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What does a prostitute do when she's ready for a career change? An ageing prostitute in Zurich's crowded sex industry considers her options.

walking the streets (Francesco Di Fazio)

ZURICH - In most professions, the longer you practice the more your wages rise. It's an economic rule of thumb. But in brothels and on the streets, the opposite is true. With every passing month, a prostitute's body declines in value. Women can demand high prices at an early age, but once they turn 30, all bets are off. Experience and expertise count for little.

Sonja Lentz, who works as a prostitute in Zurich, is in her mid-40s, and has been in the business for 30 years. "When I was young, I could make 20,000 francs ($21,000) in a good month." Lentz (not her real name) says today she is happy if she can make 100 francs ($105) in a day. "And even that is rare, let me tell you."

This economic paradox, which also affects athletes, is an insurmountable problem for Lentz. She would love the opportunity to leave her job and open a business. But she needs money to do that. Her income is enough to support herself and her two children, but not more. "I never have any money left to put into savings." So Lentz continues to spend night after night walking the streets, plying her trade, which all takes its toll on her aging body.

Like most prostitutes, Lentz has no pension fund – and she has never been good at saving. "I had the money," she explains, "but I couldn't handle it. I never learned how. I spent everything, on travel, on clothes, and, of course, my children. Older colleagues of mine always told me that I should put something aside for later, but I..." she lets out an exasperated sigh.

Hungarian prostitutes pressured down prices

Lentz looks amazingly young, given that she has spent 30 years in this exhausting industry. Her hair is dyed blonde, her fingernails kept long. Her eyes are piercing, and she has the gaze of someone who is always alert, vigilant, and ready to pounce. While she talks, her narrative takes many turns, but she always returns to the same subject: the Sihlquai, a major road behind Zurich's central train station.

She says the current conditions on this thoroughfare overrun with prostitutes are the source of her financial mess. When Lentz speaks of Sihlquai, she stands up and waves her arms. It was the Hungarians who ruined the market, by accepting lower wages and offering sex without a condom, she explains. "Blow jobs without a rubber for only 40 francs ($42), I don't do that, sorry!" The older, more established prostitutes like Lentz have suffered from a drop in revenue as result, and new economics on the Sihlquai has led to frequent arguments between sex workers.

Prostitution at 15

Lentz followed a typical career path for prostitutes. When she was a child, her father abused her, and "because no one believed her" she ran away and ended up in a home for young girls. At the age of 15, she sold her body for the first time. She still raves about her former pimp, who was her boyfriend at the time. "Unfortunately, he died. He took care of me like a father. You can't find men like him anymore," she says. When she enters his name in a computer, a black and white photo appears. Lentz gazes wistfully at the former playboy, who was known throughout the city.

As she got older, Lentz remained in the profession she had taken up as a teenager. She never tried to further her education or learn another trade. "Why bother? I was free. I had money. I was happy." At age 28, she gave birth to her first child which, "unlike many other prostitutes', she decided to keep. A second child followed soon after. "I want to offer them both the kind of life that I never had."

It is in part because of her children that Lentz would like to change professions. "They have no idea how their mother really earns her money," she explains. In order to protect them from the truth, Lentz has constructed a fragile web of lies. The older the children get, the more questions they ask, and the more the web falls apart.

"Lying is driving me crazy"

"If they found out what I really do, it would be a disaster. But this constant lying is driving me crazy." At the same time, having children makes it hard for her to quit. "I need 5,000 francs ($5,200) per month. Otherwise I can't support them. With school, sports, holidays, and clothes... I have to be able to maintain a certain standard of living for them."

Lentz faces a Sisyphean task. She does not want to seek government aid. But without vocational training, it is nearly impossible for her to find a job that will support her and her kids. When she reveals what does for a living, doors are slammed in her face. "You can imagine the reactions I get when I talk about my life." For this reason, Lentz wants to become independent. "I would love to open a culinary establishment or something that has to do with children and animals." She has calculated that she would need 70,000 francs ($74,000) to do that. Nothing more. "Only 70,000 francs."

It is definitely possible for her to earn that money. She could sell drugs, she explains. Some sex workers supplement their services with small doses of crack, and this increases revenue significantly. She could also earn more by renouncing her "only with a condom" policy. "But I don't want to do anything illegal, or open myself up to disease." So she continues to service her regular customers. How much longer will she hold out? She doesn't know. "The only option I have left is to play the lottery."

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Look back over the past two decades, and you'll see Vladimir Putin has always been the man revealed by the Ukraine invasion, an evil and sinister dictator. The Russian leader just managed to mask it, especially because so many chose to see him as a typically corrupt and greedy strongman who could be bribed or reasoned with.

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