Vladivostok on the move (Russia)

Centuries of Prostitution in Russia

Prostitution, the oldest profession in the world, has been the hot topic of political transformation in Russia.

Public houses and street women have always existed in our Orthodox Christian society and there have always been different rules that aim to control them.

18th century Russia: Peter the Great tried to repress prostitution, but was unsuccessful, as one cannot treat this issue with power, but rather must work on its causes.

19th century: Nikolay the First started to document their activities and established the system of obligatory medical control. Public houses ranged from dirty and cheap to luxurious castles with high-profile clients. They were legal businesses that paid taxes.

Prostitutes were given yellow tickets instead of passports, which meant that they were legally excluded from society. A woman with a yellow ticket could not do any other job, but trading her body and was regularly checked by police and doctors. An attitude that prostitutes were “victims of the society” began to form in the high circles of that time.

The revolution of 1917 made men and women more equal and the level of prostitution dropped. Some “women’s programs” were created to assist the reintegration of street women into society. They would provide medical treatment to women, educate them and work to find them new professions.

Aleksandra Kollontai, the only woman member of Lenin’s Central Committee, famous for her logic on “women emancipation” made no difference between prostitutes and “legal husband-dependent wives”. The common thought at that time was that any woman who preferred not to work, but earn her living by serving men (or even her own husband) was a parasite for the society and should be made to work as an equal to men. Some regional laws even legally banded the institute of marriage were made:

“From May 1, 1918, all women from 18 to 32 years old are claimed to be State’s property.  Every girl who is over 18 and not yet married must register at the Free Love Department and obtain the right to choose a man from 19 to 50 years old for partnership. Every 19-50 year-old-man can choose any woman that has been registered even without her agreement in the State’s interests. All children appeared, as the result of such partnership, will belong to the State”.

Such laws were applied in some provinces, but weren´t implemented, because of the resistance from the society and the general disorder in the country in that time. They were later abolished.

During the Soviet Union the system of prostitution retreat houses was developed, where street women would get assistance in finding legal jobs. The popularity of prostitutes among young people fell dramatically: in 1914-1917, 47% of young, urban people started their sexual lives with a prostitute and in 1921-1923 this number was just 6%.

Prostitution officially reappeared in 1986 when it was recognised by the State, but after the Union´s collapse in the 90s the industry went out of control.

Nowadays, statistics say that there are around 180,000 underage prostitutes in Russia and around 1 million of people are engaged in this business. According to the recent survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs (http://www.ntv.ru/novosti/452258) 30,000 of them work in Moscow.

According to sociological research, the majority of Russsians dissaprove prostitution, but would support its legalisation. In fact this business is semi-legal now. It’s been monitored and controlled by the police (in the form of constant checks and demands for bribes), but officially doesn’t exist and is not taxed labour.

The head of informal Labour Union of Sex-workers, Oksana Yartseva, says that she has to bribe policemen to continue working, and then advocates to get protected from the police. There are laws that ban “promotion of prostitution”, but it is not legal as an activity; thus is not formally acknowledged. Many journalists claim that women, at least in Moscow, chose this profession consciously while always having other employment options.

Of course I am no one to judge the life choices of these women or men, but coming from the province myself, I’m well aware of the low-income life it provides and how hard it is for a girl in Russia to sustain the living in the capital. There is always a way out and one only has male roads to choose from. I’ve seen how poverty, alcoholism and violence in families disempowers women into losing their pride and self-worth.

On the other hand, why can’t Russia follow the road of other European countries, like The Netherlands, and finally acknowledge the profession has always existed?  If there were control and monitoring, there would be hope for complying with health and safety standards that prevent crimes and human trafficking.

The other issue to be explored goes beyond Moscow. Russian women are being exported abroad along with vodka and caviar. They are being legally or illegally transported for prostitution to Germany, The Netherlands, USA, Japan, Turkey and other countries. It’s estimated that Russian women are involved in prostitution in more than 50 countries. In some places like Israel or Turkey the word “prostitute” has even been substituted for “Natasha” due to a high number of sex-workers with Slavic origins.

Although some investigative journalists claim girls mostly do it voluntarily to earn a better living, the issue of human trafficking has to be bought to the public’s attention so people understand why these girls leave their homes in order to make positive change.

Post written by Irina Phedorenko /Vladivostok on the move 

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