I stroll into a dingy and poorly-lit hotel two blocks away from the obelisco. Gretchen, my editor, accompanies me. We are about to meet with a madame, a female pimp, or an agent, as she likes to call herself, named Gysell. For the past hour we have been sitting in a nearby cafe nervously sipping on beers and drawing up a list of questions. We wonder how she got into the business, and how it feels to be in an industry often dominated by men. We wonder if she only provides services to men, or if she works with female, gay or transgender clients as well. And how does she keep her employees safe?
Then, we think of a few questions that are a little closer to the knuckle, in the hope that Gysell is feeling open, like, “What’s the weirdest sexual request you’ve gotten from a client?” Do any of her employees actually enjoy their work? And of course, we were dying to know whether she arranges orgies. It’s not everyday that you get to sit down with a pimp, after all.
More than anything, we wonder if it is possible to run a clean, respectable business in the prostitution industry. Unsurprisingly, there is no simple answer to that question.
I found Gysell two weeks earlier while doing research for an article on prostitution in Buenos Aires. She posts on an online forum created by ex-pats to aid, rate, and source women for hire in Argentina. From reading the forum, it was clear that Gysell is a madame of sorts, using the internet to promote her business. She is quite the golden girl on this website. Previous and current clients shower her with compliments, raving about her girls and complimenting her “work-ethic,” “professionalism” and “friendly demeanor.”
Her willingness to meet with me comes as a bit of a shock, as no one else on the forum–be it the Johns or the Roxannes–had the slightest interest in answering my questions, let alone meeting me face to face. As I stand in the lobby focusing on my sweaty palms, I imagine what she is going to look like: would she be a hardened crone of a woman that has taken a few too many knocks, but has fought her way to the top? Or was she going to saunter in, flamboyantly brandishing a bejeweled cane and sporting a feathered hat, with her girls dripping off her arms?
Gretchen and I scan the lobby of the downtown hotel and eye every woman coming through the front door. A young woman ambles past, her boobs pressed up to her chin, flesh dribbling out of her brassier. Not her. Nor is she the old painted woman with tattooed eyebrows and thick lip liner. A friendly looking woman in her late 30s or early 40s comes into the lobby, smart phone in hand, wearing a kind smile and the overall demeanor of a grade school teacher. She immediately identifies us. This is our pimp.
I begin with pleasantries, or at least try to, stumbling over my words as I introduce myself and make small talk. The elephant in the room is jumping up and down, my nervousness more obvious with every stuttered syllable. I decide to dive right in and start with the question Gretchen and I agreed would be the best ice-breaker:
“So, how would you describe your job?”
Gysell describes her company as “an agency” through which she connects foreign men (and only foreign men) with her “friends.” She only works with foreign men because her experience has led her to believe that they are more polite and gentile, and quite frankly, much less likely to cause trouble. The prostitutes are all from South America. Her clients come to her wanting something different, something exotic, or something that they can’t get at home. Not only are foreign men more respectful than their Argentine counterparts, but they also pay in dollars. Money is the bottom line for these women, and Gysell makes that very clear. The girls are looking for a head start: to pay for university, to buy a house or to provide for a family. This is a short-term solution to a long-term problem, and Gysell is “happy to help them get what they want.”
The prostitution industry in Buenos Aires is a dark and terrible thing. Most local pimps treat their women as little more than slaves, first getting them addicted to drugs, then feeding their addiction in exchange for sleeping with clients, a cycle of dependency that usually ends tragically. Gysell claims to play a completely different game: she pays triple what the other brothels pay, and has “absolutely no tolerance” for drug use. Gysell says that the women work when they want or need to, and that only about five or six of the 100-plus women she has on file work regularly.
Gysell assures us that her relationship with her employees is completely different than it would be if she were a man. For a start, the line between boss and employee is softer. When she talks about them, it appears that she provides the girls with a degree of comfort and safety. As we speak, a woman who seems to be one of her employees walks in, smiling at all of us as she gives Gysell a kiss on the cheek, and sits down at the table to our right. There doesn’t seem to be anything clandestine or threatening about the way Gysell operates. The hotel staff greet her like a friend, and she carries herself in a way that suggests she is proud of her work.
It’s not easy trying to be good in a typically bad industry, and there are plenty of reasons to detest the prostitution business. In 2002, Marita Verón, a 23 year-old woman from Tucumán, was kidnapped and sold into prostitution. Her mother, Susan Trimaco, embarked on a decade-long mission to track her down, and although she was unsuccessful in locating her daughter, she did manage to bring 13 people to trial. Initially, all those accused were acquitted, but due to the high-profile nature of the case, cultural backlash against prostitution was fierce, and public pressure caused several laws to be changed, altering the way the prostitution industry operated in Argentina. Since the original verdict, ten of the accused have had their acquittals reversed, and in April 2014, they were sentenced to between 10 and 22 years in prison. While the final verdict is still pending, there is hope that justice has finally been served. I ask Gysell if this event, and the changes in the law that followed the case, have made the industry safer for women in the business.
“The new laws haven’t made anything safer for girls already involved in prostitution, but it does protect women that are at risk of becoming victim to human trafficking,” Gysell says.
And how do these new laws affect Gysell’s ability to find clients? Years ago, she advertised in the Buenos Aires Herald, but these days she relies on both word-of-mouth and the forum. After the Verón case, and the subsequent reforms in prostitution regulations, newspapers were banned from publishing an Adults section in the classifieds. But for Gysell, internet forum posts seem to be sufficient, as she is never short on new customers. She was even able to retire for two years following the birth of her daughter and then pick up where she left off without a hitch, proving that reputation is sometimes far more effective than good marketing. Gysell does well despite the increased regulations, and as a mother herself, she supports any measures that would keep girls like her own daughter safe.
With heightened regulations, we assume Gysell has friends in high places, but she claims to have never bribed a cop, and to have never needed any type of security measures. Two rules, prohibiting hitting and the use of drugs, are in place to protect the girls from the clients, and have proven to be very effective, circumnavigating the need for physical security. Since Gysell’s clients are all foreigners, they are aware of the fact that they are in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar laws, and that if they don’t follow the rules, they’ll be in far more trouble than they’d like to be while overseas. This fact alone seems to keep 99% of her clients in line.
The process for contracting Gysell’s services is simple. She’s had the same cell phone number for ten years. Men call the same cell phone number we used with her, then she sets up a meeting at her downtown office, pours them a cup of coffee and shows them pictures of her prostitutes while the men describe what they’re looking for. They are given a smorgasbord of options, and clients can get specific about desired sexual acts, fantasies and physical profiles of their ideal girls.
She explains that when the date is set and the men agree to the rules, they are instructed to meet their new “friend” at a certain hotel in a certain room number. It’s almost legal, as an individual in Argentina is technically allowed to sell sex for money. Organized prostitution (i.e. brothels, prostitution rings, etc.), however, is not. Hence, the term “agency” instead of “prostitution ring” and “friends” instead of “prostitutes.”
Interestingly enough, while she goes to great lengths to protect this business, it’s not because she’s getting rich from it: she claims that she will never try to acquire wealth through this job. Gysell’s got morals, and when I push her on why she doesn’t seek a bigger cut she says:
“The girls have to do the hard job. I get to sit and talk to you while sipping on coffee.”
But is it possible to run an ethical business in such a complex and morally ambiguous industry? We have been sitting with Gysell for more than an hour, and the simplicity and honesty with which she seems to run her business doesn’t quite align with my expectations of a pimp. I wonder if her background has anything to do with her style of operation.
Gysell fell in love with a man of which her family did not approve when she was 20 years-old, eloping to Buenos Aires to her parent’s dismay. Soon enough, things went south when her husband left her to go to Rome, and Gysell found herself in a big city, facing the choice of returning home to a chorus of “I told you so’s” or staying in BA and carving out a life for herself. Her pride won, and Gysell found work in an upscale hotel. Knowing that she was in need of extra money, the owner of the hotel asked Gysell to organize parties for businessmen, which were attended by a mixture of foreign men and a recruited group of attractive young girls. The girls were under no obligation to sleep with the men, but were encouraged to flirt, entertain, and if they wanted, “take it a step further.”
It was Gysell’s job to locate and invite these women, offering the girls a small payment to attend. Introducing money into the equation proved lucrative for everyone involved, as the men would often end up offering “rewards” to the girls in exchange for some alone time. As the parties became regular occurrences, Gysell found she was making better money when the girls invited were more open to the men’s requests, and slowly but surely, the profile of the girls attending changed noticeably. Gysell gathered her contact list of clients and put together her portfolio of women at these parties. To this day, some of the men from the early parties are coming back; on the other hand, most of the original girls have gotten out, a goal for which Gysell encourages the girls to strive. “I’m happy when the girls tell me they’re done,” she says, “because that means they got what they wanted or needed.”
The women working full-time are expected to work four hours a day, six days a week. This will net them roughly US $2,000 per month, and they are working far less hours than they would need to in order to make that kind of money in another industry. Once they achieve their financial goals, they’re usually done. While a few return, most do not. Gysell is keen to note that once a woman starts working for her, they don’t work for anyone else because she pays better, and run a clean, ethical business, unlike her peers in Buenos Aires.
Gysell has since remarried; her husband is still blissfully unaware of the true nature of her business, choosing to believe she works at the concierge in a hotel arranging entertainment for tourists. They do say the best lies have an element of truth. Gysell claims that she lies to him not because he would disapprove of her work, but because she would be placing the heavy burden of hiding her work from their family on his shoulders, instead of just her own. Plus, she adds, if he finds out, “he would consider it a massive betrayal of his trust,” adding (a tad ironically):
“If you don’t have trust in a relationship, it falls apart.”
THE MALE FANTASY
As for the men, Gysell believes that a desire to realize fantasies and dominate women keep them coming to her year after year. Many of her clients are married or in committed relationships, but she asserts that they look for something they can’t get at home. Maybe the missus isn’t up for porn star-style sex, or maybe she is — either way, Gysell argues that her clients don’t want to fulfill these desires at home. In today’s society, women seek, and sometimes obtain, equal status with men, and Gysell stipulates that men are looking to revert back to traditional gender roles in which they can submit women to their every will, something most modern women don’t allow in today’s relationships (thank God).
When it comes to the fantasies, Gysell says that men have an idea of what it will be like, hoping that it will be something like what they see in their favorite blue movies. But their fantasies can never be replicated in reality.
“It’s all mental,” she says. “It’s never as perfect as you imagine.”
Gysell, a self-taught “expert in male psychology,” reads multiple books regarding the psychology behind male sexual activity, which gives her a unique perspective in her industry and allows her to cater more accurately to men’s needs. Based on research and experience, she concludes that “it is the act of paying for a girl” that’s the real kick for her clients, coyly stating: “If you pay, you have the power.”
Consequently, since it’s about power, and clearly not love, a “Pretty Woman” scenario is unlikely to ever happen, or at least hasn’t happened in the 15 years that she has worked. These men do not look for conventional relationships. Gysell has formed the theory that on the off-chance that a client does fall in love, the moment that he stops paying, something is lost between the two of them, somehow ruining the “magic.”
Although I admire her work ethic, I can’t help but believe that Gysell’s business enables men in their pursuit of gender inequality and female submission. But she argues that helping women reach financial goals ultimately makes them more independent, and that outweighs the negative aspects of their work. She also points out that some of the men are simply seeking companionship and intimacy that they can’t find in their everyday lives due to loneliness or old-age. Ethical questions aside, Gysell is adamant about one thing: “All men do it.”
“How about your husband? If all men do it, would you be mad if you found out that he visited a call girl?”
Trapped by her own morality, she concedes that she would not. “It’s about fulfillment of fantasies, not about love.”
Despite her obvious success, she has no plans to expand the business; in fact, after experiencing a wee taste of retirement after her daughter was born, she plans to hang up her Rolodex for good in a few years. I ask if she plans to pass the business on to someone else, and she replies with a mischievous twinkle in her eye: “Are you free?” Something tells me she’ll be at this a bit longer than she cares to admit.
CUSTOMER (AND FAMILY) SERVICE
Plans for retirement include teaching kids English, spending quality time with her daughter and not having to answer her phone 24/7. Success in this industry requires good people skills, and the ability to squash drama quickly, from clients or employees. During the interview, she has to deal with three separate phone calls from her employees, and a quick update from her husband about her daughter, who is sick with flu. Surprisingly, she uses the same phone to deal with these three conflicting elements of her life.
She also receives several text messages from clients, and Gretchen, curious, asks what they are talking about. Gysell happily passes over the cell phone.
The message reads: “She is wonderful. Love her.”
“I knew you two would get along,” Gysell texts in response, before turning her attention back to our conversation.
Before we wrap up the interview I have to ask just one last question. “Why did you agree to an interview? Of all the people from this industry that I contacted, you were the only one that responded positively. Why?”
“Why not?” she replies. “I haven’t got anything to hide.”
And that just about sums it up.
As we get up to hug goodbye, she shoos my hand away from my wallet and drops 30 pesos for the coffee. She then stands up, turns around, and immediately sits down at the next table with a young lady. Back to business for Gysell.