12 Nov 10

Business Booms for Croatia’s Gigolos

Croatia’s once infamous ‘seagulls’, men who ‘entertained’ female tourists in exchange for gifts, appear to have resurfaced as professional, heterosexual male prostitutes whose clients include locals and visitors alike.

By Barbara Matejcic
Zagreb, Split and Opatija, Croatia

''You know, it wouldn’t be a half-bad idea for us to meet on the beach, so you can get a better idea of what I look like”, says the deep, masculine voice on the other end of the phone.

"You’ll recognise me easily; I’m tall, moderately muscled, with short brown hair. I’ll be in a tight white T-shirt." 

I have yet to set eyes on 27-year-old Mario, but I already know more private things about him than I do about my closest friends. I know his measurements and that the only things he does not consent to sexually are sadomasochist or homosexual acts. Everything else is a go.

Mario slowly approaches a hotel beach in Opatija, a quaint tourist town on the northern end of Croatia’s Adriatic coast, all the while casting glances among bathers, who are few and far between as autumn begins to take hold.

We shake hands, as befits any business meeting, and a few minutes later he is showing me nude pictures of himself over coffee. That is the way it goes in this trade; you meet a person and the next moment you see them in all their glory.

Mario is a male prostitute. A gigolo, he corrects me. A semi-professional version of the once-famous Yugoslav "seagulls"; men who "entertained" middle-class female tourists in the summer months in return for a gift or an all-expenses-paid night on the town.

He is one of ten Croat gigolos I met – and many more who I contacted over the phone or via email – while investigating male prostitution in Croatia after stumbling over a website that listed Croatia as one of the top destinations for female sex tourism in Southern Europe.

Patriarchal society

Prostitution is considered very much a female only profession in the Western Balkans, where patriarchal and conservative values dominate. So it was something of a surprise to find male, heterosexual prostitution is a thriving – if largely unorganised – business.

Fifty men offered their services as male prostitutes within just two days of placing an advertisement for gigolos on two Croatian websites. Offers flowed in for weeks from all over the country and beyond, from Istria to Dubrovnik, from Herzegovina, Montenegro and Belgrade.

Most appeared to be serious and provided a detailed price list, photograph, physical description, contact numbers and an explanation of what was on, and off, the menu. They usually drew the line at sadomasochistic sex and acts involving faeces – usually referred to as “doing number two”.

A few declined women over 55 years of age and those weighing more than 90 kilos. Only one shied away from married women, reluctant to “tamper with God’s law”. All sorts are drawn to the trade, small-town students, married men with serious day jobs, tourist guides, young lads who look like skater boys…

Mario’s career began in 2007, after meeting a middle-aged Slovenian woman holidaying in Croatia. They spent a few days together and, before she returned home, she left an envelope addressed to him with the hotel reception.

Instead of a farewell letter, the Slovenian woman had left him money. Mario was surprised, but not in the least offended. On the contrary, it dawned on him that this had the makings of his idea job.

Since then he has set himself up as a part-timer in the sex trade, serving the needs of a few regular clients.

“They are married women in their forties with workaholic husbands who feel neglected. I indulge them, am attentive to their needs, send them tender messages, I listen to them, even though it all goes in one ear and out the other. It’s a piece of cake with women,” he states confidently.

He says his live-in partner does not have a clue about his second job. “How could she ever suspect? I trained as a boxer for years. I’m a man’s man, I could never be a paid man,” he says.

And he is far from being alone in his willingness to work in the sex trade - despite the fact that prostitution is illegal in Croatia. The law defines prostitution as a punishable offence against public order and morality and organised prostitution as a criminal act.

Ivan, 26, and Leo, 27, reach their clientele via an escort agency, which advertises its services under various aliases online. All of the agency’s promotional material pertains to female escorts – the fact that men are also on the menu is not disclosed anywhere. 

The agency representative assured me over the telephone, however, that they have male escorts as well. You could hire a male prostitute anywhere in Croatia for 1,000 euro per day. The services of a gigolo in Zagreb costs 200 euro per hour. Half of that goes to the agency owner, half to the gigolo.

Both Ivan and Leo have day jobs – as a model and bodyguard respectively. They became part-time sex workers to help make ends meet. They seem like nice, well-mannered young men with broad smiles to boot. Both look more like the sort of boy who could escort you to a family lunch.

Indeed, something that becomes instantly clear is that liaisons with female tourists are frequently regarded as "holiday romances" rather than sex tourism. The gigolos who meet women’s sexual needs also do not seem to attract the same social disapproval as their female counterparts.

When asked what their friends think of their work as escorts, both Leo and Ivan claim they are all envious.
“We have sex with attractive women and get paid at that,” sighs Leo, as he reminisces about a "hot" lawyer he visited a couple of months back. He hopes she will call again. Although, it turns out his services were sought by the lawyer’s husband.

Clients ‘mostly couples’

Leo and Ivan say it is most often the husbands who request their services for their wives. Both say the husbands often watch or videotape the act, while stressing that homosexual acts are strictly out of the question.

They describe their clients as well-off couples in their thirties and forties who want to spice up their sex lives, try something new or realise a fantasy. Ivan ponders when asked whose fantasy – the man’s or the woman’s? 

“I don’t know, actually, I’ve never given it much thought,” he eventually says with a shrug.

Their experience appears to be far from exceptional. Tony has been working as a full-time gigolo for six years now. He works three to four hours every day, except Sunday. “You have to spend one day in the week with your family,” he explains.

He says his clients are also mainly couples – between 22 and 55 years of age, he notes with precision. Demand is on the increase, so he has decided to take on someone new. Tony is adamant he is not interested in hiring a fellow gigolo over the age of 27, despite the fact he himself is in his late thirties.

I found Tony’s ad – the only one for male escorts - among hundreds of advertisements for sexual services by women in Croatia’s main printed Yellow Pages directory. He charges 55 euro per hour, payable after he has satisfied a client’s wife.

Thus, it turns out that in Croatia the clients for heterosexual male prostitutes are, in effect, men.

Aleksandar Stulhofer, a professor of sociology at Zagreb University, says it’s impossible to fully interpret what is behind this phenomenon.

“I would only speculate that in the situation of a hidden market, such as male sex work, it might be easier for men, for a number of reasons including cultural and financial, to purchase specific services,” he says.

Stulhofer rejects the notion that, however, tradition sexual morality would stop women from booking the services of a gigolo themselves.

“Especially among young generations of urban women, research evidence suggests a widespread sexual permissiveness – comparable to levels usually reported in western European countries,” he stresses.

Stulhofer also notes that heterosexual male sex workers appear to enjoy a different status to their female counterparts in Croatian public opinion – one that is certainly less stigmatized.

Not one of the gigolos became a sex worker out of poverty and none thought of it as remotely degrading. Rather, they regard the business as being more American Gigolo than Midnight Cowboy.

Male strippers

Perhaps the most visible part of the heterosexual sex trade is the niche stripping business. Many of these entertainers do more that titillate their audience by stripping off police uniforms – one of the most popular performance costumes – according to strippers I talked to. 

Two male strippers – Alen, 29, and Dario, 32, - laugh out loud when questioned about the apparent discrepancy between the fees. The going rate for a 30-minute striptease is 200 euro, while they net 100 euro for an hour of sex.

“Well, you know, striptease requires some kind of knowledge and skill,” smirks one.

Croatia’s sex industry has an estimated annual turnover of around 42 million euro, according to some NGOs. The police say it is just a rough calculation because earnings are, given that prostitution is an illegal business, unknown.

However, during one criminal investigation the police found out that one escort agency based in Zagreb had earned 206,000 euro in just three months, says police official Zlatko Kostic. 

Between 2002 and 2009, the police registered 1,968 people as being involved in prostitution in a country with a population of just 4.5 million. Comparative statistics show similar prostitution rates in neighboring Balkan countries, according to the police. 

Out of that 1,968 total, six were male and only one of them a heterosexual male prostitute. "99 per cent of all sex workers in Croatia are women," explains Kostic. 

It is impossible to find research detailing the number of heterosexual male sex workers in Croatia. The few organizations that supply sex workers with condoms, such as Let (Flight) and Help, say they have never come across male sex workers.

They remain very much off heath workers’ radar, including among doctors who specialise in treating sexually transmitted diseases, STDs.                                         

Sex workers in Europe*

•87% of all European sex workers are women, 7% are male and 6% transgender 

•The highest concentration of male sex workers (10%) is in the European South region where Balkan countries belong 

•Austria, Finland, Denmark, Estonia and Lithuania report almost exclusively female sex workers

 •In highly conservative and deeply religious Poland, 15% of its sex worker population is male 

•France, Greece, Luxembourg, Belgium and Italy report a relatively high proportion of transgender sex workers (15% to 25%).

*Source: 2009 report ''Sex work in Europe: A mapping of the prostitution scene in 25 European countries'' by TAMPEP (European Network for HIV/STI Prevention and Health Promotion among Migrant Sex Workers)

According to Romance on the Road, a book about female sex tourism written by Jeannette Belliveau, about 600,000 Western women have engaged in sex tourism in the last 25 years - which appears to confirm there is a demand for straight men who offer sexual services exclusively to women.

Among their number is "Stephanie", a 44-year-old businesswoman from Switzerland who regularly visits Croatia for work. She is now on the look-out for a gigolo in Zagreb.

“I heard stories from my mum’s generation about fun holidays on the Adriatic, and I find the local men attractive,” she says.

Stephanie works a 55-hour week on average, and spends a least 10 days each month on the road. She did not get round to marrying, has no children and has long lost the desire to go out and meet men.

Male prostitution ‘still taboo’

A few years back she discovered a Swiss brothel run exclusively for women. She now boasts a “steady boyfriend”, as she calls him, who visits her once or twice a week.

“Even though prostitution is legal in Switzerland, the society more liberal and women more emancipated, male prostitution is still taboo,” she says.

“Some think that women don’t have to pay for sex because they can get it for free whenever they feel like it. But how can you, I ask, when Saturday night comes and I’m dead tired from the working week and all I want to do is stay home and relax?” she asks.

“Others think that sex is necessarily tied to emotions when a woman is concerned, thus there being no prospects in being a gigolo. That’s where they’re most mistaken,” chuckles Stephanie.

While the market is still very much in its formative stage in Croatia, gigolos seem poised to make the leap from amateur to professional. They may be ready, but are the women themselves?

According to a number of girlfriends who - half joking, half serious - offered me their help during this investigation, the Croatian seagulls look set to fly again.   

Some people’s names have been changed in this article.

This article was produced as part of the Alumni Initiative of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence . Both are initiated and funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the ERSTE Foundation.

Talk about it!

blog comments powered by Disqus