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Ukraine: sex work in times of war

Ukraine’s military conflict and economic crisis are affecting the country’s sex workers. Read how these women’s lives and concerns are changing, in their own words. 

The red umbrella is the international symbol of sex workers. Source: Human Rights Information Centre. Ukraine used to be depicted as a paradise for sex tourists. The news that the country would co-host the European Football Championship in 2012 was followed by alarmist predictions that more local women would be drawn into sex work, conveying a moral panic and a desire to titillate all at once. When Femen were just starting out in Ukraine, the feminist activist group campaigned against sex work, which was seen as being part of the systematic exploitation of Ukrainian women. A documentary on Femen’s early activism is called Ukraine is not a brothel.

Western men who visit Ukraine for sex tourism have been known to document their adventures online. Graham Phillips, a pro-separatist British blogger, wrote about his encounters with young Ukrainian women, including sex workers, before his interests turned to geopolitics. Western journalists have explored the topic in stories that often focus on the seediness of sex work and the beauty of Ukrainian women — stories where sex workers' perspectives or voices are often absent, like this Politico article by a male journalist on the decline of sex tourism after conflict broke out in the Donbass.

Indeed, since the conflict in eastern Ukraine began, the topic has taken on a new dimension — supporters of the pro-Russian side occasionally compare Ukraine to a prostitute, a lost woman who has forgotten her ancient and deep connection with Russia in order to sleep with the EU and the US for money. But what of the actual people doing sex work in Ukraine? What do they have to tell us? And has the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine changed the realities of sex work in the country?

Tales of police violence in Kropyvnytsky

If one is to speak with sex workers, the city of Kropyvnytsky, in central Ukraine, is a good place to start. “We're not going to Kropyvnytsky. There's no such place as Kropyvnytsky,” the bus drivers joke as I try to find a ride from a Kyiv bus station. “We're only going to Kirovohrad,” they say, using the city’s old name before it was renamed under decommunisation in 2016.

The provincial city that appears after a five-hour drive through the snow is home to Legalife, Ukraine's leading sex workers' organisation. When I arrive, the head of the organisation, Natalia Isaeva, is taking a cigarette break with some of her colleagues — the stairs of their office are filled with smoke and laughter. Their organisation got its start following an episode of police abuse in 2009, when Isaeva, a former sex worker who conducted outreach work with sex workers, was unlawfully detained by an anti-trafficking police unit. They threatened to charge her with pimping, and when Isaeva tried to file a complaint the next day, there was no trace of her detention. She did, however, obtain an apology. The head of the anti-trafficking unit was transferred and the officers' bonuses slashed.

This incident prompted the women to stand for sex workers' rights, attracting the attention of international donors such as Open Society who have funded Legalife ever since.

lead 3 March: sex workers and supporters mark International Sex Worker Rights Day, and call for decriminalisation of sex work. Source: Political Critique. The women tell me Ukraine’s economic crisis and the hryvnia’s devaluation after Maidan have seen more women resort to sex work. “When [ex-president] Yanukovych left, he left an empty budget,” Isaeva says. “Lots of benefits were cut or became more difficult to access, including benefits for single mothers.” It became really hard to survive on a salary of 2,000 hrvynia (£58) a month, one of the co-founders explained.

Isaeva is aware of sex workers traveling to the Donbass, to both sides of the frontline, to work for soldiers on both sides. “The violence that they face there is not much different from the violence that they face elsewhere in Ukraine,” she tells me. Violence is so common that, when we start talking about mistreatment at the hands of the police, all the women in the room start listing and miming what they have experienced in detention.

“They beat you on the sole of your foot so as not to leave traces,” one woman tells me. “They beat you with electric cables so as to not to leave marks,” another explains. “That's called Motorola!”, they all chime. “They handcuff you to the heaters!” “They handcuff you with your arms behind your back and make you hang on a pole like that,” another woman tells me, miming the action by lifting her hands behind her back. “It makes your shoulders hurt so much.”

Sex work is criminalised in Ukraine. A woman (or a man) waiting for a client in the street can be apprehended by the police and given a small administrative fine up to 255 hryvnia (£7.50). A conviction for pimping is a criminal offence and carries a prison term.

Legalife's newspaper Lilit covers health and human rights issues for sex workers. Source: Legalife. If this is the theory, Isaeva and her colleagues have experienced how the law is applied in practice — and how stigma constantly threatens to ruin their life.

In Kropyvnytsky, for instance, the women say the police keep apprehending sex workers who wait for clients on the highway and make them fill out a police report. “No one pays the fine, but the police keep doing [it for the] numbers. It proves they are doing their job. Then they send the letter saying the woman has to pay a fine in the small town where she lives.” This happened to one of the women sitting with us. “It was sent to the head of the district where she lives,” Isaeva says. “The secretaries found out, everybody found out. Her kids got bullied at school by kids who teased them by saying 'Your mum is a prostitute!'”

According to Legalife members, Ukraine’s criminal legislation against pimping, which carries a prison term, is seldom applied to pimps themselves, and more often used to punish sex workers.

For these women, the reluctance of the police to accept complaints from sex workers creates a climate of impunity for pimps or clients mistreating them

“No one is trying to apprehend pimps, they always go after the girls,” Isaeva tells me. “It’s the same with drugs. The police go after drug users, not drug traffickers. They go after sick people, common people, where it’s easy because they don’t have to use force, or put much effort into it.” Alongside Amnesty International, Legalife members have taken part in several protests where they carried red umbrellas (the worldwide symbol of the sex workers’ rights movement) and demanded the decriminalisation of sex work.

For these women, the reluctance of the police to accept complaints from sex workers creates a climate of impunity for pimps or clients mistreating them. As one woman puts it: “The police often say: ‘Stop being a prostitute and that won't happen’, so the victim is blamed for the violence she has experienced.”

By the highway in Kyiv

Sex work is everywhere in Kyiv. Everyone seems to know someone who has either worked as a translator or a copy editor creating ads that advertise women's sexual services (a good part time job for a broke literature student), a dispatcher juggling between her different mobile phones to match clients and sex workers, an administrator running a brothel, a male or female exotic dancer who occasionally sells more than dances.

Iulia Tsarevska, who works for Alliance for Public Health, an organisation that provides walk-in consultations for sex workers and conducts weekly outreach work in brothels or on the highway, tells me that in the eleven years working with sex workers in Ukraine, she’s found the last two years the hardest after the country experienced a significant drop in living standards. The organisation has been helping sex workers working in brothels that were moved, very suddenly, from Donetsk to Kyiv, and who didn't know where the basic services were located in the capital.

All the women I meet there are over 30 and come from the provinces. Most are single mothers who have to support their children alone

That same night, I climb aboard a van providing free HIV tests, condoms as well as lubricant or syringes for sex workers who need them. They pick me up at the end of a tube line and we drive past huge discount shops, typical of the city’s periphery, then a small wood. It’s cold tonight (minus 12), and the sex workers are waiting by a highway joining Kyiv and another city. All the women I meet there are over 30 and come from the provinces. Most are single mothers who have to support their children alone.

On the outskirts of Kyiv. Image courtesy of the author. On a cold night like this, they tell me, there aren't many clients. Whenever they set off in a client's car they either conduct business in the car or are driven to a sauna nearby. The social worker has some of them take a quick HIV test, and repeats essential information about HIV transmission.

I meet Masha (the name she uses for work), 35, who learnt French while working as a dancer in Switzerland for two years — she’s happy to practice it while walking in the snow towards a nearby petrol station. “Today I saw in the news that Ukraine's received a loan from the IMF,” she remarks. “Where does that money go? I'd be curious to know. Are they ripping us off?”

She seems different, a bit lost and sadder, when I visit her in her flat a couple of evenings later. I expected to see her teenage daughter there, but there’s only a small dog for company. While frying eggs and brewing coffee, Masha explains she lost custody of her daughter after the police intervened during an argument between the two of them in that same kitchen. Masha’s daughter is now in an orphanage, and she is doing more sex work to pay for legal fees to try to get her back.

The conflict in the Donbas has affected Masha’s life in ways that seem impossible to fix. She tells me she lost her savings when she paid for her mother and her daughter to move from Donetsk to Mariupol. She then ended up living with her daughter in Mariupol when the city was surrounded by separatist forces in May-June 2014. Masha’s mother still lives near Donetsk. She shows me souvenirs from Switzerland and says she dreams of going back there, or at least of paying her debts and making enough money to move to the western bank of the Dnipro, in a neighbourhood “where there are fewer people from Donbass and where people don't know me”.

We smoke cigarettes, and Masha tells me she has some amphetamines left if I want any. Then we get into a cab that takes us to the metro station — she’s heading to work by the highway. I’m traveling to the east. “Be careful out there,” Masha tells me.

Survival sex and sexual violence in the grey zone

Many people refuse to speak about sex work taking place near the conflict zone. They say the topic is sensitive, and that talking might displease soldiers or put sex workers at risk from the police. Doors are closed, organisations never return calls. I’m told people are probably concerned I will use the information obtained against the Ukrainian side.

In Kharkiv, Evgeny Kaplin, who has spent two years providing humanitarian help in what he calls the “grey zone”, behind the eastern frontline, via an organisation funded by the UN Refugee Agency, agrees to talk about what he’s seen. We meet in Kaplin’s office, which is full of donations to be taken to the frontline, and also contains big pieces of shrapnel, on display on a table, strangely.

Checkpoint in Maryinka, Donetsk region. (c) Ilya Pitalev / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.“Cities further from the frontline where there is still infrastructure, such as Bakhmut, Pokrovsk or Volnovokha, are places full of soldiers where women, who sometimes come from closeby towns, provide sexual services,” he tells me. “Closer to the frontline, it's generally about trading. In Maryinka or Svitlodarsk, women don't provide sexual services for money but for food or if soldiers help them set up a house. It's for survival,” he continues. In Krovpyvnytsky, Natalia Isaeva had told me the same.

According to Kaplin, survival sex with soldiers occurs in places where soldiers are stationed for a long time. Women don't talk about it unless something goes wrong and they need help. “We had a case in Vodina, a village near Donetsk, where a woman admitted she had sex with soldiers for food. She got pregnant and gave birth to a child. She didn't come back to the village as she thought she wouldn't be accepted under those circumstances. We helped her settle in a more peaceful part of Ukraine, in the Poltava region. And another woman, also from Vodina, called us on the last week of her pregnancy because the ambulance wouldn't go where she lived and she needed to go through a checkpoint to go to the nearest hospital. She also needed money to buy nappies and food for the kid.”

Reports of sexual violence, although indirect, have also multiplied. “If we were to ask women, if they have been raped by soldiers, they wouldn't tell us. And they won't speak out as long as soldiers are stationed where they live,” Kaplin explains.

Katya Shutalova, who works as a psychologist for an NGO called Ukrainian Frontiers which provides assistance to people living near the frontline, hears many first hand reports on survival sex, often with very young women. Shutalova’s office is also packed with donations for the frontline.

“In times of war people do stuff in order not to go crazy and to feel alive. Have you ever been to the frontline? Do you know what it's like?”

“We go to places where life was very hard before the conflict and has gotten even worse since,” Shutalova tells me. “Alcoholism is much worse. Women have sex with soldiers to feed their kids or even their parents. Everything around them appears feels like a nightmare and soldiers appear to be a potential protection. These girls can be 13 or 15. They tell you about what happens in confidence, but they are scared of any kind of institution — schools, hospitals, social services — finding out because they could suffer the consequences. Victims of sexual violence are stigmatised. It’s very hard to talk about that violence. If you speak up, people see it as an assault on patriotism.”

Shutalova herself refuses to blame soldiers: “In times of war people do stuff in order not to go crazy and to feel alive. Have you ever been to the frontline? Do you know what it's like?” I say that no, I’ve never been and I don't know what it’s like.

In Mariupol

“Here women sell themselves for a bottle or for 100 hryvnia,” this is how the female presenter of Revizor, a well-known Ukrainian reality show, described Mariupol, an industrial city near the frontline, in December 2016. “Can you believe this is how they presented Mariupol?” Julia Romanova, a journalist who has recently moved here from Donetsk, tells me. “Can you believe the level of misogyny?”

As I arrive in Mariupol on a night bus from Kharkiv, shelling can still be heard from the eastern part of the city. Mariupol, a big port town and transit hub, has traditionally been attractive to sex workers, and Albina, a sex worker I met in Kropyvnytsky, is supposed to meet me at the bus station, but when I call her at nine in the morning she’s still with a client.

Mariupol Metallurgical Factory. Image courtesy of the author. For sex workers as well as women involved in survival sex, one of the greatest dangers is the absence of condoms in areas close to the frontline, and soldiers’ reluctance to use protection.

“The Donetsk region was a leader in terms of HIV infection,” Kaplin tells me. “And what’s bad is that the infection will travel further than where the soldiers are located. Sooner or later there will be a spike. The soldiers are given a kit with food and medicine, without condoms. If they distributed condoms, then maybe we'd see fewer cases of women getting pregnant and people getting sick. As for buying condoms, yes, they can be found in place that are more stable, maybe 20km from the frontline, but closer to the frontline prices are high. In Artemovsk, for instance, if a soldier sees a pack of condoms for 40 or 50 hryvnia [£1.20-1.50], he's unlikely to buy them.” In separatist territory, the situation is believed to be even worse, as NGOs have left and harm reduction programmes are illegal, as in Russia.

“I am not doing this for you, I am doing this to show we are human beings”

In Mariupol, I meet Uliana Tokareva, who has been involved in harm reduction programmes for over a decade. Tokareva’s organisation conducts outreach with women working in the streets of the city. They have successfully distributed condoms to sex workers for years, but they have only met refusal when trying to distribute condoms to soldiers through official channels. “I think they [the army] still live in the Soviet Union, where there was ‘no sex’. This could end badly,” Tokarieva tells me.

But there is sex, as always, and lots of sex work. Abina tells me it was financially profitable to travel here for a sex working stint, as there are lots of clients. That night, she calls and agrees to meet around midnight. She also apologises for being drunk, asking if I could pay for a cab that will take her to the centre. I say that yes, of course, I would pay, as she was doing this for me. Abina replies: “I am not doing this for you, I am doing this to show we are human beings.”

The cab takes her to a hipster café she’d never been to before, where she explains that none of her fellow sex workers talk about their experiences: “They are all scared, when they hear the word journalist they get scared, and fear the police will do something to them. I am the only one who is open about what I do, but that's because I don't have a family. I have a son, but I am not raising him.” Albina is enthusiastic about the Legalife organisation, very grateful for the help they have provided, and the solidarity she has felt there.

“They are all scared, when they hear the word journalist they get scared, and fear the police will do something to them”

A few hours before, in the same café, Julia Romanova had told me: “We don't talk about abuse in Ukraine. We are told not to kick the dirt outside the house, and this is, in fact, the story of my family too. My grandfather beat my grandmother, but she didn't leave him. She said, and I think is a good summary: ‘How can you raise children without a man?’”

In a country where domestic violence is normalised, violence against sex workers and violence against women and girls at the hands of soldiers is not receiving the attention it deserves. And while stigma against sex workers is extremely high in Ukraine, and might seem peripheral, I suspect it is a reflection of stigma against all women, who can always be called “sluts”, always be blamed for the violence they suffer at the hands of men. This can translate into attitudes among law enforcement. In June 2016, a Ukrainian soldier was given a suspended sentence for raping a 16-year-old girl — the fact he had been serving in Donbass was considered as an extenuating circumstance. A system of impunity, which assigns the blame to the victim, prevails.

Tonight, Albina is so drunk that the conversation keeps returning to her desire to leave for another country, to be with a pimp she’s fallen in love with. “I’ve never felt this in my life,” she tells me. “In 33 years, I have never felt love. What do you think, does he love me or not?”

Read on: Living with HIV in Ukraine is fraught with stigma and discrimination. It’s even harder if you’re a woman.

About the author

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a French journalist based in London. She writes about politics, women's rights and social issues for publications including L'Obs, the London Review of Books and Index on Censorship.


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