Sociological study examines sex business in Ukraine

by Roman Woronowycz
Kyiv Press Bureau

KYIV - Just under three-quarters of Ukrainian prostitutes are in the sex business because it provides them a living, while around 20 percent would not leave the profession even if given a comparable financial alternative, according to the first-ever sociological study on the plight of Ukraine's women of the night.

The study, developed by the Ukrainian Institute for Social Research (UISR) and released on May 14 as a book titled "Sex Business in Ukraine: An Attempt at Social Analysis," focused on the illicit trade as it exists in Ukraine today and how it affects the women involved. It queried prostitutes about their life in the business as well as a cross-section of Ukrainians about their impressions of the world's oldest profession.

The study was conducted in conjunction with the AIDS prevention program of the United Nations and financed by the German government. It involved interviews with 636 female prostitutes in various cities and towns of Ukraine.

"Until now the sex business in Ukraine had not been discusses objectively," explained Olha Balakirieva, assistant director of UISR, in giving the reason for conducting the study. Speaking at a press conference with other leading sociologists, she said the study had focused on female prostitutes because they tended to suffer the negative affects of the business much more than men.

The book, which is filled with graphs and statistics, quantifies the personal histories of the women who ply their trade on Ukraine's streets, in bars and hotels to determine what made them become hookers, what keeps them there and how it affects their health.

Supporting one of the more accepted theories for how women come to accept sex-for-pay as an acceptable career, nearly a third of the girls and women who responded to the UISR survey said they were raped in their first sexual encounter. Forty percent of the respondents said they were between 15 and 17 years of age when the rape occurred, and 29 percent said the act was by someone they knew. Sixty-three percent said they lost their virginity before they were 16 years old.

Eleven percent of all those questioned in the survey said they turned their first tricks between the ages of 12 to15. Another 20 percent said they first took pay for sex between age 16-17. While the largest group, which was still merely 33 percent, said it happened between the ages of 20 to 25.

Most prostitutes begin leaving the business in their early 30s, although 40- and 45-year-old hookers were not all that uncommon, according to the survey.

Unlike what sociologists suggest, however, only about half the women in the sex trade in Ukraine are the result of broken homes. A full 49 percent said they grew up with a mother and father present. Only 2 percent said they were orphans.

While very few Ukrainian prostitutes are married - only about 6 percent - half of those who have spouses said their husbands are fully aware of what they do and support the work because it brings money into the household.

Ukraine's prostitutes tend to be an educated lot. For example, the study showed that in Dnipropetrovsk and in Lviv at least 46 percent of working prostitutes in each city had at least some higher education. This tendency held true for most small and mid-size cities as well. In the largest metropolises, however, and especially in Kyiv where employment opportunities are most abundant, women in the field tended to be those whose education allowed them to hold only menial jobs in the regular work force. Overall, 57 percent of the sex workers had at least a high school diploma.

Also, while prostitutes working in smaller towns and cities more often than not were born there, in larger cities they identified themselves either as transients or transplanted residents.

What remains most striking in the report are the reasons the women and girls gave for staying in the profession. The most, 73 percent of the females, responded that they agree with the quote, "I do not want to work for pennies in simply any type of job." Meanwhile, 61 percent said they would make their money and eventually leave the business. Another 49 percent explained that the sex business is no worse and no better than any other job. There were also those who said they would leave the business if they could find a job - about 27 percent, including many who identified themselves as working mothers.

Finally, there were "the happy hookers," the 20 percent who supported the response: "I enjoy working in the sex business" and the 19 percent who said it was "Habit - second nature. I cannot imagine another way of life."

The survey showed that Ukraine's general public little understands the reasons why women and girls become prostitutes and the difficulties they face, with three out of four respondents stating that prostitution can never be justified. However, about 40 percent said that, nonetheless, it would be better for society to legalize prostitution in order to better control the business. Somewhat incongruously, 81 percent of the respondents were also ready to accept more severe punishments for prostitutes.

Until the last decade prostitution was not a growth business in Ukraine, and few people here knew that the profession existed in the Soviet Union. The women and men involved quietly catered to the privileged class and to tourists, even while Soviet officials proudly told the world that their utopia-in-the-making did not suffer from vice crimes.

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of totalitarianism, many established prostitutes began to conduct their business more openly, while the economic malaise that followed independence forced many other women into the profession. Today unofficial numbers state that there are some 250,000 prostitutes in Ukraine, who work in small towns and even villages as well as in the large metropolises.

With the increase in prostitution and drug use, HIV/AIDS, which was almost non-existent here until the early 1990s, has exploded in Ukraine, with some international agencies predicting a future epidemic.

According to the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, to date there have been 45,714 officially registered cases of HIV in Ukraine and 3,200 cases of AIDS, with 1,650 deaths. But the international non-governmental agency, like others working in the field, believes that the true incidence of HIV/AIDS is much more widespread with the actual numbers at above 400,000 infections. Most susceptible are intravenous drug users and prostitutes.

Even so, up to 66 percent of the prostitutes surveyed in the UISR study said they practiced unsafe sex at one time or another, with most explaining that it was at the request of the clients, who often compensated them financially for not requiring the use of condoms. While a 1998 report identified that 2.5 percent of Odesa prostitutes were HIV positive, a year later, a similar study in Donetsk put the number in that city at 13 percent, which shows to some extent how quickly the virus is spreading in Ukraine, according to Maryna Varban of the UISR.

Another problem for prostitutes is violence, which many of them, ironically, perceive as a routine matter, with the study stating that a good portion of them do not fully realize that some actions against them were considered violent.

Vena Lakhumalani, a consultant for a British Council program on controlling the sex business in Ukraine, said that violence is the biggest threat sex workers face, especially at the hands of law enforcement officers.

"The police think women make so much money that they can exploit them as much as they like," explained Ms. Lakhumalani, who said rapes of prostitutes by members of the state militia are not uncommon.

She said the notion that prostitutes make big money must be dispelled as well because, after a prostitute has paid the pimps, the police and the bars or hotels where she works, and then for the hospital costs to treat the various sex-related ailments from which she suffers, little remains for her.

"In the end they are left with only about 20 percent," explained Ms. Lakhumalani.

She said she was disappointed in Ukraine's new criminal code, which placed the blame for prostitution only on the person offering the service and does not reflect contemporary thinking on the matter. "For every sex worker there are at least 10 clients," explained the British Council representative. "It is a matter of supply and demand."

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, May 19, 2002, No. 20, Vol. LXX

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