« Of all of the tragedies that I lived through when I was in prostitution, there are two things that continue to torment me, that I still can’t get over. They are traumatic experiences that I’ve filed away in my mind, but they are still there, inside me, even though I live my life trying to ignore them. The first. I am about 19 years old and I’ve been in Germany for 4 years, having been sold by a criminal organisation in my home country, Brazil, to a German organisation that forces me to prostitute myself. I’ve been booked by two Italians for a weekend, but in the room where we organised to meet I find 7 of them: they tie me up, they rape me, they piss on me; then they take me into the bathroom, they wash me and they start all over again. An ordeal that lasts hours and hours, it seems never-ending. Years later, on a train on my way to a prize ceremony in Perugia, I happen to see one of my rapists: I recognise him from an unmistakable tattoo of an Indian under the moon. He looks at me, but doesn’t recognise me, because over the years I have gained weight and my appearance has changed a lot. I would like to go over to him, to ask him: “do you remember me?”. I would like to say to him: “see? I’m alive, even though you and your friends destroyed me that day”. Instead I get up, full of pain and rage, and I move to a different compartment. On arrival at the hotel in Perugia, I can’t stop crying. I can see myself in front of him, paralysed, unable to scream in his face of the pain, I feel like a coward. Even today I can’t forgive myself for not confronting him. And it’s like an added layer of humiliation on top of what he and his friends inflicted on me in that goddamned room.
The second dates back to my childhood in Brazil. I’m not even 10 years old and I am a prisoner in a villa near Fortaleza, together with other child sex slaves, street children like me, captured through trickery by henchmen sent by Madame, the owner of the brothel. We are drugged, raped by repulsive men, high-ranking clients she is proud of. When ‘fresh meat’ arrives, Madame calls all of her clients, and they line up outside the door and rape the new arrival one by one. If we rebel or try to escape, she assigns us to her most sadistic client, who enjoys inflicting electric shocks on genitals and nipples. The villa is a kind of Auschwitz of sex: there is the dentist’s room when a man in a white coat removes our teeth without anaesthesia and penetrates us while blood drips from our mouths. There is the gynecologist’s room where a man has us lie down with our legs open, he places 1. a speculum inside us and then inserts all kinds of objects. And then there is the worst room of all, the devil’s room: a particular client visits us often, always dressed in black and wearing a crucifix with Christ’s head pointing downwards. He only comes to the villa when a girl dies, killed by blood loss or some other sickness. He lights candles around the dead girl and forces the living ones to stroke and kiss her while he calls upon Satan. Then he penetrates both the living girls and the tiny corpse. Once he came with two others and they tortured a boy of only 4 years old to death. Other than him, another necrophile often visits the devil’s room: a Texan (Madame calls him “my cow-boy”) who always wears a Satan mask so that he cannot be recognised. He ties each of us to a cross, with our heads pointing downwards, then he takes a chicken or a cat and slits its throat while it’s still living, spattering our bodies with its blood, and he does the same with the the dead girl, who should still be warm so that he can offer her soul to Satan through penetration. After that, he forces us to lick the dead girl’s body and clean the blood and sperm that she has been covered in. In the house I have a friend, Priscilla, with whom I manage – at least for brief moments – to forget the horrors we are victims of every day. We play, we dance, we enjoy ourselves as if we were normal children. We fantasise about our futures outside the villa. One day I realise there is a great commotion upstairs: someone calls Madame, her henchmen are mobilised, something must have happened. Taking advantage of the general confusion, I go upstairs and sneak into the devil’s room: and there, lying on the torture table before Madame, her bodyguard and the cow-boy, is Priscilla, dead. I am drowning in a wave of pain. Why didn’t I manage to save her? Why is she dead and I continue to live? And for what? Even today I can’t talk about it without crying.
When I was a prostitute, I lived with a constant sense of disgust, because the clients who I went with, each one different from the next, all had their own sexual fantasies, and they crushed my soul: they pissed on me, they made me swallow things I didn’t like… Prostitution is like a way to offload for people with mental health, emotional and sexual problems. Among my clients there were also those with masochistic fantasies, those who wouldn’t even look me in the face, who fucked me and then left, those obsessed with their genitals and seeking approval (they asked me: “is it big? Is it small? Can you feel it?”), essentially all types of people. They didn’t always look at me as just an object: every so often I might meet a client who was concerned about my pleasure or who was afraid of hurting me. Or who might even invite me out to eat or drink together, but these were a tiny minority, less than one per cent. My relationship with my own body while in prostitution was one of punishment: I drank and I took drugs because I was disgusted with myself. Amphetamines, LSD, cocaine, marijuana. I smoked a lot of joints. And Martini, before, during and after, to help ‘digest’ what I was doing.
Then, when I got out of prostitution, I let myself gain weight. I wanted to get fat so that I would no longer attract anyone’s attention, so as not to give into temptation and to learn to be faithful to one man. Getting fat was a form of protection from my obsessive need to have a body beside me, to be loved. It wasn’t a sexual need, but a need for affection, even just to be hugged. Now that I’m fat, I feel freer to achieve what I want with just my strength, on my own merit. If someone wants to date me, it’s because they see me as a person with ideas, not just a body. I have considered suicide a few times, even after I had got out of prostitution and was married to a German man, Martin: we had a tumultuous relationship, charactrised by drugs and continuous arguing. I felt like I had a gaping hole inside me, which I couldn’t fill. Prostitution had made me live for so many years in a parallel dimension, where I hadn’t grown up and matured emotionally. It left me without the tools to tackle everyday life. And so, on one occasion, out of nowhere, I opened my bedroom window and I threw myself off the seventh floor. I landed on the soft-top roof of a Mercedes convertible, and bounced off into a flower bed full of sunflowers. Without even a fracture, just a head trauma and a dislocated hip: a huge stroke of luck, or maybe a miracle…
When I got married for the first time, I wasn’t ready for a marriage, I still had the mentality of a stray girl, a prostitute, I only knew how to play the roles that buyers wanted: the cleaning lady, the mother, the dominatrix that punished them… In the games they had me play I wasn’t myself, I was always someone else. And so my first marriage failed, because psychologically I was ill-prepared, because of all of the baggage I carried in my soul. In my second marriage, to a Turkish man, I tried to be the perfect woman: I watched Turkish films, I wanted to learn how to be a good wife by observing the behaviour of muslim women. I managed to keep it up for a few days, then I went back to the person I had been before. Even though I had quit prostitution and I was faithful to my husband, I lacked the basic skills and education on how to relate within a marriage. Prostitution shapes your entire life, including your romantic and sex life, and continues to shape it even when you quit. It’s not easy to go from the ‘sex life’ in prostitution to that of a normal person. With my last husband, for example, I always wanted to have sex, as it was the only way I know how to give and receive attention and affection. If he refused, I felt worthless and I was overcome by the fear of losing him. I had the idea that you could only make a man happy through sex.
There’s no dignity, no peace, in prostitution, even when it’s voluntary. I know many women who say they do it by choice, that they select their clients and host them in their apartment: they actually feel disgust for what they do, and this is the reason why they choose their clients, to make the whole thing more bearable. The need to select clients demonstrates that prostitution is disgusting, even for those who do it voluntarily. It’s a route you take only in order to make money, because you have no alternative and you can’t find real opportunities. Male prostitution also stems from the need to earn money, but for a man it might seem like a kind of trophy to be paid by a woman. A male escort is viewed differently from a prostitute, there is less social stigma attached, and he may even be seen as a kind of stallion. Even I, for a time as an adult, was in prostitution voluntarily, and I know what it means to have that feeling of independence, to be free of pimps, to be able to afford things that otherwise you’d only be able to look at from a distance. You think “this job is my sweat, blood and tears, my body, and nobody will ever be able to take it away from me”. You feel strong and proud of yourself. The reality is that you need great strength to be a prostitute, to go to bed with a man you’ve never seen before, do whatever he wants, smile at him, be nice to him, and it is from this sacrifice that you develop a sense of pride in what you do. But it is an illusion, it’s like a misleading advertisement. The reality is that there’s no difference between the escort who chooses and the street prostitute: they are all slaves, all exploited in the same way. A woman who does it voluntarily has imprisoned herself, she didn’t see any alternative, she got into it and doesn’t know how to get out. There are women who find a way to feel beautiful and desired through prostitution, through the flattery and compliments they receive for the way they look. It’s normal for a buyer to flatter a prostitute with words that boost their self-esteem, because that woman is sweet and kind to them, she listens to their problems. But that satisfaction isn’t real, it’s just an illusion that the woman in prostitution needs in order to overcome the fact that she is used, the lack of somebody who truly wants her in an unselfish way. There are men who rush through ‘paid sex’, and others who want to create a bit of atmosphere and so shower the woman in compliments to make her feel satisfied with what she does. But it’s self-deception.
Prostitution is like a drug, it gives you a rush of adrenaline, it’s a stimulant: you feel that momentary happiness that you can buy the things you want. But the adrenaline doesn’t last long: when you are alone in your bed at night, the depression sets in. Nobody accepts you as a prostitute. No man would want a woman who does this ‘job’ by his side, with the risk that even his friends could ‘go with’ you. When I was in prostitution voluntarily, I also believed in regulation, because I thought of the advantages that I could have in terms of respect for what I did. I was sure that nobody would be able to talk to me with disrespect any more, if the state recognised my sacrifice, I would feel more protected. But in time I began to realise that regulation wouldn’t get rid of the social stigma attached to prostitution. It doesn’t work like that. Think about racism: despite all of the laws designed to eradicate it, it still persists. Even if prostitution were a recognised profession, it wouldn’t gain respect as such, people would continue to ask themselves why a prostitute has chosen to do it rather than be, say, a carer or a cleaner, and would continue to look down on them. And then with regulation, prostitutes would be exploited even more: they would have to pay taxes to the state, insurance, rent, and they would end up with very little in their pockets. It definitely wouldn’t be a job from which you could get rich. It would be legalised slavery. Both in Germany and New Zealand, prostitutes, from an economic perspective, were better off before prostitution became a recognised job. Plus, the brothel keepers, thanks to regulation, feel stronger, they have the state on their side, and the prostitute is reduced to silence, they can’t fight back any more. It’s true, every job has its own dose of humiliation. Even a professional might find themselves feeling humiliated, by a disrespectful client for instance. But these are moments. For a prostitute it’s different: the humiliation is continuous, it can be caused by a client or by any person who finds out about your past and refuses to have anything more to do with you.
I still hope that my life will change: I have faith, I trust in God, and I continue to look forwards, towards the light. Do you know what I dream of today? Of getting rid of my constant fear of being abandoned. Of having a family. And of opening a school where I can teach what I know (I am a pastry chef), dedicated to women and girls who have got out of the sex trade, or other situations of violence. Those of us who have known the trauma of prostitution need someone to listen to us, with patience, and to give us the chance to rebuild our lives. We need solidarity. Which is what I have found in the association Resistenza Femminista, with whom I am an activist now too. I fight alongside my sisters for the nordic model: we must recognise that prostitution is violence and that the clients are rapists, and offer exit programmes to all of those in prostitution, with real work opportunites. Today I am proud of who I am, I am no longer a victim but a survivor, a fighter who no longer needs to feel fear or shame – things which only the perpetrators of such violence should feel – and I would like to convey this strength to all of those women still trapped in prostitution. It is for them that I have chosen to speak up and put my face out there, for all of the women and children that I have seen die in the sex trade. While even one woman is still being exploited in prostitution, no woman can be truly free. »
This interview was conducted with Liliam Gomez (known as Liliam Altuntas), who, while still only a child, was kidnapped and forced into prostitution in her native country of Brazil, and then taken to Germany, where she was an ‘escort’ for several years. Having exited prostitution, today she lives in Italy and works as a cake designer. She is an abolitionist activist with the organisation Resistenza Femminista. To learn more about her dramatic story, we recommend reading the book entitled I girasoli di Liliam (‘Liliam’s Sunflowers’, literally translated, currently only available in Italian), written by Teresa Giulia Canone and published by Fefè Roma, 2019. This extract from the Micromega