“Do you mind if I smoke?” asks Carmen. “Of course not” I answer. I am a little surprised, her house does not smell like a smoker’s at all. Carmen rolls her cigarettes in a way I have never seen. She takes a generous pinch of tobacco out of the bag, sprinkles it in a rigorously white paper, and immediately folds it into what looks like the stereotypical ‘70s joint: no filter tip, no compacting, ready in a couple of seconds. “I like them this way”, she says.
Carmen in an alley covered in Umbrellas. Umbrellas, especially red ones, are considered a positive symbol for sex workers. Courtesy of Carmen Kleinegris
“I always wanted to do everything in life, and I did”, she adds as smoke dissolves lit by the pale sun. “But people give a color to my life that is not my color” so “every big step is twice the step for me” she says.
“Lots of times I wished I had a person to guide me through things”, she says. Carmen’s father, Jan, left the house when she was 11, leaving his wife – Carmen’s mother – alone to make ends meet for the whole family. But Carmen’s mother had been in a wheelchair since 1963, so when she was 12, Carmen started working after school as a house cleaner for a rich family of Hengelo, the town of the Netherlands where she then lived.
“I was happy when my father died”. I can’t believe what I just heard, but Carmen isn’t joking. She looks right into my eyes when we talk. Her blue irides are the first thing one sees immediately below her blonde fringe. “With hindsight, I’m not happy anymore, but, in that moment, that was the end of a bad story for many people”, she says. “My father was the kind of person you don’t want to meet”.
“I could walk past my father’s workspace on my toes and out of nowhere he would open the door and hit me”, she says, “I was afraid of him”. He would hear people walking past “because he wanted to hear”, she goes on. “He was really dangerous, and I was the first object” he could reach “because my room was the closest to his office”. “I never knew what to do: I would ask myself ‘shall I cry to make him stop?’ but then I’d start crying and he’d say ‘I’ll go on until you stop crying”. “It was uncontrolled sadism”, she says.
Carmen takes a sip from her mug, it’s her third coffee already. The house is silent, and from the third floor we can see that Deventer is still sleeping: it’s a lazy Sunday morning and almost nobody is out. I stand up and walk to the big window framing St. Nicholas Church; this is my favorite Dutch town so far. “I don’t wanna live on the ground floor” breaks the silence Carmen. “I’m afraid of aggression, and living upstairs is a shield against it”. She blames this fear on what her father did. “I’ve always wanted to have a garden, but I really can’t live on the ground floor”, she pauses for a moment, “if, as a child, you see your father hit your mother out of her wheelchair, you live with a trauma”.
Carmen’s father was a teacher of Economics; “he taught in the same school I went to”. “I saw him every day, but he never saw me”, she says; “he would never say hi to me, nothing at all”. After leaving, Jan neglected and ignored his daughter until, one day, he asked to see her in his classroom.
“I went there with my geography teacher, my father looked up from his desk and said ‘that is not my daughter’. My teacher looked at me, then at my father, and then at me again: we didn’t know what to do”. Carmen and the teacher went back to class and returned to Jan’s classroom afterwards: “my daughter has blonde hair and wears glasses”. “I told him I had dyed my hair and stopped wearing glasses”, Carmen sasy to me; “at 13 you don’t feel cute with glasses”.
When Jan finally recognized his daughter, he had important matters to discuss with her. “he asked me to make sure my mom would file the documents for the divorce”, Carmen says. “It was devastating for me”. What was even worse is that “then he knew what I looked like, but he would still never say hello to me: all of the years I walked past him without him seeing me were the most painful”.
Carmen describes herself as a naive woman: “most of the times, in my childhood, I couldn’t understand lots of things and nobody was there to explain them to me”. She would just “sit and watch other people do the theater”. Many times she just winged it: “when I was 22 I decided to go to Suriname, to substitute a friend in her job, for three months”. She discovered the day she bought the plane ticket that Suriname is in South America: “I was sure I was going to Africa, until they showed me the possible routes I could take”, she says laughing.
Carmen in the photo that sums up her naiveness, according to her. Courtesy of Carmen Kleinegris.
All about the money
Jan wouldn’t give any money to his family, neither before the divorce, nor after it: “my mom had a shitty lawyer and my father never paid alimony to us”. For Carmen, it had been more than two years of house cleaning, when a girlfriend told her “you might as well prostitute yourself, you would earn in one evening what now you make in a week”.
Carmen moves her hands a lot when she speaks, almost in a theatrical way. She actually was in a theater company: “we would prepare a show every year and then enact it in front of the public, at the concert hall in Hengelo. It was an official thing and I had a big, beautiful role” she says. “I had to say the last bit of the play and then rip my t-shirt off”. She was 16, and for her mother it was “just theater”.
Carmen in a photo taken when she was 16. Courtesy of Carmen Kleinegris
“My mother never knew about my life”, she says. Carmen had decided to listen to her friend: she used to be a sex worker, mostly in clubs, from the age of 14 to the age of 19. “I just saw an opportunity”. “I just went to discos”, she continues, “danced with a boy and if he wanted to have sex I would ask for the money and do it”. Carmen’s mother could not give her everything she needed, so Carmen used the money to pay for many basic things, such as clothes and stationery.
“I’m really sorry, it must’ve been terrible”, I say. But Carmen is not: “I never felt exploited at any moment”. “I had all sorts of clients”, she says, “from 16-year-olds to 40”, probably, also due to the fact that she worked underprice. “I had nobody to guide me, to tell me how much I should’ve asked, and I was already happy when I could jerk off a man for 10 guilders (the currency the Netherlands used before the Euro, 1 guilder is worth about 50 cents, A/N)”.
Carmen even recalls some pleasant memories from that period: “I traveled and went to the beach with people”. She continues, “I could see the fun of it”, for example “people took me to gigs: I saw Dylan and The Rolling Stones”. Although, not all of it was pleasing: “I contracted STDs many times, nobody had ever told me condoms were a thing”.
“When I was 16, I was called ‘a dirty hooker’ by some guys that wanted to make a deal”. She was in a bar; “everybody knew those people, they were intimidating”. “I walked out of the bar, but they suddenly surrounded me, I screamed for help”. The following morning “they kicked me out of their van in the outskirts of Hengelo: they had raped me the whole night”. Carmen never went to the police: “you have to solve your own problems”, she says. “Like all the bad things, I just went on. I had no time to be sad”.
For five years Carmen went to school during the day and prostituted herself during at night, until, when she was 19, she found a job in her field of studies: social work. She has been in the business for 35 yeaHE STIGMArs now, spreading knowledge and doing sensibilization on the prevention of STDs. In 1986 she contributed to the creation of the Utrecht tippelzone, a road where street prostitution is allowed and regulated, and sex workers receive social support, to work in a safe way.
There is one aspect of prostitution Carmen is particularly concerned about: “the stigma you live with as a sex worker is horrible. People remember me just for those five years, ignoring everything else I did”, I cannot help but think that I approached her initially exactly to interview her about her past as a prostitute. “It is even worse when you change your job”, she says. “When I was working at the tippelzone I decided to visit Japan”, she continues. “I had a good salary, and everybody knew what I was making, because I was the boss; and yet, one of the staff members of the health organization I was working with came to me, and questioned where I would take the money. ‘Where do you think?’ I asked. What she answered back was ‘Oh you know, once a sex worker, always a sex worker’”.
That proved to be inaccurate though, as today Carmen is part of NETKanker, a group that provides information and education on neuroendocrine tumors. She decided to work in this field after being diagnosed, in 2007, with a neuroendocrine tumor herself, only to discover that information on this type of cancer was non-existent.
The tumor could be treated and, after months, Carmen recovered: “it was my time, I finally saw the end of it”. I watch outside the window again: people are now buzzing in the streets and Deventer feels much more lively.
Of all the things I have heard today, what is probably the most unbelievable is Carmen’s positivity: “I believe that if you feel bad you have to be with just a few people and try to do beautiful things together. If you make your world small, then you can be happy even in very shitty times”.