Since the height of its popularity in the mid-1990s, the Moscow nightclub “Golodnaya Utka,” or “The Hungry Duck,” has been dubbed “Moscow’s first rape camp.” The club exploded on the Moscow night scene a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union. The interactive strip shows and other debaucheries attracted many young Muscovites, eager to experience the sexual liberalization that Russian society had undergone. The club also became a frequent spot for prostitutes, whose presence was becoming increasingly common in Moscow. The club’s reputation became so scandalous that the state Duma attempted to shut it down for corrupting youth. However, the sexualization of Russian culture had already come too far in early post-Soviet Moscow, and the club was never closed. Today, the Hungry Duck continues to be a major establishment for entertainment in Moscow, catering to the needs of both Russian and foreign patrons, with services provided by teams of official strippers and unofficial prostitutes.
If one were to describe the Hungry Duck to Moscow residents prior to the mid-1980s, they would be in disbelief that such an institution could exist, as sex was largely invisible to the public eye under the sexually conservative Soviet state. However, from the period of Gorbachev’s perestroika to the present day, the sexualization of Russian culture has become an integral part of Russian media and commercial culture. At the same time, the country’s economic situation has been extremely volatile during the transition to capitalism, especially throughout the 1990s, leaving many women without jobs or financial security. Russian women, having grown up with the minimal, yet dependable financial support of the socialist state, became potential employees for Russia’s booming sex and prostitution industries. Furthermore, the phenomenon of sex-trafficking, to which Russia contributes as both a destination and source country, further widens the spectrum of the problem.
I will argue that the sexualization of Russian culture has both sensationalized and normalized prostitution, causing many women to seek it as an acceptable form of work in the face of economic hardship. I will contrast this post-Soviet phenomenon with the Soviet period, when prostitution and the sexual representation of women in the media were almost nonexistent. This will provide the background for an examination of the contemporary activities of foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that try to either eliminate prostitution or support sex workers’ rights. By placing current developments into a historical context, I aim to explain the changes occurring today, to broaden the terms of debate, and to further contemporary understandings of the problems of prostitution and sex-trafficking in post-Soviet Russia.
Such a survey must distinguish between the sensationalized view of prostitution and the relatively mundane reality of women selling sex to support their families and survive. The nongovernmental agencies that have become increasingly involved in this situation often present a sensationalized view, in which the woman is purely a victim of male exploitation. By focusing on stories of women who have been coerced and kidnapped in the midst of economic collapse and social chaos, such anti-prostitution advocates overlook the reality of women who turn to selling sex because no other profession is available to them. I hope to explain the historical and cultural circumstances that have contributed to the development of this widespread phenomenon.
Glasnost and the Sexualization of Post-Soviet Society
A survey compiled in the social and economic chaos of the 1990s revealed that Soviet women ranked prostitution eighth in a list of what they felt to be the top twenty most common employment positions in the USSR. In the same year, a separate survey indicated that 60 per cent of high school girls in Moscow admitted that they would exchange sex for hard currency. The demise of state socialism in the late 1980s and the opening of Soviet borders to Western economic and political influences coincided with massive changes in the government’s social and cultural policies. Known as glasnost, the program of cultural liberalization encouraged journalists and artists to address topics that had not previously been acknowledged or publicly debated in Soviet society, such as food shortages, inadequate housing, and drug abuse.
The Soviet media also jumped to discuss sex and display nudity and erotic imagery. Many scholars have amassed evidence of a general “eroticization” of the country, in which “criticism of culture and politics increasingly included analysis of sexual behavior and relied on sexual metaphor.” The use of female nudity and semi-nudity to sell products or entertain—already familiar to the Western public—became increasingly prevalent in the USSR. Stores with imported Western sex toys or pornographic material became common and strip bars like the Hungry Duck were in high demand. By the early 90’s, the playwright Mikhail Roschin would note the changes this helped bring about in social mores by pointing out that a brief nude scene in his play in 1971 had caused a major scandal, while under glasnost, a show without nudity was not considered a “good performance.” Likewise, Igor Kon, the Russian sexologist, would describe the proliferation of sexual discourse in the post-Soviet period as follows: “Now we have everything. Pornography. Erotic art. You can get an appointment with a sex therapist as simply as with a stomach specialist. You can exchange a book about Russian sexology for French detective fiction or for knitting instructions.”
Kon’s observations are illustrated by the 1988 landmark film Little Vera, which depicted alienated youth and pointless sex in the crumbling Soviet Union. Groundbreaking in its inclusion of the first Russian celluloid sex scene, Little Vera was viewed as a reaction to Soviet asceticism. The film, which provoked hundreds of letters of complaint, chronicles the moral disorientation and sexual rebellion of a young woman in one of Russia’s economically depressed towns.
As historian Hilary Pilkington noted, young people had previously been seen “to be building the new society both in a symbolic and material way.” Through membership in the Party’s youth branch, the Komsomol, Soviet youth were the embodiment of ideal citizens, who were patriotic and dedicated to the socialist cause. However, with the disintegration of Soviet society, the social mores of young people became disoriented. Scholar Lynn Attwood states that “the image of the enthusiastic clean-cut Young Communist marching purposefully along the golden road to communism was replaced by that of the unkempt, amoral cynic, as much into sex and drugs and rock and roll as his—or her—Western counterpart was said to be.”
A Window to the West: Foreign-Currency Prostitution
Attwood highlights an important factor in the sexualization of Russian culture: the allure of the West. Throughout the later years of the Soviet regime, the West had been eroticized and glamorized. The official Party propaganda had put a negative twist on this notion by insisting that the West was morally corrupt and opulent. However, after glasnost, Western goods and lifestyles became the most desirable and this helped lure many women to work as “high-end” prostitutes for rich businessmen. The sexualization of Russian culture had normalized promiscuity and broken down the formally conservative social mores; women could now transgress sexual boundaries they previously would not have crossed.
The media in Russia and abroad were quick to report on the urban tales of sex and crime surrounding these ambitious “foreign-currency prostitutes.” During Soviet times, journalists had only restricted access to the upscale hotels they frequented, which added to the excitement and voyeurism in reporting what now went on in those rooms. Scholar Elizabeth Waters states that these prostitutes became established as a symbol of the “golden world of dubious pleasures and unearned income.” One paper reported in 1987 that “Laura,” who once earned 100 rubles a month as a village shop assistant, had managed to save 19,000 rubles in less than five months. Such coverage contributed to sensationalizing the lives of prostitutes regardless of the fact that there was risk in their work. Moscow became a sex symbol and destination for sex tourism.
A key film in the perestroika period was Intergirl, the biggest Russian domestic hit of 1989. In the film, Tanya is a nurse’s aid by day and an upscale prostitute for foreign businessmen by night. Her desire for foreign currency, goods, and luxuries leads her to move to Sweden to marry one of her clients. Tanya then falls victim to the incurable Russian disease of “nostalgia” and tries to return home, but crashes her car on the way to the airport and dies a violent death.
According to Lynn Attwood, the “film’s ultimate message is not that prostitution is a fine choice of career for women throughout the world. It is that the old Soviet Union gave them no choice; everybody is forced, metaphorically, into prostitution.” Likewise Eliot Borenstein argues that the film “represents a turning point for the social construction of the Russian prostitute.” Tanya is depicted in a wholly sympathetic light, and her choice of profession is shown to be an understandable way of responding to the inadequacies of the Soviet system.
However, Borenstein also draws attention to the fact that what impressed many viewers was the luxurious life that Tanya led, not her tragic end. Thus, many young Soviet women tried to follow in Tanya’s “spike-heeled footsteps,” leading to a major increase in the number of prostitutes. Even a decade later, Intergirl was still accused of encouraging prostitution in Russia. A May 1999 issue of Kino-Park, a popular entertainment magazine, included an article entitled “How Intergirl Was Accused of Prostitution,” in which scholars, policemen, and even prostitutes attest to the fact that Todorovskii’s film enticed many girls into prostitution. Such sensationalization in both film and the wider media served to normalize prostitution and portray it as a quick way to make money regardless of possible negative consequences.
The behavior of the Russian elite and ruling class also had a significant effect on this normalization and sensationalization. Scholar Dmitry Shlapentokh argues that Russian culture had always been very “holistic” in that the values of the ruling elite “were actually disseminated throughout the entire society and, in fact, were espoused even by those groups who regarded themselves as enemies of the regime.” Pre-perestroika, this meant that the conservative moral values of the ruling class, which opposed prostitution, were accepted as the norm. Soviet authorities saw prostitution and any other free exercise of sexuality as being politically dangerous because “sexuality was one of the few activities in which one could engage without the direct supervision of the state.” In addition, according to Shlapentokh, Soviet “morality” was directly connected with belonging to the messianic grandeur of the USSR, a philosophy in which money was “despised as a manifestation of materialistic narrow-mindedness.” Therefore, taking money for sex not only went against the conservative Soviet policies, but also threatened the fundamental socialist visions of the country.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the transition to a free market economy was far from efficient or well-regulated. The lack of legal framework and financial infrastructure resulted in a legal vacuum that allowed former leading Party members to take control of much of the country’s wealth. Shlapentokh argues that these “new Russians,” who obtained their wealth through cronyism and corruption rather than through labor, created the “spirit and conditions for which prostitution could thrive.” The “new Russians,” who were eager to associate themselves with the West, known for liberal sexuality, flaunted their erotic drive. Sexuality was seen as a direct manifestation of economic power, and wealth became associated with sexual pleasure. Consequently, prostitution was fully incorporated into both the public and private life of the post-Soviet elites, who were often found in expensive night clubs surrounded by call girls. Shlapentokh contends that “the accumulation of money was not driven by the need to accumulate investments but for the sake of pleasure, and sexuality was one of the major manifestations of this pleasure… Buying love was now the most desirable way to attract the opposite sex.”
Shades of Gray: “Undercover Prostitution”
The desire for Western goods, sexuality in advertisements and entertainment, and the growing power of pleasure-seeking Russian and foreign businessmen all helped to foster an environment for both blatant and “undercover” prostitution. The promiscuity that had been unleashed during perestroika often turned into various forms of prostitution, especially in the post-Soviet period when women were disproportionately burdened with economic hardship. In the following sections, I will expand this thesis to include both street prostitution and the more subtle prostitution of “favors,” which has become a frequent practice in post-Soviet society.
In 1986, at the beginning of Gorbachev’s reforms, an influential literary journal, Literaturnaya gazeta, described a group of well-educated girls who were regular customers at a city bar in an industrial town in the Ural Mountains. As in many industrial towns, a night out at a bar or restaurant was often the best option for entertainment. However, in the economic chaos of the time, such a night out could cost a girl a week’s wages. The girls were thus willing to cross boundaries of social taboo by making themselves sexually available to the men who would pay their tabs. Scholar Elizabeth Waters discusses how Soviet readers of such articles were shocked both by the way the girls navigated the gray areas between promiscuity and prostitution, and by the way that they seemed unrepentant and nonchalant about their behavior.
The “gray areas” of prostitution were also traversed in the rapidly expanding beauty contest industry, which had been imported from the West in the mid-1980s. Young women were keen to enter this world of apparently glamorous opportunities with hopes of winning money, fame, and often a foreign modeling contract, particularly after the first Miss USSR was crowned in 1989. The contestants were usually from modest families and had higher education, but were employed in low-paid jobs. Soviet psychologists supported beauty pageants because “feeling beautiful improved a woman’s sense of well being and her work performance.”
In actuality, however, many contestants soon realized the contests held hidden agendas, requiring them to provide sexual favors to photographers, agents, and even pageant organizers. In this manner, the sexualization of the culture and the departure from Soviet protocol had created a great deal of confusion about the boundaries between erotic art, glamour modeling, and commercial sex. Bridger, Kay, and Pinnick note: “Reports on several of these competitions imply that the women involved are expected at the very least to sleep with the organizers, and, if they really hope to win, probably with everyone from the judges to the lighting technicians as well.”
In the same way, women in the post-Soviet labor force often found themselves forced into gray areas of prostitution to retain their jobs or get a promotion. Although the exchange of sexual favors for promotions or time off had occurred under the Soviet system, the practice was not openly acknowledged and the socialist system helped to ensure that women would not lose their jobs if they did not comply. However, the legal vacuum, coupled with the sexualization of Russian culture, resulted in a general sexualization of the workplace as well, normalizing sexual harassment; it became a regular and accepted practice for male bosses to openly demand that female employees sleep with them as part of their duties. By the early 1990s, it was commonplace to see ads for secretarial positions seeking only attractive young women “bez kompleksov,” or “uninhibited,” which was understood as code meaning that the applicant should be willing to provide sexual services as well. By 1993, “sexual terror” was so widespread that one employer with good intentions felt it necessary to include “No sexual services required” in his advertisement for an office assistant. One newspaper, after having received many letters from women who had been harassed in the workplace, tried to set up a support group for them.
Post-Soviet Realities: Prostitution as a Means of Sustenance
The documentary film To Die for Love by Tofik Shakhverdiev tells of two Moscow prostitutes, one who works in a hotel for foreign currency, and the other who works for rubles to sustain her husband and three sons. Neither woman is idealized; in fact, images of them are juxtaposed with images of the homeless. In their 1993 book Sexuality and the Body in Russian Culture, Costlow, Sandler, and Vowles observed that this film provided “an important answer to the glossy visual representations of women’s bodies that have also proliferated recently—they appear on items from key chains to postcards, in journals, and in beauty contests.”
Shakhverdiev’s film presents a different image of a prostitute, one who is not sensationalized. She does not perform favors in return for luxurious Western products, and she is not a dejected, fallen woman on the outskirts of society. She may even have other employment opportunities, but she chooses sex as employment. In the following section, I will broaden the terms of debate to include this new portrayal of a prostitute as a woman who consciously chooses sex work as the best available means of supporting her family in a time of economic instability.
A 1998 New York Times report on prostitution in the Russian city of Saratov provides a good example of this. Saratov, an industrial town on the Volga with a depressed economy and wages that rarely topped $40 a month, had more than eighty escort services in a city of one million. The two prostitutes interviewed said that they had earlier worked as nurses, earning $30 a month at a local hospital, but then changed careers to work at an escort service, where they receive $10 an hour. One prostitute said that on a good night, she can make up to $80, which is more than local factory workers or teachers make in a month. The girls stated that prostitution is not their first career choice, but for the moment, they accepted the risks because of the wages.
This non-sensationalized view of prostitution in post-Soviet Russia is further substantiated by a report compiled in 2005 by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report, entitled “Sex Workers: Perspectives in Public Health and Human Rights,” includes a study of thirty-two female sex workers in Moscow conducted from October 2002 through March 2003. All of the participants worked on the central streets in Moscow (rather than in bars, hotels, or escort services) and worked for a pimp. The report estimated that such street-based sex workers comprise approximately 80% of all female sex workers in Moscow. All but two said they knew the people who recruited them into prostitution and knew that they were going to Moscow for sex work. The following quotation reflects a typical account of the participants’ recruitment into the Moscow sex industry:
I was coming here deliberately, I knew where I was going… I asked [my friend] to take me to this job… She told me that I would work on the street, would get 50 percent, and would share an apartment with her… [She described this work] a little better than it really is, but everything was correct.
Two of the thirty-two women stated that they had responded to ads in Moskovskii Komsomolets, which had been the official newspaper of the Communist youth party. Most reported that all job details were given to them before they left their home towns; two said they were duped, believing they would be coming to Moscow to work in cafes. Only one reported that her passport had been taken and she was unable to leave her pimp. Eleven had children and had sought sex work to support their families. The report cautioned that “the fact that people besides [the women] themselves were dependent on the income of many of the sex workers must be taken into account when considering programs aimed at cessation of sex work.”
Sex-trafficking and Migration of Sex Workers
Researcher Donna Hughes discusses the rise of “marriage agencies” in response to a growing supply and demand for “Russian brides.” Before the Soviet borders were opened, the major supply of mail-order brides for Western men had come from Southeast Asia. The introduction of Russian women into the market saw demand grow even greater. In 1998, there were over 200 agencies operating in the United States which had helped spur 747 U.S. fiancée visas issued to Russian women and 282 visas issued to women from Ukraine in 1997.
The results from such arranged marriages vary, with some women finding stable, supportive relationships, while others are abused or sent back home. It can be very difficult for these mail-order brides to remain in control when most have fled economic hardship and now depend on their new husbands. However, many women are willing to take the chance, whether through marriage agencies or through independent migration to Western sex industries. As scholars Sue Bridger and Rebecca Kay argue, “when conventional employment prospects are so poor, ordinary jobs are by no means risk-free and the spectre of years of poverty haunts millions, they may well feel they have very little to lose.” Scholar Laura Agustin’s research with various sex workers in Europe vividly demonstrates the dilemma. In one interview, a Ukrainian woman who had migrated to Spain reflected on her decision to migrate:
Life is very hard there, because there is no work. Today I sent money to my mother… to pay for her house. You work, work, work and then they don’t pay you, because there’s no money. For example, I worked in an ashtray factory, and when there was no money to pay me they said “take ashtrays,” 100 ashtrays. So? Can you eat ashtrays?
The Sensationalization of Sex-Trafficking in the Media
The mail-order bride industry and the illegal migration of Russian women to cities in search of sex work has become a popular topic in Russian and Western media. The situation has been portrayed in both a tragic light, as a modern-day form of slavery, and in a more comedic light, as shown by stereotypes of Russian mail-order brides. For example, in the 2001 British film, Birthday Girl, Nicole Kidman plays a Russian mail-order bride who leaves Russia to marry a lonely British banker. It is soon revealed, however, that Kidman’s character is connected to a criminal ring and has alternative motives for marrying the banker. In the end, love and sex prevail, causing Kidman to break her ties with the Russian mafia in order to live happily ever after with the banker. This post-Soviet version of Pretty Woman takes a light, comedic approach to trafficking and Kidman’s sexy character further contributes to the sensationalization of the Russian prostitute. Unlike Intergirl, this film has a happy ending, which can be seen as enhancing the appeal of importing Russian women for sex work or marriage.
However, there are many well-documented cases of abuse suffered by sex workers both within Russia and abroad. Reports are frequently circulated about Russian girls who believe they are going abroad to work as waitresses or nannies, but upon arrival in a foreign country are stripped of their documents, locked in an apartment, and forced to work as prostitutes. In Russia, such stories are publicized periodically on Russian television. In the West, journalists have also conducted investigations. For example, in The Natashas: The New Global Sex Trade, Canadian journalist Victor Malarek describes the undercover interviews he conducted with sex workers in Europe. The women he questioned repeatedly describe how they endured rapes, beatings, abortions, and death threats in the process of being forced to obey their captors. Likewise, Michael Specter, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote a special report in 1998 entitled “Traffickers’ New Cargo: Naïve Slavic Women.” In the article he, too, describes the inhumane horrors of the girls’ enslavement, stating that “few ever testify” for fear of being killed.
Popular culture has been eager to explore this more brutal side of prostitution and sex-trafficking. For example, Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s film Lilya 4-Ever portrays the tragic story of a girl who falls victim to a sex-trafficking racket. Lilya is a poor Russian girl from a depressed town in Estonia whose mother abandons her and moves to America. In financial desperation, Lilya begins to work as a prostitute in order to buy food. She is then seduced by a young man who convinces her to move with him to Sweden. Once in Sweden, Lilya is forced to work as a prostitute, and receives such brutal treatment from her captor that she jumps to her own fatal end. Scholar Donna Hughes claims that “Lilya 4-Ever is the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the anti-trafficking movement – the fictionalized, but realistic account of cruelty to one girl that is awakening the public conscience to the horrors of global trafficking for prostitution.”
Although the prevalence of such cases is not known, the existence of such human rights abuses cannot be denied. However, cases such as Lilya’s only represent one side of a very complex situation; not all women who migrate abroad are manipulated and fall victim to violence, and it is important to recognize the distinctions between women’s experiences in the sex industry. Nevertheless, as Borenstein observed, the “plight” of the prostitute can be just as seductive as her body. Borenstein applied this idea to the pre-Revolutionary works of writers like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, who were attracted to the sympathetic plight of the spiritually pure prostitute who had fallen victim to society.
The tendency to portray sex workers as such continues into current times. For example, the title of The New York Times article, “Traffickers New Cargo: Naïve Slavic Women,” automatically implies that the women are helpless victims. Likewise, Victor Malarek’s book walks the line between sensationalization and objective reporting. Malarek begins his book with a narrative of a girl named Marika who was trafficked from Russia to Tel Aviv against her will. He includes whimsical descriptions of Marika being led on camels across the desert by Bedouin guides with “long curved daggers dangling from their waists.” Malarek also cites dramatic accounts from Marika, who recalls: “This fat, sweaty pig is reaching his climax and he begins to murmur, ‘Oh, Natasha! Natasha!’ […] Natasha was my nightmare. Marika was my salvation.”
Such reports, which vividly describe the girls’ sexual bondage, further exacerbate the problems of sex-trafficking by appealing to the sexual fantasies of potential customers, for whom the allure of prostitution is often one of sexual domination. For example, the recent Lifetime special, “Human Trafficking,” follows the stories of several different women who were trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation across the globe. In one scene, the sex-traffickers make an attractive young Ukrainian girl strip down to her sexy lingerie. Although this scene is meant to show the brutal treatment that the girls endure, the fact that the girl is shown as powerless victim in lingerie can be said to have a strong sexual appeal. A more extreme example of this was seen in Moldova: newspaper reports describing the trafficking of Moldovan women abroad included the fully-nude photographs of the women, which had been used by their pimps as advertisements. This is more than just sexualizing the women’s plights: it is pornography.
Activists’ Discourse: Abolitionists vs. Regulationists
The rise in post-Soviet prostitution and sex trafficking and the subsequent involvement with other countries has sparked a heated debate on prostitution in Russia among nongovernmental organizations, activists, and policy-makers. The post-Soviet period has seen an increasing presence of both foreign-backed and Russian grassroots organizations, each with its own agenda and approach to lobbying concerning sex work and trafficking issues. Some anti-sex trafficking activists are accused of subscribing to a more sensationalized view of prostitutes as innocent victims. Others argue that such measures do not represent the women who choose sex work as the best available means of supporting their families. Such women should not be denied the status of legal workers, as illegal workers are usually the most disempowered and vulnerable members of society. The following section will examine the extent to which activists and policy-makers accurately represent the interests of Russian sex workers in Russia and abroad.
One of the most predominant camps represented by foreign-backed NGOs in Russia is that of the abolitionists, whose roots are traced back to the upper-middle class feminists in nineteenth-century Europe. Also known as “the sexual domination discourse,” the abolitionists consider all forms of prostitution as sexual exploitation and as human rights violations similar to rape. Women are never free agents, and thus prostitution should be illegal. The abolitionist discourse was particularly influential in the Preamble to the 1949 Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of Prostitutes and Others, which states that “prostitution and … traffic in persons for the purposes of prostitution are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person…”
The Angel Coalition is a NGO in Russia that subscribes to the abolitionist discourse; it consists of 43 grassroots organizations from Russia and other former Soviet republics. The Angel Coalition in Moscow and its network of nine regional partners describe themselves as “the hub of rescue, repatriation and rehabilitation activities for Russian trafficking victims.” The organization is officially registered as a Russian organization, but much of the money and leadership is provided through Western funds and specialists. In addition to anti-trafficking efforts, the Coalition’s work also promotes efforts to make prostitution illegal in the destination countries and fights all attempts to legalize prostitution in Russia.
Although the Angel Coalition has done excellent work through informational campaigns and transnational cooperation, its abolitionist philosophy remains controversial. For example, while working at the Angel Coalition in the spring of 2005, I learned of a case in which a young woman was repatriated from Athens, but upon arrival in Russia, her home country, wanted to go back to Greece. Juliette Engel, the Director of the Angel Coalition and herself an American, described her behavior as “Stockholm Syndrome.” In an interview she stated:
People are so emotionally and physically dependent on their pimps, it is very hard to separate them, even though the pimp is going to take them right to death. They are just hypnotically attached. It is very common in such situations, which is why they cannot have access to telephones because they will be calling the very pimps and traffickers who enslaved them. They have to get past that.
Although Engel’s interpretation is a valid one, there is an opposing camp of activists who find great fault in her reasoning. Categorized as regulationists, such activists would argue that Engel’s attitude does not respect the fact that the woman returning from Greece is a free-willed agent whose desire to return to Athens is not due to the trauma of victimization, but rather to a conscious act of self-determination. This regulationist platform is the main opponent to the abolitionist discourse, which dominated international debates on prostitution for almost a hundred years until the development of regulationist trends in the mid-1980s. The new regulationist lobby challenges the abolitionist platform by recognizing a distinction between forced and non-forced prostitution, and between forced sex-trafficking and non-forced “prostitution-related migration.” Proponents of this “voluntary/forced” dichotomy argue that although many women fall victim to coercion and abuse, there are others who independently choose to become sex workers at home or abroad and who deserve recognition as legitimate workers. Regulationists believe this is important for the safety of sex workers because when prostitution is legal, women are not dependent on pimps to protect them from the police. Legal prostitutes are guaranteed personal freedoms and protection by the state, and are therefore more independent and less likely to be forced into exploitative conditions. Moreover, the illegal or non-legal status of migrant sex workers in most countries discourages cohesive political action. Scholar Laura Agustin points out that “given their irregular status and vulnerability to police harassment and deportation, most [sex workers] are loath to draw attention to themselves. Given the itinerant lifestyle that characterizes migrants selling sex in Europe, they tend not to ‘settle’ or join traditional migrants groups, and in some countries they have no right to ‘demonstrate.’”
The regulationist camp often accuses abolitionists of sensationalizing the “victim” status of prostitutes or migrant sex workers in order to promote the illegalization of prostitution. By focusing on stories of sex-trafficking victims who were dragged across the desert or claiming that girls suffer from “Stockholm Syndrome,” abolitionists are blamed for skewing the situation in the public’s eyes. Regulationists seek to dispel the abolitionist discourse by drawing attention to the fact that although such cases of forced prostitution exist, there are also women who consciously choose sex work as the best available means of supporting themselves in a particular social and economic climate, as attested by the accounts of the sex workers in Moscow.
The type of scholarly sensationalization that regulationists strive to undermine is found, for example, in the work of Donna Hughes, whose research on sex-trafficking has been commissioned by both the U.S. State Department and the Coalition Against the Trafficking in Women, a main proponent of the abolitionist camp. For her research in Russia, Hughes often works with the Angel Coalition’s director, Juliette Engel. Hughes wrote an article that describes Engel’s inspiration to establish MiraMed, an American-based organization that helps the Angel Coalition and other grassroots NGOs obtain Western funding:
A decade ago, Dr. Engel, an American physician, went to Russia and discovered the scourge of epidemic trafficking while working with orphanages, from which groups of girls were mysteriously disappearing. Vans would arrive at the orphanages to take girls on field trips. They packed their lunches and overnight bags and hopped into the vans, never to be seen again…As she described the trafficking industry’s methods of operation, many mothers and teachers would start to cry as they realized the likely fate of their daughters and pupils who had gone abroad and not been heard of since.
Hughes uses dramatic descriptions of weeping mothers and kidnapped orphans in an effort to make prostitution illegal in both Russia and various destination countries. However, as discussed above, many women working as prostitutes are not “deceived victims” but rather are willing to endure the risks of prostitution, either in Russia or abroad, in order to make higher wages and support their families. Such was the case with the women in Saratov and with the women in the Moscow survey who could be viewed as simply “migrant sex workers.” Reports should look at both sides of the equation in order to avoid a misrepresentation of prostitution and sex-trafficking and the subsequent jeopardization of the lives of many women by making their economically justified professions more dangerous. Once the terms of debate are broadened to address the needs of both coerced victims and free-willed sex workers, national and international legislation concerning prostitution and sex-trafficking can better protect the rights of all.
However, it is difficult to broaden the terms of debate in light of the fact that the sensationalized portrayal of prostitutes as victims sells better in the nonprofit world, just as the sensationalized portrayal of the prostitute is more lucrative in media and film. Nongovernmental organizations in Russia are dependent on outside funding from foreign philanthropic organizations and governments, and the Russian government is not able (or not willing) to provide funds for such social work. Because the topic of “sex workers’ rights” is controversial and considered less urgent than the human rights violations associated with sexual exploitation, it is easier for NGOs to secure funding to rescue sex-trafficking victims than it is to find funding to protect the rights of willing sex workers. Consequently, abolitionist groups receive grants from foreign donors and thus given the advantage, as they are better able to disseminate information, organize conferences, support research, lobby, and most importantly, apply for more grants.
The Angel Coalition, for example, has significant funding from the Swedish government and the Bush administration, both of which take a decisively abolitionist approach. In September 2003, before the United Nations General Assembly, President Bush called the global sex trade a “humanitarian crisis” and a “special evil,” and he broadly condemned the entire “sex trade.” A human trafficking investigations officer for the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, who has experience working with the various anti-trafficking NGOs in Moscow, has stated that the Angel Coalition’s funding from the United States and Sweden has allowed the organization to push an abolitionist agenda. As long as the Angel Coalition presents “the sex trade” in Russia in this light, it will continue to receive the donations and grants needed to distribute information, host conferences, support the research of abolitionist scholars, and rent their comfortable and fully-staffed office in Moscow, complete with a stunning view of the Kremlin and the Moscow River.
The Russian sex worker has been labeled victim and vixen, sinner and saint, comic and tragic. Many have tried to redeem the “fallen innocent,” while others have tried to defend her choice in careers. Most of these discourses, however, are guilty of one thing: the sensationalization of the life of the prostitute.
This sensationalization and misrepresentation of the social conditions and realities of sex work are largely due to the fact that the discourse on prostitution and sex-trafficking has been waged mainly by non-sex workers, who often oversimplify the situation in order to promote their own agendas. In the case of Russia, the interests of sex workers are often left in the hands of foreign-backed NGOs, who hold the financial resources to organize informational campaigns and lobbying efforts. Because some charity groups and governments are more willing to fund projects that save “victims” rather than address the needs of women with a broad range of experiences, it is to the benefit of the abolitionists to subscribe to an outdated ideology and not to broaden the terms of their debate. The situation is further unbalanced by the lack of a strong feminist discourse in Russian civil society, as democracy and civil society are relatively new concepts in Russia and still in need of development.
The sex industry continues to grow all over the world, with women from the former Soviet Union representing a large percentage of those selling sex in Europe. For this reason, it is becoming increasingly important to reconsider the existing discourse on prostitution. Scholar Laura Agustin argues that current discussions focus too much on “abstract questions, such as the degree of consent, obligation, or force experienced by migrant women […] rather than on the practical issues of survival and success that women migrants negotiate.” It must be recognized that prostitution has become an available and effective way for thousands of women to support themselves in the post-Soviet world. Once this fact is accepted by the members of the government and civil society who have the money and power, legislation can more accurately reflect the needs of women in the sex industry. The image of the prostitute has long been incorporated in mainstream Russian society; the reality of their experiences now has to be recognized as well.
“About Us,” Angel Coalition, 30 October 2005 <http://www.angelcoalition.org/Angelcoalition1.html>.
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Footnotes “Club Guide,” Exile, 30 April 2006 <http://www.exile.ru/club_guide/>.