Fiona, 2/2 : «In the « underground » everybody keeps silent»


Testimony, second part. Fiona describes prostitution by contract. The competition, the mugging, the aggressions, the taxes, the « posh » clients, alcohol to a point where one could no longer stand on one’s feet, the phoney police checks. The banality. A banality ratified by law, for the greater benefit of both the brothels and the state.

In eleven months, I had frequented seven establishments. This was in Belgium, on the French frontier. There is a street with 45 bars, just twenty minutes from Lille. The first time, it was he[[« He » is Fiona’s procurer, who was none other than her lover. Throughout her account of the facts she never once pronounced his name… « He » is now in prison.]] who took me there. When one goes to a brothel, one arrives with all one’s luggage. Once there, they insisted on the advantages of the place: the UV lounge, the proprietress’s restaurant meals, the « Jacuzzi ».

The first time, I knew it was for a week. I signed a contract. In French. In the following two establishments, I signed contracts in Flemish, without understanding a single word.


Lots of the prostitutes come every day, but some, like me, live in the establishment. We pay for everything. All services, water, electricity, equipment, taxes (between 10 and 50 euros per day). And, of course, meals. Either we do our own shopping, or a list is given to the boss and the amount deducted from our salary. What we earn is not even half the amount of money circulating in the establishment. Already, we only get 40% on alcohol.

We also have to pay for hair-dressing, make-up, clothes. There are passing suppliers in this area, but they are extremely expensive.

The prostitutes know the places where you can earn more. They are people of the underworld, they are well-informed. The Dutch women do not go to Belgium, but the Belgians go to Holland. They know the rates : 100 to 150 euros in Belgium, half of that in Germany and a third in Spain. The experienced ones say: above all, don’t go to Spain, you’ll lose your independence ; those who don’t want to go there are killed. The country where the earnings are the highest is Switzerland. A lot of rich people go there, the stations are luxurious. But it is also the most dangerous country; a place of all perversions. We talk amongst ourselves: at that bar, they employ people without identity papers; in this one, there’s heroine. People think well of the sauna in another or the Jacuzzi.

For recruitment purposes, the proprietress uses want ads. When the proprietor is a man, they have another method: just go along to other establishments, presenting oneself as a client. They then try to attract the girls by proposing an extra free day or promising a bonus.

The girls are moved around. In Belgium, they are declared (of course, the truth is not told as to what they earn). They move from one country to another, they have pay slips. Some places operate on a 24-hour basis. Some work in the afternoon, others in the evening; « days off » are discussed with the management.

Anything can be negotiated. Some « clients » stay all night.
The champagne bars are supervised by the « bar police ». There are gynaecological tests, blood tests, medicines. The « bar nurses » check once per month. There is a telephone number to use in case of emergency. Everything is free; and anonymous.

The nurses only know the name we are known by in the place where we work, not our real identity. The police come in twos, with a little file between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. They ask to see all the girls with their identity papers. They check that we are declared. In fact, they check that we are still alive and that we have the required papers. Apart from that, they are not interested in why we are there. They are not in the least interested in whether you have bruises.

Out of the seven establishments I had known, there are two which threw me out. Once, I informed against a girl who took drugs and she happened to be the girl-friend of the boss’s son. The second time, it was due to a change of management and thereby a change of team. Otherwise, I left because I grew weary, because I was not earning enough or because the girls didn’t get on together or because of drug problems. In order for everything to run smoothly, you have to see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing.

If you see the boss give cocaine to the girls to make some they’ll hold out, you pretend not to have noticed. If you see a girl in a state of coma, or drugged, or who doesn’t wake, it’s better to get out quickly rather than stay near her. I once saw one in an ethylectic coma. Nobody wanted to call an ambulance. It’s an ordinary taxi which threw her out at the hospital. The establishments will never come to the assistance of prostitutes. They don’t want problems with the police. So the girl is put into a room and disappears.

The job, you have to drink until you don’t know what you’re doing. I remembered nothing, not even the person whom I was with. With alcohol, one can accept anything. In the first establishment, the manageress used to say to me : you can swallow as much alcohol as you need. I remember, she had been there for 37 years. She had a sad, lost look in her eyes. She had always wanted to stop, but she said: « in the end, we always go back ».

She gave me a piece of advice: « as soon as you can manage on your own, clear out! ». One day, she saw me without make-up and said « you’ve still got a baby’s face and body ». Sometimes, the clients pay the manageress. We get 50%. In other establishments, the customer pays us directly – there are cameras, the manageress is on her guard. We sign a counterfoil book. We put the money in a safe. Sometimes we hide tips. The customers slip them in our underclothes. There are men, even rotten as they are, who understand a little. But when they hand us a « tip » in the bedroom, it’s obviously in return for something else.

There is competition with the other girls. Once dressed, properly made-up, we are each and all prettier than the next. The one who is annoyed, tired has all the others against her. We insist, because she doesn’t drink quickly enough. There’s cruelty in this. Anything goes to earn a bit more. There was one who was 35 years old and had children. She already had a few wrinkles on her face.

Around her, we were five girls, aged between 20 and 28. We didn’t leave her anything to eat, we switched off her alarm so’s she would be penalized (so that her two hours of absence ensure us one rival less). When the weekly envelopes arrived, it sometimes happened that her’s had disappeared.

However, it sometimes happened that friendships occurred. Uniting against the common enemy. It sometimes happened that we shared hard luck periods. Especially with girls of the same age. The one who is at the end of her tether, who cries… We console each other. But living in this environment changes. You learn to have recourse to vice, lying, hypocrisy. You learn to become a viper.

Generally speaking you have to smile, say nothing, never pass judgment, never be a rival, never be queen of the binge, otherwise that will catch up with you sooner or later. When there are fifteen girls, it’s horrific. In most cases, we are between three and six per bar, which is more or less acceptable. But we are all there for the same purpose. We have to be competitive, without undue exaggeration. The ones who are there for eighteen hours per day can be dangerous.

The girls, there are some who are so credulous as not to realize that they are the preys of their husband or their lovers. Those who are aware of this situation do not talk about it. Despite blows, tears, the others will never say: she’s the property of someone. Certain things are taboo in the underworld. You turn up with a scar, the mark of a cutter, a cigarette burn. Nobody remarks on it. If we speak, we put people ill-at-ease.

Everybody keeps quiet. We’re afraid to talk about it. Society is afraid to hear about it. In this case, I speak out. Because here, nobody knows me. And because you, you hear that every day.

In the countries where it is legalized, like Belgium and Holland, the girls find that perfectly normal. They’ve grown-up with it. They know their father goes there every week-end. That’s just part of life in those countries. The men too find that perfectly normal. They are convinced that they are helping the girls. Why on earth should they feel guilty?

Provision has been made for « bar police » and « bar doctors ». In Belgium, even the children know that their father goes there. Business managers come with their clients. It’s just normal. I saw men receiving telephone calls from their wives whilst they were there. They come quite openly. We, we know that we are going to be defiled. They besmirch us, depreciate us even if they pay us well. If they really wanted to help us, why not just take us on as staff in their company?

The State, of course, lavishes attention on us, since we living in so much money. In countries which legalize, business managers stop at nothing, the state will not interface. In France, prostitutes pay income tax. And the amounts collected as fines go in the State coffers. For what reason, then, would the State denounce prostitution?

The clients are public prosecutors, inspectors, ministers, well-known sportsmen… They have a certain rank in society. They come in flashy cars. The girls are attracted.

Those who really fill me with disgust are those dressed in « Prada » suits and who « fly their trade » solely with that in mind. Their mothers are fully aware of what is happening. I would like to spit in their faces. When I hear an 18-year old girl say I’m not a student, I’m a nymphomaniac, I can’t manage with just one…… They are convinced that we are all free. For some of them, it becomes a way of life. By dint of vice, they never have enough. But with ten clients per day, the body reaches exhaustion.

Even volunteers are unable to live normally afterwards. They come back. They say : It’s the only thing I know how to do. And it’s the only place where they feel esteemed.

In order to safely guard this impression, they remain.

As far as I am concerned, a public bar prostitute remains just that. At the first difficulty, we go back. We don’t wait six months to get paid. When we’ve done it once, we’re no longer worth anything.

For my part, in one year, I saw practically nothing. Or just a few minute details. I would like to help take legal action to change all this. Or I could do social work to help those who are in the same situation as myself. And then, there are moments when I say to myself What’s the use?

The girls know that their father goes every week-end. And it’s normal. That’s just part of life. Men are not ashamed. We, we know that we are going to be tarnished.

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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.