For Gigolos in Croatia, Business Is Booming
The ‘Seagulls’ are back, entertaining affluent women and tourists alike
"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 of 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 the 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 during the summer months in return for a gift or an all-expenses-paid night on the town.
He is one of 10 Croat gigolos I met – and many more whom 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.
Prostitution is generally considered a female-only profession in the Western Balkans, where patriarchal and conservative values dominate. So it was something of a surprise to find heterosexual male prostitution is a thriving – if largely unorganised – business.
Fifty men offered their services as male prostitutes within just two days of placing an ad for gigolos on two Croatian websites. In fact, offers flowed in for weeks, from Istria to Dubrovnik, from Herzegovina, Montenegro and Belgrade.
Most appeared serious, providing 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 feces – usually referred to as "doing number two".
A few declined women over 55 years or 90 kilos. Only one shied away from married women, reluctant to "tamper with God’s law". The list included small-town students, married men with serious day jobs, tour guides, and 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, she had left him money. He was surprised, but not offended. And it dawned on him that this had the makings of an ideal 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 40s who have workaholic husbands and thus feel neglected. I indulge them, am attentive to their needs, send them tender messages. It’s a piece of cake with women," he states confidently. His live-in partner does not have a clue about his second job. "How could she ever suspect?" he says."I trained as a boxer for years. I’m a man’s man."
And he is far from being alone in his willingness to work in the trade – despite prostitution being illegal in Croatia.
Ivan (26) and Leo (27) reach their clientele via a Zagreb-based escort service, which advertises its services under various aliases online and promises quality and discretion. All of the agency’s promotional material pertains to female escorts – the fact that they also offer men is not disclosed anywhere. Over the telephone, however, the agency representative assured me that they have male escorts as well, available anywhere in Croatia for €1,000 per day. In Zagreb, the services of a gigolo cost €200 per hour, half of which goes to the agency, half to the gigolo.
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, and both look more like the sort of guy who could escort you to a family lunch.
Liaisons with female tourists are frequently regarded as "holiday romances" rather than sex tourism. 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 was the lawyer’s husband who had made the contact.
Clients "mostly couples"
In fact, Leo and Ivan say, in their experience it is husbands who request services for their wives. The husbands often watch or videotape the act, they say. These clients are well-off couples in their 30s and 40s who want to spice up their sex lives, try something new, or realise a fantasy. Whose fantasy – the man’s or the woman’s? "I don’t know, actually, I’ve never given it much thought," Ivan 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, three to four hours every day, except Sunday. "You have to spend one day a week with your family," he explains.
His clients too are mainly couples – between 22 and 55 years of age, he notes with precision. I found Tony’s ad – the only one for male escorts – among hundreds of advertisements for sexual services by women in Croatia’s Yellow Pages print directory. He charges €55 an hour, payable after he has satisfied a client’s wife.
Thus, in Croatia the clients for heterosexual male prostitutes are often, 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 to purchase specific services for a number of reasons, including cultural and financial," Stulhofer says. Still, he rejects the notion that traditional sexual mores would stop women from booking a gigolo themselves.
"Especially among young urban women, research suggests a widespread sexual permissiveness – comparable to levels usually reported in Western European countries," he stresses. He also notes that heterosexual male sex workers appear to enjoy a different status than their female counterparts in Croatian public opinion – one that is certainly less stigmatised. Not one of the gigolos became a sex worker out of poverty and none thought of it as remotely degrading.
Perhaps the most visible, and most profitable, part of the heterosexual sex trade is the niche business of stripping, which often is little more than titillating by peeling off police uniforms – one of the most popular performance costumes. Two male strippers – Alen (29) and Dario (32) – laugh out loud when questioned about the discrepancy between the fees: a 30-minute striptease goes for €200, double the going rate for sex.
"Well, you know, striptease requires some knowledge and skill," smirks one.
Croatia’s sex industry has an estimated annual turnover of around €42 million, according to some NGOs. But this is just a rough calculation since prostitution is illegal and earnings go unreported. However, during one criminal investigation, police found one escort agency based in Zagreb had earned €206,000 in just three months, says police official Zlatko Kostic.
Between 2002 and 2009, police registered 1,968 prostitutes in a country with a population of just 4.5 million. Comparative statistics show similar rates in neighboring Balkan countries.
Of this 1,968 total, only six were male. "Ninty-nine per cent of all sex workers in Croatia are women," explains Kostic.
In fact, 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 off health workers’ radars, including doctors who specialise in treating sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
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.
Among their number is "Stephanie", a 44-year-old businesswoman from Switzerland who regularly visits Croatia for work. She is now on the lookout 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 at least 10 days each month on the road. She never married, has no children, and long ago lost the desire to go out and meet men.
Swiss taboo is Croatia’s boon
A few years back she discovered a Swiss brothel run exclusively for women. She now boasts a "steady boyfriend" 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? When Saturday night comes, I’m dead tired from the working week and all I want to do is stay home and relax."
Other common assumptions are also wide off the mark. "Many think that sex is necessarily tied to emotions for women, 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. Are the women ready?
According to a number of my girlfriends who – half joking, half serious – offered their help for this investigation, the Croatian seagulls look set to fly again.
Some names in this article have been changed to protect privacy. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, initiated and funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the ERSTE Foundation.