Ms. magazine  -- more than a magazine a movement

SIGN UP FOR MS. DIGEST, JOBS, NEWS AND ALERTS

ABOUT
SEE CURRENT ISSUE
SHOP MS. STORE
MS. IN THE CLASSROOM
FEMINIST DAILY WIRE
FEMINIST RESOURCES
PRESS
JOBS AT MS.
READ BACK ISSUES
CONTACT
RSS (XML)
 
GLOBAL NEWS | spring 2009

Summer of So-Called Love
Ukrainian feminists confront a growing sex tourism industry

By MARINA KAMENEV

L ATE LAST YEAR, AS UKRAINE started getting seriously hit by the financial crisis, a man in a faux-leather jacket stood on Kiev’s main avenue, Khreschatik Boulevard, strapped into a red-lettered billboard offering “Sexy Ukrainian Women Looking for Love.” Next to him on a small table was a folder of pictures of potential “brides.” Women walked past, averting their gazes.

Anna Hutsol, a young woman wearing long shorts and high-top sneakers, emerged from the metro stop. She rolled her eyes at the sign before heading to a nearby café.

“People think of Ukraine as this giant brothel,” she said. “They can’t tell you about any landmarks or monuments in Ukraine. But they can tell you that there are pretty girls in Kiev who wear next to nothing when it’s summer, and that Kiev’s an easy place to find so-called love.”

Hutsol, 24, has cropped, tangerine colored hair. She founded the feminist organization FEMEN last spring to fight the culture of sex tourism in Ukraine. FEMEN organizes its activism via VKontakte, a Russian version of Facebook, and stages provocative protests that have won press attention.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1993, Russian mail-order brides became a distressing cliché, but as Russia grew wealthy its women were less reliant on foreign husbands. So foreigners looking for an easy marriage turned to Russia’s neighbor, Ukraine. Traveling there was once a lengthy process involving embassies and visa fees, but in 2005 the nation dropped visa requirements for citizens of the European Union and the United States. Consequently, more than 20 million people visit Ukraine each year, and the capital, Kiev, is now a popular tourist destination.

Unfortunately, one of Kiev’s main tourist attractions seems to be women. When the visa laws changed, Ukraine, once just a notorious source of sex-trafficked women, now became a sex-industry destination as well, a gateway from East to West. Explained one sex worker, prostituted Ukrainian women who had worked in other Eastern bloc countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland then came home. Child pornography also grew more prevalent, since it was now easy to enter this relatively poor country and exploit underage victims, especially homeless children and orphans.

Prostitution is illegal in Ukraine and difficult to track. Official police reports claim there are 12,000 prostitutes, but FEMEN believes the numbers are much higher. If someone is caught soliciting, a nominal fine is paid. No customers or johns are apprehended. In regional cities, police contact the prostituted woman’s parents, ashaming technique intended to decrease the incidence of prostitution.

But brothels remain boldly unembarrassed. The website of Gia Escorts proudly declares, “Ukraine is now the Sex Capital of Europe! …Ukrainian women are more agreeable, dress more revealingly and are cheaper than Western women. Men from the West can get away with saying and doing things they could never get away with [with] the women in their native countries.”

In July of last year, FEMEN organized 30 young women to stand in Independence Square in Kiev carrying signs reading “Ukraine is not a brothel” in several different languages. The most attention-getting part of the protest was that the demonstrators were dressed stereotypically as prostituted women, in tiny skirts, thighhigh stockings and feather boas.

“The Ukrainian newspapers were angry, saying we were creating problems, talking about something that didn’t exist,” says Hutsol. “But the Western press [Reuters and AFP] actually looked at the problem for what it was, and only then did Ukrainian papers follow.”

The rise in sex tourism has also led to the growth of industries such as child pornography and child prostitution. “I can see a direct correlation between tourism and child prostitution,” says Iryna Konchenkova, head of the international nonprofit School of Equal Opportunities in Ukraine. According to Konchenkova, 11 percent of prostitutes are between the ages of 11 and 15, while 19 percent are between 16 and 17: “So I would say 30 percent of prostitutes in Ukraine are underage. …Street kids get attracted to this. They get fed, they get cleaned, they are warm; some think it’s one of the better things that has happened to them.” Konchenkova has had many cases where children became upset when they were no longer wanted by pimps: “A 14-year-old girl told me in an aggrieved voice that she was considered too old to work in pornography anymore.”

Konchenkova adds that the children’s values are a problem. “When you ask [these girls] where they see themselves in 10 years, they say a nice house, a floor-length dress, an expensive car,” she says. “They see Western commercials of luxury life and they want it. At the same time these girls get only threes [C’s] at school, so they must change either their intentions or their attitude towards money.”

Women are drawn to accepting “dubious” proposals from traffickers by the desire to make money, provide for families and see other countries, says Katya Cherepakha, the social assistance coordinator at the international women’s rights center, La Strada Ukraine. An exacerbating factor is Ukraine’s relative poverty: The World Bank-estimated average annual purchasing power of Ukrainians is $7,000 per person, compared to $46,000 in the U.S. Women are also misled by lack of information about the true nature of trafficking and deceptive examples of successful emigrants. “Traffickers are getting smarter,” says Cherepakha. “They give a piece of true information—about the process of employment, for example—but all the rest of the information is not true.” Women who have a lack of familial support or problems at home, such as domestic violence, are especially susceptible to such offers.

In 11 years, La Strada’s helpline has received 38,500 phone calls, 64 percent from people applying for work overseas and checking on how safe a country is. But 4 percent are from people searching for loved ones, and another 4 percent are from family members trying to get help to trafficked relatives, ranging from paying for court cases to getting them to an airport.

Hutsol wishes Ukrainian women would be more suspicious of littleknown men making promises of any sort: “My own friends think that if they meet a foreigner they will have the perfect life. …But in reality they meet men, mostly from Turkey, who sleep with them, promise them the world and don’t even leave a phone number. That’s another problem with Ukraine having a reputation for beautiful, available women: Sex tourism isn’t always solely about prostitution.”

Pick up a copy of the Spring 2009 issue of Ms. on newsstands, or have a copy sent to your door by joining the Ms. community at www.msmagazine.com.