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Yes, my friend took me to a hooker bar in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro. Masquerading as a sports bar, this was a place where men sat down under the pretext of ordering a beer but with the intention of getting laid. And paying for both.
Neon lights lit the bar whilst the seating area was surrounded by softer white fairy lighting. Trying to set the mood? I sat down with my two friends, both guys, both not into prostitutes (as far as I’m aware). I wasn’t particularly comfortable but chose to observe and try to understand what was going on whilst hiding behind a drink.
‘When I first came here’, said my friend, ‘I looked around and thought, wow, he’s done well for himself… and so has he… and so has he, and then I clicked what was going on’.
I watched a man with a fatigued, fat face at a table close by. A petite girl of about twenty with long black hair sat across from him and he gazed at her as though in love. She played along, stroking his receding hairline, chatting away to him. It wouldn’t be long before they left.
Another girl near to me was engaged in conversation with two guys who teased her. ‘No I don’t do that’, she protested dramatically before adding, ‘For you, okay’. They all laughed. I wondered how joyful she was really feeling. She was a bit brash. She had some attitude. And she had this line of work.
A young American guy in a baseball shirt was animated by the bar. Girls approached him. He chatted excitedly, loudly, high fived his friends. I think he thought he had pulled, but I wasn’t sure he really realised what kind of a place this was. Of course they’re chatting to you, I wanted to say, you’re young, hotter than most of the clientele, a darn site more appealing than some of the other options. But don’t flatter yourself. It’s a transaction they’re after.
A trip to the toilet was one of hell of a mission. Girls crowded into the small bathroom, reapplying their heavy makeup. Competition of appearance. Who will earn, who won’t. It made me sad to see these women competing for an unworthy prize. I felt completely uncomfortable, avoiding any of their looks, looks that said ‘what the hell are you doing here?’
As I headed back through the crowds, a guy stopped me. He knew I wasn’t one of the girls but for some reason it made me all the more appealing to him. I had to laugh, and in a moment of rudeness, I actually laughed out loud in his face.
But it made me wonder: the guy was okay looking, young, confident (well, arrogant) and perfectly capable of meeting women in a more usual setting. So why was he here? I asked him. ‘Sometimes it’s just nice, you know?’ was all he would really say, ‘If you’ll meet me for a drink, I’ll tell you more’.
And I got the hell out of there. Enough voyeurism.
The politics and safety and choices of working girls, and the psychology behind men who use prostitutes are things that I just don’t know enough about but really struggle to get my head around.
Maybe it’s a female thing, but I felt much more protective of the girls than the guys. Some may argue that these women are using their sexuality to their advantage, that this is a career choice, that they’re manipulating and corrupting men. But come on! Without a ready market there wouldn’t be a product or service. These girls are using what they have to get by, but probably for a whole range of reasons that are far more complex than any of us would imagine.
All I know is that the whole thing didn’t feel right to me. At all.