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A Hard-earned Living: Prostitution in Tallinn

Enter two women. The first, a brunette, has a ski-jump nose and wears black pants with leopard skin cuffs. She's in her mid twenties. The second is in her fifties. She's a chemical blonde with short hair and a white polyester suit. She could be a secretary from New Jersey. The two do not take drinks. They take a perch above the nightclub's bar and dance floor. They wear serious faces and scan the crowd.

"Here are two olmedaamid," says Lii Tanner, using her word for prostitute. Lii is the author of, Olmedaamide Tallinn, a novel she says is half autobiographical. In the novel, the protagonist leaves her job as a schoolteacher and becomes a prostitute to make ends meet in Estonia. The book flays open the world of modern Tallinn prostitution, detailing the business end of things: who makes money and how. The book lists hotels which run prostitutes and the hourly and nightly charges at each. I'd read Lii's book and had a tough time believing there was so much prostitution in hotels. As the editor of a magazine in large part concerned with travel, I'm acquainted with many hotel owners and managers. I told Lii I found it hard to believe it was in their interest to have a hotel full of prostitutes. "It's not all hotels," she told me. "And the manager may not even know about it. The security men generally run the business." And she offered to let me witness it first-hand. We had agreed to meet at 11 p.m. in a prominent hotel's nightclub, the witching hour for working girls.

"Turn 180 degrees," Lii says. "That blonde behind you."

She's a bleach blonde twenty-something, her hair in a frizzy ponytail. She wears spandex pants and a tight, long-sleeved turtleneck sweater. She is tall with perky breasts. An attractive woman. She is what the Mattel Company had in mind when they made Barbie. She's talking to a man with a crew cut who wears a track suit top and blue jeans.

"That's probably her pimp," comments Lii. "Or he might be a narcotics dealer."

If Lii's book is accurate, each prostitute has paid near 500 kroons to the security man working the door. This buys the hunting license for the evening. Depending on the hotel, she may be required to take her client to certain rooms if he is not a guest. The room will not be provided free of charge. According to Lii, the security men will make money there, too.

Lii recognizes one of the security men. "He was here in my day," she says. "Only a fool would leave the gold mine." According to Lii, even the barmen do well. They average a thousand kroons in tips on an average night. And, according to Lii, many of them are pimps, as well.

But how much will a prostitute earn working this room tonight? I ask. "It all depends on what kind of negotiator she is. The worst might earn 20 euros. The best might earn 200 euros." Two hundred euros. The average Estonian earns around 18 euros per day.

Barbie leaves the man in the track suit and moves to the edge of the dance floor. She holds a highball glass, sips from a straw. She wheels without warning and approaches a man at the bar. He's a good looking guy in his early forties, dressed in a three-button blue sport coat and black jeans. His pose is straight out of Saturday Night Fever. One hand holds a glass of white wine, the other hand splayed on his hip. His back is to the bar and one foot rides the rail near the floor. Barbie leans in and says something directly in his ear. He smiles. They proceed to the dance floor. She dances with her purse on her arm until he insists she put it down in the corner with their drinks. She is not a good dancer. He is worse. After one dance, he begs off. They return to the bar. He buys her a fresh drink. At one point, she leans in with a question. He seems surprised. His answer is animated; both hands are used. He touches her lightly on the back. This is polite rejection. Barbie disappears into the crowd.

The girl with leopard cuffs and the New Jersey secretary are still in the same place. They have not ordered drinks, and they scan the crowd with the same serious looks. I wonder if they, too, might be journalists. "Not very active prostitutes," I say to Lii.

"Wait," she says.

Enter two more working girls. The first is around thirty and wears a red top with a plunge neck. Her dark skirt meets her tall boots at the knees. Her partner, wrinkled and in her late fifties, shamelessly wears a sleeveless black cocktail dress. Without Lii, this is the only woman I might be tempted to conclude is a prostitute. It's easy for me to believe all this could go on without the knowledge of a foreigner running a Tallinn hotel. It's discreet. In fact, at least tonight, it would be virtually unnoticeable without a guide. And what if it happened with the manager's knowledge? Who am I to pass judgment? The act of selling sex is not illegal in Estonia. It's the oldest profession in the world.

"That one with the bare shoulders," Lii nods to the older woman. "She was working back in my day."

But there are plenty who would make it illegal. Ilvi Jõe-Cannon, Baltic Coordinator for the Coalition Against Trafficking Women, is one of them. "Buying sex should be illegal," Jõe-Cannon says. "No little girl ever says, 'I want to grow up to be a prostitute.'" Jõe-Cannon spends her time lobbying to change Estonian law. Currently, in a sexual transaction, Estonian law finds the middleman, the pimp, guilty. Taxi drivers—who earn commissions for delivering customers to brothels and sometimes directly to prostitutes—have told me that the Tallinn sex industry simply changed its practices to fall in line with the law. The prostitute strikes the deal, accepts the money, and later shares it with her pimp (the pimp or brothel usually taking half). Jõe-Cannon wants Estonian law to mirror Swedish law: the purchaser of sex will be the guilty party. She can show you reams of information about why this is more effective in reducing prostitution. But she's fighting an uphill battle. There are some who want to legalize prostitution and tax it. There are even more who would simply ignore it.

Barbie is back. She is talking with a young man in a suit. He is a few centimeters shorter than Barbie, wears his hair short and has about two days growth of a beard. "A Finn," pronounces Lii. He appears sober. He buys her a drink.

"See that blonde?" asks Lii. She nods to someone near the bar. I'm not sure which one. I don't dare ask her to point. "She's stumbling all over the place. Someone put something in her drink. Never leave your drink unguarded in a place like this." In Lii's book, prostitutes carry prescription-strength eye drops. Two drops in any sized vodka, says Lii, will knock a big man out for several hours. In her book, prostitutes rob Finns and Finns sometimes rob prostitutes. It seems to me that everything is a worst-case scenario to Lii. I want to believe the stumbling woman at the bar simply had too much to drink. After all, getting drunk is a national pastime in Estonia. But Lii's life has given her a different perspective. She's on her fourth husband. Her first husband, she says, was a Leningrad-born count, thirty years her senior (Lii was 18). They were together only three months when he died under the wheels of a trolleybus. Her second husband physically abused her. Her current husband doesn't understand why she wants to work as a masseuse. A real masseuse, not a prostitute. She did it before and earned good money. She supported her husband with the money. But he doesn't understand. He can't get a job himself which supports them both, but he won't believe that one can be a masseuse without being a prostitute. And writing hardly pays. One of her Estonian publishers, says Lii, printed a second edition of her book without telling her, so they didn't have to pay royalties. "I caught them and they still didn't pay me."

If you listen to Lii for very long, you start to look for prostitutes everywhere. You start to believe the escalating statistics that Ilvi Jõe-Cannon spouts: 60 to 100 brothels in Tallinn alone. You start to think your neighbors are operating bordellos.

I live in Merivälja, a suburb between Tallinn and the Viimsi Peninsula, the richest residential region in Estonia. My neighborhood is far enough from Tallinn that I know most foreign neighbors. All summer I heard English spoken on my neighbor's deck. They were just over the fence, through the hedge. Often English, but the accents changed.

Should I stick my head over the fence and introduce myself? I wondered. "Hi, I'm Scott. Strange we haven't met before." But for some reason I didn't. Something held me back.

"It's probably a whorehouse," my wife said.

"In Merivälja?" I said. "You must be kidding."

"There's one up by the Statoil which they just closed. They're all over."

Months later, I ordered a taxi and got a driver who wanted to talk. He was 70 years old, had been driving since Soviet time.

"Lots of whorehouses in Estonia?" I asked. Why not ask? He would know.

"There were forty up until about a month ago," he answered, as naturally as if I'd asked about a football match. "But eight were recently closed."

"What about in my neighborhood."

"Oh, you've got two at least."

"The one near the Statoil," I said, trying to sound smart.

"And the one right behind you," he said. He named the address.

I told Lii about my naiveté. I told her I'd also heard about "Heels on Wheels," where a busload of girls is delivered for the client to choose from. I told her I'd heard about the house in the forest which never sleeps. About the underage African girl in the brothel near the children's hospital. Lii didn't laugh at my naiveté. She just told more stories. She told me about the elite bordellos which cost at least a thousand kroons per hour. The girls are stylish, she said, and they behave themselves. They never get drunk. Many of them are university students, she said. Working to get through school.

I haven't the nerve to ask Lii to sort fact from fiction in her book. I hesitate to get too personal. But more than that, fiction is written for a reason: it is supposed to be truer than non-fiction. In non-fiction, the elements never line up quite the way the writer needs in order to create great character. "Fiction frees to serve truth," a writer once said.

Barbie is on the dance floor with her Finn. They dance a bit, talk a bit. Barbie disappears and returns with her coat, a white fur. She points at the door and gives instructions to her Finn. She disappears into the crowd, I assume to find her pimp. The music is loud and throngs of people are dancing, the vast majority of them unconcerned with anything but their own good time.

But a few are doing business. Whether by choice or circumstance or fate, they are doing business.

By Scott Diel