Monique doesn't understand what all the fuss is about. The newspapers have been full of lurid accounts of how German insurer Hamburg Mannheimer treated its best salesmen to a sex party with prostitutes in Budapest four years ago. "So what?" she shrugs, treading out a cigarette. "If the insurance customers ended up footing the bill that would be the last straw. But please don't go on about the morals of it!"
Monique, 32, is a Berlin-based prostitute and says she has been hired for similar corporate parties a number of times. The pattern is always the same. At first the gentlemen pretend to be surprised, laugh coyly, try to appear immune to the amorous intentions of the ladies, and apologetically point to their wedding rings. But after a few more drinks those rings tend to disappear in their jacket pockets. The shyness melts away -- and the party gets going.
"They could save themselves all the play-acting at the start," says Monique, a brisk businesswoman. After all, time is money. "In the end they can't keep their hands off you and can't get enough." The guys who insist they're happily married usually turn out to be the friskiest ones later on, she says.
Monique isn't her only stage name. "Sometimes I'm Isabel, sometimes Vivian -- depending on whether I'm being elegant or doing a 'Pretty Woman,'" says the attractive, dark-haired woman with an infectious laugh. She has a gemstone planted in one of her front teeth. She admits she's had a touch of plastic surgery here and there. But she's still categorized as "natural" in the escort business, and she's proud of that.
Such categories are important because customers can be very particular about their wants: short or tall, dainty or voluptuous, blonde or brunette -- and natural or artificial. The main thing is that they have the right bra size. "Nine out of 10 times you're asked about that," says Monique.
Corporate Parties Are Lucrative
She has never made it to Budapest for a corporate bash. But she has been chauffeured to assignments in the nearby city of Potsdam and as far as the Baltic coast to hotels or holiday homes. So far, she hasn't come across a client who was so unpresentable that she had to turn him down. "The jobs are lucrative because the organizers spend a lot of money on them and it's a change of scene for us with relatively little physical effort, in relation to the time spent," says Monique. And time is money.
The Hamburg-Mannheimer party came to light last week but happened four years ago. The firm has since been acquired by the Ergo insurance group, which confirmed that at least 20 call girls were hired as part of the so-called "incentive trip" to Budapest that cost a total of €300,000 ($423,000). The company is investigating the matter.
They used the 17th century Gellert bathhouse, the oldest and most famous in the city, drank champagne and devoured various delicacies before being offered canopy beds that offered a semblance of privacy. Participants report that the party was excellently organized: Hostesses could be distinguished from prostitutes by the color of the plastic bands they wore on their wrists.
The call girls themselves were put in various categories. The ones for the normal salesmen wore red bands, and the ones for their bosses had white ones. That particular aspect was too much even for thick-skinned Monique. "This first class and budget class attitude, it's disgusting! It just makes people envious -- and you don't need that at an event like that. You work on a client who just keeps leering at another woman the whole time. Who wants that?"
But Felicitas Schirow isn't quite as appalled by the practice. She runs the Café Pssst brothel in Berlin. "The wristbands are totally sexist," says the 53-year-old businesswoman. But she adds that she can imagine that the organizers wanted to provide additional incentives for their staff, and that they didn't intend to denigrate women. "It encourages the staff to get white bands next time," she says.
Nevertheless, she thinks the approach is a tad presumptuous. "From almost 40 years of experience I know that one never knows what type of woman a man will go for." She remembers the following situation: "I wanted to get rid of a member of my staff because I found her totally ugly and she didn't fit into my establishment. Then a customer walked in. I thought: 'Wow, he's smart, he's mine! But this man marched straight up to that girl and went up to the room with her. He only wanted her, no one else. I was almost insulted."
'All Big Firms Have a Special Budget'
Schirow says corporate bashes with prostitutes are commonplace. "Many large firms have an extra budget to fund such parties in such a way that they don't show up in the official accounts," she says. "These days you've got to motivate your staff."
If a company doesn't have money to send its staff on a foreign trip, it might will send them to a brothel or nightclub instead.
"For me, this incident at Hamburg-Mannheimer is totally normal," says Schirow. "The insurance business in particular likes to party and reward its staff with female accompaniment. The only thing that surprised me was the scale of it."
But such illicit parties serve an additional purpose beyond motivation. "One shares a secret and a secret experience, that welds people together and makes them beholden to the company," says Monique.
In addition, it gives men self-confidence. "For the pure sense of pleasure, a man doesn't need a prostitute for sex, he can relieve himself," says Schirow. "It's about the appreciation he feels when a woman shows she likes being with him, that he makes her happy."
According to studies, some 75 percent of all men in Germany have visited a prostitute.
It's quite possible that the Budapest sex party came as a complete surprise to the salesmen who went on the two-day trip. But they shouldn't use that as an excuse for their actions. "Regardless of group dynamics -- if you don't want to take part, you don't have to," says Schirow.
Monique says the men may have felt safe in Budapest because the women didn't speak German -- that created added distance between their exciting foreign experience and their lives at home. It's something celebrities with a weakness for prostitutes look for, says Schirow. "They hope they won't be found out."
Prostitutes maintain a code of silence about their clients. "The women talk among each other, but professional women in our trade don't say anything to the outside world."
At the Budapest party, the prostitutes had their arms stamped after every sex act -- that presumably made the subsequent accounting easier and showed how often each woman had been "used."
"It's unfortunate when there's a list of names that proves who was in the bathhouse and who used which services," says Monique. "I ask myself after every party I get hired for: Where are the company's female staff? How are they rewarded?"