Why you should care

Ukraine’s sex trade has some 80,000 women working as prostitutes, but with scant legal protections and bad bosses, it’s much more than just a crime.

“When I was younger, I remember seeing job adverts in the back of magazines for ‘pretty girls looking to earn a lot of money.’ I knew — everyone knew — what it meant,” Ana said, wrapping a loose thread in her skirt around her finger.

When she came across a vague job advert for an office manager, however, she took it at face value, and there was this: It paid more than double what the 22-year-old graduate was earning at her supermarket job. “I worked 12 to 14 hours a day, five days a week, getting $220 a month. It wasn’t a life.”

So she scheduled an interview. Before going into the interview room, she was told to leave her bag and phone in the corridor. Once inside she was immediately told the job was in prostitution. “You get half, and we get half: $50 each.”

“I was upset, and I immediately rejected the offer.”

But back at her supermarket job, she kept thinking how the money could change her life. A few weeks later, she called the agency back and agreed to try it.

“I don’t see anything wrong with benefiting from men like this. Is it that different to women getting into relationships just for a comfortable life? The essence is the same.”

“I was terrified on my first night, but I did it anyway.”

When her shift finished at 6 a.m., she was exhausted. All she could think about was collecting her pay. But instead of the promised 50 percent, she got 30 percent, the rest going toward things like condoms.

“They told me, ‘If you want more money, take more clients. The more hours you do the less percentage we take.’ That’s when I started to understand how the system works,” said Ana. The pimps maximize their profits from each woman by selling their services to as many men as possible.

“There was a time I thought sex work was glamorous and well-paid. But most women around me are in difficult situations. Some have escaped a violent family and are just desperate for the money, so they take seven clients a night. I can’t imagine taking more than four for health reasons. Almost all of them would fantasize about being saved by one of their clients. Like that film Pretty Woman.” She rolls her eyes.

In her first few weeks of work, the brothel was raided by police. Officers stormed into her room. Ana was issued a fine, and her client was given a stern reminder that prostitution is illegal. When the police cleared the scene, the pimp consoled his workforce, promising them it would not happen again. He said he’d reached an agreement with the officers: The agency would pay 70,000 hryvnia, or about $2,658 a month, for police to turn a blind eye.

“I realized most of our earnings go to bribing the police,” she said. “Or they say, ‘If you want to carry on working, give us this amount of money or do this favor for us.’ They get away with it because what can a sex worker do about it? Report it to the police?”

She tolerated the agency work because of the pay — until one night. A client stepped into the room and she sensed something wasn’t right. During sex, he started suffocating her. After managing to push him off, she fell out of the room crying, panicking and barely able to breathe. She ran to the brothel manager for help. He told her to pull herself together while the client strolled past them to the exit, fastening his belt.

She asked for him to be blacklisted. “What blacklist?” her pimp scoffed.

“A guy can do whatever he wants with a sex worker. He knows he’s paid the money, so he doesn’t have to be respectful or ‘normal.’ He hurts me, He doesn’t hurt me … He has sex however he likes and asks you to do whatever he likes. With his wife or mistress, of course, he has to be respectful and do what’ll make her comfortable so she enjoys sex,” she said.

Ana considers herself lucky, as she knows sex workers who’ve been raped, assaulted, beaten up by clients and police — or men who claim to be police — and had their money stolen. The pimps shrug the abuse off as an inevitable part of the job, and women who report it to the police risk getting in more trouble. When one friend decided to report an assault, the police said: “You’re a prostitute. What do you expect?”

“Women pick themselves up and go back to work, and no one punishes these men.”

Ana’s friend told her to read a forum where Russian-speaking sex workers around the world post advice anonymously and pictures of police or clients. The forum has a blacklist of clients, agencies, hotels and other locations. Sex workers are finding underground ways to bring the abuse out of the shadows and to protect each other. So last year, Ana cut herself off from the agency to work independently with a few trustworthy clients.

“Men only care about a woman’s appearance. They’re not interested in our deep, inner world. I knew the truth before I became a sex worker,” says Ana as she looks down at her handbag and fiddles with its clasp. Ana says working independently gives her the control she needs in her life.

“I don’t see anything wrong with benefiting from men like this. Is it that different to women getting into relationships just for a comfortable life? The essence is the same.”

She is currently deciding whether to accept a marriage proposal from a client who’s offered her a new life in China. But she worries what’ll happen when she is 30 and, in her words, “old.” “I could be replaced by a younger woman and left with nothing,” she says, still looking down at her bag. “I won’t be so independent then.”

“But I’m doing this for the money. It’s not forever. One day, I want to have my own business and sell clothes and accessories.”

OZYTrue Story

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