You can’t always get what you want

A woman living next door to my aunt here in Kiev was attacked last month. She and her rommate were private masseurs: good-looking, surgically altered, and in the habit of charging large fees, if their rent was any indication. I don’t know if they advertised sex-work – but they have gently implied to my (conservative) aunt that this was often part of the overall work they did.

Either a client or a pimp intent on staking out his territory beat up and raped “the blond one.” The women moved out shortly thereafter, leaving behind some perfume and champagne, and talking about going to Germany. I hope that they weren’t trafficked to Germany, like so many are from Ukraine.

After what happened, both women were as cheerful and chatty as they ever were. The cops had actually expressed admiration for them. In Kiev, you have to be brave to do what they did with no “roof” – i.e. no protection from criminals by other criminals, no one to “watch over them” or just beat them and take most of their money.

A good friend of mine works in law enforcement, and he and I talk about incidents like this. He’s more blasé than I am – he has to be. He was the first person to remind me of the fact that different Ukrainian sex-workers relate to their work differently, as human beings are wont to do. And if things are to change for the better – wherein more and more women will no longer feel that they have to be prostitutes in order to succeed or survive – we will have to work with the power establishment to improve the economy.

While living in the United States, and hearing about the Feminist Revolution that’s just around the corner, I’ve still had to accept that in order to help actual people today – one has to choose practical means (this is aside from the fact that I’m allergic to the word “revolution”). This is especially true wherein Ukraine is concerned. Talk to any person doing work against trafficking and forced prostitution here – and most of them are making gains by petitioning powerful (and, in most cases, corrupt) politicians of all persuasions.

My friend says that for every two women who wish to get out of the business, one will say that what she’s really concerned about is being able to freelance – working outside the organized crime structure, without an abusive pimp. It can be argued that most of these women have internalized the oppressive conditions of their environment. They do want to get out – they just don’t admit it. I am certain that there are thousands of women like that here – but in order for things to change for them we have to, once again, think about improving the economy.

“Do you know what [prostitutes] yell about?” My friend asks me over a couple of beers. “They yell, ‘Let me earn my living, asshole!’ They look at going abroad to prostitute themselves as a great opportunity, despite the risk of being trafficked.”

Things are tougher here than I’d feared.

At this point in my life, my cynical eurotrash feminism is largely being informed by the conditions in Ukraine. Hence, I’ve got no time for pronouncements that the only real goal should be an unequivocal end to all prostitution – even though I sympathize with a lot of the sentiment expressed. I’ve got no time for people who say we shouldn’t talk to men and women who go to prostitutes. One such man calls them over when he rents out the banya (bathhouse). Like many men who hire prostitutes, he’s married and has a child – unlike many, he opens up about WHY: his marriage is sexless, he likes having sex with women who are “good actresses,” they feign adoration and care, he pays them in dollars, and there is no romantic attachment, which he fears most of all. These women are college-educated, but their “education feels useless to them, when salaries are so small.” Is it fair? No. Is it real? Yes. Someone like this doesn’t believe he’s using a woman, neither is he there to explicitly humiliate her (for more on the subject of humiliation, from one specific viewpoint, see here) and screaming at him won’t make an iota of a difference. Only honest, open conversation may encourage him to see if his “regular girls” actually want to get out, and so on

In Ukraine, the most a radical feminist of the Western persuasion (and I’m using these terms rather loosely here, so please forgive me if I am lumping a bunch of people together) can do for a prostitute is to encourage her to find an “honest” job with a laughable salary. Even women who can manage to survive on this salary will not be able to buy items they consider essential – be they make-up or computer games. Telling them to just “examine their choices” doesn’t work- most are perfectly capable of examining them, and going on with their lives as they see fit.

Much like in Muslim countries – home-grown Ukrainian feminism differs widely from the feminism flourishing say, in Britain and the United States. The most radical Ukrainian feminists often turn out to be Christian fundamentalists at heart – women who are personally opposed to make-up, who consider most romantic relationships dumb and delusional, who will… babysit a prostitute’s neglected kids. Priests who preach domesticity and lots and lots of child-bearing are also people who risk their lives confronting abusive pimps and johns. A large number of people helping rescue women from the most horribly violent and degrading situations imaginable are active members and vocal supporters of particularly patriarchal organizations, the government or the church (or, for that matter, male-dominated law enforcement).

A Christian fundamentalist who nearly drove me insane when she suggested that I had been to blame when I was targeted by an abuser is also the same woman who has worked on improving the lives of prostitutes in her neighbourhood – counseled them, offered them food, took care of their kids, and so on. I can’t ignore that.

It’s important for me to qualify all of my statements with my spiritual beliefs. The Dostoevskian “we are all guilty” rings true for me here. What are we guilty of? Every evil little thing. I think all people are essentially oppressed by the human condition – as silly as this may sound in today’s world. I have to admit as much, so that people aren’t confused about where I’m coming from.

I also believe that, we as thinkers of different stripes have much to offer one another. I was, for example, happy to discover the blog of Victoria Marinelli – whose opinions, although different from mine, we should ponder further. I am much less in tune with feminist rhetoric like Witchy Woo’s, on the other hand, because it doesn’t ultimately address what I see happening around me on a daily basis (yes, yes, I’m wading into some Great Feminist Blog-War territory here – apologies all around for those bored with the subject).

Thoughts are, as always, appreciated. Flinging poop and other refuse is not (that’s for the monkeys at the Kiev zoo).

20 thoughts on “You can’t always get what you want

  1. What, you mean these issues are, like, nuanced or something? Say it ain’t so.


    Thanks in any case for the shout-out. And, more importantly, for sharing your observations about what is happening in Kiev. That’s some important stuff.

  2. It seems to me that with increased overall national affluence, fewer women (and men) choose to make a living through prostitution. Even where legalized, it is a higher risk profession due to the intimate contact with a larger number of relative strangers. When more options (in terms of putting food on the table – making a living – having a career) are available, I think prostitution looks less desirable to many than other alternatives.

    It also seems to me that feminism (both what I would call the conformist and individualist varieties) increases with overall affluence.

    What you have in Ukraine is the intersection of affluence (and its ideas) from the West combined with the relative impoverished regional living conditions (of course, there is some great wealth in Ukraine also, but a small portion of the population have access to that).

    I’m sure this is overly simplistic – surely poor people have morals. But when you’re faced with working an “honest” job and having almost nothing versus working as a prostitute and having some financial security, the choice doesn’t seem that difficult. Applying conformist variety feminist ideals to the situation doesn’t benefit anyone.

  3. For me, it’s not even a moral issue at all. Since I’ve met prostitutes who were a helluva lot moral and principled than “honest women.”

    The situation in Ukraine, meanwhile, is indeed weird.

  4. For me, it’s not even a moral issue at all.

    Yes, I’m sure that I said my part badly. My point is that some people who do not allow themselves to ever work as a prostitute or as a sex worker, often do so on their own perceived moral grounds (right or wrong).

    So I didn’t want to be making the case that economics were the only player in such choices. But surely it does play a part.

  5. Incidentally, I know someone who is relatively well provided her (good job + parents with good jobs), and she has sex with male friends (most of them guys with girlfriends who like to see her on the side) for money. She claims it’s the only way she can enjoy heterosexual sex. Naturally, a lot of people would start asking, at this point, if she was raped, and I would say, yes.

    She was raped, and that’s the way she deals with the rape (in part, she also has relationships with women that aren’t based on money). She also finances purchases that would be out of her reach otherwise. Has been at it for nearly 8 years. I had tried to talk her out of it when I found out, but she ended up telling me, very calmly, that we wouldn’t be friends anymore if I persisted. She had gotten into a comfortable groove in regards to what she did, with her pool of regulars, and she didn’t need me coming in trying to “save” her, as she put it.

  6. She had gotten into a comfortable groove in regards to what she did, with her pool of regulars, and she didn’t need me coming in trying to “save” her, as she put it.


    Yep. It can be hard to accept sometimes, but the truth of the matter is, friends don’t try to run friends’ lives.

    Oh, and also… really wonderful post, Natalia. I heart your blog.

  7. Awesome post. I am still digesting it.

    Allergic to the word “revolution” huh? 😀 You have reminded me that we all had different attachments to such words–hippie baby-boomers often regard the word as the equivalent of “heaven”–i.e. when we get to heaven = after the revolution. I always have to remember it has different connotations for everyone!

    And BTW, I am working on that article for you about the fundies … I decided it would be best to hold off until around the South Carolina primary, which will make it more newsworthy! 🙂

    If Lindsay Graham is dumped over the side before then, I’ll finish it for you sooner!

  8. Yay! I could really use some more U.S. politics related stuff. 🙂

    As for the word revolution… It IS funny how to so many people – it has positive connotations. And the minute I hear it, I think: blood, death, mutilation, humiliation, destruction.

  9. Great, nuanced post Natalia. I believe in a woman’s choice to run her life as she deems fit, but it sure is hard to stand back and accept when her choices dont agree with mine. I face that dilemma when I encounter or read about women who are content in polygamous situations. To me, it feels almost inherently exploitive at first (I have similar feelings towards prostitution), but like you say its not always that simple.

    Eh, I could say a lot more about this, but I’ll stop. Mind if I add you to my blogroll btw? I’m a fan.

  10. Why would I *ever* mind such a thing? (Well, I might, if you were a Nazi, haha)

    It’s interesting you should bring up polygamy. My knee-jerk reaction to polygamy is always OMIGOD YOU FREAKING MORONS, WHAT ARE YOU DOING? But that’s just denying the people involved in these relationships any agency. Denying them a voice, etc. I do hate it when some of them talk about how their choice is the only “right” choice, and going around pressuring other sisters to “get with the program.” I rarely see prostitutes do that.

    But the bottom line is, I think we are all exploited, as humans, to varying degrees.

  11. yeah, I’m not a big fan of “revolution” myself. I think it’s what happens when absolutely nothing else has worked, and I do think a lot of people–not everyone, there are certainly some situations where i can totally understand the sentiment that “nothing else has worked”–but for a lot of people it tends to be more of a vehicle for expressing inner turmoil than any serious attempt to make meaningful structural change. definitely i’m always profoundly mistrustful of people who go on and on about “revolution” but only ever seem to have the vaguest idea of what they actually want to set up in the place of what they’re so eager to tear down.

    which tends to lead me to the conclusion that the tearing down is the goal in its own right, for such people. which again brings me back to “inner turmoil.” it tends to preclude listening to what other people are actually saying they want and need.

  12. …whereas when I think of “polygamy” I tend to think of the more egalitarian and queer multiple relationships I’m familiar with than the more traditional “one man, bunch of wives” set-up. i tend not to give the latter much thought i suppose. (and i have no cable, haven’t seen Big Love).

  13. Prostitution…
    Many sell their virginals and butts for the movie industry in China… Many still acted like angels pure from heavens.
    When the world has too many powerful richees, their aim is to make you sell your sexy bodies while you hope they will see the talents in you.
    Snobs know no talents.
    Prostitution… It’s just sex sex and sex. Basic human behavior, on commercial basis.

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