Fiona, 1/2 : The bloke pays and does whatever he wants


Testimony, (first part). Fiona is 22 years old and has a whole life to construct. After one year of « imprisonment » in Belgian champagne bars, at the end of her tether in all respects, she finally denounced her procurer, who was none other than her lover. Throughout her account of the facts she never once pronounced his name… « He » [[Fiona never once referred to him by his name.]] is now in prison.

When I go out in the street, I feel as if it were written on my forehead ; that people stare at me because they know. In the street, people stare at handicapped people in a special way. For me, it’s the same thing – they don’t look at me like they would look at just anybody.

I’m afraid of the future. Afraid of questions. What I’ve been through is something one cannot talk about. People will say: but why on earth did she go there?


I grew up between Romania and France. I was educated in a very strict institution in Romania, after which I came to France to study. Everything was normal. And then I found accommodation in the suburbs: a working class area, less expensive… but more risky. One day, a young man accosted me and asked me if I were a newcomer to the neighbourhood. A neighbourhood is like a territory. A new face, they want to know whether he or she has guts or not. Generally, in these circumstances, they introduce you to friends. If it’s a boy, he pretends to be in love. If it’s a girl, she’s «the best friend». It’s always based on clever tricks.

There’s a way to spot the girls. In the street, I can tell you : this one will be O.K., that one will never be any good. These girls who have the most recent fashion in make-up in handbags, who dream while they read women’s magazines… As for me, I was dressed simply and I minded children to pay for my education. As we talked, the boy saw that I was alone. At that time, I earned 400€ a month by working every evening and all weekends and I dreamed of a better life.

I have had health problems since I was a child. I had to be taken to hospital. I counted the euros to pay my National Health subscriptions and my medicines. I had continuous Bank « reminders ». « He » used to say « you could have everything you need ». In fact, the person is « culled » whilst she dreams, whilst she still has hope. It only took three months. We began to meet up together in February; he first spoke to me about the job in April/May. I took it in September – in the Belgian champagne bars.

He never said «for me» but «so that you can buy what you need». To begin with, he helps you to economize. Then he starts talking about future plans. A flat, a big car. In these cases, he says «we». He establishes confidence. And at the end, he says «me». «Because it was I who helped you to escape from your living conditions».

And therefore, he should get part – or even the totality – of the «earnings». When we quarrelled, when I didn’t want to go, he said : «you could at least make an effort, in thanks for the beautiful flat, the fine clothes». But everyone knows where the money for all that came from… In fact, he is convinced that he loves me. That he has taught me all I know. He used to say: «everything I do is for you. If you don’t need me anymore, you just throw me away». Either they manage to persuade themselves, or they try to persuade us.

We believe in them. We have nothing but just that. Of course, he says: «it’s just for six months – to give us time to get over the problems». Just one month more, one day more… «you’ll see, at the start of the new season…»

And then, when the new season starts: «not yet, we haven’t got quite enough». At that time, I had few family links, I avoided my family. I lied. As for friends, we don’t see them anymore. We are cut off from the rest of the world. The only remaining links are with the underworld. It’s only there that we can confide in somebody.

We are grabbed by own skin, by our hair, to enter. Even in tears, he often leaves me at the door. We know how we’ll finish. So, it’s better to stop crying than to be beaten up. We give in before things come to blows. We are unable to withstand a man’s fists.

When I started, I didn’t know that prostitution was concerned. He told me that I could dance in the bars, with a little bit of strip-tease added. When he accompanied me in the first establishment, I saw the girls moving around in their underwear. Lighting was subdued, with red velvet furnishing. The proprietress showed me the bar and the bedrooms. I know what was coming. Ten minutes later, I was there in my underclothes. And straight after I heard the first bell for me.

In eleven months, I did seven establishments. The first client, I don’t remember. I remember my arrival, and the first bell ringing for me. After, there’s a blank, I don’t remember anything. Neither the client, nor his face. Nothing. One lives, one remembers. And then comes death and that’s the end. It’s the same.

At the first ring of the bell, I died, I ceased to exist. I have become somebody else with another given name. One has to leave one’s real self before entering. In fact they say «don’t come in here with your problems, leave them outside».

We force ourselves to comply. That is why we cry every evening. Our worries, we can’t help thinking about them. But this is a weakness.

The men, some of them have their money ready as soon as they come through the doorway. They say «I want that ». Exactly, «that».

There are even some who say «whatever you’ve got», addressing the manageress.

We are full of hate. There are those who haggle over the price, who find it too dear. You feel like a lump of meat at the butcher’s. There are those who look at us and say to the manageress «Is that all you’ve got?». Fortunately, we only hear the pseudo. We each think the reference is to the other.

There are, of course, violent clients. One must realize that some men come because they detest women. For these men, women are objects, or inferior beings, or they seek vengeance. Or they live in a fantasy world and fail to realize that there are limits to what our bodies can support. To my mind, it is even more dangerous than in the street. In a car, if you scream, somebody could hear you. But there you are in a room, there is no camera, and the manager is not allowed to intervene. You are on your own. In any case, he wouldn’t say anything which could besmirch the reputation of his establishment; business is the only thing that matters. And, in any case, the fellow is paying and has the right to do as he wishes.

This is the basic idea integrated by all in this environment, and to begin with, by us. In the event of acts of violence, we say to ourselves: that’s just the way it is and we integrate this notion deep within ourselves. There have even been cases where men burnt me with a cigarette and I didn’t even tell the boss.

Considering what we earn, we have to keep quiet. In any case, we relativize everything. It’s another world. We live at night, we haven’t the same forename, the same clothes, there is alcohol, drugs, everything possible to pass into another world. Everything that occurs in a brothel remains in the brothel.

The clients, there are also those who have a degree of respect. Well, respect is maybe a bit exaggerated. Let’s say a certain restraint. There are also the pseudo lovers who want to take you out. In certain establishment, we are not allowed to go outside. In others, the client pays a forfeit, 400€ for example, for two hours, with a moment outside. We can always refuse, but we say to ourselves «at least I’ll have a breath of fresh air». Theoretically, we have the right to refuse a client. But we then have to account for our decision to the manager. And to ourselves, we say: «if I’m there and I refuse, why am I there?»

It’s like in a factory. Except that it’s a slaughterhouse. You are lined up, half naked, and the fellow makes his choice. He pays, he is entitled to give his opinion on the «quality». Some of them want «to test the « goods »» before paying. These are the terms they use.

With alcohol, they talk a lot. They are lecherous. They are disloyal. Most of them say that they come out of curiosity. Especially the younger ones. I remember one who arrived into the establishment’s card with my name on it. He had found it in the pocket of a jacket his father had lent him. A card with words like «hot». In France there would have been a family scandal. Over there, it’s just normal.

Fear, yes. I was afraid. But I had someone behind me. Sometimes, I said to him «come and get me». At the same time, I am well aware that a man who protects is not a man who will sell you. But he always came and spoke to me if something was wrong. Having somebody outside dissuades those who are inside. It’s a bad thing for a good reason. I was never drugged, nobody stole my clothes, my money, I was never thrown out in the middle of the night…

I used to wake up in tears. Every night, I had nightmares. And then I was sent to hospital once again. The doctor said to me: «just one more drop of alcohol and that will be the end of you». And then there were the insults: I refused to continue and he said «of what use are you to me? You’re of no use, you’re nothing». Afterwards, of course, he apologized and waited on me hand and foot.

And then there was the policeman. We were summoned to present ourselves in connection with another affair. The policeman had realized that I was not telling the truth and that I was working for him. I remained silent. I was ashamed. That inspector told me that he had worked on conjugal violence cases and that I did not deserve what had been decided. Another example of male perversion. He comforted me. A last a man who was going to help me, a representative of law and justice. Finally, everything come out. Eleven pages of sworn statement in four hours. Eleven months of silence revealed. Silence, violence, discomfort. I told it all.

I had, in fact, been used as a pawn for the police. They only helped in their own interest. This boy, they knew his past, they wanted him. I had made him talk – his phone was tapped. In one month, it was all over, he was before the public prosecutor’s department. Several times, I tried to stop it all. They said that it was not possible. The police gave me all the details on the previous girl (I already knew about this, because he told me that his previous companion had also been a member of the world of organized crime). And at the end, the policeman made advances to me. He said he would have liked to be my friend, or even my lover. This is rather unexpected in view of the facts.

I regret to have spoken. During the previous summer, I had found myself face to face with this boy, who told me he felt guilty, he regretted, that it was an error and I would never go back there. He was completely different. I said to myself that I should have left time to change. Even on the day of the trial, he told me he loved me. I have never seen him since. I don’t know how he feels today. I wouldn’t want him to consider the complaint I had lodged against him as a sort of revenge. I wanted him to understand.

If the same situation occurred, I would act differently. In any case, he has a 4-year sentence of which he will do half. He will be released for «good behaviour». So what’s the use? He’ll just start again. If only it was him that people stared at… but no. He is shown to his best advantage. They go to prison, they are proud, they have lived a full life. In the part of town where he lives, he will be even more respected. They live in large houses, the « big chiefs » of the neighbourhood.

They have ten whores in Belgium. It’s a sign of success.

They drive around in Maseratis. As far as they are concerned, it’s just a normal trade. He used to say to me: «you’d rather be a cleaning lady». But when we talk about what actually happens in the bedroom, the violence, the bruises… One day, I told him bluntly. He wept. He who plays at being a brute. He’s just like anybody else. If people talked about what actually happens in a bedroom… That would change. But for them everything is idealized.

On the day of the trial, it is not he who was insulted, it was me. The « underworld » people told me that I didn’t have to speak. Even at the police station, there was an inspector to commit me for trial, to present me as a prostitute. I was the guilty one because I had set up with « him ». The lawyer told me to go to the trial. I said no. Impossible. But the public prosecutor insisted. _ You are the victim, it’s your trial. When I heard all the insults, I said to the lawyer: « so that’s a victim? ».

Throughout the trial, I said nothing. I didn’t give evidence. It was all too painful. I was so placed as to turn my back on him, averting my eyes. My lawyer repeated my own words. Even the public prosecutor spoke to insist that the penalty be exemplary; he talked about slavery. He was condemned to four year’s imprisonment with no possibility of remission since the happenings took place abroad.

I still love him. I live without him, but I miss him. He hurt me but I am also hurting him. I wish he would not take this for a form of revenge. He will hate women. The one before me went off with one of her « clients ». I am laying information against him with the police. I feel guilty. What I want is for him to think carefully about all this, to understand that a woman is not just that. Of course, he must be punished. I was shut up for eleven months. But deep in a cell – and with whom? -, will he become aware of what is at stake?

From now on, only a women gynaecologist can touch me. What affects me most are smells, perfumes. There are some smells which are for me unbearable. Like champagne, cigarettes. And neon lights. When I see a neon light, even the little blue lights in the bus, I have to get off. I have images, flashes. I’m watching a film, for instance, and there is a gesture, a few words, a type of music, which is unbearable for me. A boy says hello to me in the street and I leap away. I avoid men. Part of me hates them and repudiates them. I know they’re all made of the same fiber. They say «you have to get back on your feet». But how do I do it? I’m even afraid when the shower is too strong. I feel as if someone were hitting me.

I’m completely dead inside. There is no longer a part of me which decides, which wants something. Today, I’d like to eat, to go out in the fresh air. And then, ten minutes later, I shall want to leave this world. I shall be in tears. We are told so often that we are nothing. We have nothing left, not even a given name. Your life is just blackness, neon lights, background music. Never just daylight. Everything which touched me during this time is visible. It’s as if I were dirty. A scar, it’s a cigarette burn. Rings round my eyes: I slept just two or three hours each night for a year. I was woken between 10 a.m. and mid-day and I went to bed at 7 a.m.

For the men, it’s: « she makes hay every evening ». Between fifteen and eighteen hours a day, under the neon lighting, with the music at full blast. You earn 50 or 60 euros on what you do. On the day itself, you say to yourself, I’m only worth 50 euros. At the end of the week, with 1 000 euros, you say to yourself that you deserved them. A man says to me «is that all you have to offer? You’re not worth 60 euros». There you are : I’m only worth that. I am nothing. I’m not worth anything. I am no longer living. It happens that I give my pseudonym when I’m requested to give my name. At the beginning. I had trouble in reacting when someone called me by name. As if I were someone else.

When I see TV reports and the hazy images of the girls, I admire them. They take risks. What is needed is not a hazy account every ten years. As long as some of them demand it, the men will think that’s great. Everywhere, we are told over and over again that it is the girls who want it to continue. So everybody believes this.

In order for this to change, people must accept to see that it exists. What has to be done is to shout about that we do this against our wills. What is always involved is violence. Even if the act itself is not violent, violence is in what the woman feels. It’s like being stabbed in the heart. The most painful part of it is inside oneself. It’s more painful than a nasty bruise. A bruise eventually disappears. Not psychological violence.

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Claudine Legardinier
Journaliste indépendante, ancienne membre de l’Observatoire de la Parité entre les femmes et les hommes, elle recueille depuis des années des témoignages de personnes prostituées. Elle a publié plusieurs livres, notamment Prostitution, une guerre contre les femmes (Syllepse, 2015) et en collaboration avec le sociologue Saïd Bouamama, Les clients de la prostitution, l’enquête (Presses de la Renaissance, 2006). Autrice de nombreux articles, elle a collaboré au Dictionnaire Critique du Féminisme et au Livre noir de la condition des femmes.