“I saw women broken by it. I saw girls crying at the end of the night. The only reason I could deal with it is because I had no sense of self worth.”
Past the grand churches and 14th century mansions, the bewildering side-streets of Old Riga are lined with failed bars and shuttered clubs. Every week, bars are bought, sold, and shut down by the police, only to reappear soon after with a new name and logo. This harsh environment, coupled with Riga’s legacy as a sex capital of Europe, leads establishment owners to employ young Latvian women with the job of bringing foreign men in off the street and giving them an expensive fantasy for the night.
The workers, known as B-girls, operate in a dangerous gray area of the law that was prohibited in America under the prostitution act, earlier than the 1960s. These bars — often dark and fitted with extra-absorbent carpets so the hired women can secretly pour alcohol away if they get too drunk — are opened for the sole purpose of extorting tourists. The menus are priced to 5-15 times higher than usual, but the lats currency would be unfamiliar to most visitors and the bars were able to get away with it. I spoke to Ella, a woman who reluctantly worked as a B-girl for three months in the summer of 2012, about her hazardous experiences of selling one-night fantasies to whoever would buy.
After being kicked out of her home for scratching its wooden floor a week after turning 18, and estranged from her father, Ella needed to find a way to cover rent, bills, and her last year of secondary education in the ruthless, broken economy of Latvia. In 2012, youth unemployment sat well above the European average, and 166% higher than the UK today.
For many young Latvian women, decent work is hard to come by. Ella told me about her experiences searching for work and finding mostly scams before she chanced upon a job in a bar that her friend, Anna, was applying for.
“Anna kind of described what the job was about, but said that it was mostly that you need to hang around the city and drink with foreigners. I thought, “Alright, I can do that. My English is decent enough”. The interview was all in Russian, and I didn’t understand half of what they were saying. We walked in, all naive and wide-eyed, and other employed girls looked at us with this knowing look and encouraging smile like, “Come on in girls, you’ll do good”. The owner spoke only Russian, and my Russian was pretty poor. He didn’t ask for a CV or anything.”
The bar Ella and Anna worked at for the next three months was just off the main road of Old Riga, obscured just enough so that few found it by chance. The small room was darker inside than out, even in dusk hours, and had deep crimson walls.
With its overpriced watery drinks and food that amounted to plates of supermarket cheese, the single appeal of this bar was the fantasy of sex. Over the three months, the only women Ella saw inside were those employed to lure men in from off the streets. The deal, as laid out by the owner, was that Ella and Anna each get paid 7.5% of every drink bought by her clientele. The bar’s obscure location made it necessary for them to go out into the night to find likely groups of men.
“The first night we just sat on a bench smoking and hoped some men would approach us. On nights after, we’d walk up and down the main road, and try to meet people and bring them for drinks with us at the bar. Usually we’d ask them for a lighter and try to start a conversation, or go up to people and ask them if they’ve found a place to drink yet. You had to have a good ear and listen into the conversation, so when you approached them you could adopt the persona that they would enjoy.“
Once they had brought men inside, they would do their best to be charming, interesting, and, above all, compliant. Margins were so thin that a bad night meant the difference between paying rent and buying food, or going without.
“Most of the time we let them grope us — touch our boobs, pinch our butts. We needed the money so badly, so we went to whatever lengths to keep them here and didn’t want to be seen as bitchy by stopping them grabbing us. I was desperately looking for another job, but so were the thousands of other people my age, unemployed or unregistered.“
The bar’s employees were tightly monitored and required to check in every hour to prevent them from moonlighting as B-girls at other bars on the street. Ella recalled a time when she and Anna were approached by a pair of guys and offered 50 lati each to go back to their hotel room. “They said they know exactly what we’re doing, and that we can go back to check in every hour,” she explained. One time, after coming back from checking in, she returned to find both men in their underpants, masturbating.
Fleeing from the room, Ella got halfway down the street before realizing she was never paid. Storming back into the room, she remembers shouting, “Where the fuck is my money? This is not illegal what I’m doing. Give me it, or I’ll call the fucking police”. To her surprise, he threw 50 lati at her with a look of shock and fear on his face. However troubling the intentions of these men were, it wasn’t close to the traumatic realities to come.
Ella recounted one of the most dangerous and dehumanizing moments of her time working in Old Riga, which occurred just three weeks after her first day. Tensions were high between Anna and Ella, who were both struggling to earn enough to cover their cost of living as they learned on the job.
A pair of men they had been entertaining for three hours were getting visibly bored and impatient under the constant guard of the barman. They had promised I Love Riga souvenirs at first, and, when one learned of Ella’s aspirations to go to university, had said he was a lecturer and could get her place on a course in England, where “university is free for pretty girls” like her. When kissing, manipulating and groping wasn’t enough, they took the women to the dance floor in a separate room.
“As soon as we got there, one of the guys pushed me in the corner, stuck his hand right down my underpants and started forcibly fingering me. I told him to stop. I told him I’m a virgin. It spurred him on even more.”
Anna had seen the situation and ducked out to alert the bartender, who came and told the man to stop, but didn’t kick him out. Ella told me how she had to act disappointed to keep up the illusion while she sat with him for another three hours. “At some points,” Ella said, “it got so tiresome that to continue acting excited you had to drink as much as possible to power through”. Ella’s drinks were provided for free by the bar so she could continue working after the assault. “In that state, there’s not much you can do about a strong male hand fingering you”.
The night finished at closing time, and Anna was paid her share of the 650 lati bill. Forty eight lati was the most money she’d ever had at once, but it came at the price of feeling disgusting and defiled. After deducting some to cover her monthly bills, she spent the remainder on aesthetics.
“I used the money to buy new shoes, a dress, and makeup — it all fed back into things that would make me more attractive for the men in bars. I guess that’s how pornstars work. They get their big payouts and they don’t go and buy food, they get shoes, makeup, etc. The shoes were beautiful, but they were kind of a bitter consolation prize for being sexually assaulted.”
As long as these incidents happened just outside of the bar’s reach, they turned a blind eye. Ella told me about how she had her phone stolen and withheld by an agitated man who promised that she’d only get it back if she had sex with him. “I had to chase him down the street, begging,” Ella explained. She thought he was so worked up that he was likely to assault her if she didn’t comply, so she threatened to call the police. “He thought it was his right to withhold my phone because I wouldn’t have sex with him after he bought me drinks all night”. Surprisingly, they stuck around until the police arrived and the men tried to argue their case with the officer. Ella was warned that her employment is a dangerous legal gray area.
The bar, too, was involved in questionable practices designed to facilitate their primary stream of income. The most expensive drink on the menu was called “Lady’s Drink” — named so that no men would ever buy it — was nonalcoholic. It was designed so that the staff can bring as much money in as possible without getting drunk. Similarly, to avoid the women overdoing it with alcohol, the bar had laid down special absorbent flooring under the tables so any intentionally spilled drinks would soak in and not cause suspicion.
“I would often grab a shot glass in my hand, raise it up to my closed mouth, pretend to shot it and tip the contents onto the floor, acting as if I’m reeling from the taste. We got given drinks for free so we wouldn’t feel shy or tired. The bartenders and owners had no experience with the industry, so the drinks were mostly shots, bottles, and made-up cocktails.”
This surreal liminal space — a bar by appearance only — was also the site where Ella enacted what she believed to be karmic retribution in the name of protecting girls more naive than herself. “If it wasn’t us keeping these guys occupied,” she said, “there would have been girls going back to hotel rooms and getting raped after promises of I Love Riga t-shirts”. Throughout her financial struggle in a post-crisis economy, she found her moral reasoning decaying, along with her sense of identity.
Ella told me how she and Anna became so wrapped up in their faux-drunken pretense that they would start to believe it themselves. Depending on who they encountered, they would pretend to be British girls (with accents straight out of Keeping Up Appearances), daughters of Russian oligarchs (Svetlana and Tatjana), or “simple country mice”.
“You had to sell everything. I never thought of my virginity as a big prize, since I’d been molested by my grandfather at the age of four, but I didn’t feel like it was right to sell that, at least. As stupid as it sounds, I didn’t want to feel cheap. Even still, you had to sell the experience, the drinks, and the tailor-made sexual fantasy. That meant being someone else, most nights. You’d go insane otherwise.
It’s unthinkable to do every night as the same fucking meat slab. It was too grim to be yourself.”
Rather than being emotionally crippled by her time as a B-girl, Ella told me she isn’t ashamed. “My boyfriend hated it, and didn’t sympathize with me because he was well off. I’m not scared of my past as a softcore sex worker”, she said. Ella described it as both beautiful and disgusting, and stated that it brought back memories of her previous sexual abuse by men she trusted. Since leaving the job, going to university, and finding a long-term relationship, Ella has spent time reflecting on the value she got from the experience, or lack thereof.
“I have been thinking about how I may as well use the experiences in a positive way. In these conditions, in the post-Soviet economy, you’re someone who contributes to the sex industry as much as you are a victim of it.”
Names have been changed.