This essay is a companion to an earlier essay, Natasha from Russia. It was inspired by many people, some of whom I cannot acknowledge directly for fear of compromising their anonymity. It was brought on by the many conversations around feminism and s(e)x work, conversations on various sex-worker blogs, conversations on phones, conversations in parking lots on rainy mornings, and so on.
As you may have noticed, I break up certain words with parentheses. This blog gets routinely mistaken for a p(or)n aggregator, which could potentially lead to it being blocked in various countries. I do not want that to happen.
An asterisk – * – indicates that a person’s name has been changed.
I use “Kiev” (Russian spelling) and “Kyiv” (Ukrainian spelling) interchangeably. If you think I should stick to one spelling, you can bite me.
Sveta* was mad at me. We were sitting in an outdoor cafe in the center, where an occasional Lada’s coughing and creaking threw a discordant note into the purring chorus of Bentleys and BMW’s. I commented on how much the neighbourhood was changing. Sveta, whose musical ear is beyond reproach, shrugged irritably as she tore the label off her beer bottle to shreds.
When she was younger, Sveta had been the victim of a gang-r(ap)e. I have written about her, as I have written about many women and men who became victims of violence in our hometown of Kyiv, Ukraine.
That day, she told me that she engaged in s(e)x-work.
“Isn’t that a bad way to deal with what happened?” I asked her, shuddering as I pictured her going down on some bloated businessman in a suit from Voronin.
I was informed that my discomfort was duly noted. I was also informed that she, Sveta, was supplementing her income, that she was in a comfortable groove, and that I needed to butt the hell out.
It took me a while to stop pouting, but Sveta was right in telling me to stuff it. She didn’t need my permission to do the things she did, she didn’t have to reassure me, and my fears and fee-fee’s were not her responsibility. I would be there for her if she wanted to stop, but I couldn’t tell her to stop.
It was Sveta who inspired me to seek out Zoya*, a restaurant manager and former s(e)x-worker who used to live in my old neighbourhood. When she was younger, Zoya skipped out on a failing marriage to engage in s(e)x-work in Germany. She got to keep a decent percentage of what she made, strictly because her “p(im)p had a thing for [her].” She did not romanticize that time in her life, and indicated that she does not want to go back. She showed me a couple of old cigarette-burns on her arm, and smiled a non-smile.
Zoya’s sister-in-law had gone up to Moscow to engage in s(e)x-work and “now she’ll never had children again.” Despite having been in a similar situation, Zoya had no sympathy. She refers to her sister-in-law as “trash.” Apparently, “trash” abandoned Zoya’s brother and their child, and was not heard from for two years.
“She has money, and she never shares it with her family. So what’s the point?”
I tried to press her on the subject, but she had “nothing more to say.”
Zoya claimed she would have liked to put me in touch with a male friend of hers who has also engaged in s(e)x-work, but she gave up on that idea almost as soon as it occurred to her.
“He’d never talk about it to a writer.”
I asked Zoya if she knew any other Ukrainian men who have gone into this business. “You come to suspect it of certain people.”
Sveta knows a thing or two about Kiev’s gay and lesbian scene, and she was more blunt: “I see some old guy who looks like a toad having drinks with a cherubic creature, and I just have to say, I HOPE that kid is getting paid good money. Otherwise, that’s exploitation.”
Zoya said that getting a job after coming home to Kiev was easy. She declined to comment on whether or not she still engages in some form of s(e)x-work. She said she never wants to get married again and curled her small hand into a fist: “That’s what a potential husband can get from me.”
Although my conversation with Zoya occurred a number of years ago, I was reluctant to write about it. Zoya was helpful, but she also had little patience for me. At the time, I held that against her. It took me a while to understand how she must have seen me: a writer based in the affluent United States, mining her for treasured information like some lame version of Indiana Jones. A tourist. A privileged prat.
I think about Zoya a lot these days.
Sitting at a Starbucks in one of the richest countries in the world, I am reading the blogpost of a friend of a friend – Natalya Al’shanskaya – a popular post (one of the top posts on Yandex.ru this week) about wh(or)es – the “domestic” kind, the kind who get an(al)ly r(ap)ed during a g(an)g-bang, and “compensated” for the blood they shed in free food and a few shots. I am reading about a woman who will take her alcoholic husband back because, as she puts it, “if I don’t have a MAN in the home – I might get visitors” – and she will be right. I am reading about Nice Guys™ who pressure and rape, pressure and rape, and try to refrain from talking about Not-So-Nice Girls™ in front of married women (because married women get some respect, as long as they are married, of course).
We have an insane culture of sexual violence against women, and women deal with that in all sorts of ways. One’s class and upbringing has a lot to do with this, Sveta, being comfortably middle-class, had an entirely different pool of clients to choose from. Zoya being of the poor “proletariat” (yes, we use this word in Russian quite a bit, mostly in a derogatory fashion), has had a different experience altogether. Being stunningly pretty and clever and tough helped her, especially when she was abroad.
And yet, besides status, there is also the idea that LJ user lyamur has expressed – the idea that some girls are “broken” by their parents, and by society in general: broken to conform, required to silently take abuse, discouraged from establishing basic boundaries, etc. Lyamur was not speaking about pro(sti)tution, but her words are applicable here: some of us CAN at the very least demand some respect no matter what we do, others – not so much.
Meanwhile, Journalist Lily Hyde has had her own conversations with Ukrainian women in s(e)x-work, and has this to say in regards to government policies and trafficking:
Until rich countries change their immigration policies, the ‘necessary evil’ of people-smuggling will continue, with trafficking its uglier underside. And as long as the moralistic stereotypes of ‘victim’ and ‘pr[ostitu]te’ endure, women…. will be condemned for trying to take their fate into their own hands.
In principle, I agree, although I would like to add that economic growth in countries like Ukraine is ultimately the only tangible method of increasing the standard of living (though considering how cynical many of us are about Ukraine’s prospects… this will take some convincing). I would furthermore add that until the Zoyas and Svetas of this world are able to demand basic human rights, in any line of work, many will suffer the same fate as Zoya’s sister-in-law. In the immortal words of Bob Dylan, “how many deaths [diseases, mutilations, punches, insults…] will it take?”
Back in the cafe, Sveta was done demolishing the beer bottle label.
“This neighbourhood is changing and it’s staying the same,” she said. “Let’s go someplace more punk and have a round on me. I can afford it.”