Magda and Natalia smoke cigarettes sitting languidly on bare mattresses. They show their thighs and their faces as well; the two women are watching the person opposite them with curiosity, *** who observes them, too.
“Sex workers”, as they are known by non-government organizations, typically don’t trust journalists. It’s rare for them to accept a journalist into their home, which is usually temporary accommodation. But Magda has decided to trust me and let me into her home. The lodgings – a mid-sized room with a hall – is located in a central area of the Bulgarian capital of Sofia and can hardly be called cozy. And by the end of day the two women will no longer be roommates; they’re moving out.
“Now I am broken, but what a beauty I was a few years ago! Wait a minute, I’ll show you some pictures,” Natalia chatters away, pointing at a photo album. In each one of the many pictures she is posing with a different man.
Setting their own rules
Natalia and Magda knew each other through their families long before they became sex workers. Magda, who has been selling her body for 15 years, tells me how surprised she was when one day she saw Natalia at a bus station. Natalia had come to prostitute herself there for the first time.
“I told her to go home immediately because she would dearly regret it. But she didn’t listen to me...” Magda explains.
In Bulgaria as in every country, sex work places range from apartments, to brothels (venues with more than three sex workers), massage parlors, bars and clubs. Magda and Natalia work independently in their own lodgings - they can “set their own rules” and refuse clients.
“In the beginning I was shy, very shy. Even now I turn off the lights, when the moment comes,” Magda says.
"disgusted me forever"
She has seen a few things that “have disgusted her forever”. For instance, once a client wanted her to defecate on his stomach. She refused.
Magda goes to a gynaecologist more often than most of her colleagues. She refuses to have sex without protection. However, she says that a lot of girls do have unprotected sex because it pays better.
Rayna Dimitrova from the Health and Social Development Foundation recalls that Magda was among the few women who volunteered in the past. She advised her colleagues how to protect themselves from violence, how to insist on the use of protection.
Magda works for BGN100 per hour ($70). The fee abroad is about €120. She has worked in more than five European countries so far, including France, Germany, and Switzerland. Most of the places were brothels. The atmosphere there resembles “a doll’s house; it’s pretty and cozy, there are candles, curtains…,” says Magda from the background of the bare, smoky room. The visitor is introduced to the girls and takes his pick.
Magda and Natalia claim that getting in touch with people from “this business abroad” is easy, mainly through internet advertisements. Bulgaria is an EU-member state, so there is no need to obtain special documents. The two women claim the business in Western Europe is dominated by “various Eastern Europeans.”
About a week after our first meeting, before sitting in a café, we go to see their new place from the outside. A small group of people are standing nearby- two feminine boys aged about 18 who gave me a suspicious look, and a girl of about 20. These are Magda’s new flatmates. They are in the same line of work. A little girl is very happy to see Magda and hugs her legs. This is the daughter of her female flatmate. A neighbor standing nearby is staring at the group that is chatting cheerfully. A few nights ago the four flatmates had group sex with a client.
"it's disgusting to see what such a person desires"
“I was so disgusted by him,” Magda confesses, after we sit in the café. She often uses the word “disgusted”. “He came and paid to be with us. It’s so disgusting to see what such a person desires; he wanted the boys to do some very disgusting things. And he has a wife and children! I just couldn’t bear it and went out, it was ridiculous.”
Magda has three children, the oldest one being aged 22 and none of them knows what their mother, who visits them every weekend, is doing in the capital.
“One of the reasons why I’m still doing this is my desire to buy an apartment for my children. I’ll soon put an end to this and I will no longer do it!”
Asked when this will happen, she smiles somewhat guilty: “Soon!”
Bulgaria, in contrast to countries like Germany, has no rules regulating sex work: it is neither legalized, nor criminalized, although pimping, trafficking and forced prostitution are criminalized.
“No one protects prostitutes in Bulgaria. In some Western countries, the police protect them, here institutions don’t care,” Rayna explains.
In the past, the Health and Social Development Foundation had a medical doctor working in a mobile cabinet which visited sex workers. Unfortunately at present there is only a nurse doing blood tests. The organization will soon have to seek new funding because the term of old contracts expires soon. Funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS was drastically cut in recent years.
Magda is harsh in herself and frequently calls herself and other sex workers “stupid”. Before she started selling her body, however, her life was not without its difficulties. Her husband died shortly after their wedding and Magda was soon admitted to a clinic due to a nervous breakdown. She became a sex worker by force in the nineties: turbulent times when “there were far more pimps.” This happened after Magda fell in love with a boy, but a friend of his, who was prostituting, locked her in an apartment and brought men to her. In the beginning, “it was extremely unpleasant”. After a few months she ran away. Then realized she was without money and already felt used so she started working for herself.
After our talk Magda heads for her place. The daughter of her flatmate rushes towards her and hugs her legs again. The neighbor continues watching them askance.