Ukraine’s ‘sex tourism’ hits political radar
But comments by a Ukrainian top official suggests the battle against these social evils, and others, has just begun.
Although it’s nowhere near the level of wanton promiscuity visible on any street corner in places like Bangkok, Thailand, it is no longer a secret in Ukraine that sex sells. And it sells even better under the ‘right’ conditions: financial crisis, loose laws, looser morals and attractive women. This perfect storm is now responsible for spawning a national cottage industry for prostitution, a growing social phenomenon that has sparked heated debate between supporters and detractors alike.
The conversation around the smoky bar inside of a three-star Soviet-era hotel situated on a hill overlooking Khreschatyk, Kiev’s lively main boulevard, is focused on two things: women, specifically Ukrainian women, and alcohol. The men, three middle-aged British nationals and one American are listening intently to Dima, a Russian version of hyperactive sex guru Frank Mackey (played by Tom Cruise in the 1999 film Magnolia), who gives testosterone-packed seminars to wide-eyed men on the secrets of scoring with the opposite sex.
“I tell you, I have been to America,” Dima says, practically screaming over the sound system that is blaring the Beatles hit song ‘Back in the USSR’, “and these girls are nothing like that. You will have a lot of fun, I promise.”
Dima, who was born in St. Petersburg, but moved to Kiev “years ago,” is a volunteer guide for one of the many ‘sex tours’ now organized around the Ukrainian capital.
“I don’t get paid to do this work,” Dima, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said with a smile. "The guys might buy me a few rounds of drinks, but that is all. It’s just an innocent guys’ night out on the town.
The two visiting British nationals, Dave and Nigel, are in town for a quick weekend “adventure” at the local clubs. The culture shock is apparent on their faces, and they don’t hide the fact that they are in town for a good time.
“I have heard some wild stories about this place,” Dave muses between sips of his beer. “Some acquaintances of mine were here last summer for a bachelor party, and they said it was the best time of their lives. They were with a different girl every night.”
But now it looks like the party in Ukraine may be coming to an end. After a steady rise in criminal offenses and complaints from citizen groups, lawmakers are beginning to discuss ways to nip sex tourism in the bud by raising the penalty for offenders – prostitutes and clients alike.
Ukrainian Minister of the Interior Yuriy Lutsenko said in an interview on Tuesday with Today magazine that Ukraine is “becoming a paradise for sex tourists,” where the victims are not only women. In an increasing number of cases, children are becoming prey for a different sort of sex tourist.
“The worst thing about the situation is that child prostitution and pornography is also flourishing…We need to strengthen the penalties, but the legislation for such offenses puts the penalty from 51 to 255 hryvnia ($US 6 to $31, respectively), and that is absolutely laughable,” the minister said.
If Lutsenko gets his way, Ukraine may be in for something of a mini cultural revolution. He is also advocating stiffer penalties on “samogon” production, basically the production of moonshine, as well as hooliganism.
Speaking about the home production of alcohol, Lutsenko said that today “the penalty for such an offense is 150 hryvnia ($US 18). This is simply not serious. The penalty needs to be increased, and can be by 10 times. What other way is there to fight alcoholism and drunkenness?”
Last July, members of the female rights organization FEMEN gathered in Independence Square the center of Kiev where they rallied against Ukraine’s growing sex tourism industry. Protesters held up placards with inscriptions like, “Ukraine is not a bordello” and “Sex tourists go home!”
The demonstration generated a lot of publicity, and the group’s leader, Anna Hutsol, told reporters that the goal of her organization is to “lobby for legislation aimed at criminalizing ‘clients,’ making them responsible as well, and to do preventive work among students and foreigners.”
Asked why she became personally involved in the issue, Hutsol responded, “I have learned… never to wait till the problem resolves itself. Our government does not even know about existing problems.”
It seems they do now.