The women for sale on Highway E-55, which runs along the Czech-German border, are young, beautiful, and desperate. They stand in clusters on the hard shoulder of the “highway of love,” the tarmac strip of cheap brothels that cuts across this desolate borderland of the dismantled Iron Curtain. It is the largest concentration of prostitutes in Europe. The women wear high heels and colorful miniskirts to show off their slender naked legs, their long blond hair hiding breasts uplifted in black Wonderbras. A few wear makeup on their smooth white skin, their faces purposely anonymous; the men who rent them seldom look them in the eyes. Against the bleakness of the countryside, the shining bodies stand incorporated as property, reduced to billboards like those advertising German automobiles and Czech beer. Passing drivers cannot avoid the distraction; every few hundred meters cars slow down as the occupants shop the market in cut-rate orgasm. Once in a while, a slowing car stops and a man inside points at a prostitute. The woman joins him, and the buyer and seller drive together down one of the dirt roads cut into the wilderness by pimps. There is no negotiation: prices are fixed at half an hour for thirty-five euros, forty-five without a condom.
Most of the women are Slavs imported from former Communist states. Some are not prostitutes but sex slaves, lured into slavery by countrymen who promised them a job as clerks or cooks or sales girls. They live in brothels scattered along the highway of love that smell of mud mixed with blood, sweat, and alcohol, the dank odor of a nineteenth-century American gold rush town. Most of the women have been brought far from Highway E-55, in specialized duty-free zones such as the infamous Arizona Market in northwest Serbia, that also serve as auction blocks and bargain basements where traders can buy extensively used women at a discount.
On a hot summer day in 2000, in the backyard of one of the brothels of Highway E-55, pimps round up a herd of buyers, most of them Arab merchants pricing prostitutes for delivery to the booming sex industry of Dubai. Today they are lucky; a shipment of new produce has just arrived from Ukraine. Pimps order the girls out of the brothel into the dusty road. The women blink in the sudden light of day, and for a fraction of a second, they are spared the sight of the crowd of men waiting for them. The owner orders them to take off their clothes. Cheap skirts, bras, and underwear fall on the dirt road, and the women stand next to each other in the street, naked. Those who have never been traded before – new merchandise – try to hide their nakedness by standing slightly behind the others, but the owner is quick to kick them to the front of the line, where they stand alone and unprotected. Buyers finger their breasts and squeeze their buttocks before making their bids; the men stroke the woman’s skin to evaluate its softness, poke around in her mouth in search of infected or missing teeth. Nobody looks for an expression in the face, not because a man is frightened of the person he might meet or see, but because the women are commodities, non-people, described by one of the items on the display counter as “products for a global village.”
Photo by Heather Faulkner: A prostitute hails a customer on the E-55 highway