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Mainstream anti-trafficking and abolitionist discourses construct the image of the victim by channelling ‘white slavery’ myths. Eastern European women (along with other women from the ex-peripheries of global capital) are attributed a central role in these dominant narratives. Apart from the restrictions faced by most migrants from the former ‘eastern bloc’ in so-called developed states, eastern European migrant sex workers encounter even tougher barriers when attempting to access legal forms of work in the heavily yet faultily regulated sex industries of western countries. Even when legally residing and working, simply owning a Romanian or Russian passport can make female sex workers the target of rescue, detention, and re-socialisation and/or deportation programmes implemented by governmental agencies and carceral NGOs.
Dominant narratives also feed the general understanding of central/eastern European and central Asian countries (CEECA) as the source of trafficked ‘Lilyas’ and ‘Natashas’, giving impetus to evermore humanitarian interventions in these states. The imaginary of ex-‘eastern bloc’ countries as sources of ‘forced prostitution’ and general moral depravation coincides with a Cold War hangover and parallels the emergence of a new vocabulary after the changes of regimes in 1989. These framings thus serve to doubly vilify and infantilise European women sex workers (and always women, because mainstream trafficking discourses and abolitionists rarely talk of men or trans sex workers), first as racialised ‘eastern Europeans’ (even if some still benefit from white privilege) and second as stigmatised for their work.
I happened to be born in that exact year, so I grew up along with the alleged ‘first steps’ towards democracy (read: global capitalism) of the country in which I lived. After over 25 years of neoliberal structural adjustments and anti-communist purging of the past to achieve imposed western standards of prosperity (and of course ‘democracy’), it seems that this ‘transition’ will never end. The effects of structural adjustments on the people in the Eastern regions have been dispossession, unemployment, acute impoverishment, and repression, along with rising anti-migration policies. These factors do not feature in the discourses of abolitionists, religious and carceral NGO workers, and state policy makers, who all have a stake in maintaining mainstream trafficking discourses.
They also do not take into account the heavily criminalising environment faced by sex workers of all genders within this region. The state attempts to repress any type of economic resistance to its policies and their outcomes, creating structural violence against sex workers and contributing to their exclusion from society and public life. This happens through the promulgation of laws and regulations punishing anyone engaging in sex work, including public order laws; the criminalisation of drug use, LGBT persons, and of people living with HIV; law enforcement employing physical, sexual, and psychological violence; detention; arrests; murders; discrimination; and denial of access to justice, health, or social benefits.
Under the neoliberal decline of the social state and despite repression and incarceration, sex workers in the region are resisting, often in ways very different to the methods and narratives of sex workers’ movements in the west. In some areas CEECA sex workers have been able to take to the street in protest of police abuse and discrimination. But this it is not possible everywhere. In some contexts it is hardly feasible to attach the words ‘sex work’ or ‘prostitution’ to any attempt at collective mobilisation. Yet, sex workers still resist through the most basic acts of supporting one another and through forming their own organisations, offering support, and services to their peers in a consistent way.
SWAN (Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network in CEECA) has focused since its creation in 2006 on the realities and experiences of sex workers from mostly post-socialist countries. Starting with only one sex workers’ group in Kyrgyzstan (Tais Plus), SWAN’s membership has grown to include 10 sex workers groups/organisations in the region. SWAN’s contribution to the mobilisation of sex workers is done through activist rights trainings, advocacy work, media campaigns, and monitoring human rights violations. It offers technical support to sex workers in their advocacy efforts and events, as well as organises meetings at regional and national levels. Amongst SWAN's central goals is building mutual support with other marginalised communities.
One of SWAN’s most recent big efforts was to coordinate a qualitative community research study on barriers faced by sex workers when they attempt to access justice. The research was done in 16 countries using local sex workers and allies as research teams. The resulting publication, Failures of Justice, offers a glimpse at the everyday violence faced by sex workers of all genders across the region. It captures instances of state violence and the connections between criminalisation; abusive law enforcement, including subjecting sex workers violence, detention, extortion, arrests, forced testings, condom confiscation, rape, and blackmail; police collusion; and gender, social, and racial profiling.
Our report showed up to 90% of sex workers in a given country, the highest level being in Kazakhstan, have experienced sexual violence. In spite of the common stereotype of sex workers as passive victims, sex workers do try to report cases of violence. To do so, they must often file their reports to the same institutions from where the violence originated, thereby risking entrance into a vicious circle of violence, mistreatment and discrimination.
Discussions around the criminalisation of clients are also gaining more ground in the region, despite research showing that violence against both sex workers AND clients affects sex workers’ working conditions. Extortion, blackmail, or physical violence against clients can often displace sex workers, which in turn reduces their ability to screen clients or access support from peers or social workers.
The region has also recently seen a new surge of law proposals meant to regulate and/or further criminalise sex work and sex workers: ranging from Ukraine's attempt to legalise sex work through heavy regulation to Russia's higher administrative fines for sex workers. Policy makers and politicians seem to inevitably focus on sex work policies in Western Europe or North America, either by adopting them as models to replicate or by opposing the ‘moral decay’ of the west. The latter stance coincides with the rise of populist and fundamentalist groups – be they Christian or Muslim – that claim to be the guardians of patriarchal cis-sexist gender roles and the heterosexual monogamous family. At the same time, NGOs working in the region on social issues now risk being declared ‘foreign agents’ and the human rights framework – until recently the most accessible means to fight for sex workers rights – is facing increasing challenges as the language of western imperialism and globalisation. This may result from a liberal human rights framework that centres on the individual's rights to be free from certain types of repression, while rendering other types invisible. Yet another major obstacle stems from the strongly anti-communist, neoliberal ideology that delegitimises any articulation of workers’ rights.
Unfortunately these trends are completely synchronised with the rise of the new right in the ex-western bloc and the consolidation of neoliberalism throughout the 1990s. Given all this, not to mention the extremely high levels of stigma against sex work within CEECA, it remains almost impossible to partner with other sex workers’ groups to advance our rights in the region.
The views expressed in this article do not represent those of the entire SWAN network. Since its creation, SWAN has received funds from various donors, amongst them, the Red Umbrella Fund, Mama Cash and, currently, the Open Society Foundations.
This article is published as part of the 'Sex workers speak: who listens?' series on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, generously sponsored by COST Action IS1209 ‘Comparing European Prostitution Policies: Understanding Scales and Cultures of Governance' (ProsPol). ProsPol is funded by COST. The University of Essex is its Grant Holder Institution.
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