When the telephone rang for the first time, Silvia wondered what to do. On the other end of the line was her first client: an older man who expected her at his hotel. She thought of calling it all off. But then again, she needed the money.
She’d lost her job and the only work she could find paid her €485 a month (Portugal’s minimum wage)—not enough to cover her mortgage and her son’s medical-school fees. So at 37 years old, she put an ad in the newspaper offering her sexual services. “I had never thought about it. But after two or three badly paid jobs and sometimes not even getting paid at all, this was the only solution I found to make ends meet,” she says. She now earns on average €2,000 a month, receiving men in an apartment five days a week from 9 to 7.
Silvia belongs to what a number of Portuguese non-governmental organizations consider a new wave of sex workers: women in their mid-30s up to their 50s, who enter prostitution because of the economic crisis. Inês Fontinha, from the organization O Ninho (The Nest), says her group witnessed the same tendency in the 1980s, when the IMF also bailed out Portugal. It’s difficult to pin down numbers, she says, but this time around the increase in prostitution is far more than what was expected. “These are women who weren’t poor and have become poor now,” says Fontinha. “The social status they enjoyed three years ago has been reduced to nothing.”
The Lisbon-based sociologist says it’s a mixed group, from school dropouts to university graduates, often those married and with children. Most keep their job a secret, claiming they’ve found work as cleaning ladies. “They tell me their biggest fear is when there’s a knock on the door,” says Fontinha. “Who is there? Will they recognize them?” That is why, she adds, most of these women choose to work in apartments or clubs far from their home address and social circles.
However, a study by the Portuguese Immigration Service reported another tendency: prostitution on the streets of Lisbon had decreased 11 percent in the past five years. According to Isabel Soares from the project PortoG, which advises and supports 768 indoor prostitutes in the country’s second biggest city of Porto, that is because women are moving their work behind closed doors—representing 80 percent of the practice. “It’s safer,” explains Soares. “Most cases of rape and aggression take place on the streets. And clients also prefer more discreet places.”
Soares is more cautious when talking about a possible increase of sex work because of the crisis. While she does not dismiss it, she says she hasn’t witnessed the phenomenon in her daily work, stating that only 10 percent of the prostitutes her group assists have been on the job for less than a year. In fact, the story she hears the most is just the opposite. “There are women opting for quitting the sex work because it’s not [financially] worth it.”
But Soares warns that in economic downturns, women are more likely to submit themselves to risky business. Prostitutes complain about lower wages and an increase in requests for unprotected sex. Silvia admits there are days when that’s all she is asked. But despite the money she loses, she refuses to do it, so that she can “go to bed feeling rested.”
And it’s not just in Portugal. Spanish NGO Medicos del Mundo reports a 10 to 15 percent rise in female sex workers in the last two years just in Madrid. Most of these women had left the streets, but are now coming back after being laid off or having their pay reduced. Some of them combine it with other precarious jobs.
In Italy, the Committee for Civil Rights of Prostitutes also claims new faces are emerging on the streets. The secretary of the organization, Pia Covre, says she cannot talk about an official increase, because “many prostitutes are going underground” because of tough anti-immigration legislation (as much as 90 percent of prostitutes in Italy are foreigners). But now there are more Italian women. “They say [they will do it] maybe for a month, for a while until they find something else,” Covre says. And just like in Madrid, retired sex workers are taking their posts again. Covre also admits advising some women to seek work across the border in Switzerland, where the crisis has not yet hit clients’ pockets.
As European countries brace for more cuts in social benefits, tax increases, and growing unemployment, people like Portugal’s Fontinha say the worst is yet to come and that prostitution will be an exit out of poverty for many women.
Silvia is planning on leaving the business in two to three years. By then, her son will have graduated from university. She hopes to get a job where she can make just enough to have a decent living— “some €1,000.” But until then she will keep on with her secret profession. “It’s hard,” she says, “But it’s the only solution.” And she makes sure to add: “My sacrifice is so that my son can have a better future than I do.”