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Getting a Grip on Sex Tourism in Kyiv

Ask a foreign man of a certain type what he knows about Ukraine and you might get various unexpected answers, but there’s one predictable one – Ukrainian women. Yes, he’ll say, they’re beautiful and smart, but they’re also easy to get. Hence Kyiv’s growing reputation as a sex-tourism mecca. What’s On looks into a strange phenomenon.

Besides being the capital of the independent state of Ukraine, Kyiv’s more and more a capital of prostitution and sex tourism (not to mention pornography), picking up right where other former Eastern Bloc cities like Budapest and Prague left off.

And it turns out that a full 90 percent of prostitutes working in Kyiv are girls who come to the big city in search of a better life. “Female students tend to be potential prostitutes, especially those who come from elsewhere in Ukraine,” says Anna Hutsol, head of the local women’s rights advocacy organisation Femen. “They come to Kyiv, they get attracted by the glossy world here with its expensive cars, restaurants and boutiques. They lose their minds over it and they want it by any means necessary. As the cliche goes, where there’s a will there’s a way, and the way here comes in the form of those growing numbers of men who come to Ukraine from all over the world, apparently under the impression that here they can put absolutely the minimum effort into getting the maximum pleasure.”

There are several ways to get that pleasure. The easiest one is to buy a sex tour. Says Hutsol, “There are numerous sex tours to Holland, Germany, Thailand and, yes, Ukraine. What’s more, Ukraine seems to have the advantage among the countries on that list. First of all, if you compare it with Thailand, Ukraine’s location is good, it’s in Europe. You don’t need a visa to go to Ukraine. Everything looks nice and simple.” Such sex tours are extremely popular, and when you see some non-Ukrainian looking man chase a Ukrainian woman down the street with a big smile on his face, yelling at her to stop in broken English, he might very well be on one. Kyiv’s leftover Soviet-looking three-star hotels are often where these men stay when they’re here. A guy named Boris, who works as a security guard in one of those hotels, says, “I don’t know the appropriate name for what’s going on, but what should I think when three buses full of Turkish tourists come to the hotel, and other buses are bringing girls?” (He agreed to talk to me only under the condition that I not print his last name or the name of the hotel.)

Not everything is so well-organised, of course. The next variant for lovers of local women is good old-fashioned sex-hunting. Here an ex-pat has to put in some effort if he wants to get himself a piece of Ukrainian pie. He isn’t necessarily looking for a prostitute, but he is looking for affection to rent. “These guys don’t need prostitutes, they want good girls who are in school or working,” says Hutsol. One of these ‘good girls’ is my acquaintance Zhanna, 21, a student. She has affairs with ex-pat men but doesn’t consider herself a prostitute or even easy to get. “I have a lot of ex-pat friends and boyfriends,” she explains. “I like to spend time with them. It’s not a question of sex and money, it’s different. If the guy spends money on me and pays my bills but is a great person at the same time, should I call myself a prostitute because I accept his help?” she says. “If you want to broaden your circle of friends with international ones, just take a walk in the city centre or visit one of the right restaurants.” And just as she would never call what she and many of her friends are doing prostitution, she says that the men she deals with never call themselves johns.

Legalise It?

Is there something wrong with dating an ex-pat? Seeing couples consisting of foreign men and Ukrainian girls walking together, the second, if not the first, thought that pops into many people’s heads is that she’s a typically mercenary Ukrainian girl and he’s a typical sex tourist. There’s one couple I know, Olha (Ukrainian) and David (Swiss). He comes to Ukraine on business from time to time. Olha, as he describes it, is his “semi-regular girlfriend,” which is a slightly peculiar formulation, if you think about it. He’s 49, divorced, has two children and isn’t going to marry again. “I like Olha, I like to talk to her, she’s a nice woman,” he said about his relationship with Olha. She says she doesn’t consider herself a prostitute, but some of her friends do, she admits.

Take such stories, multiply them by a couple of thousand, and you have a country that might start to acquire a certain reputation. And not all Ukrainian women are thrilled with being considered prostitutes by people in Western Europe or Turkey or the Middle East. Hutsol’s group, Femen, has been holding actions meant to dramatise that Ukraine is not really a seething den of prostitutes. Its ‘Ukraine Is Not a Brothel’ protest on Independence Square in July featured Femen’s young members carrying signs, dressed like women of the night in a provocative way and staging a mock sexual assault of a young woman by an aggressive sex-pat. “You know, the idea of legitimate sex tourism really doesn’t exist,” Hutsol says. “We want our government to understand that fact and take measures, like close brothels and reconsider the policy for issuing Ukrainian visas. And Ukrainian women should learn to say no and also learn how to behave themselves appropriately.”

There’s another solution to the illicit sex-tourist trade being bruited about – the legalisation of prostitution. Vitaliy Klitschko, Ukrainian boxing legend and twice candidate for Kyiv’s mayoralty, supports legalisation, preferably before the Euro 2012 football championship brings hordes of foreign men to Kyiv. What’s interesting, though, is that many people who would seem to be in the constituency to legalise it are against it. A former militiaman told me, “I’ve known prostitutes and pimps, and you know what? Prostitutes are absolutely against legalisation. Who needs to be labeled a prostitute officially? Legalisation leads to lower prices, and therefore demand gets higher. It means the same income but more prostitutes on the street. Doesn’t sound so good, does it?” Call it the free market in action.

The last thing worth mentioning is that prostitution in Ukraine is an administrative crime and someone who’s guilty of committing it is supposed to pay a fine of a mere 17-60 hrv. In the eyes of the law, meanwhile, men get off easy, too. “Men aren’t responsible for anything,” Hutsol says. In other countries, by comparison, there’s a “criminalisation of the client” law, which means that a prostitute’s actions aren’t considered criminal, but the john’s are. It might not be a perfect solution, but at least it’s something. And until Ukraine’s society and government acknowledge that Ukraine has become a sex and porn mecca, and take action, the problem will continue to develop until this city has the same in-your-face sex trade that Prague has. But what can you do? “It’s just that Ukraine has that sort of image,” says Hutsol. “Ask any foreigner and he’ll tell you that Ukrainian women are cool.”

Viktoria Vasilchenko


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