limbo.

But Blazek's plan would change all that, bringing the Czech Republic in step with mainstream Europe two years before this country hopes to join the 15-nation European Union.

The plan stirs mixed reactions from industry insiders.

While Eva cringes at the idea of state meddling, Vladislav Novak — who has owned Prague 2's Ariadne Club for more than three years — applauds Blazek's realism and says he would welcome state protection. "It's a positive move," he says. "It's an admission of fact. If the government cannot destroy [prostitution], they must tax it … and if it's legalized, it would reduce the risk of us being exploited by the underground."

Blazek sees the nation's sex clubs as a haven for organized crime. "I know a lot of criminal activity is centered there," he says.

Czech Republic Police Major Jiri Vokus says a prostitution ring he helped bust in south Bohemia last fall was an example of the way the international mafia operates in the local sex trade.

"They were exchanging girls between the bars," he says. "If they had a problem with some of the girls, a foreign group would supply them with new girls."

According to Vokus, many of the prostitutes in provincial sex clubs are women trafficked from Eastern Europe. Promised high-paying jobs as waitresses or "dancers" in the West, they arrive to find themselves stripped of their passports and helpless in a strange country. There have been reports of forced confinement and the use of torture to keep girls in line.

The U.S. State Department's annual human rights report recently highlighted the Czech Republic's role in international trafficking of women.

But Jiri Slama, whose Erotic Taxi service shuttles customers to Prague's erotic clubs, says trafficking is less common in the capital. "Where I go with my customers there are no Russians, only Czechs," he says. "Perhaps one or two Ukrainians. I think that the owners in Prague would not risk it."

Novak, whose erotic club employs around 60 women, isn't concerned that the law would erode his profits. "It would simply mean an all-around increase in prices," he says, "similar to all commodities."

Novak thinks the new law could do to the sex trade what hypermarkets have done to retail here. "It would release more capital into this industry," he says, "because people wouldn't be afraid to invest. Brothels would be bigger, better, more luxurious."

But such establishments have already made inroads locally. Among the first was Prague 4's Lotos Club — a swank, high-end brothel that opened in 1992. An hour with a girl in one of the club's five unique rooms, lavishly decorated in different themes and equipped with bathtubs or swimming pools, runs 4,000 Kc.

According to the club's prostitutes, they see about 60 percent of that amount. The customers, they say, are an even mix of Czechs and foreigners of all nationalities. They live in their own homes, work only when they want and make a comfortable wage despite the hours.

While prostitutes like Eva pace outside in the cold, 23-year-old Katka, a Prague native, lies on a red velvet couch in Lotos' overheated lounge. She awaits her customers in a diminutive negligee, sipping a cola and chain-smoking. But her days here may be numbered if Blazek's law goes into effect. She says she'd quit the business before she'd register as a prostitute.

"It's nobody's business what I do," she says. "Besides, I have a family."

Novak says requiring prostitutes like Katka to register would only lead to massive fraud.

"Would you want it on your record that you were a prostitute?" he says. "If they have to register, they'll either get out of the business or do it undercover as 'waitresses.'"

Another concern is health. Rising incidences of syphilis among sex workers along the borders with Germany and Austria, combined with alarming forecasts by the United Nations for the spread of AIDS in Eastern Europe, place Czech prostitutes at increasing risk.

While Blazek's plan calls for regular health checks, there is no mention of providing sex workers with state medical insurance as in Germany.

Government hurdles

Blazek knows he faces obstacles, including a government loath to take action in the country's sex trade.

According to Prague Municipal Police director Radim Chyba, the politicians' lassitude only reflects public indifference. "When people are leaving the National Theater, they don't want to bump into prostitutes," he says. "But as far as Prague's citizens are concerned, [prostitution] is not a big problem."

But the biggest barrier is an international agreement Czechoslovakia signed in 1958 with Italy, Spain and a handful of former Soviet satellites pledging not to legitimize prostitution. For the Soviet-controlled nations, says Blazek, it was part of a campaign against a profession the state regarded as social parasitism.

The agreement, he says, would take two years to void — although he notes Hungary has passed laws on the sex trade despite being a signatory.

Still, Blazek is pressing ahead. He's already presented his first proposal to the city council's security committee. "The reaction was positive," he says, "but they said they want to know the opinion of police and other related institutions. So we'll wait a month, and then prepare the final proposal."

After passing the security committee, the bill would move on to the 65-member city assembly before going to Parliament for final approval.

Whatever the outcome, Blazek is convinced that reform is necessary. "Prostitution is a fact. It exists, and we have to try to deal with it," he says. "Maybe [regulation] won't work. But if we don't try it, we'll never know."

— Yekaterina Zapletnyuka and Petra Cermakova contributed to this report.

James Pitkin's e-mail address is

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Created: March 11, 2001
Last modified: September 1, 2001
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