“So, why do you pay for it, Vanya?”

The following conversation took place while I was on one of my regular visits back home to Kiev, Ukraine. After I left, a number of points still needed to be clarified – and eventually were, through e-mail. The name Vanya is not the real name of the man I spoke with. In fact, all names here have been changed. Vanya is a friend of a friend of a friend. I do not know his last name, I do not know much about him in fact – all I know is that his family is relatively well-off, and that he is pretty young, early 20’s. I have had some trepidation about publishing our conversation here, but this recent discussion has convinced me to go ahead and do it. In particular, it was the repeated question of “what about the men who go to prostitutes” (I’m paraphrasing here) that has inspired me to take the plunge.

Natalia: So this probably seems weird.

Vanya: Sasha told me that you were a journalist, so not really, no.

Natalia: Well, I’m not really talking to you in any sort of professional capacity, and I don’t want to turn this into a thesis, so I’m going to try to be short and sweet about it, you’ve paid prostitutes for sex, right?

Vanya: Right.

Natalia: Can we talk about why?

Vanya: My mom asked me the same question.

Natalia: She found out?

Vanya: She did.

Natalia: What did you tell her?

Vanya: I’m not sure. It was a strange situation – one of my friends told her. I don’t remember what I answered.

Natalia: Was she angry?

Vanya: Yes. But she was also maybe a little relieved. I’ve never had a girlfriend.

Natalia: Never?

Vanya: No. She started thinking I was gay.

Natalia: And the possibility of that upset her?

Vanya: I think so.

Natalia: Tell me more about the prostitutes you’ve spent time with.

Vanya: They’re normal girls.

Natalia: How did you meet them?

Vanya: A friend of mine took me to this flat. There’s two of them living there.

Natalia: Are they freelance or do they have a pimp?

Vanya: Freelance, I think. They have day-jobs.

Natalia: What about your friend? Any possibility that he’s their pimp?

Vanya: I don’t think so. He wanted me to lose my virginity.

Natalia: And after that happened, you kept coming back?

Vanya: I’m a regular customer. These girls need clients they can trust, so they prefer regular customers.

Natalia: And do you need them?

Vanya: Why else would I pay the money?

Natalia: What are your feelings about prostitution in general?

Vanya: I don’t really think about it “in general.”

Natalia: Do you think it should be legalized?

Vanya: Definitely, yes.

Natalia: Because it would be easier for you?

Vanya: It would be easier for me and for them.

Natalia: This is a personal question…

Vanya: All of these questions are personal.

Natalia: Fair enough. But answer me this, would you ever marry a prostitute?

Vanya: If she stopped working, why not?

Natalia: But not if she was still working, right?

Vanya: I don’t like to share.

Natalia: But you share the girls in the flat with other clients, I assume.

Vanya: That’s different.

Natalia: So a prostitute is different from a wife? The two can’t go hand-in-hand?

Vanya: I don’t know. I think most guys wouldn’t marry a woman with that kind of past to begin with. But I would.

Natalia: And yet, on some level, you obviously don’t think it’s a good profession, am I right?

Vanya: It’s a profession like any other profession.

Natalia: But you wouldn’t marry a prostitute if she was still working. Would you have the same reservations about marrying, say, an accountant.

Vanya: I wouldn’t marry a journalist either, unless she quit.

Natalia: Why not?

Vanya: It’s a dangerous business. If I was a spy, I wouldn’t expect anyone to want to marry me either. Some jobs are dangerous and you don’t start a family while in a dangerous job.

Natalia: But you just told me that you wouldn’t like to share your wife with other men, sexually. Isn’t sex the real issue here?

Vanya: Maybe. But it’s also the issue of your wife getting beat up or getting AIDS. When you’re married, you’re responsible for the other person. It’s hard to be responsible for a prostitute, if you’re her husband.

Natalia: Well, I think we might have gotten side-tracked, but what about issues of social legitimacy? What if tomorrow, sex-work is legalized and regulated in Ukraine, do you think you might have less reservations about, say, marrying a legal, licensed sex-worker? It’s a leading question, but there you have it.

Vanya: Possibly. It’s a hard question.

Natalia: Why is it so hard?

Vanya: Because you’re raised to believe that a prostitute is a bad person.

Natalia: And do you agree?

Vanya: No. But it’s not easy to prove this to other people.

Natalia: So, to get back on topic, you originally wanted to lose your virginity, and now you’re a regular client. Why do you think you find yourself in this situation?

Vanya: It’s not really a ‘situation.’ It’s hard to meet decent girls. Most women are very demanding.

Natalia: And prostitutes are not?

Vanya: It’s easy with them. They’re not looking to get married.

Natalia: Looks like we’re back to square one.

Vanya: Women also like it if you’re really macho, I think.

Natalia: And you’re not macho? I mean, you don’t think that you meet the criteria?

Vanya: I don’t like to have to prove myself.

Natalia: You just need recreation. Right?

Vanya: We all need recreation. You, me, and everyone else.

Natalia: What are the women you visit like?

Vanya: I thought I answered that question.

Natalia: What else do you know about them?

Vanya: One’s moved here from a small town in the country, the other one’s a local. They also have a third one who uses their rooms. And maybe a fourth one too, I’m not sure. They don’t live extremely well, can’t afford cars, but they live alright.

Natalia: Do they own their flat?

Vanya: They inherited it. Well, one of them inherited it.

Natalia: Do they have families?

Vanya: One of them has a kid but he lives with his father in the country. She’s divorced.

Natalia: And the local?

Vanya: Her parents are dead and I think her brother immigrated somewhere.

Natalia: So you know them quite well.

Vanya: I’m a regular client.

Natalia: When you go over there do you spend the night?

Vanya: No, I’m there for a few hours. Then I go bowling. It’s a tradition.

Natalia: You’re traditional!

Vanya: You can say that.

Natalia: Do either of these women do drugs?

Vanya: One of them does. Actually, the one that does drugs doesn’t live there. She just uses a room sometimes.

Natalia: She does heroin?

Vanya: No. Some kind of pills.

Natalia: You’ve seen her do it?

Vanya: No, but one of the other girls told me.

Natalia: You think she needs help?

Vanya: It’s her choice. If she wanted help, she would ask.

Natalia: Why do you say that?

Vanya: She’s not shy about asking for anything else.

Natalia: Well, thank you for talking to me.

Vanya: You’re welcome.

Some of the more revealing information I ended up cutting out. My emphasis on marriage was inspired by the fact that marriage, I believe, is perceived to be more important for Ukrainian women than their American counterparts. People also tend to marry earlier in Ukraine. I have seen 25-year old unmarried Ukrainian women referred to as “old maids.”

Vanya’s emphasis on being “responsible” for one’s wife in marriage is another cultural factor, I believe (naturally, Ukrainians can disagree on this subject, and we do, quite vigorously).

I plan on having more conversations like this in the future. In fact, if you’d like to share information, please drop me a line in the comments.

P.S. Just so we’re all on the same page – homosexuality is severely frowned upon in the Ukrainian mainstream. It’s very possible that Vanya’s mother was indeed “relieved” on some level, and that he read her reaction correctly.

26 thoughts on ““So, why do you pay for it, Vanya?”

  1. Believe it or not, I’m not against legalizing prostitution. At the end of the day it is going to happen anyway; supply and demand.

    I’ve actually thought a lot about this and have tried to rationally come to a personal decision about how I felt about prostitution from a logical perspective and not from a morality judgment perspective. Would I ever exchange sex for money? No. But that’s my choice. Why should I tell anyone else what to do? I’m approaching this from a cold practicality and from trying to put myself in a man’s shoes.

    If I were a man and free of my emotional entanglements and the burden of morality that we women carry more then men, would I seek out a prostitute? I don’t know. Men approach sex (in general) from a more detached perspective. They don’t link it to emotions, etc. Come to think of it, many women don’t either. I think many men find it easier to have a quickie with a prossie because it is hassle-free and a transparent agreed-upon exchange. Maybe I am strange for thinking this way, as a woman, but I do.

    Finally, it would keep down crime rates in general and at the same time would help protect some of these women from the sickos who want to hurt them not just have sex with them. Amsterdam is one country that tried to regulate and legalize prostitution but from what I last heard they are closing up a big part of the Red Light district because of the entanglement between prostitution and the mafia.


  2. This is really interesting. It’s like he’s saying “I use prostitutes because I want to” and that’s as deep as it gets. Prostitution is one of those things that should me made legal first, then the cultural acceptance of it will follow later, probably very slowly.

  3. Harmonie22 said: “At the end of the day it [legalization of prostitution] is going to happen anyway; supply and demand.”

    Despite all the arguments in favor of legalizing prostitution, I doubt if it will ever be legalized in places where the selling (but not buying) of sex is socially stigmatized. In my own state of Georgia, USA, prostitutes and owners of prostitution rings are routinely arrested and prosecuted, and this makes for very sensationalistic press coverage; but the market demand for sex-for-money is almost never covered in the Georgia press, and the difference in press coverage reflects the attitudes of the public.

    Even if, in the state of Georgia, selling sex were legalized, police protection of prostitutes might not increase significantly, because, in Georgia women (like children) are not seen as major sources of tax revenue, and law enforcement efforts are usually directed first toward protecting major sources of tax revenue; hence property owners and middle-class folks (and the wealthy) generally can count on police protection, but everyone else has to move to the end of the line.

    As to the abstract morality of buying and selling sex, I personally have no idea. But I think it’s dangerous for middle-class folks who have never had direct contact with prostitutes to view prostitution as an abstraction separated from the social and economic realities of those who sell sex, even where selling sex is legalized. From what I read online, the social and economic realities of prostitution, even where prostitution is legal, cannot be reduced to a simple issue of buying and selling a commodity in the market. This needs to be borne in mind when discussing the legalization of the sex industry. Especially where local cultural and economic forces continue to severely discriminate against women and children, the mere legalization of the sex industry, without very substantial further changes in society as well, might not produce the benefits that some people expect. But other bloggers, such as Renegade Evolution, are a lot better informed about this than I am, and perhaps they can correct my comments.

  4. Thanks for sharing this interview.

    It’s often assumed, by many rad feminists that there’s this continuum of misogyny and sex work exists at the far end, the worst of the worst. And well, that’s simply not true. Sex work serves multiple aspects of society, including but not limited, to the hatred of women.

    And so does marriage.

    For both men and women.

    Anyway, thanks.

  5. As a matter of interest prostitution is legal in New Zealand and brothels are quite strictly regulated, some say over regulated. A friend of mine was involved in drafting the occupational safety health regulations and they are very detailed and specific.

    As a feminist I have no problem with it being legal as long as everyone is a consenting adult- not telling other women what to do with their bodies is an important part of feminism for me. Though all that said I can’t say I would be thrilled if my daughter chose it as a career. It may be legal but it’s not high status. Still if she did go down that road I’d rather she worked in a legal safe environment than not.

  6. >Sex work serves multiple aspects of society

    I agree with that. I’ve heard there are prostitutes who specialize in providing a service to men with disabilities- quadriplegics and the like. I can’t see this as a bad thing

  7. Re-reading this myself, what I’m struck with, over and over again – just how deeply this guy wanted to excuse the fact that he thought sex-workers as “not good enough” for a committed relationship.

    Based on my personal opinion of him, I’ve got this to say – he sure does worry as to what dear old mum thinks. In one way, it makes sense, very few Ukrainian adults are able to leave their parents’ house by the time they go to college. But in his case, the family is well-off enough to afford a separate place for the son. So it’s not an issue of economics, but of something else.

  8. Natalia said: “… he sure does worry as to what … mum thinks. … it’s not an issue of economics, but of something else.”

    I think I can see what you’re getting at. But I wonder if, possibly related to Vanya’s relationship with his mother, something else is playing out here, namely, the class status of prostitutes in eyes of the Ukrainian mainstream. You mention that his family is well-off enough to afford a separate place for him. Is his family fiercely upwardly-mobile, not only economically, but socially? I know that the socially upwardly-mobile Protestants that I grew up with in Appalachian Ohio a generation ago, who were all already middle class or upper middle class, would not at all have approved of a committed relationship with a prostitute or with any low-status woman. The ambition of every upwardly-mobile Protestant professional in Appalachia was, and probably still is, to “marry up” — to socialize with and marry a woman of at least the same socioeconomic class as himself, and by example to teach his children to do the same. In Appalachia, prostitutes were and still are excluded from consideration. In Georgia, I lived for 15 years in Forsyth County north of Atlanta while this county was being transformed from an Appalachian ghetto to a gilded ghetto. When I arrived there, there was an abandoned watering hole called the “Cadillac Ranch” that was still a source of embarrassment to “respectable” natives, and prostitution and prostitutes continued to be pubicly denounced while I lived there. In Appalachia, sociologists used to call this fixation on “respectable” sexual behavior one of the symptoms of “craving social esteem” that is part of being upwardly mobile in Appalachia.

    My question is: Is the phenomenon of “craving social esteem” part of the psychology of Vanya’s parents, and especially of his mother? Is Vanya’s mother originally from a socioeconomic class higher than that of the prostitutes whom Vanya visits? If so, and if Vanya is extremely attached to his mother, he might be reluctant to commit to a woman whose social class did not satisfy his mother’s craving for social esteem, which Vanya might have internalized — and, in addition, if Vanya did internalize his mother’s craving for social esteem, he might be reluctant to commit to a woman whose social class and cultural habits did not resemble his mother’s (which would also arise from his attachment to his mother).

    I note that in your interview, you ask Vanya about “issues of social legitimacy” and ask whether, for Vanya, legalization would confer enough social legitimacy on a prostitute that he would marry one. Vanya, in so many words, says ‘No.’ In Appalachia, anyone craving social esteem would also say ‘No.’

    I note also that the commenter named “Make Tea Not War” indicates that she would prefer that her daughter not become a prostitute in New Zealand where it is legal and regulated, because, even though legal, it is still not a high-status profession. Even Renegade Evolution, in her response to my comment, insisted on her own middle-class status, since my comment suggested that middle-class Americans probably would not have direct contact with a prostitute (I revealed my own classism there).

    In the U.S., at least in Appalachia and the South, prostitution, even if legalized, probably would not lose its class stigma. I wonder if the same is true in Ukraine.

  9. Well, J, you have to remember that Ukraine was part of the USSR a while back. The entire notion of class is different.

    For most people, class = pure money. Living well. Having that nice car, and going to that nice restaurant at night. Going on vacation to the Maldives.

    There is this notion of nouveau riche that goes hand in hand with that, but I think there is less class rigidity in Ukraine overall. Perhaps others will disagree. I can only speak for myself.

  10. Oh, and I should note that the middle class in Ukraine is a helluva lot more embattled than in the U.S.

    By Ukrainian standards, Vanya’s family would be decisively upper-class, I believe.

  11. Buuuut – this isn’t to say that your thoughts on class are off-target. The truth is, I think that some people believe that prostitutes exist to make others feel better about their own standing in society – “I’m not like that! I’m respectable!” (I would put Vanya’s mum into this category) And yes, issues of class, or how we perceive class, are tied to that.

  12. Vanya doesn’t seem like a very typical ukrainian man to me. However, in my experience Ukrainian men are way more tolerant of prostitution than Ukrainian women (I suppose that’s logical enough). I’ve worked for an NGO in Ukraine running programmes supporting sex worker communities, and heard female staff of that NGO saying things like ‘i can’t understand how any woman could become a prostitute’. I’ve never heard a similar opinion from a man.

    There are no rad fems in Ukraine (as far as I know – am I wrong?) either speaking up for SW rights or, on the other hand, attacking the dire ubiquity of naked women in every possible media to sell every possible commodity… or the social assumption that a girl’s best career option is to be beautiful and pleasing to a man…

    Incidentally, I recently read an article on the New Russian love of роскошь, which claimed that a typical modern young Russian woman’s demands that her lover or partner give her very expensive presents has nothing to do with arrant materialism or a kind of unofficial sex work culture, but is simply evidence of the Slavic woman’s greater romanticism and need to be loved… what do you think?

  13. There are Russian-language LJ communities devoted to feminism, where both Ukrainians and Russians participate. Radical feminism does exist in Ukraine, it just often doesn’t come in the package you would expect it to.

    As for the materialism, I dunno. If you haven’t had consumer goods in decades upon decades, if your mum kept buying lipstick in the same damn colour for 30 years, you’re bound to go a little wild.

    I personally like “flashy” fashion with all the gold trimmings. Guess I’m a typical Slav.

  14. ‘If you haven’t had consumer goods in decades upon decades, if your mum kept buying lipstick in the same damn colour for 30 years, you’re bound to go a little wild.’

    Sure. but it doesn’t neccessarily follow that you should expect your man to buy them for you.

  15. JS: On class…

    I think what you’re missing here is class in a lot of people’s heads has less to do with social standing (though it does play a factor) and more to do with money. I realize that is different in parts of the south and small towns, but in large non-southern cities (In the US anyway), money and power outshine traditional aspects of ‘class’. Yes, the profession of sex work is still looked down on…but, a porn performer, stripper, or hooker who has money, some form of power (be it influential friends, connections, favors owed to them, so on) and…why yes, it happens…an impressive education or articulate manner of speaking…not to mention whatever looks- well she (or he) can actually wield a lot more power in various social situations than, oh say, a woman from a powerful family (where the money is not hers) who is only seen to be looking to “marry up” or “protect her class status”.

    I mean, one of the most powerful women in American Media is Madonna, who has working class roots and absolutely used sex to sell herself. Does she speak of “Class” in the old-world traditional sense? No. Is she incredibly powerful and influential? Yes.

    I come from working class people too. I have a middle class life style. I know people of both kinds, and both kinds of people are often respected for different reasons.

  16. That’s true L, but as long as it’s OK to discriminate against women based on their gender (and both men and women do this in Ukraine, men more so), most of the earning power remains with the men.

    A lot of these women don’t want to “fight the good fight” (whatever the hell that means nowadays anyway). They just want to live a little. For generations virtually crossed out by this Soviet mess, it makes a whole lot of sense.

    Oh, and this isn’t to say that they aren’t fighting it. I think my phrasing might actually be quite wrong. But the means are often very different. I get a lot of American (and British, and German, and…) men who start in on me about “omigod your women are all whores who suck dick for Louis Vuitton.” And that’s just one more fantasy – a fantasy for self-gratification, a fantasy based on prejudice. I’m not saying that you’re doing that here.

    It’s just that I know women – businesswomen, cultural attaches, dancers, singers, doctors, you name it… They hack through life like warriors with no body armour – getting it all, the sexism of their “own” men, the issues of people coming from abroad, the corruption, the violence, the shit, you name it – hell, I know one woman who was physically attacked during the Orange Revolution and not allowed to press charges and all that crap. She took it standing up. She’s also one of those gals who will go home and say, “Jenia, buy me that frock I saw in the window at Passaj.” *shrug* I think it’s largely a cultural thing.

    And the women who sell their bodies in Ukraine – the shit they put up with on a regular basis? Holy cow. I know some of those women, and they are tough as hell, in their own ways.

    These are all just my experiences of people, though. I’m not Every Woman or Every Ukrainian Woman for that matter. 😉

  17. i know a few of those women too, and i agree with you about their toughness, their amazingness… it just seems a shame that life has taught so many of them not to expect more out of life (and out of men) than a new dress from passazh… but i also know that ukraine, and the way the rest of the world treats ukrainians as 3rd class citizens, doesn’t offer much else, and that’s the real injustice. Please don’t lump me in with Western male fantasists, ok?

  18. Vanya’s reaction to the marriage-to-a-prostitute hypothetical you throw out there fascinates me. From the way he sort of verbally fences with you over whether he would marry a prostitute, I get the sense that he considers himself overall more liberal on the issue than most of his male peers, but is not able or willing yet to take his thought process on the subject to its logical conclusion. Like:

    Vanya: I don’t know. I think most guys wouldn’t marry a woman with that kind of past to begin with. But I would.

    Natalia: And yet, on some level, you obviously don’t think it’s a good profession, am I right?

    Vanya: It’s a profession like any other profession.

    –he seems to want to think of himself as an open-minded, rational guy (“it’s a profession like any other profession”), but at the same time, he cannot quite overcome his upbringing that taught him to think of a prostitute as “a bad person.” In your opinion is his position, flawed though it is, still more liberal than most Ukrainian men’s with regards to prostitution? Is he more exception or more rule, or is that asking you to generalize too much?

  19. Ilyka, I have no idea. I find that a lot of people are really practical when it comes to prostitution – “a girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do” – but neither does that translate into treating said “girl” as a human being. However, this is just me. I could be 100% off the mark.

    it just seems a shame that life has taught so many of them not to expect more out of life (and out of men) than a new dress from passazh…

    Liliya, I both agree and disagree. I think it’s true that a lot of women in Ukraine put up with terrible relationships. Having said that, is it really the case that they don’t expect “more”? The woman I mentioned up above has a great relationship with her husband, for example. It’s not the perfect marriage (can’t recall ever seeing a perfect marriage up close), but it’s neither abusive nor shallow, on both sides. It’s just that, at the end of the day, the wife is also going to expect some frou-frou. And if you don’t treat your woman, you’re a zhlob. It’s not the dress that’s the problem, it’s the fact that there are other forces at work here:

    It’s not OK for a woman to be “alone.” She’s pressured to attach herself to some guy at all costs. That’s where the trouble starts. Guys know they’re seen as indispensable in most cases. Therefore, abuse flourishes.

    Therein you have some men who’ll buy you a dress, treat you like shit, and think that everything’s cool. And society will support them in this.

    Now, I’m honestly making too many generalizations right now for my own comfort, so maybe I ought to stop.

  20. yeah we kind of got off the point a bit, didn’t we. anyway glad to find a person who blogs intelligently about trafficking and attitudes to SW and Ukraine too (found your blog via global voices online). And I enjoyed your fairy stories

  21. Interesting interview.

    Years ago, I used to date an escort. I mean, I wasn’t paying her and she was taking a break from working at that time, but it did bug me that she had, and admittedly was going to again, sleep with other guys for money. I never really got why guys payed for it because, frankly, all the best parts were things that she didn’t do for clients; in fact, she told me she wouldn’t kiss clients on the lips or do anything beyond what they explicitly asked. A couple guys (and one girl) I met in Amsterdam who had gone to the red light district for the full service described a totally mechanical, un-erotic business exchange. If its just a matter of physical release, honestly, self-stimulation sounds just as good and doesn’t rack up bills or give you the clap. Even after Vanya explains, I’m still not sure why anyone goes to prostitutes, even if anything ethical is taken out of the equation; once the novelty wore off, what else would there really be?

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