Written by: Jason Hovet, Milan Duda, Klára Smolová
Taken as a whole, the sex industry in the Czech Republic – from prostitution, strip clubs and sex shops to erotic magazines, films, and the internet – is big business, with a share of gross domestic product to rival many smaller sectors.
GIVEN THE NATURE of some aspects of the sex industry, it is difficult to put an exact number on the money it generates, and many of those involved are reluctant to offer even an estimate. In spite of the inherent obstacles involved with research on the subject, The Prague Tribune tried to get behind the “business of sex” and its economic impact.
Not surprisingly, top of the list is prostitution. Jiří Vopravil of the Czech Statistical Office (ČSÚ) estimates about 9,700 people are involved in the business, 40% of which are foreigners, mainly from Slovakia, Ukraine, Russia and Bulgaria. Vopravil was one who tried to put a number on the business side. In 2003, when his research was carried out, CZK 8.7 billion was spent for sex, of which about CZK 3.25 billion came from Czechs.
The Hollywood image of back-alley sex, though, was not so common, with only about 700 streetwalkers working in the Czech Republic, says ČSÚ. Their estimates show about 6,000 prostitutes working in some 800 night clubs around the country, and an additional 3,000 in private flats or rooms. Sometimes these rooms are rented, creating a lucrative real estate business. MFDnes reported in August that pimping and the letting of rooms around Wenceslas Square in Prague creates a CZK 500 million monthly market.
In some respects, prostitution works like many other businesses. Vopravil says the trade has actually stagnated for the past four years. It also has geo-political reasons to blame: the euro’s introduction; Germany’s constant fight with recession dropping the number of German “sex tourists”; and the floods in the Czech capital three years ago. Last year the daily Právo wrote that EU entry had diminished prostitution in border areas – shorter waiting times at crossings have meant that truckers, once steadfast customers, have less time to spare when processing their loads.
Vít Slováček, the vice-mayor of Český Těšín, adds that sex workers now “mainly live off of clients from abroad,” he says, singling out Poland, the town’s nearest neighbor. In Vyšší Brod, situated on the Austrian border in south Bohemia, police worked to push prostitution off the street. However, mayor Marie Ederová admits “public houses” still remain. “We’ve closed our eyes to these red neon hearts,” she says, alluding to the signs found over the door. What’s worse is that the city sees no tax revenue from these establishments, she says, as most claim no profit. The new law on prostitution that is currently being discussed in parliament should create tools for municipalities to fight street-walking and decide whether and where can “red lights” be located, but it should also bring money to the town’s cashiers – if prostitution becomes a taxable business.
Rising “sex tourism” has the hospitality sector a little edgy. In its May 2005 newsletter, the American Chamber of Commerce in Prague, a strong promoter of congress and incentive tourism, stated that, “while the seamy side of the tourism business has been tolerated by the City Hall, the higher end has had little support.” The City Hall is aware of the growing negative image of Prague, and therefore strongly supports the proposed law. “We must eliminate street-walking and brothels from the historical center,” says Rudolf Blažek, deputy mayor of Prague. “We want Prague to be perceived as a nice, friendly city with a wide assortment of services, but these (sex) services are not those we wish to promote.”
It is exactly this “seamy” type of tourism that benefits not only prostitution, but also “lap dance” bars and strip clubs. At the K5 Club, one of the city’s oldest and most well-known clubs, marketing manager Lucie Marková claims more than 90% of the clientele is foreign – and big spenders, leaving an average CZK 5,000 on a typical night for strip shows and lap dances, among other things. Increased customer flow is a welcome change. “At the beginning [in 1995], the biggest problem was [not enough] customers,” says Goldfingers’ general manager Jan Jareš, who helped start the lap-dance bar that year with American investors. Jareš adds that business has grown a lot in the last two or three years, but has leveled off in the last year.
One reason for better business at strip bars has been the growth of British visitors since the number of low-cost airlines multiplied in the past few years, with Prague now a prime stag destination. The rising number of stag parties (estimated to be at some 50,000 visitors this year) has also gotten tourism authorities’ attention, and Czech Tourism plans to take steps to soften Prague’s image. “We do not want to become famous for hosting stag parties,” says spokeswoman Karin Seligová, without elaborating on the agency’s plans.
Stag parties still represent an attractive segment for travel services. After arranging a few stag weekends for friends, Neil Smith and Mark Robertson started PraguePissup.com, a website that arranges hotel and activities for stag parties. In 2002, the company had about 300 visitors, but then got a bit of publicity in the UK, and this year expects 15,000 travelers, mostly British, with packages starting at a few hundred British pounds. While the company doesn’t place itself under the term sex tourism and focuses on “party weekends,” stag weekends, much like an American bachelor party, usually involve a stripper, which is why most groups book the aptly-titled “Steak & Tits” evening. For EUR 30 a person, Prague Pissup organizes a steak dinner in the backroom of a restaurant, followed by a private strip dance.
Ivana Mattei & Tomáš Růžička
foto luminum – d.raub & l.šavrdová
A stable market
A bigger demand for strippers has been good for Zdeněk Záruba and his Galaxy Europe model agency. Started in 1992, Galaxy was one of the first such agencies. “At this time there weren’t many agencies doing [erotic shows],” he says. Today, there is a list of firms several pages long, on top of all the individual offers from girls, both of which has helped push prices down. According to Záruba, a girl doing a private strip show will make CZK 2,000, and she will typically be booked for about three shows a night; a night dancing at a club will start at CZK 1,000 plus tips, which could reach up to CZK 10,000 on a good night. Corporate parties also hire girls to hostess, which goes for about CZK 1,000 a night.
Záruba says he’ll book about 20-30 large company parties a year, especially around Christmas. He claims that Czech girls are also wanted abroad, typically in Germany or Italy, and 60% of his business comes from foreign bookings, although he won’t disclose his company’s turnover. Still, he doesn’t claim to be the biggest agency, but says revenues are consistent. “The market” over the past five years, he says, “has been big and stable.”
photo by: luminum – d.raub & l.šavrdová
Magazines provide the “money shot”
Another stable market – at least for now – has been in publishing, which is led by MP Media Ltd. and PK62, both in operation since 1990. With dozens of titles between them, more than one million erotic magazines, priced around CZK 50 each, are sold in the country each month. “After the revolution, there was a big boom [in publishing] because nothing had existed,” says MP Media’s owner, Hana Bílá, who bought the company from its founder in 2000. Bíla says the biggest change in the market has been international expansion. Besides the Czech Republic, both firms also publish multiple titles throughout Europe.
They both have also diversified. For PK62 that means adding a chain of sex shops and a string of internet sites, while MP Media has chosen to concentrate on business-to-business services by creating a web content provider for telecommunications companies and develop content for mobile phones. The hope is that this diversification may help offset dwindling magazine sales, which Bílá admits now account for 60% of turnover. But she expects the technology side – especially mobile services – to null any further decreases. “You must be ready before [customer demand],” she says of the mobile content, which they started with in 2002 and only accounts for a small part of sales thus far. “We are expecting a big jump in 2006 or 2007.”
Perhaps the most significant indicator that erotica has established itself as a prospering business is the Erotica Sex Fair a four-day market expo that has been held here annually since 1995. According to Ivana Mattei, director of Bohem Production, it provides a chance for those in the industry to meet and make deals, as more than 50 firms are represented – and upward of 10,000 visitors. “The perception of sex is completely different nowadays than ten years ago,” says fair manager Tomáš Růžička. While its safe to say that public perception of sex – as an industry and otherwise – has changed notably in the last decade, perhaps a better question is what it will look like in another ten years. Referring particularly to the growth of technology and its impact, Hana Bílá sums it up concisely: “sex sells in any media.”
Lessons from abroad
For many years there has been talk in the Czech Republic about if and how to regulate prostitution. Today a draft law that should bring a revolutionary change is on the table before parliament. Prostitution should become a legal business, and male and female prostitutes should have business licenses and pay taxes.
WHILE SEX WORKERS would not be able to offer their services on the street, they could work in zones delimited by municipalities, and they would be required to have regular medical examinations. “Even though it’s ethically debatable as to whether prostitution should be regulated or not, we (Prague City Hall representatives) think that the current situation is untenable,” explains Prague deputy major Rudolf Blažek. “At this time, we have no tools for dealing with street prostitution or the erotic industry in brick-and-mortar establishments, or for stipulating any rules,” he adds.
For the people, by the people
Similar to the appetite for reality television, amateur productions in the porno business are a growing trend.
Technology is certainly playing a part, giving the average person both an outlet and audience. “[Erotica] is more accessible for all target groups,” says MP Media Ltd. owner Hana Bílá, while pointing out that “traditional” media is also profiting from the trend. “Amateur magazines are very interesting [for the public] and sell more than others,” Bílá says. One example is the company’s Intim Kontakt, which works similar to a personal ad. Each month, the magazine receives about 900 photos from people, of which between 350-400 appear in the fortnightly publication.
A typical day at the sex shop?
Erotic aids, porno films, underwear, gels, aphrodisiacs, leather, or latex. This is just part of the assortment that attracts sex shop customers. Martin Bednárik, the director of Erotic City, owned by the whole sale company City Realex, claims that an erotic goods business is the same as any other. “Today we’re included among standard business partners like any other company. The borders have been pulled down, which is good, as we don’t feel second-rate in any way,” he says. His firm currently employs 250 people and is the largest chain of erotica shops in this country, with 55 outlets and 40,000 product types.
USB sex & pocket porn
Sex with your own computer, mobile phone, or someone thousands of kilometers away? Thanks to modern technologies, these are just a few possibilities in the porn business world.
Downloading erotic content directly to a mobile phone is probably the fastest developing option, and erotic games, images, or videos represent signicant figures on mobile operators’ balance sheets. “Two years ago a mobile phone user could download still black-and-white images, while today you can download thirty-second videos with very good resolution,” says Martina Kemrová of T-Mobile’s press department, adding that typical customers in this area are men aged 18 to 40. “Although older men don’t find their way to other content services, they do find erotica.”