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?
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.
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.