Rent boys: Sex workers living on society's edge

Prague's main train station is the first thing many tourists see when they reach the city, but it's also one of the city's best-known sites for a particular kind of sex tourism. The prostitutes who have worked here say this is where foreign men come to find the young male sex workers known here as rent boys.

Although at 28, Kevin is a former male prostitute, he comes here to meet up with friends who are still in the business. He says he hates the place, because it reminds him of the experiences he's had here. He had so many clients that he turned to the drug pervitin to stay awake all night.

"Here you meet bank officials, people in high positions and people with average jobs. And you meet them without thinking about it, because if you were to remember each client you had or didn't have then you would go crazy. But the people usually remember you, and that's the worst."

Kevin and two other former male prostitutes told Radio Prague what it's like for these children and young men who are one of Prague's human tourist attractions. They paint a bleak picture of predominantly orphans and runaways caught up in a world of drug addiction, isolation and the ever-present threat of sexually transmitted diseases.

They also say that many of these prostitutes begin when they're still children.

And even though these three men have left the business, their future does not seem bright.

All of the former prostitutes asked that we not use their last names.

Kevin began prostitution at 16 while still in school. His first client was a family member of his teacher.

He quit three years ago because he couldn't get enough clients. He looked too old to compete with the more sought-after teenagers. And since he is Roma, he says prospective clients feared him because of negative Gypsy stereotypes. They thought he intended to rob them.

Like many of these prostitutes, Kevin was raised in an orphanage. The Czech Republic has more children in orphanages than any other E.U. country. Kevin says when he left the Moravian children's home, he was unprepared for life.

"Nowadays, orphanages are not obligated to prepare their students for life by securing them a job, money or a place to live. So I ended up on the street because I was 18 and had just gotten out of an orphanage."

Kevin says a café in the train station is where some prostitutes meet prospective clients. Except for the sounds of the station below and the freeway outside, the scene is like that of any other coffee house. That's until you've spent a few hours here. You may see young men and boys spend their time moving from table to table, sometimes being joined by older men, sometimes walking off with one of them.

"The client comes, walks around, sees someone he likes and takes a seat at the table. And it looks like they're just chatting, but usually the conversation goes like this: 'Where are you from? How much do you go for? What do you want to do? And then you leave together.'"

Prague's main train station
At Project Opportunity, an organization that helps these prostitutes, coordinator Laszlo Sumegh says more than two thirds of the around 80 male prostitutes that come through his doors lived in orphanages. Another 7 percent were runaway children.

Mr. Sumegh, a painter who founded the organization, says he hates the term "rent boys." He says it's more accurate to use the somewhat-awkward term "commercially sexually exploited children and young people."

One of his organization's main goals is prevention and testing of sexually transmitted diseases. Because of a shortage of saliva tests, it has been unable to test for HIV for about a year, but the prevalence among its clients of other STDs is high.

"A little while ago, ten clients were tested voluntarily. Of those, eight tested positive for Hepatitis B and C. So preventive work is really important for the work we do with these young people."

One such test revealed that then-prostitute Petr had both Hepatitis B and C. That's when the 23-year-old quit prostitution. The sexually-transmitted liver disease is deadly if not treated.

Petr said he was in an out of the orphanages during his childhood. He started prostitution soon after he turned 18. He kept working in the business because he was hooked on pervitin, a highly-addictive form of methamphetamine.

"From my point of view, it's awful. If I didn't have to do it, I wouldn't have done it. But I was forced to so I could pay for my dose. When I was still taking drugs, I was taking pervitin. I tried heroine about twice, I smoked pot, I drank. Everything you could consume I did."

Petr started late compared the other male prostitutes. Mr. Sumegh says the average age at Project Opportunity is 17. The prostitutes there say some boys start as young as 11.

The U.N. children's agency Unicef does not know exactly how many underage boys there are working in Prague, but Czech director Pavla Gomba says she has personally seen that child prostitution occurs here.

"It's quite probable that the type of prostitution in Prague is mostly homosexual, meaning young boys - some quite young, 12 or 13 years old - that offer themselves or are being offered to be prostituted."

Ms. Gomba says a Unicef-sponsored study expected to come out later this month will have a clearer picture of the city's child prostitution.

But why do children get involved in prostitution? One reason is probably the money, but these former prostitutes say that's a fleeting benefit.

Stepan says he began prostitution at 16 when he ran away from his parents' home. He says he started because he could have sex and get paid for it. But when he turned 18, prostitution became a way to supplement the government money he received for his diabetes. He says it wasn't enough to live on. Now 36, he continued prostitution for about 14 years.

"At first a person doesn't realize what can happen. You start to realize it later, but you are so entrenched you don't really ask why you're doing it or how you're doing it. The main thing is that you are making some money to live off, but it's not like you have money to throw around. There are only a few well-off clients, and mostly only at the beginning. It is enough to survive, but not enough to live."

The men we talked to say new prostitutes are more popular for clients, so the earnings drop off over time. Stepan says the change in the prices they can charge fall dramatically.

"When a person starts, they make thousands of crowns. And when you're leaving the business, you end up with mini sub sandwiches or mini pizzas - for sex."

Project Opportunity's Laszlo Sumegh says business for these young male prostitutes is also seasonal. Male tourists are the most lucrative clients. Many of the prostitutes are homeless, and tourists often hire them to stay in their hotel rooms for a few days. But the tourists are not around all year.

"In the summer there are more tourists and fewer locals. In the winter there are only the local men, and hunger and misery grow among the forgotten children who live on the edge of society in the streets."

All three former prostitutes say it takes only will power to leave the business. But then what?

Petr speaks proudly of his new apartment, because until now he's had trouble finding stable living conditions. He hopes to look for a job once he has gone through more treatment for his hepatitis, but he is unsure what his new profession will be.

"Now I am going to government offices, because I just had an operation and I'm on sick leave. And what sort of work will I have in the future? I don't know yet. It depends what the government agencies offer me."

Stepan is receives retirement benefits because his diabetes is advanced. He says he was not watching his diet when he was a prostitute.

But soon after he quit the business, he found work when he restored the ties with his family.

"It was not hard to stop at the point where I got back together with my family. They started supporting me, and I could get work in another profession. It was not hard to stop. You can stop doing it overnight."

Kevin works as a laborer in the construction industry, but he says there are times when his past makes it hard to find work.

"I experience this very unpleasant feeling when I go to a company and there is someone sitting there who was my client. I am asking this person for work, but he tells me there are no openings and he won't take me. That's really depressing for me, but it's really the simplest and easiest way for him to deal with it."

But back at the main train station, the boys and young men who work in Prague's sex tourism industry are bracing for another cold winter, the time when work is scarce.