The drive along the main road from Varna to Bourgas is beautiful. It winds its way past some beautiful scenery. Lush forests, golden fields of corn and occasional glimpses of the shimmering Black Sea abound. About 20km outside of Varna, close to the village of Avren, there is scenery of a different kind. Attractive young girls line the roadside touting for trade from passing drivers. The first time I saw a girl standing alone near a lay-by, I thought she was waiting for a bus. Admittedly, I thought her dress sense needed some attention, but it was a boiling hot day and so hot pants were not that out of place. A kilometre further on I saw another girl wearing a bright red mini dress and she beckoned the car in front to stop. After that, I knew that these young ladies were prostitutes, not local girls on a shopping trip to Varna.
In Bulgaria, prostitution, like corruption, is much more open. It does not confine itself to seedy ghettos or ads in phone boxes, nor is it organised into a "red light area" as it is in Amsterdam and Hamburg. Most of the girls come from the destitute Roma population. They are usually organised by a local pimp, who takes a percentage of their earnings and chauffeurs them to and from their spot on a busy main road each day. They stand there for hours on end in freezing winter winds and burning hot sunshine. They relieve themselves in nearby hedgerows and are responsible for taking along their own food and beverage. A 2006 poll carried out by the Bulgarian Centre for Gender Studies suggests that the lack of cash and job alternatives is the leading motive for girls who take up prostitution. In the resorts, the pimps are often nightclub bouncers, hotel workers or cab drivers.
All of the girls I have seen soliciting are over the age of consent, which is 14 in Bulgaria, most are in their late teens and early 20s. Many are exceptionally attractive making you double take as to whether they are actually "on the game" or just innocently waiting for a lift. All of the girls I spoke to were extremely friendly. "We work out of need," 19-year-old Sonia recounts. "I can earn more money doing this work than working a 13-hour shift in a bar in the resorts. It is just work for me. I don't really think about what I do."
The rates along the roadside are incredibly low. Costs of services range from two to 10 leva. In the resorts, prices are much higher. It costs 180 leva for a girl for the night and your hotel will more than likely charge you a supplement of 50 leva for bringing the girl back to your room. In the resorts, prostitution is restricted to the dark of the night, but again the girls are highly visible and very proactive in their touting for trade. Foreign tourists in Bulgaria are often subject to aggressive offers from prostitutes and pimps and this has a negative effect on tourism particularly when resorts market themselves as ideal venues for family holidays. "Tourism in Bulgaria accounts for 15 per cent of the GDP and creates hundreds of thousands of jobs," explains Polly Karastoyanova from the National Board of Tourism. "Investors represented in the board are concerned over Bulgaria's image not only as a tourist destination but also as an attractive place for business partnerships''
At the roadside, the clientele tends to be to bored truck drivers especially foreign ones, who are not used to seeing such unashamed flaunting of sex. In the resorts, it is the tourists.
"Foreigners always pay us a tip; they are not used to seeing beautiful girls ready to work for them," Petia (21), from Varna said. Local men also use the girls' services, "older men who have been married a long time, who maybe doesn't get much sex at home stop and use us. It is normal and their wives don't need to know". It seems that most wives do not have a problem with this so long as they are kept in the dark. I am always surprised at the number of women who include porn magazines in their supermarket trolley. Several Bulgarian women interviewed said they actually had no problem with their husband using a prostitute. Yet all of the expats I interviewed were very much against the idea, feeling that it was in some way sordid and a slight on them as a wife.
The dark side of prostitution is not that it exists at all, but the fact that a pimp controls most girls and that their exploitation is not just confined to roadside prostitution. Bulgaria is one of the largest human traffickers in the world, providing enslaved girls to brothels all over Europe. Currently, Bulgarian laws on prostitution are unclear. Existing legislative provisions date back to before 1944. When communism came to Bulgaria, sleazy practices like this, along with other such crimes against women like domestic violence, were considered to exist solely in the Western world.
Like so many things in Bulgaria, times are changing. Parliament is presently debating a bill that proposes between 10 and 20 years' imprisonment and fines ranging from 100 000 leva to 300 000 leva for "any person who induces or forces another person to use narcotic drugs or equivalents for the purpose of prostitution, copulation, indecent assault or sexual intercourse or acts aimed at sexual gratification with a person of the same sex".
"Any person who induces another person to become a prostitute or procures persons for indecent assault or copulation and any person who systematically provides premises to various persons for sexual intercourse or indecent assault" will face two to eight years in jail and a fine ranging from 5000 to 15 000 leva. Persons committing these acts out of "self-interested motives" will face three to 10 years in jail and a fine from 10 000 to 25 000 leva.
Deputy Interior Minister Kamen Penkov is leading the working group whose goal is to decide who has the right to practice prostitution, and where and how it should be practised. He says, "There is political will on the part of the state to introduce a clear and precise legislative basis," but he expects considerable resistance from pimps, because legalisation of prostitution would most probably reduce their profits. The group is studying laws in Germany, Austria, Greece and Holland as well as regulation practices in France and other EU states. The point is not to copy foreign models, but rather to adopt and adapt the most effective European practices, the legal advisor of the National Board on Tourism Yanita Toncheva said. Svetoslav Spassov, chairperson of the parliamentary committee on children, youth and sport, maintains there are many young people under 18 who are involved in forced prostitution. He firmly believes that it is crucial to prevent teenagers under 18 from practising the trade, although he is not against the existence of prostitution completely and prefers to see a cleanup rather than a ban.
"It is important to remove prostitution from the streets, so as to not allow it to become part of Brand Bulgaria," Svetoslav Spassov said. "It is crucial to strictly appoint and regulate places where prostitution is practised, namely brothels. They should be located away from hospitals, social homes, schools, kindergartens, churches, mosques, synagogues etc. An annual tax should be levied for this activity too. Prostitution in Bulgaria is not illegal by virtue of the law and it can still thrive in the format of the call-girl services. Unfortunately, the government receives no tax revenues from this activity. Last but not least medical control on houses of prostitution is paramount too."
On the plus side, the incidence of child prostitution has decreased by 40 per cent in the last two years. "In 2005, 521 cases of under-age girls who prostitute were registered, while the number in 2006 was 308," the Ministry of the Interior's Roumen Petkov told the National Assembly during question time.
So far, the public debate in Bulgaria has taken two chief directions: one, legalise prostitution and two, ban it and treat it as crime. The Penal Code does not punish prostitution itself; however, certain acts associated with it are treated as crimes, chiefly soliciting and abduction. Individuals practising prostitution believe that the sex services business should be regulated legally. Soliciting can be avoided in this way, as well as conflicts with the police. This appears to be the best way to keep under-age workers away from the business.
In my opinion, prostitution, the oldest profession of them all, serves a need in society. If the welfare of the girls who practise this art is taken care of and the leeches that sponge an income from them are severely dealt with I can see no reason for a ban.