The lives of Russia's sex workers today
According to different estimates, there are between one and three million sex workers in Russia today. Compared to two decades ago, the industry also has a new look. Most prostitutes have moved indoors, finding their clients online instead of on street corners. The women are generally older (in St. Petersburg, the average age is 32), and a whopping 90 percent are mothers. Prostitution remains illegal, however, which exposes this labor force to additional violence, disease, and corruption. In a special report for the BBC’s Russian-language service, correspondent Nina Nazarova spoke to several Russian sex workers and a handful of human rights advocates who are trying to improve conditions for prostitutes in Russia. Meduza summarizes that text here.
Most Russian sex workers today face a decision: do they work for pimps out of shared apartments (what are known as “salons”), or do they go into business for themselves, operating from homes they rent on their own? Prostitutes who operate out of salons have to cough up half their earnings to their hosts, but that money also pays for overhead, like website management and security. Women who go into business for themselves stand to earn as much as 250,000 rubles ($3,820) a month — more than double the average salary in Russia — but this approach includes an array of extra expenses.
Sex workers also have to decide what services they’re willing to offer, and whether they’ll risk the more dangerous sex acts (like unprotected sex or BDSM) for extra money. Better locations also justify higher fees, but it comes with higher rent. Some prostitutes told Nazarova that they deliberately lower their prices to attract less demanding clientele.
Individual prostitutes confront serious safety concerns, as well. Some women hire private security firms and install silent alarm systems in their homes, in case a client becomes violent. Social workers and psychologists who work with prostitutes say sex workers often become desensitized to abuse on the job, and many women even are reluctant to file police reports when clients force them to perform non-consensual sex acts.
Prostitution is a misdemeanor offense in Russia, punishable by a maximum fine of 2,000 rubles (about $30). In 2014, police arrested roughly 10,540 people for prostitution. In the first half of 2018, this figure was about 4,000 people. According to human rights advocates, prostitution’s illegality only encourages police violence against sex workers, as well as extortion, threats, illegal detentions, and demeaning behavior. Nazarova spoke to activists in several cities who teach prostitutes to insist on their rights against assault, despite whatever misdemeanors the authorities might hold over them.
There are also several human rights foundations in Russia working to fight the spread of HIV among prostitutes. There’s the “Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network” (SWAN) in St. Petersburg, “Steps” in Moscow, and the “New Life” group in Yekaterinburg and Orenburg. The organizations primarily offer free condoms and anonymous rapid HIV screening tests, sending vans to different subway stations in different cities, where prostitutes assemble for free supplies and counseling.
Igor Pchelin, the founder of Steps, has lived with HIV for the past 33 years and he told Nazarova that the counseling patients get in the first hours after a positive test result can determine whether they seek treatment or throw themselves from a window. When handing out free condoms, Pchelin’s group encourages sex workers to use them during oral sex, reasoning that the extra income earned from riskier sex is offset by the costs of STD treatments. Between 2017 and 2018, Steps screened 2,000 sex workers in Moscow, 2.9 percent of whom tested positive for HIV. In Yekaterinburg, roughly 2,500 tests yielded 51 positive test results. In Orenburg, where 104 sex workers were tested for HIV, almost 10 percent turned out to be infected.
Sex workers told Nazarova that they rarely leave their homes because it risks public interactions with clients, and disrupts business. Some women say they are trying to grow a community within the industry. Despite these efforts, however, sex work remains an unforgiving enterprise in Russia, where women seldom last into their 40s, forcing many older prostitutes into poverty. Women become prostitutes because they need the money, often to raise their children. Sex workers say it’s possible to earn enough to do this, but many sons and daughters later become ashamed and disown their mothers. “What we do will always be judged,” one prostitute told Nazarova.
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