Editor's note: Wanderlust is a regular GlobalPost series on global sex and relationship issues written by Iva Skoch, who is now traveling the world writing a book on the subject.
PRAGUE, Czech Republic — Bětka says she learned more working the street than from three years of nursing school.
Prositution taught her to defend herself, to be honest and to fight for the truth. It also taught her to profoundly despise men.
And, consequently, to come out as a lesbian.
She says her last boyfriend abused her. He also forced her into prostitution at Prague’s main train station when she ran away from home just before she turned 17.
“I gave him two years and then I told myself, no more men,” said Bětka, a shy, petite 30-year-old who for the last eight years has been in a romantic relationship with a woman named Helena, 33.
The two women consider themselves lesbians, even though both spent a better part of their teens and 20s catering to the acute sexual needs of men.
They say the ability to compartmentalize their lives and decide that “emotion is for women, sex is for men” has helped them separate their jobs from what they call their harmonious personal lives.
Experts here in Prague tend to agree.
Ivo Prochazka, sexologist at Charles University in Prague, says that the percentage of lesbians among Czech prostitutes is higher than in the general population, though few quantitative studies have been done on the subject.
Prochazka says that the higher rate is due to the fact that it's easier for lesbian sex workers to define their relationship with men as “strictly professional.”
But it also works the other way around.
Because of greater plasticity of female sexuality, he says, “Some women who have had bad experiences with men might seek tenderness and love from women, even though their natural preference might be heterosexual.”
Female prostitutes in homosexual relationships aren’t unusual on Czech streets, says Hana Malinova, head of Bliss Without Risk, an non-governmental organization that works to improve the rights and safety of sex workers in the Czech Republic.
“I would estimate that 90 percent of the girls who come to us from the street are lesbians,” says Malinova. “Typically these girls have tried to live with men before but the only positive relationships they’ve had have been with women.“
There is another complicating factor, experts here say: broken homes.
Many of the women who end up on the street as sex workers grew up in orphanages. The Czech Republic has about 8,000 children living in these institutions, the highest rate per capita in the European Union.
Among her 60 to 70 clients, Malinova sees many female sex workers who grew up in orphanages, which are typically divided by gender. Malinova is withering in her criticism of the country's pervasive institutions.
She describes orphanage residents as a bunch of 18-year-olds who are eventually released into the real world, unable to cope and to take care of themselves, let alone form healthy relationships.
According to child assistance organization ANV in the Czech Republic, 51 percent of adults released from Czech orphanages between 1995 and 2004 were convicted of a crime within one year.
That includes prostitution, which is technically against the law in the Czech Republic.
But the ban is seldom enforced. Only 10 percent of the thousands of prostitutes working here do so on the street. The rest pose as massage therapists or dancers in the country’s many parlors and nightclubs.
Their plight has worsened in recent years.
Since 2007, when public indecency laws were enacted, many street sex workers have been pushed from city centers into more remote areas where they are more prone to be victims of violence. Violence inflicted by men, Malinova points out.
“The girls’ relationship to men is, well, complicated,” she says.
Bětka and Helena, who have both struggled with drug addiction, say they never enjoyed sex with men.
“I didn’t like having sex with men. The only thing I thought about was cash and my next hit,” said Helena, who is missing a front tooth as a result of her turbulent life as a drug-addicted sex worker.
Today the two women describe their relationship as more “romantic and supportive“ rather than sexual. For them, sex is overrated.
“People always say sex is important in a relationship, but it isn’t for some people. It just isn’t. I don’t see anything great in sex,” says Bětka.
She estimates they are intimate with each other three to four times a month, at most. “What is important is that we have something to say to each other and that we trust each other.”
When asked whether there was anybody else they trusted, they both shook their heads.
Then Bětka’s eyes watered, as she remembered her teenage daughter. But she hasn’t seen her in years. She says social services placed her child in an orphanage shortly after she was born.