Women of the Shadows

With prostitution legal in Austria, women receive protection and medical care; this doesn’t mean they feel good about the job

Two women working on Messestrasse in the 2nd District, waiting to serve their clients in the bitter cold of January. At present, there are 2,374 registered prostitutes in Vienna. | Photo: David Reali

It was a bitterly cold night in early December, the kind when you wish you were at home with a cup of hot chocolate cradled in your hands. On the Prater Messestraße, half a dozen women in faux fur and high boots had taken up their places under the trees, partially hidden in the dim light from the street lamps along the allee. There is little movement, as they stand posed against a thick trunk or a lamp post, the glowing end of a cigarette sending a ribbon of gray smoke up past the cone of light and into the darkness beyond.

The Messestraße cuts into the Prater just past the amusement park, only a few walking minutes away from the Giant Wheel and other entertainments. It is also where many of Vienna’s streetwalkers gather each night from 8 p.m. onwards, looking for customers – and the money they need to survive.  The contrast is bizarre; most people would not associate an amusement park with prostitution, but here it is, unsheltered but also un-policed, just another recreation on offer in this, one of the largest inner city parks in Europe.

Street prostitutes who are active in this kind of – labeled by the Austrian legislature – “immoral” business, must abide to certain rules. These rules involve specific working hours and working places. During cold winter days, the work of street prostitutes is confined to eight hours a day, starting at 8pm in the evening and ending at 4am in the morning. During warm and light summer nights, working hours start at around one hour later, when daylight has disappeared.

It’s difficult as a woman to approach these sex workers while walking along the Messestraße. There was a fair amount of men gathered around the area – it was hard to tell whether they were pimps or clients. It didn’t really make a difference. We decided to tackle the situation by car. It seemed to be the safer choice.

Having approached one of the sex workers with a friendly smile we explained our intentions – that we were students who needed some information on the sex worker’s profession. We asked her if she would be willing to answer some questions. “What?” She seemed surprised. “Ich sprechen Deutsch bisschen“I speaking little bit German,” she went on, struggling with the language. She was from the Czech Republic, she told us. Without better German, it wouldn’t work. She looked no older than 20. We thanked her and headed for another, equally young, standing on the other side of the street; but again had to move on once she was addressed by a stranger seeking her sexual services.

Currently, there are 2,374 prostitutes registered at the Polizeikommissariat Innere Stadt,” we learned from Frau Hohenwarter, a spokeswoman for the commission, of which not even 200 are Austrian.  “Some of them only want to work for a couple of weeks or months,” she told us, “very often out of an emergency situation.” Accordingly, prostitutes are required to have weekly medical check-ups and have to pay their taxes. However they may not put in a legal claim for their wages should a client decide to not to pay.

After driving up and down the Messestraße several times – stopping to try to talk to several women and being turned down twice more – we finally came across Clara (name changed) by the side of the road. It was hard to tell whether she was dancing Salsa, practicing some very idiosyncratic motional exercises – accompanied by incomprehensible chanting that was barely understandable – or simply trying to keep her body temperature up to cope with the damp cold. “Hi,” we greeted her.

The young woman, still half dancing and chanting, eventually calmed down and stopped, looking at us inquiringly. She did not quite understand what we wanted at first, although her German was surprisingly good for a Romanian who had only been living in Vienna for three years.

The sound of blaring horns caught the young prostitutes’ attention. The car behind us seemed impatient. Clara, a lively and outspoken young woman, did not hesitate. She yelled at the car driver in her own language, probably cursing something in Romanian. “Drecko” was the only word that made sense for us – meaning “a shit,” an asshole living a low life. We explained that we would be willing to pay her, if she could sacrifice half an hour for us.

Taking shelter from the cold in a parking complex | Photo: David Reali

Eventually Clara agreed to get into the car. She seemed tense, unsure what to expect. She had been drinking; we could smell it. She seemed anxious when she got into the backseat of the car.  “No sex,” we emphasized, “just some questions and a bit of chatting.”

Über was willst du? What about?, she wanted to know. Again we assured her: “No sex, we just want to talk to you a bit.” We explained that we were students writing for the monthly newspaper The Vienna Review.

Und wer zahlen mir das?” And who’s paying? she responded. We would each pay her €10 “Nein Schatzi, das ist zu wenig,” No darlings, that was too little, Clara said in a determined voice.  We settled on €30. Wasn’t that better than being outside in the cold? She would still have to sit outside, she told us. She laughed. She had a lot of charm, and we were oddly moved.

The last thing Clara requested was: “Aber bitte nichts machen mir meinem Gesicht oder sowas.” She did not want to be photographed… We reassured her: All we were interested in is to hear her personal stories. No camera. No TV.

Vienna is referred to as the “Hochburg” or hot spot for legal and illegal prostitution. Even though legal official numbers speak of nearly 3,000 registered sex workers, NGO estimates go as high as 8,000 nationwide.

Clara preferred to talk outside rather than in the car. The three of us drove a little further down the road and got out of the car near the Pratersauna, a well known night club for electronic music. She apparently felt guilty for taking the money and generously took out a twenty euro note: “Darling, get me one of those small bottles of vodka and whatever you want for yourselves.” She was determined to buy us drinks.

Clara had worked in Italy, Belgium and Serbia before moving to Austria. She has been working as a prostitute for nine years now, since the age of 19. Her family, including her only daughter Maria Mirela, lives in Romania. She got married when she was just 16, and gave birth to her “dotka when she was 17. As much as she would like to be closer to her daughter, whom she referred to as her “principessa”, it is easier to make money in Austria. Her husband is an alcoholic, which is why the child is living with its grandmother.

Das ist meine scheisse Arbeit, Entschuldigung!” This is my shitty job, I’m sorry, she tells us. Clara is neither happy nor proud of where she is in life right now. In fact, she despises her job more than anything else, but it is the only way she can provide for her family. As a waitress, she would make €40 a day. Here she can make twice as much in one hour, justification enough. “Aber besser trinken Alkohol und schlafen, dann ist alles ok,” It’s better to drink alcohol and sleep, then everything is ok.

Large amounts of vodka enable her to cope with the bitter cold and the awful work. As we talked, the barriers slowly broke down; as things gradually became more personal, she began to cry. “I hate this work,” she said. “I hate the winters. Why do I have to do this? God forgive me, for I am a whore. This is who I am and what I do. I’m sorry.” Her tears flowed over her cheeks and ruining the several layers of make-up covering her face.

Clara has been working the Messestraße ever since she came to Vienna. She gets paid €80 for an hour of her services. There are several places to go: the parking lot near the Austria Trend Hotel Messe, clients’ cars, or a hotel room for which the client has to pay, usually about €10 for half an hour. The first time she offered sexual services, she described the experience plainly as a “catastrophe” — and dissolved in tears.

Once she had calmed down, she related some more details about her life: she lives in the 10th district, paying a monthly rent of €450 for her own apartment, excluding gas. She usually sleeps the whole day and works during nights. She grew up in very poor circumstances and only completed 9th grade.

As things stood, Clara didn’t see any way out of her misery, nor, she said, do any of the others. There are several institutions and organizations, such as Women’s Health Vienna (Frauengesundheit Wien) that try to help sex workers by educating them about health risks and offering regular check-ups. She spent Christmas at home in Romania, in order to return to her “principessa” and forget about her life in Vienna – at least for a few days…

It was getting late. Clara did not seem to want us to leave, but we sensed it was time. We had not expected her to talk for so long or so openly, and anyway, we were frozen down to our toes.

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