'The women were never anything more than merchandise to me'
|Forty-six-year-old Sjon reveals a world of manipulation and brutality [Mona van den Berg]
"I was 18 when I had my first girl working for me. I still remember her name: Karin.
Pimping came easy to me because I knew everybody in the business. My stepfather was a notorious pimp in the north of Holland. He was a big guy and he used to beat me up badly. My mother was a prostitute, so I really grew up in the sex industry.
Already as a young boy I was a kind of pimp. Every time I wanted an ice cream or needed new shoes, I waited until the johns came along.
At first Karin had her doubts, but I knew how to handle that. You have to act like it's no big deal. I took her to Appie, a friend of mine who owned a club. At Appie's they set out to win her over. And once you're won over in this business, there's no turning back.
The money went straight into my pocket. Every night Appie told me exactly how many men she'd had: there was no way she could fool me. And if she tried, I made sure she knew I was the boss. You have to flex your muscles in this business or else you're out.
But you know, these women are used to getting beaten up, they are used to problems. The quiet life doesn't make them happy either. You just have to be careful that they don't end up with too many bruises. You want them to be able to keep on working.
I was a predator. I closely observed every woman I met. How can I use this one? Is she alone? Where does she live? Does she have relatives, does she have brothers? A girl walked by and in my mind I immediately put her behind a window or in a club.
How does she react? That's the first thing you turn your eyes on. They've got to be vulnerable, pliable. You've got to be able to wrap them around your finger.
Next thing you find out what she likes. Does she want attention? You give her attention. Does she like jewellery? You give her jewellery. Does she want to go on a holiday? Fine, but the next time you say: 'You told me you wanted to go to Italy, well, now you are going to contribute.'
I always went for the soft spot; I headed straight for the wound. I can smell it. My intuition and all my senses are keen on it. I told them all kinds of s**t. I made them believe we had something going.
'You're my girl,' I used to say. 'One day, we're going to get married. We're going to be so happy together.' You have to make them believe you have plans for the future.
But you can never allow yourself to feel anything for a girl. There's no room for emotions in this business. You can't have women working for you when you have feelings.
I learned how to switch off my feelings at an early age. As a pimp you have to rule, know it all, deal with everything, make sure nothing can ever hurt you. And the girl has to come home with the money, or else she's got a problem.
The women were never more than merchandise to me. They were things, objects. I said to myself: 'If she really didn't want to do it, she wouldn't do it.’ I said to myself: 'If I don't do it, somebody else will.'
If they ever expressed their doubts, I would say: 'What are you trying to explain to me? What is it you think I don't know? You should be grateful to me. If I hadn't come along, you'd still be where I found you.'
Then one night there was a john who didn't want to pay and I beat him up. It got out of hand. I got sentenced to four years for assault. That was in 2006.
In jail they made me go into therapy to kick my coke and gambling habit and to work on regulating my aggression. I was lucky to get good therapists. They made me realise there is another world outside of the sex business. They made me realise I didn't really know how to enjoy life. I had switched off my feelings for too long; I didn't know how to switch them on again.
Some people say it's hard to get out of prostitution. I say it's just as hard to get out of pimping. I'm still not able to have a lasting relationship with a woman. I still closely observe every woman I meet. Nowadays I think it's a nuisance. But in the old days it was my life. I wanted to have as many women working for me as I could. I wanted to be a winner every day.
It's a dirty business, that's what it is. It's a world full of lies. It's dirty, rotten and fake. I always knew it was dirty, but I tried not to think too much about it. It's better not to think about what these women go through. It's better not to think about what happens behind those doors, about what the johns do to the girls. Some people say it is easy money. But it can never be easy. These girls have to cross a crucial line. It's the hardest work a woman can get.
I gave up pimping thanks to therapy. But I also think that age played an important part. I was simply tired.
When you are in your twenties it's okay to have five girls working for you, but the older you get, the harder it gets to keep up the juggling act.
I thought I could run through life like Tarzan or Rambo, and I really tried, but you just can't go on like that forever. You think you are a big boy, but it's a fantasy world you’re living in. It's not a real life."
|Sjon started working as a pimp when he was 18 [Mona van den Berg]
The sex worker
'My mother and my grandmother were in prostitution too. My greatest hope is that my girls will be able to break the cycle'
|Twenty-six-year-old Jacky is a sex worker and a mother of two [Mona van den Berg]
"I'm a thrill-seeker. I need excitement to know that I'm alive. I love doing things I've never done before. And I like sex. The sex industry always fascinated me.
I was always drawn to prostitution. So when I got totally bored with my job as a manager of an indoor children's playground, I decided to try my luck in prostitution. That was almost three years ago now.
I told my father about it and all he said was: 'Just make sure you don't end up behind a window.' He took me to a guy he knew who owned a sex club.
You think it's a strange thing for a father to do? Well, you're right. In a way I was angry with him for not trying to keep me from it. But then again, my father has never been a regular father. When I was still a kid, he used to go to swinging clubs and would tell me about the things that went on there.
He never really took care of me. I spent my childhood with foster parents because my mum left us when I was three and I couldn't get along with my stepmother.
I got pregnant when I was 17 and that's why I never finished school. I married my boyfriend when I was 18. I gave birth to my second daughter at 19 and got divorced when I was 20. About three years later I was working as a prostitute.
The first night I was nervous. I was going to have sex with guys I didn't know, guys I wouldn't choose as sex partners if I saw them walking down the street. But after the first night it just became automatic.
It's a game. That's what I like best about it. A john may not be much of a man, but I'll behave as though he's the greatest lover I've ever had and he'll willingly believe me. I can bend all these guys to my will. It's a power thing, really. And I love that.
Most of the johns are okay. They tell me about their private lives. Some of them are a******s who don't respect you. They try to hurt you; they want to play it rough. But that's part of the job. Every job has got its downsides. With prostitution the downsides just have more impact, because it affects your body.
To me, the hardest part is when they put the money on the table. It makes you feel like a thing, like an object that has been bought. But it comes with the job. I'm fine with it now.
There was a time when I used to do cocaine to be able to keep going. It got so bad I couldn't do the work without it. That’s when I decided to stop. It wasn't easy, but I did it. Shortly after I stopped doing coke I met my present boyfriend. He works in pilotage, in the harbour of a nearby city. He's great; he really supports me.
I never thought I would fall in love with a man again. The work I do made me lose all respect for men. I don't feel a shred of respect for johns. A guy who pays for sex is a big time loser, that's how I see it. And you know, most of these guys have a wife and children at home. It's very sad when you come to think of it.
So I never thought I would fall in love again, but I did. And suddenly it was hard to do the work. It was weird to have sex with johns knowing that my boyfriend was at home. And the johns somehow sensed it; I started losing clients. That's when I decided to become someone else at work; to be another Jacky. The Jacky in the club is not me, she's a single woman. When I go home, I leave her behind.
I told my boyfriend right from the start I wasn't going to give up my work. Not for him, not for anybody. I am not going to give up my financial independence for a man – ever. But we do agree I'm not going to do this for the rest of my life. That's why I've signed up for this exit programme the city council is setting up now.
I have always dreamed of becoming a midwife. If I'd had a regular childhood I would have finished school and I would have been a midwife now. It's not too late for me to train as a midwife, but with two daughters it's difficult to do full-time training. Right now I just work three nights a week. But business has been bad lately. I'm not earning half the money I used to.
I always talk lightheartedly about my work. But the truth is it has done something to me. It has changed me. I have become harder, it's like there is a brick wall around my feelings now. I prefer not to think about it too much, or else I wouldn't be able to keep on doing it. The sex industry didn't turn out to be that exciting world I believed it to be.
Some time ago, my father told me my mother and my grandmother had been in prostitution too. That's when many of the missing pieces of the puzzle fell into place. It really made me think. It made me realise that prostitution is a vicious circle that can remain unbroken generation after generation. My greatest hope is that my girls will manage to break out of that circle. I know they will, because I give them all the love and attention I never had.
This feeling that you are wanted, in a way, I've tried to find it with the johns. But I was just fooling myself. In the sex trade you're never going to get the right kind of attention. You're never going to be loved for who you are."
|Jacky juggles her domestic life as a mother of two with her work [Mona van den Berg]
The girl forced into prostitution
'If someone would have told me this would happen to me, I never would have believed them'
|Twenty-three-year-old Xandra describes how she was forced into prostitution - first by her pimp and then by her boyfriend [Mona van den Berg]
"I was 15 and there was this group of popular kids at school. I wanted to be part of that group really badly. They met every day at the back of the school, so I made sure to always be there. And one day they said to me 'we want you to meet someone'.
He was much older than us; he must have been 30-something. He had dark hair and he wore a red t-shirt. Let's call him Jim.
Jim would drive along in his car and seemed to be on great terms with the popular kids. It didn't take long before I found out he was a drug dealer and my friends were running drugs for him. That's how I started running drugs for Jim, just because I wanted to be part of the group.
'It's no big deal,' he said. 'You can always stop running drugs.'
I knew it was wrong and at one point I realised it was dangerous too. So I went up to Jim and told him I wanted to quit.
He just smiled and said: 'I said you could stop running drugs, but you can't stop working for me. So now you're going to make money in another way.'
I knew what he meant and I told him I was never going to do that. And then all of a sudden he dragged me into his car. He beat me up and raped me. I was a virgin at the time.
From that moment on I was in his power. I was so scared of him. I didn't have the nerve to refuse him anything, because I was afraid he would kill me. I knew I couldn't escape. He would always find me.
Three or four times a week Jim would text me and I would come to a spot where he would pick me up and take me to a parking lot outside of town. After some time, a man would appear, hand over some money to Jim and get in the car to have sex with me. All the while, Jim would wait outside, in front of the door. There was no way I could escape. It was terrible.
My parents sensed something was going on, but they couldn't put their finger on it. I never told them anything, I didn't know how. When Jim would text me, I'd tell them I would go to see a girlfriend. I felt so lost and lonely. I always thought it was something that would never happen to me. But it did.
After half a year, Jim suddenly disappeared. Maybe he got busted, I don't know. I just never heard of him anymore. Suddenly I was free. But I didn't feel free. I was still scared. I suffered from nightmares and I tried to keep myself awake at night listening to music, because I was afraid to fall asleep. I didn't eat; I didn't care about my body anymore. I had lost all of my self-esteem. But I didn't know the worst was yet to come.
When I was 19, I met a young man on the internet. He was kind to me. He listened to me. I told him my story and he sympathised, he comforted me. He took me to his parents' house. He told me to trust him; that not all men were after sex. He said he loved me.
But then, after about half a year or so, something changed. He started telling me stories about how he used to do drugs and how great it was. He asked me if I wanted to try, and I said 'yes'. Why not? I didn't give a damn about my body anyway. I was a broken girl.
He took me to this place where we did drugs. The guy who lived there was an older man and when I was very high, the man suddenly said he wanted to have sex with me for money. I was an easy victim. I didn't put up any resistance. I was too high. And besides, my body was worthless anyway, because of what Jim had done to me.
From that day on my boyfriend took me to that place on a regular basis, and he would force me to have sex with men for money, while he waited downstairs. He started beating me up. He started telling me that what happened with Jim was my own fault. And I believed him. I couldn't think straight anymore.
He made sure to isolate me from the ones I loved. He made me break with my friends, he made me fight with my parents. That was the way he liked it. He wanted me to have nothing else in the world but him, so he could use me any way he wanted to.
This went on for two years and in the end I had only one friend left: my best friend. One day my boyfriend said to me: 'You'll have to choose, either it's me or it's her.' I just couldn't believe he wanted me to break with my only friend. That did it for me. I said: 'I am never going to give her up.'
And then he told me to leave. He thought I would never do it, he thought I would never leave. But I did. I had reached a turning point. I went back home to my parents and my best friend told them everything that happened. They were shocked, they were sad, but they did everything in their power to help me.
My ex-boyfriend tried to find me several times, but he can't find me now. I am in a shelter for victims of human trafficking, where I get the counselling I need. At first it was very difficult. I was suicidal, I drank, I had bouts of uncontrollable anger. But things are a bit better now. I'm slowly trying to build up a new life, but it still isn't easy. If someone would have told me this would happen to me, I never would have believed them."
|Xandra says she has been left feeling suicidal at times and has little regard for her body [Mona van den Berg]
'Slowly it dawned on me that maybe this girl wasn't free at all'
|Forty-two-year-old Robert remembers the woman who unknowingly changed his views on paying for sex [Mona van den Berg]
"I just came out of a terrible relationship with a woman who manipulated me. It was sheer hell. She drove me crazy. I'm not an aggressive guy, but she drove me to a point where I almost hit her.
All I knew was that I never wanted to end up in a situation like that again. So I chose not to go out and date women again. I didn't want to run the risk of ending up in a destructive relationship once more. I didn't have much time for dating either. I was working very hard as a lighting technician in the film industry.
That's how the thought entered my mind to call this escort agency. They had a website with photos of girls you could order. Nice looking girls, most of them young. I would choose a girl who appealed to me and I would call the agency. The girl would come over, I would have sex with her and an hour later she would leave. It was all very easy.
At the time it seemed to me the ideal way to deal with my sexual needs. Once a month or so I would call the escort agency and they would send a girl to me. Most of the girls were Eastern European. They usually spoke some English and I would have little conversations with them. They would tell me it was just a temporary job they were doing. Just to send home some money. It was funny, but they all told me the same story.
I thought prostitution was a great solution to my problem and I was quite open about it. Whenever my male friends had fights with their girlfriends, I would say: 'I'm glad I don't have to go through that kind of s**t anymore.' I would say having sex with a prostitute was a much better deal, much cheaper than going out on a date, taking a girl out for dinner, buying her presents - all with the risk of ending up hurt. I said prostitution means no hassle and you get exactly what you want.
Maybe I knew deep down inside that there are prostitutes who don't do the work voluntarily, but I never gave it a thought. An ex-girlfriend of mine had been in prostitution before she knew me and she always told me it was a great way to make money. So that's how I came to view it: a great way to make money for those girls, and a very convenient service for men who wanted to stay out of relationships. It felt good at the time. I thought: 'If those girls are not okay with it, they wouldn't do it. They are free to leave.'
Then one day a strange thing happened. I'd called the escort agency and they'd sent me an Eastern European girl. She was petite, with big dark eyes and dark hair. She spoke just a little bit of English.
I'd recently bought a batch of really cheap mobile phones and cheap pre-paid phone cards. The phones were charged, they were ready to use. I used them myself and I gave them away to friends as a present.
The girl saw the telephones and she said something about it. I said: 'Take one. They're ready to use.' I put one of the phones in a box together with the charger and gave it to her. I couldn't believe how happy she was with that cheap little phone.
After she left, I found the empty box and the charger in the corridor. She had just left them there.
At first I was annoyed at her leaving her rubbish for me to clear out, but then I realised something was wrong. Her behaviour just didn't make any sense. Why take the phone and leave the charger? I was puzzled. It was just too crazy.
Slowly it started to dawn on me that maybe this girl wasn't a free prostitute after all. Maybe she was a victim of human trafficking and she wanted to use the phone to call for help. Maybe that's why she was so extremely happy with it. The phone was very small, you could easily hide it. Her pimp would never notice. But you can't hide a box and a charger.
Looking back I can't remember anything in her behaviour that gave her away, but maybe she was just happy that she ended up with a normal guy, not with some kind of creep.
Later I realised there were other suspicious things going on. The escort agency used to mail me photos of girls that didn't appear on their website. They were all foreign girls. Why wouldn't they put these girls on their website? The agency also changed its name every now and then. It was very peculiar.
That was the last time I called the escort agency. I never paid for sex again. I am a radical guy, when I'm through with something, I'm through. I just don't want to run the risk of having sex with a girl who has been forced into prostitution. I just don't think there is anything erotic about compulsion. And there's no way you can be sure whether a girl is forced or not. She can pretend to be happy, just to attract more customers to make enough money for her pimp.
Not long after this experience I met a young woman who became my girlfriend. No manipulation this time. I'm still with her and we are very happy together. But sometimes my thoughts go back to that girl with the dark eyes who was so happy with that stupid little phone. I tried to look for the girl on the website of the escort agency several times, but I never could find her.
I wonder what became of her. I'm sorry that giving her that phone was all I could do for her."
|A former client questions whether you can ever be fully sure that somebody is willingly working in the sex trade [Mona van den Berg]
This article appears in the July issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine. Download it for iPads and iPhones here and for Android devices here.