Last Friday, a Russian-language musical production of Don Juan came to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, 25 miles from the Russian border. My knowledge of Russian is limited to fragments gleaned from Bond villain dialogue, so I had to piece the plot together from choreography that tested the bounds of health and safety and not-so-subtle on stage boob grabs.
What I could discern was this: Don Juan is Russell Brand’s 17th century steampunk cousin, ailed by what used to be real-life Brand’s favourite conversation piece - before he got distracted by radical soundbite politics and Jeremy Paxman’s beard - sex addiction. Juan spends two hours singing and dancing his way through the knickers of just about every female character but his wife, all the while agonising about this slavery to his loins until the show closes with a full-cast number mourning his death at the point of a dagger. He has to die because he’s a tragic hero. We are supposed to pity, not celebrate him.
Unbeknownst to lead actor Vlad Kulev, a wannabe Juan was prowling the streets of Kharkiv that night. I met Geoff, a Californian in his thirties, that morning in a dank Kharkiv bungalow that had been repurposed as a youth hostel. He was lying in bed, the blue light of a laptop resting on his bare chest illuminating what he would later tell me was his “nice face”. Beauty is subjective, and when I asked what had taken him so far from his homeland, the answer was a search for a context where his subjective vision is shared, “The girls, man, the girls. Are you here for the girls? You should be.” I was not, but I was intrigued. I paid for my curiosity with a two hour lecture on Geoff’s unique take on gender politics.
A lot of the language Geoff used to explain his philosophy was borrowed from economics, and like economics it was designed to disguise godless religion as precise science. He spoke about human beings’ value (that is, their worth as a sexual commodity) depending on where they live. He is, he conceded, a low value product in California. Here in Ukraine, by virtue of his passport and the strength of the US dollar, he has high value. American women’s value, he said, is artificially inflated, making them overly-discerning courters, prickly partners and, worst of all, unsubmissive. Women from Ukraine, he said, in spite of their beauty, are low value. And, partly as a result of this, partly thanks to a difference of culture, Ukrainian women are, “More feminine, you know, they want to cook and clean for you. And you can be nice to them. I mean, you still have to put them down from time to time so they feel vulnerable, but not as much as American women.”
Ukrainian dating service advert. Photo by Wayan Vota via Flickr, some rights reserved.
So why Kharkiv, of all cities? Again, the language of supply and demand comes out. Geoff is not a scarce commodity in Ukraine. Kyiv, Odessa and Lviv are teeming with randy foreigners looking for a compliant lay, he told me, moving to Kharkiv notches up his value. “I’ve had two dates and two kisses this week already, man.”
Geoff paused at one point to ponder aloud, “Am I a sex tourist? I don’t think so, it’s not like I’m paying prostitutes or anything.” Frankly, if you have to ask yourself the question, the answer is probably yes. Either way, he seemed to blur the line when he offered a piece of advice, “Man, you can buy a secondhand laptop in the States for $150, bring it here, it’s worth double that. $300, that can be a month’s wages here. You give that to her and she’ll really love you.”
I left Kharkiv on the night train to Odessa the next evening. He was right about one thing, there are a lot of foreign men looking to leverage their bank balances in pursuit of sex, many of them less worried than Geoff about where the line is drawn on sex tourism.
The Bourbon Rock Bar is full of shrivelled American geriatrics waving wodges of US Dollars in the faces of young women barely out of their teens in the hope one might subdue her gag reflex long enough to go home with him.
Word is that many drop the pretence altogether and engage the services of prostitutes, of whom there are thought to be 6,000 working in Odessa alone. There are estimated to be between 52,000 and 83,000 women working as prostitutes across Ukraine. In 2013, UNICEF said it believed as many as 15,000 of them could be underage.
Angela Carter had a line in Wise Children about war being jealous old men’s way of killing off the competition. The conflict didn’t create the Bourbon Rock Bar phenomenon. As long ago as 2009, then-interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko spoke on national television of how, “The country is becoming a paradise for sex tourism before our eyes.”
And no one is suggesting that the present conflict was brought about for the benefit of lecherous old foreigners, but benefit from it they do. Talking in Kharkiv, Geoff spoke gleefully of courting in a country where young men are being taken out of the dating scene to fight and die.
It’s easy to forget sometimes that Ukraine is a nation at war with itself. In most cities life carries on with an incredibly high degree of normality; people go work, walk their dogs, get stuck in traffic, drink in bars. But spend ten minutes in a major train station, watch young men who are yet to grow fully out of their acne or into their uniforms bid sweethearts farewell. Last week the Kyiv Post reported that 2,053 soldiers had been killed in the fighting as of April 8, with a further 6,331 wounded.
The same article reported 1.7 million people having been displaced by the conflict. Odessa is fast filling up with these refugees from the east, adding to an already plentiful reservoir of vulnerable people.
Essentially, the Bourbon Rock Bar crowd are the sexual equivalent of suburban British pensioners who trade in their semi-detached red brick in England for a small villa on the Costa del Sol. Of course, while they tend to share the Spanish expats’ alcoholism, arrogance and obnoxious disdain for their new surroundings, it’s not just picturesque seaside towns these men are running amok over. To them, Ukraine is their consequence-free Disneyland of carnal delight.
But there are consequences. As of 2013, the United Nations estimates as many as one in every hundred Ukrainians could be living with HIV, with up to 18,000 killed by the virus already. Al Jazeera reported at the start of 2015 that aid workers expect the war to drive those figures even higher. It should be noted that not all of these cases are the product of unprotected sexual activity. However, a 2010 survey of Ukrainian prostitutes found that 22% would have sex without a condom for a higher fee. A 2011 survey by European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control found that 9% of Ukraine’s sex workers were HIV positive. In 2010 the prevalence of HIV among Odessa’s sex workers was 16.5%, whilst not the highest rate in the country, it lagged behind only seven of 22 cities surveyed.
Don Juan dies because he is a tragic hero. But with their sagging skin, flashy manners and sense of entitlement, the Bourbon Bar boys & co. can only be sadly comic figures. And comedies, of course, end in weddings.
In Misha Glenny’s book on the globalisation of organised crime, McMafia, Ukraine, particularly Odessa, is something of a leitmotif. It is fitting then that this exploitation - for that is what it is - would not be possible to the extent it is taking place without the framework of globalisation: online banking giving the Bourbon Bar boys access to their dollar accounts at the click of a mouse; visa liberalisation letting them come and go from Ukraine pretty much as they please; Geoff’s whole philosophy of relative sexual value hinges on his ability to uproot his life to the other side of the world. But globalisation works both ways.
Ukrainian mail order brides are as big a business as they have become a cliche. While researching his book on the industry, Odessa Dreams, Shaun Walker found that one marriage agency had projected revenues of £84 million, and that their male clients were paying thousands just to talk to prospective brides, who took a cut of their would-be fiances’ fees. The twist is that the majority of the introductions made through marriage brokers do not end happily ever after. Many clients complain of travelling home engagement ring unused in their pocket. Even when marriages do arise, they are not always happy ones.
Oksana Makarova told Marie Claire how the Floridian doctor she met in Odessa effectively imprisoned her in his home, demanding sex and beating her four year old son before a social worker was alerted to her plight. But this is the 21st Century, who said comedies have to be funny any more?
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