Great news! Kyiv, the city of my birth, has been ranked by Traveler's Digest as number one – as far as the presence of "beautiful women" is concerned, that is. Am I glad? Or am I a joyless feminazi who will use this news as an excuse to launch into a diatribe about how the beauty of women is a red herring in a country as plagued by social problems as Ukraine?
The truth is, Kyiv probably does have some of the most beautiful women in the world – and they are present at all levels of society. They're the trophy wives coolly observing the world from the back of chauffeur-driven Bentleys, and the bored supermarket cashiers who will raise their eyebrows if you fail to produce the exact change. They include a jailed former prime minister, and the teenage mother who will bum a cigarette off of you outside the airport terminal when you first arrive. Soon, hordes of football fans arriving in Ukraine for Euro 2012 will find out exactly what I'm talking about – and I'm sure that many of them are excited by this prospect. But here's the thing about being a beautiful woman in Ukraine: it does not protect you from harm or poverty. Perhaps most pertinently, it also does not protect you from winding up in the sex industry.
Police officials in Ukraine are already stating that a "strict control" will be enforced during Euro 2012, and that only a handful of prostitutes will be able to "get to the foreigners". Such statements are almost humorous, as they assume that the foreign visitors are passive partners in the whole thing. And the fact that these foreigners will be participating in a system of exploitation and inequality bothers few people, the topless protesters of Ukraine's Femen group notwithstanding.
Here's the thing about the Ukrainian sex industry – it is unregulated and scary. I personally know people who have gone into it by choice, but they will not romanticise it. As Femen's own Anna Gutsol said to me back in 2009: "Around here, people don't think about purchasing sex, they think of it as purchasing a human being." Women get groomed for the sex trade early: when I was still a teenager, I went to what I thought was a nice club in downtown Kyiv, only to be approached by a madam who praised my "nubile" looks and encouraged me to come and work in her bordello, as she needed "classy girls".
An extensive 2008 study that looked at sex workers' lifestyles in Ukraine noted that 39% of Ukrainian sex workers do not use condoms regularly, and that 22% of them are also drug users. Most sex workers who do not use condoms report that they are pressured to do so by their clients. The Ukrainian Institute of Social Studies estimates that 50,000 women engaged in commercial sex work in Ukraine last year. The actual number probably is much higher, considering the fact that there are many women who will also turn a so-called trick on the side, as a way of supplementing a low income. The same institute estimates that every sixth Ukrainian sex-worker is a minor.
The sex industry exists underground and prospers due to widespread corruption. Many people in Ukraine also consider women who have engaged in sex work to be "permanently tainted" – once a woman has a certain kind of "fame", it is very hard for her to be viewed as fully human. I even know a man who once proudly told me that when he found that his then-girlfriend used to be a prostitute, he "passed her around" to his friends, ie encouraged them to gang-rape her. "She comes from a small town, she'll never escape her reputation now!", he gloated. When I asked him why on earth he decided to punish her in this horrible fashion, he argued that she "should have never tried to trick [him] into thinking she was a decent person to begin with."
When I told this story to my cousin, a former police officer, he just shrugged. "Look, prostitutes are just seen as unrapeable, they're always assumed to be sexually available," he finally said. "People reason that a whore is a whore." Another friend of mine once confessed he had taunted a neighbour who he knew had engaged in sex work. "I told her she would wind up dead, that they were going to find her in the gutter one day," he said. "And you know what? She looked me dead in the eye and said, 'So go ahead and fuck me while my body is still warm.' I didn't know what to say to that."
What does one say to that? "I'm sorry" might be a start, I suppose. But until we recognise the fact that sex workers are people, rhetoric won't make much of a difference. And rankings of "beautiful girls" will only go on to obscure the real-life, systemic problems that "the girls" are living under.
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