12:35 a.m., Campo Alegre, Curaçao. Young prostitutes walk seductively through the palm tree lined alleys and give naked dance shows under flashing disco lights, hoping to attract business. The crowd begins to swell. Men linger at the bar and cram around tables, ogling the ladies on parade. In a moment a man and woman lock eyes, and a connection is made. The woman swaggers on tall, skinny heels towards the man, her skimpy robe fluttering in the wake of her powerful stride. She flirts, he stares. An arrangement is made. The lady takes her new client gently by the hand and whisks him away from the bar before the two disappear around a darkened corner.
Campo Alegre (Happy Camp) is one of the Caribbean’s largest sex clubs. Made famous through its size and tantalizing selection of international women, Campo opened its doors in 1949 to control Curaçao’s rampant prostitution trade. It now houses about 150 women from neighboring Latin American countries. Also known as Le Mirage, the club aims to offer a friendly place for both the clients and for the women who bring them to bed each night.
An Amorous Past
The sex industry is nothing new to Curaçao. The nation’s spot as a Caribbean trading port has made the country a hotbed of sexual activity since colonial times. Sailors and merchants passing through found relief in the island’s array of alluring Caribbean women after months at sea.
But as news of Curaçao’s lustful romps spread, so to did the size of its sex trade. The government and the church believed that the island’s prostitution had to be centralized and controlled. They feared that such salaciousness threatened the island’s female residents. According to several public officials, Curaçao’s women should be protected from rape, disease, and unwanted pregnancy. Offering a legal sex trade in controlled, isolated environments would help curb the possibility of sexual violence.
And so Le Mirage, housed in what used to be an army encampment, was founded. According to Stanley Brown, a Curaçao revolutionary and publisher of the left leaning “Vito” newspaper of the 1960’s, Le Mirage was, ironically, largely funded by the Catholic Church, which wanted to “not only get prostitutes out of the city, but protect white women from the aggression of black men.” The club’s strategic placement next to the airport and on a remote hill outside of the limits of Willemstad, Curaçao’s capital, attempts to keep this business out of the sight of the islanders, and away from the town center.
Every night Campo Alegre opens its doors for an orgy of drinking, dancing, and sex-capades. Visitors enter the camp (which can be spotted from the outside by means of a giant, sculpted fig-leaf), get frisked, and pay a 10 Antillean Guilders (USD 5.70) entrance fee.
Inside feels like a tropical party: tall, swaying palm trees wrapped in strings of neon lights, rows of pastel-painted bungalows, and fancy lampposts create areas where the women can meet clients in comfort. A big neon Polar sign arches over one of the alleys, propagating the popular Venezuelan beer.
Foreign women of every shape, size and color stand at the doorways of their huts, in the open-air walkways, or at the bar, trying to catch the eye of a potential client. Some are parading in skirts, others in shimmering mini-dresses, see-through jumpsuits, and tight blouses. They lean against the bars, waiting for business. A wink and a whisper exchanged with a prospective customer seal the deal.
Campo Alegre offers a nightclub (Le Mirage Gentlemen’s Club which boasts a stage for the striptease), a “casino”(a few slot machines), some bars, and a restaurant.
The atmosphere in the Gentlemen’s Club is boisterous, lively, friendly and relaxed. Patrons are excited and eager for the night’s lineup. Women strut the room on tall heels, and appear powerful, confident, in control. By midnight, the club is crowded. Visitors walk back and forth, searching for a spot in the front. They are anxious for the show to kick off but are kept in suspense. The popular Pink Floyd song “…we don’t need no education…Teacher, leave those kids alone……” screams out of the massive speakers.
The tension mounts. Then, suddenly, the MC—a black man dressed in a neat black suit and white, shiny shoes, comes on stage. “Ladies and Gentlemen….I am pleased to introduce to you our first performer of this evening: Joanna from Colombia, room number 97….”
A woman in a white miniskirt walks up front and starts to dance, not in time to the music. She strips naked before swinging her hips around the pole. A few lucky guys receive free lap dances as Joanna makes her way around the room. A couple more women follow her act, before two males take the stage on account of it being a Tuesday—the only night when female patrons are allowed in. The house is now full. “I am sure most of these men don’t come to Campo for sex, but just for fun and amusement,” says Chris, one of the evening’s visitors.
Women who work in this government-sanctioned brothel have permits, organized by Campo Alegre, that allow a them to work as sex-traders for up to three months. The women arrive on travel visas and upon entry are issued work permits from the department of immigration. In compliance with Curaçao law, all intercourse is done with a condom and every woman is submitted to twice-weekly medical checkups.
They work six days a week and are required to be on site from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Campo does not take a cut of their earnings, but earns its money through the daily rent of the 150 rooms, the bars, restaurants, and entrance fee.
Carlos, a Campo employee, says the girls are allowed to stay up to 3 months. Carlos explains that, while none of the girls are from Curaçao, the majority of Campo’s sex workers come from Columbia “We have an agreement with the [Curaçao] government for Colombian girls. They are our preference.”
Though worker turnaround is high due to the three-month limit of the work visas, Carlos states that filling the vacant spots is never a challenge. “The girls earn a lot of money here in Campo, compared to their own country. In Colombia, a professional hooker earns on average $100 a week. Here in Campo they can take home $30,000 after three months, if they are good. The difference makes their trip worthwhile.”
During those 3 months the prostitutes have each other and the employees of Campo Alegre to socialize with. Ana, a Campo supervisor for almost four years, treats all prostitutes as her friends. She refers to them as her “temporary neighbors”
“Their stay in Campo is purely financially driven, to save as much money as possible,” explains Ana. ”Here in Campo they hardly sleep. They work, work and work…but the girls don’t mind. Back in Colombia or the Dominican Republic they catch up on their sleep.”
During the interview Ana gets nervous, suddenly realizing that she is giving away a lot of inside information. “Please promise me again that you will not use my real name in your article. The owner is a Dutch man who does not want any publicity at all.”
Though prostitution may elicit ideas of vulnerability, desperation, and sometimes fear, Campo Alegre is conscious to curb such sentiments. The club strives to provide the girls with a safe and comfortable environment—both to live and to work in. Security guards stalk the grounds. Each rented room has a panic button, and girls are free to refuse men if they so choose.
For $50 a day women are given a living space (which doubles as a work area) equipped with a bed, shower, and a TV, tuned to a porn channel if needed. Clients pay $30 for each session, which lasts about 15 minutes. A good prostitute has about 12 to 15 clients per day. “It depends on the girl. She can refuse a particular client, of course, if she really finds the guy ‘disgusting and unacceptable,’ ” says Ana.
“Some girls want to keep their door closed to black men, for example. But here they cannot afford to pick and choose; Curaçao is full of black men!” Ana laughs. Ana explains that, while men of all races are “serviced,” the women prefer American males . “[The Americans] do their thing and pay the sum as agreed upon. No hassle,” she says. Ana could never do the job herself. “I am clean. I work here and I like it, but that’s it.”
Studies have proven that men who pay for sex are seeking variety, something simple, and no commitment. Ramon, a Le Mirage regular, confirms this. He likes the ‘no strings attached’ deal that comes with paying for sex, and says that Campo is relatively cheap and clean.
Ramon goes to Campo “when the need is high.” “This is after a night out,” says Ramon, “after seeing attractive girls but not succeeding in taking one home. I think: enough talking for tonight; let’s go to Campo to find ‘a look alike.’ Here, I don’t come to communicate; just to have intercourse. It’s clean and anonymous; what happens in Campo, stays in Campo. If you see your neighbor, there is no need to freak out. The next day, everybody ‘“forgets” that they bumped into you. For 100% anonymity, you can also reserve the V.I.P suite at the back; you can drive your car until the entrance. No one will ever know.”
Clients of Campo span social levels: from casual laborers, construction workers, and fishermen, to businessmen, politicians and bankers. Ramon has his own company in downtown Willemstad. “Part of the deal is that she showers extensively with soap before having sex with me. I do not want to smell or taste her previous customer,” he says with a wave of the hand.
But, as Ramon explains, Campo can also be economical. “It’s a simple sum. Dating a ‘normal’ girl costs tons of money: first, you have to convince her to go out with you: When she finally agrees to meet, you want to ‘dress to impress,’ you take her to a nice restaurant a couple of times….and then maybe…maybe… you hit the sack together. No guarantees. Whilst at Campo, your luck is guaranteed, for $30. If the girl is good, you are out within 15 minutes, if not, 30 minutes. ‘Wham, Bam, thank you Ma’am’, I walk away, go home and I sleep in my own bed. Home sweet home.” Would he visit Campo if he had a girlfriend? Ramon’s answer to this question is decisive: “No. Taking that my girlfriend has sufficient ‘sauce and spice’ to keep up with me,” he smiles mischievously.
Many women in Campo are unmarried single mothers between the ages of 20 and 40 years old, who left their children behind in their country, with family. These women are selfless; opting to give a better life to their families by venturing into prostitution.
25-year-old Monica gives a face to this group. With her glossy black hair and fake, round breasts (“made in Columbia,” she adds), Monica is a Columbian beauty. Aware of the hardships that she has struggled with in her young life, Monica endures prostitution to save her small daughter from a similar fate. “I want to give my daughter the opportunity to go to university and get out of the ‘poverty trap.’ I want her to be educated, instead of working as a prostitute like me.” She has been doing her rounds on the Netherlands Antilles for the past two years, and intends to continue for one more year.
Monica’s first gig was in Japan, at the age of 19. She got there the same way she arrived in Curaçao—through an intermediary who arranged all the necessary papers. “After two years in Japan, I went back to Bogotá for two years during which time I attended a beauty course.” She then decided to come to the islands to help her mother finance a house.
Monica has a Venezuelan boyfriend who knows about her work. “He is not able to provide enough money for my family, so I will not quit Campo. One does not live only for love.” Monica keeps her earnings locked in a jewelry box under her bed, which is neatly covered by a blue blanket.
It’s 3 a.m. when a firm hand knocks on the door of Monica’s hut. “It must be a regular customer,” she thinks out loud. She opens the door to a client. Monica charms him as he restlessly asks if she is available. “Si, claro, mi amor, para ti siempre…” she lets him in with a big smile, winks at her previous “customers” and repeats that she wants to read the article when it’s finished.
Campo is getting crowded with loud, drunken men. The dance shows are over. The “ladies of the night” are parading around, winking at more eager men, full of testosterone and money. For the girls, the night is endless. They can catch up on their sleep back home, in Colombia.
For privacy reasons, the names are fictive.
Simone de Brabander is a Curaçao native, who recently left her position as the head of communications for a bank, to write and travel.