Findings of the ethnographic study on Nigerian and Ghanaian women working in Brussels’ red-light district

This fourth chapter presents the findings that result from an analysis of the fieldwork. Looking at prostitution as a relational object determined by the political, societal, and geographical context in which it takes place (Persak & Vermeulen, 2014), we will examine the experiences of the women concerning (4.1) the setting, (4.2) the migratory condition and the diasporic community, and (4.3) the functioning of the red-light district of the carrés. In the final section (4.4), we identify four challenges that emerged from these findings and that put the wellbeing of the women at risk. The text is enriched with numerous excerpts from the field notes of the researchers. Occasionally, we refer to literature that confirms or contradict the findings or offers an explanation for observations that were made. In this way, we try to create a dialogue between this case study and existing theories and knowledge on prostitution.

Prostitution and the city: the setting

“You have to see this. Look at this video! It was so scary. Really. Do you see?” A few months into the fieldwork and we are in one of the bars in the area, sitting at a table with a few of the women. We look at the phone Edith passed to us. It showed what took place on New Year’s Eve. Young men, who have their faces covered by masks, are on the street. There is smoke everywhere and people shouting. Didi tells us the men came to intimidate them. They burnt garbage, broke windows of carrés, turned over a car ... The women hid inside bars and houses. The police arrived but didn’t intervene and after things calmed down there was never any political reaction. Just six months after the women went into the street asking for protection, following the murder of Eunice,1 it seems nothing had changed.

(field notes, April 2019)2

This unsettling account is illustrative of the many problems in the red-light district of the carrés. This section will focus on the relationship between the women and their direct surroundings: how do they move in this unsettling space? How do they interpret it? And finally, how do they deal with it?

4.1.1 Demographic context

After Dubai, Brussels is the city with the highest percentage of residents of foreign origin (International Organization for Migration, 2015), and it is a city of contradictions and inequality. While it is a city of diplomats and lobbyists, 30 per cent of its inhabitants live below the poverty line (Observatorium voor Gezondheid en Welzijn van Brussel Hoofdstad, 2015). The North quarter in which the red-light district is located, considering its proximity to the North train station, has always been a place of “passage” and is characterized by important population movements. It is both a space where newly arrived migrants settle permanently, as well as a transit hub for migrants en route to other European cities (Di Ronco, 2014; Gsir, 2017). Here, ethnic differences are translated into socio-economic differences, and the average income in the North Quarter is lower than the regional average (Observatorium voor Gezondheid en Welzijn van Brussel Hoofdstad, 2015). The population is further characterized by very young inhabitants with a high percentage of young single people, large families, and a predominantly male public representation (Renovas, n.d.). The North quarter also attracts many “visitors” as the stores on Brabantstraat/rue de Brabant offer an impressive array of products from all over the world: food, furniture, herbs, clothing, shoes, etc., which are hard to find elsewhere. Higher up on the border between Saint-Josse and Schaerbeek is another important commercial axis: “Little Anatolia”. This stretch of the Haachtsesteenweg/chaussée de Haecht is characterized by a strong ethnic identity, namely that of the Turkish community (Renovas, n.d.).

“We are in Arab land here!”

(Lucy, field notes, May 2019)

The women often use “Arab” interchangeably with “Moroccan” to refer to other (non-black) persons with migrant backgrounds, mostly of Turkish or Moroccan descent.3 In addition, the terms are also associated with a Muslim identity or the fact that a person speaks what they understand to be Arabic. “Moroccans” are also

Findings 41 considered different from "Belgians”, whom the women refer to as “white”.

Cheap rent, especially in the apartments in the red-light district of the carrés, has attracted many newly arrived migrants, and, most recently, families from Eastern European countries (É. Haquin & H. Morvan, personal communication, October 18, 2018). The vacancy rate is high (IBSA, 2016a; IBSA, 2016b), which leads to situations of precarity, as is illustrated by the next field note.

Today we witness an eviction in the area. A woman, of Roma migration background, is standing outside on the street with her small son. She is crying. A locksmith is busy changing the locks. “They put me and my baby outside,” she tells us. “We were squatting in one of the apartments. Now we have nowhere else to go.”

(field notes, May 2019)

Finally, the prostitution activities, drug dealing, and bars attract outsiders to the area both night and day, ranging from innocent shoppers to “disorderly individuals” (Weitzer, 2014, p. 59).

“There is a lack of social cohesion and people blame each other for the state of things,” several of the stakeholders explained (personal communication). In contexts of deprivation, individuals tend to show favouritism towards their own “group” and may react negatively towards outsiders. This is a situation that can lead to prejudice and discrimination (Turner, 1975) and something we observed in the area.

“The children play football on the street. What kind of behaviour is this? This is not a park. They should play in the park. It’s no place to be playing here. The ball can break a window.”

(Nancy, field notes, May 2019)

Although the older women often speak some French, most of the African women in this area speak English or Nigerian Pidgin (next to their mother tongue of Edo, Yoruba, etc. and other acquired languages like Italian or Spanish). They speak other European languages because, for the majority of them, Italy, France, or Spain was their country of arrival and residence in Europe for many years before coming to Belgium; and they often refer to those countries as “home”. Most of the residents of the area of the carrés, however, speak French, Turkish, Arabic, or other languages. Furthermore, moral opinions regarding drugs, alcohol, and prostitution sometimes complicate interactions more than language and cultural barriers.

4.1.2 Structural neglect of the area and its people

Diamond says she misses Italy, while she looks up at the ceiling, where paint is peeling off and water stains leave discoloured patches. “Look at the state of the buildings. Brussels is old and dirty. Also, the apartment where I live is old. It’s not like in Italy.”

(field notes, February 2019)

The area around the North station is home to an administrative centre (with skyscrapers and government buildings) at the front and some of the poorest and deprived neighbourhoods of Brussels at the back (Opbouwwerk Brussel, 2002). Here, categories of colour and class separate people geographically (Deboosere et al., 2009). As argued by Sanders, “In urban spaces [...] groups who are outside the mainstream are confined, or at least attempts are made to confine them to hidden shadows, away from a legitimate place in public and their rights to full citizenship” (2004, p. 1714).

Some carrés have been sealed as the result of ongoing police investigations and the purchase of some of the carrés by the government of Saint-Josse (personal communication stakeholders). Therefore, these abandoned buildings are not maintained and contribute to a general “deprived look”. The researchers observed illegal dumping of garbage, odour nuisance, and broken window's of bars and carrés.

“The place is dirty. They spit and pee on my pavement. We have to clean it before w'e start.”

(Roxy, field notes, June 2019)

On several occasions, the researchers saw' women pouring water on the pavement and arduously cleaning their carré and the area outside it. This happened mostly between 6 pm and 7 pm, when the women started the night shift, and could be interpreted as a w'ay through which the women maintain control of their environment and protect their dignity.

There is little institutional or governmental presence in the area, and the women expressed their apprehension during the interviews.

Mary takes us to a bar, and w'e buy her a coffee. She wants to explain to us how things are in the area. “There is no love, no respect. People don’t care about this area,” she says. She is clearly frustrated.

(field notes, February 2019)

The structural neglect adds to the frustration of the women as they believe that they are not treated fairly or with dignity. Espace P, an organization that supports the rights and well-being of sex workers is the only organization with a strong presence in the area. Their office is located in the district and the social workers regularly go on the streets and inside the carrés (to give the women lubricant gel and condoms, sometimes accompanied by a doctor). “Since 2013 we are purposely addressing the African women. This has been a slow and difficult process because most of them don’t trust us,” Teresa Tylova, a researcher and social worker of Espace P, explains (personal communication, February 6, 2019).

Although no official complaints are coming from residents about prostitution in the area of the carrés, Hélène Morvan explains that residents, including the women, might be discontented with the situation but do not think things can or will change. Often, they are unable to file their complaints through the official channels because they either do not understand how the system works, they lack certain skills (e.g. language), and/or do not trust the system (H. Morvan, personal communication, October 18, 2018). The place on the margin does not translate into political influence, which as Weitzer concludes about the Brussels situation, “allows the city to continue its policy of minimal engagement and tolerance of the status quo” (2014. p. 67).

4.1.3 Stigma

Persak and Vermeulen argue that moral order tends to be spatially regulated in the urban setting (2014). Prostitution, or the act of offering sexual services in exchange for money, has defied conventional morality and family structures throughout most of history (Rodriguez Garcia, 2016). Prostitution is considered by many as threatening to the conventional order, and the term “prostitute” is often used to describe deviant behaviour of women. The accounts of the participants revealed experiences of stigma.

“If they know what kind of job you do, they won’t look at you,” Stella replies when I ask her if she has any contact with Belgian nationals.

(field notes, June 2019)

Stigma informs social attitudes towards prostitution, “fostering an environment where disrespect, devaluation, and even violence are acceptable responses to those who are stigmatized” (Benoit et al.,

2018, p. 460). In the red-light district of the carrés, women suffer harassment that is linked to the stigma of prostitution (personal communication stakeholders). Some women who work at night say that passers-by sometimes take photos, and the women find this very unsettling as they worry about what will be done with those photos.

“Just yesterday there was an Arab woman that was taking pictures of the windows with her phone. It’s not nice. They don’t want us here.”

(Rose, field notes, June 2019)

Rose’s reaction shows that this societal reaction generates a feeling of being unwelcome. Her quote also reveals intergroup tensions in the area, using “they” versus “us”.

Beauty is outside her window when we arrive. She tells us of a meeting that was organized in the area, but stresses that she did not go: “Of course 1 will not go, it is ridiculous that anyone would expect me to join a group meeting - as if prostitution is something 1 am proud of doing.”

(field notes, May 2019)

Beauty’s quote illustrates how some of the women internalize the stigma of prostitution, as Beauty is ashamed of doing this kind of work. Her statement highlights one of the challenges of the empowerment approach employed by organizations like Utsopi who advocate for the rights of sex workers. In response to our question about where she goes to church, Celia answered:

“How can 1 be doing this work and go to church? I pray yes, but I cannot go to church now.”

(Celia, field notes, March 2019)

In most parts of Nigeria prostitution is not accepted and is even considered a taboo,4 and outside the carrés most of the women hide the fact that they work in prostitution. The sinful connotation that the women themselves attribute to prostitution, therefore, generates feelings of shame and guilt.

“If any one of the girls ever sees me in Italy one day and says hello or asks me if I am not the one who worked in the carrés in Brussels, I will deny it because it is not something I am proud of.”

(Lulu, field notes, May 2019)

Both external and internalized stigma have an impact on the mental health and emotional resilience of women in prostitution (O'Neill et al., 2009). They can also affect the capacity of the women to fight for their basic rights. However, within the group of women from Nigeria and Ghana who work in the carrés, there are different attitudes towards prostitution, and there is also a minority who try to resist the stigma by employing a rights-based discourse.

“We are just doing our work, not bothering anybody. 1 have the right to do with my body what I want.”

  • (Agnes, field notes, February 2019)
  • 4.1.4 Insecurity

During the six months of fieldwork, security was the main topic of conversation. Almost all the women answered “security” or rather “a lack of security” to the question of what the biggest challenge in the area was for them. They referred both to the situation inside and outside their carrés.

Joma and Isabella say the clients can get aggressive, especially at night. They both have scars. Joma has one on the inside of her hands and Isabella points to her neck.

(field notes, May 2019)

“If they cannot improve it, they should close it down.”

(Mary, field notes, February 2019)

The field notes demonstrate a sense of urgency about this theme, and the stakeholders confirmed that the area is very insecure with an increase in crime rates over the years. They state that the violence in the red-light district is not fundamentally linked to the prostitution activities but is regrettably often directed at the women.

“The criminality is new. 1 think it’s been five years or something. We as women have nothing to do with it. It used to be full of clients. The cars were lined up. This has changed because the area is degraded and there’s drug dealing. It’s dirty and dangerous.”

(Nancy, field notes, February 2019)

Especially at night, the darkness contributes to a disconcerting atmosphere. Some parts of the Linnéstraat/rue Linné and the

Plantenstraat/rue des Plantes are quite deserted as opposed to the busy Weidestraat/rue de la Prairie, where people on the street are visibly intoxicated, and men are gathered in small groups.

Observing the setting in which the women work helped to shed light on the potential risks. Although the fact that “feeling (in)secure” is a subjective experience, for which the stories are the most valuable sources of information, the researchers also felt the hostility/insecurity through the way they were looked at and approached by certain individuals.


A large-scale study on prostitution in Brussels, carried out in 2008, observed that residents and merchants in the North quarter

have clashed with the sex sector over three issues: (1) nuisances: traffic congestion, parking problems, noise, car break-ins, visitors’ behaviour (e.g., offensive language, fights), (2) building owners who do not repair their buildings, and (3) the erotic image of the zone, which clashes with local Muslim sensibilities.

(Seinpost Adviesbureau, 2008, in Weitzer, 2014. p. 59)

These factors are legitimate grievances of community members. Especially in densely populated areas, public prostitution is not easily compatible with other activities, both residential and commercial. “There are people who argue that residents should not complain because they knew very well that prostitution was taking place before they moved in the area,” says one of the stakeholders. However, in the Brussels context where cheap housing is scarce, not everyone has a fair choice of where to live (E. Haquin, personal communication, October 18, 2018).

In the last two years, these grievances have led to an upsurge of direct harassment and intimidation of the women (personal communication stakeholders).

“They throw eggs. Why would they make the effort to go and buy eggs to throw at us?”

(Violet, field notes, May 2019)

Violet expresses her apprehension about how there are people who go out of their way to harass them for no reason, this is incomprehensible for her. It is unclear whether this is coming from residents of

Findings 47 the area itself, or people coming from outside. The women say it is mostly Turkish men and children who cause trouble. On a few occasions during the fieldwork, the researchers witnessed men on the streets yelling insults at the women.

Rose, who also works at night agrees: “The little boys are a problem. They are rude to us. They say ‘fuck you’ or make gestures at us. What kind of parents let this happen? It’s a problem with the parents. The boys are only 14 or 15.”

(field notes, May 2019)

There are also acts of vandalism that lead to material damage and, commonly, windows are deliberately broken. During the six months of fieldwork, the researchers saw more than 20 broken windows. Some of the bars in the area were also attacked, and it became a recurrent topic of conversation.

During the focus group, Maya addresses the others: "My window is broken again. It also happened two months ago, 1 had it fixed, and it just happened again. It’s so expensive to fix.”

(focus group, field notes, May 2019)

Aside from the direct effect of the aggression, which is quite dangerous if the woman is standing right behind her window when it is smashed, it also has financial consequences, as the replacement of a window costs between 300 and 800 euros. Some women or landlords postpone the replacement, thereby contributing to the dilapidated feel of the area.

The clients are also targeted and the women blame the decrease of the number of clients (discussed earlier) on the decrease in security. They talk about “Turkish” or “Moroccan” men who pick on their clients.

“The guys break car windows of customers. They steal from them. The Belgian clients don't come anymore after midnight. It’s too dangerous.”

(Maya, field notes, May 2019)

“I have seen the area change over the last ten years. Business used to be good. Clients came and went, Belgian and foreigners. Now, things are different. The Turkish guys who live here chase the clients away. They especially target the white men coming into the area.”

(Ani, field notes, January 2019)

The hostile atmosphere is similar to what has been observed in other urban settings where “sex workers experience intimidation and harassments from the communities where they work and sometimes live” (Sanders, 2004, p. 1705). Kinnell notes that, in the UK, “verbal abuse, spitting and throwing objects ranging from stones to fireworks and bottles are common occurrences” (2006, p. 148).

Physical violence

The violence in the red-light district is primarily an economically motivated violence (É. Haquin. personal communication, October 18, 2018). There is a lot of money circulating in the area because of the drug dealing, prostitution, etc. and this may attract desperate individuals.

“A client paid to stay the whole night with me in my carré. In the morning he woke up and wanted to run off with my phone.”

(Roxy, field notes, June 2019)

“They steal also. They steal from the whites and also from the girls. It happened to me once. They stole all my money. When I was in the other street, the one they closed, one man stole 1,800 euro from me while 1 was in the bathroom. 1,000 was mine and 800 for a friend, 1 have to pay her back.”

(Issy, field notes, January 2019)

Almost every participant in the research has had bad experiences with clients or those pretending to be clients who came with ulterior motives, most commonly, theft. In some cases, men threaten to use violence (with or without weapons), actually beat up the women, or scare them by saying that they would report them to the police as undocumented. Many of the research participants, especially those who work at night, confirmed that this had happened to them. The women also said that men often demanded their money back if they were unable to ejaculate in the agreed time. Kinnell (2006) identifies this as one of the four main trigger factors that can spark off violence from male clients of prostitutes (O'Neill et al., 2009).

She says she once had a client who wanted something sexual that she didn’t want to do. He removed the key from the door, and when she said no, he punched her in the face and gave her a black eye.

(Isabella, field notes, May 2019)

Today we see Hilary for the first time. We ask her why we haven't seen her before now. “I haven't been around because a client beat me up so badly that 1 was unable to work. 1 only resumed work very recently.”

(field notes, May 2019)

Lastly, some women also mention forms of sexual violence. They explain that some clients want to have sex without using a condom, even when the women do not want this.

Anjie explains, enacting the scene while she is speaking: “The client will tell us to turn around to take us from behind, but he does this so he can take the condom off unnoticeably.”

(field notes, May 2019)

A feeling of lawlessness

“There is a sense of ‘tout est permis' in the area,” said one of the stakeholders (E. Haquin. personal communication, October 18, 2018).

“There is no security. It’s like the police don't care about us. Sometimes we call the police when something happens. Those who answer the phone don’t understand English or they don’t take it seriously. If we are lucky and they show up, they will come after 45 minutes or one hour. The criminal would have left. Then they ask you for the description of the criminal, which clothes he wore etc., but it’s too late.”

(Mabel, field notes, January 2019)

Apart from the occasional police car passing by, there is no regular police presence on the streets. At night, there is only one patrol unit, which comprises two police officers on stand-by for the entire Brabant street district (in which the red-light district is located, and which includes the lively Brabantstraat/rue de Brabant and the Aarschotstraat/ rue d'Aerschot). When the women call the emergency number, it connects to the emergency calls central point in Brussels, not the station nearby, and they experience difficulties with being understood over the phone. Also, if the police do respond, they take a while to arrive.

“The police don't do anything. They just take our ‘statement’. We don’t want to give statements.”

The women generally have a straightforward understanding of justice. They expect a direct response from the police, meaning that they should come and arrest the person who caused harm on the spot. They are not fully aware of the complicated process of managing administrative complaints, and that this is often not as straightforward as they would like it to be. Many of the women perceive the justice system to work against them rather than for their well-being. Certain incidents, like that of 2018 New Year’s Eve also serve to reinforce this. It was a particularly unsettling night (described in a field note at the beginning of this section) that left a deep impression on the women.

“At some point, the police came there but they did nothing and just watched as these horrible things happened. Are these ones police officers?”

(Didi, field notes, May 2019)

Almost everyone said that they wanted policemen in uniform on the streets. Other suggestions that were made by the women included installing camera surveillance or alarm buttons inside the carrés:

When 1 mention Antwerp, Momo says that she would prefer it all to be official. “That they build something and that it is all in order [...] The police can protect us, and we can do our work with dignity.”

(field notes, May 2019)

In 2008, it was noted that some women working behind windows (in the whole North quarter) complained about a lack of police surveillance on the streets, especially on weekends (Seinpost Adviesbureau). Interestingly, one of the recommendations of that report, while looking at the success of the reorganization of Antwerp’s red-light district, was to set up a police station in or near the area to ensure close observation and rapid reaction to any violence (Seinpost Adviesbureau, 2008). In 2018, a new police station was officially opened on the corner of the Weides-traat/rue de la Prairie, right on the edge of the red-light district, in front of the first carré. The new station is quite big and visible, so it creates a presence of its own. However, its presence is not reassuring to the women, as crime rates have only risen in the area.

“I wish the police station would close and be moved elsewhere, because instead of its presence bringing comfort and some form of consolation and a feeling of safety, it has brought more violence and fear.”

(Jojo, field notes, January 2019)

The situation of lawlessness in the same street as a large police station is hard to comprehend for most of the women as they have an understanding of what the role of the police is, and believe that they should be there to protect them.

“Everybody talks about Africa and things being bad there. But in Ghana and in other parts of Africa, you could never dare to walk in front of a police officer while selling or dealing drugs, never! That would be impossible, because you knew that what they would do to you would be horrible. Yet here, people do it all the time and attack you, but nothing happens.”

(Edith, field notes, May 2019)

On Tuesday morning, June 5, 2018, 23-year-old Eunice was found heavily injured on the sidewalk of the Linnéstraat/rue Linné 130 in Schaerbeek. The injuries eventually led to her death, and the murder has had an enormous impact on the women working in the carrés. It triggered a powerful emotional reaction (T. Tylova, personal communication, February 6, 2019) and, for the first time, the African women united to speak up about the insecurity in the area. There was a strike and a march to demand changes. More than one year later, there is a widespread belief that justice has not been done because nothing seems to have changed in the area. The randomness of the act makes the women believe that it can happen again, on any day, to anyone.

“It’s dangerous now. You can just be killed and nothing will happen.”

(Stella, field notes, June 2019)

Some journalists framed the story as one of human trafficking, of a poor African woman who was deceived into coming to Europe to be sexually exploited and found death (Romans, 2018). The fact that she was “randomly” killed by a local minor and the state of general insecurity in the area were only marginally addressed. In the weeks following the murder, some of the women saw the boy in the area and they were apprehensive.

“When the Nigerian girl was killed, they didn't catch the killer. He just walked the streets. There is nobody here to protect us. If they cannot catch a killer, what will they do to a man that just beats me or steals from me?”

In marginalized urban areas where prostitution takes place “violence may be perpetrated by clients, pimps or managers, drug dealers, robbers, other sex workers, passers-by or sometimes residents, whose activities can sometimes tip over into vigilantism.” (O’Neill et al., 2009, p. 43) We learned that the absence of police in the area of the carrés has created a security vacuum that is prone to this as we discovered that “unofficial” actors offer security to the women.

“When I have an aggressive client and manage to get out, I will lock him inside the carré and run out for help. The black guys outside will come and throw the guy out immediately.”

(Joma, field notes, May 2019)

Joma was referring to some of the men of West-African descent that are usually hanging around the main crossroads in the district. Keke said that they are willing to pay a contribution fee for their safety. If the police don’t offer anything of the kind, she reasoned, they were obliged to turn to other actors.

“If 1 get in trouble, I have the number of some black boys I call, and they come to help. There is also a Moroccan guy that protects the girl that works at night. 1 pay him 50 euro every week so that they leave her alone and no one breaks my window.”

(Keke, field notes, January 2019)

Although in Keke’s eyes she managed to get a reasonable “deal”, paying for safety isn't voluntary for everyone. Several women mentioned that they had to pay a weekly or even a daily sum of “protection money” (around 10 or 20 euros). The following field note of a conversation that took place inside one of the carrés is revealing.

“There’s a Moroccan that asks for 10 euros from every girl every night in this part of the area,” Edith tells us. Lucy, who is working, calls from behind the curtain: “1 refuse, I will call the police before 1 pay that man.” “The police will not come so you should pay them and save your life,” Edith reacts.

(field notes, May 2019)

In the eyes of the women, these men are more powerful, or at least more in control, than the police. However, the interests of these “vigilantes” are ambiguous, creating a complex and very fragile feeling of security. On the one hand, the women feel protected, but on the other

Findings 53 hand, they pay out of fear of the repercussions of defiance. The following field note shows that there is a thin line between who is harassing and who is protecting the women.

“Remember that new woman in the Weidestraat?” Nancy asks the others, “She was not around when they came to collect the money on Saturday. She didn’t know because she was just new. They broke her window just because she wasn’t there at the moment they came to collect the money.”

(focus group, field notes, May 2019)

“Although women may not rationally decide to enter prostitution, their responses to the daily hazards they face can be calculated strategies of coping and resistance” (Sanders, 2004. p. 1708), portraying resilience and ways to take control of their environment. Considering the lack of safety, the women develop tactics to cope with this on their own.

“I used to work in the carrés at night, but 1 don’t want to do that again. It was horrible. Once, a client pulled a knife on me. Also, Moroccan men threatened me. God has been kind to me, and 1 was able to escape all the bad situations. Outside on the street, it’s safe enough, but it’s inside, when I'm alone with a ‘client’ or a ‘pretend client’ is when things get bad.”

(Issy, field notes, January 2019)

Issy makes a risk assessment of the situation and concludes that it is more dangerous at night and inside the carré when she is alone. All the women we talked to confirmed that it is more dangerous to work at night, so, some simply chose not to work at night (like Issy did).

“I never work during the night. 1 stop around 6 pm and then I go home to Antwerp where I live.”

(Ani, field notes, January 2019)

“At night the young girls work. They are stronger. I cannot do it.” (Jojo, field notes, January 2019)

The advantage of working behind the window is that it allows the women to screen clients. Research shows that women who have lengthy experience working in prostitution become experts in this (Kinnell. 2013; Sanders, 2005). Most of the women said that they refuse certain clients.

Pearl installed a side mirror next to her window so that she has a wider view of the street and can see who is coming. We test it out and it works. She can now anticipate who will otherwise suddenly appear in front of her window.

(field notes, June 2019)

“If they are drunk or if they’ve caused trouble before, 1 refuse to take them as clients. And when they come inside, they have to fully undress and put their clothes on a chair in case they carry weapons.”

(Sally, field notes, March 2019)

If the client threatens to use violence, the women weigh up their options.

We ask the women what they do when customers ask for their money back. They all seem to agree on this: “You give it back! What will you do? The police will not help you, and if they break your window, it’ll cost 500 euros to fix. So, in the end you’ll lose even more money.”

(focus group, field notes, May 2019)

In this case, they choose not to resist as a minimal form of agency. Similarly, Anjie explained that she has stopped getting braids or hair weaves. She prefers a wig because clients sometimes pull her hair.5

Women try to communicate with each other when something fishy happens, in particular with women in neighbouring windows. Some women knock on the wall, others leave open their curtain, and others try to phone. But that is not always successful, especially when the others are busy with a client.

Diamond tells us she’s been sleeping inside the carré. She says the girl at night is happy with the company. “You know how many times 1 have helped her with crazy customers? They don’t know that there is someone sleeping behind the curtain. If they get rough with her, 1 open the curtain and shout 'hey’ with an angry look on my face. They usually leave immediately.”

(field notes, June 2019)

In some cases, a woman is indeed not alone in her carré. A colleague, friend, or madam can be in one of the two rooms, often behind a curtain, not visible to the client but they can sleep or

Findings 55 intervene when necessary. Several women said they feel safer when someone is with them.

“Sometimes there was ‘someone' in the back while 1 was working. The same way 1 would sometimes be in the back when the daytime person was working. That was good because if 1 ever got in trouble with a client, 1 could call them to help me fight him off.”

(Sally, field notes, March 2019)

Mabel tells us she only pretends someone else is in the room. “A man came. He asked me the price and 1 said 20 euros. He came in but he wanted me to lock the door behind. He wanted to rob me. 1 lied and shouted to my sister behind the door. There was nobody behind it but 1 pretended. What else can I do? There is no security here.”

(field notes, January 2019)

We discovered that making a scene can also be a tactic to scare bad clients away. It is used to draw attention from passers-by and other women, but also to embarrass or scare clients.

“If a client dares to do something, 1 take oft’ my wig and run around like a crazy woman. It works. They run away.” She reenacts the scene while she is describing it to us. The scene is very amusing.

(Joma, field notes, May 2019)

In some cases, women say they will not hesitate to fight back. One woman mentioned she had a “weapon”.

“What should I be scared of? If a crazy client comes inside, 1 will beat him with my purse and run outside. I can fight, I am not pregnant.”

(Roki. field notes, April 2019)

“In spite of the danger out on the streets, the most dangerous place is inside the carré. When you are alone with a client, you never know who is there for something more than just sex. But 1 know how to take care of myself and 1 will fight back if anyone tries something stupid.”

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