With increased aggression from clients, police repression and a sudden decrease in their livelihoods, Russia's invasion of Ukraine is impacting this already-vulnerable group of women.
MOSCOW — “When you are sitting in a prison cell wearing only a thong, you’ll sign anything to get out."
As the war with Ukraine rages on, this is the reality for Russian sex workers: Their lives include increasingly aggressive clients, and police taking advantage of them.
Since the outbreak of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the number of sex industry clients has also declined, which many drafted to fight, while others have fled Russia.
One autumn day in 2022, Kristina (whose name has been changed at her request) was in the middle shift at a brothel. She did not want to reveal the city in which she works, or what her specific place of work looks like. But, knowing what we know about the Russian industry, brothels are typically located in a three-story detached house, apartment or basement.
What has changed recently is not their appearance, but the behavior of their clientele: from 2022, soldiers began to come not one at a time, but in groups of five, wearing bulletproof vests while seeking sexual services.
“Soon, they’ll start coming with guns”
On the day Kristina describes, two clients sat at the bar and told her how they planned to desert from the Russian army. The situation escalated to such a point that one of them took out a grenade and threatened to blow up the brothel. Trying not to offend the client, Kristina and her friends passed the action off as a joke. The second guest tried to stop his friend. “Why did you bring that here?” he asked. "The commander will kill us if he finds out."
Danger is something that she is used to.
Kristina says that she was not afraid: "Detonating a grenade is a lot harder than just pulling a pin out, like you see in the movies.” And, aside from this, she had already been in unsafe situations: clients had threatened her with knives multiple times, and OMON, a police special forces unit, showed up at her workplace multiple times. Danger is something that she is used to. “The grenade was surely something, but the real fun will begin when they come to us with guns held behind their backs,” she says. Kristina cracks a smile, but she isn’t laughing.
The longer the war goes on, the more danger awaits her. She has also seen a drop in customers. Those who could have left the country, and those who stayed pay less.
“You stay up all night and nobody calls”
“The nobles have all left Russia," says Wiktoria (name has been changed), a specialist from a non-profit organization that deals with drug addiction and HIV prevention.
"The existing decreases in clients were significantly impacted after the announcement of mandatory mobilization in the fall of 2022," says Marina Awramenko, an activist from Krasnoyarsk, Russia. “Most of those who left paid 3,000 to 7,000 rubles for services,” (about €32 to €76), she adds.
Before, there was not a moment of rest: my phone rang every second.
Tatiana, a sex worker from Perm, a city near the Ural mountains, cradles an infant during the interview. She doesn’t work in a brothel, but uses her smartphone, where clients can reach her via a website. “Before, there was not a moment of rest: my phone rang every second,” she says. But since the war began, she has experienced a sharp decline in clientele. “You sit up all night and no one calls, and if someone does call, it's usually some junkies."
“I don’t ask my Ukrainian friends who they were before the war”
Ukrainian women who fled to Russia before the war have also joined the fight for the few remaining customers. "The influx of female immigrants has changed the market situation in the border region of Rostov," says psychologist Ijia Lemman, who specializes in helping sex workers. "Many girls from Rostov have gone to other regions, because it has become crowded."
Diana (name changed), a sex worker from a large Russian city, claims that many refugee women are relying on sex work to make a living. Diana does not ask her new friends who they were before the war. “They fled under bombings, with children under their arms, without a roof over their heads,” she says, adding that she finds it “unethical to open those wounds."
“Only enough money to eat”
Some Russian sex workers have opted to leave the country in order to find new, international clients. “A lot of our women are now in Turkey. From there, they are trying to enter Europe," says Awramienko. “But, even though there is less work here, and the demand has all but disappeared, most sex workers have chosen to stay in Russia."
Now, they only have money for food.
Interviewees say that incomes for many women have been cut in half. “Before the war, they saved for plastic surgery, or for a down payment on their housing — they took loans and rented,” said Diana. "Now, they only have money for food."
Despite the price reduction, the only way for these women to get by is to agree to work with customers who they previously avoided. "Now, I accept those I sent away because they turned out to be problematic: they came to me drunk, offered me drugs, or wanted sex without a condom,” Tatiana says.
“They’re taking me away in two days, so I’d like a taste of life”
“Problematic clients” include those who were conscripted to fight in the war. “Those called up to fight (and) come ‘one last time’ are incredibly aggressive, and subject women to brutality,” said Jewgienija from Perm. Ljubow, another sex worker from the same city, says these clients often say “They’re taking me away in two days, so I’d like a taste of life now."
I fought in the war, so you owe this to me.
“One of the girls I work with was told ‘I fought in the war, so you owe this to me, or you should at least give me a discount,’” says Awramienko. The woman was also told “While you were sitting around, I was away fighting,” she added. "The so-called 'military' takes out their anger on the most innocent, and in Russia right now it's children and prostitutes,” Awramienko says.
But many of those who have been mobilized also come to lament on their life. “Who else could they go to? To a psychologist? To cry to his wife?” asks Krystyna, recalling the guest who came in with a grenade. “They come back and tell us how bad it is on the front, that they have nothing, not even toilet paper,” she says. "They tell us they don’t know with who or for what they are fighting."
“Six million rubles disappeared from the house, along with my passport”
Sex workers are not only increasingly afraid of their clients, but also of the Russian police.
Valeria (name changed), from Moscow, found her clients via the internet, and took them to a rented apartment in a high-rise building. She was saving up for her own house, and, at the beginning of November, already had 6 million rubles (over €65,000). She kept them at home, in cash, telling only her friend, another sex worker.
A few days later, when she went to open the door for a client, she was instead met with several police officers. They burst into the apartment, threw her, half-naked, onto the floor, tied her hands with duct tape, and rummaged through her apartment. They took all of her savings, her passport, the backup keys to her apartment, fifty condoms, and a liter of coconut milk, which she used for personal hygiene.
She did not receive any search report or receipt. And, after a few hours, police came back and took her to the police station, where she spent the night.
The court, on the basis of the testimony of the police officers, imposed a 10-day arrest on her, on charges of disturbing public order. The judge ruled that during the search, Valeria "used vulgar language in a public place and threatened physical violence against police officers."
Valeria spent 10 days in jail, but the only evidence of a police visit are still-visible marks on her body from police beating, because there is no case against her on the court's website. The case does exist, however, because she filed a lawsuit against the officers for robbery and falsification of documents, but she still has not been summoned for a hearing.
“When you’re sitting in a prison cell in only a thong, you’ll sign anything to get out”
Awramienko, who has helped sex workers from several cities, says that Nov. 2022 was “a black month” for women in the sex trade, especially in the Russian capital. “Typically, about 30-40 people are fined for prostitution in Moscow per month. Last November, the number of such instances rose to over 1,000."
Typically, she says, sex workers are not arrested while with a client, meaning that the courts can only rely on the police and the sex workers themselves for testimony. "But when they put you in a cell wearing nothing but a thong, or you're sitting half-naked in a hallway with a crowd of people, you sign anything to make it stop,” she says.
They are intimidated from all sides.
Sex workers usually don’t like to file complaints to NGOs about police misconduct. “They are intimidated from all sides. You can get used to it," explains Wiktoria, who works for a non-governmental organization dealing with HIV prevention.
But, in the last few months, something has changed. Many women are starting to speak to NGOs, either for help or advice. Wiktoria's foundation, which used to receive 10 monthly complaints, now receives up to 40.
Superintendent calls the police: “The perverts have come”
Since the outbreak of war, sex workers have been affected by increased levels of police aggression. After the war began, Russian authorities also intensified the pro-family rhetoric of the “God-fatherland,” leading them to crack down on “gay propaganda” with even greater scrutiny. Of the 1,000 accusations of prostitution that Awramienko mentions, seven involved men, and the penalties that they faced, as non-heterosexual sex workers, became ever sharper.
Ewa Hatess, a lawyer from St. Petersburg, writes of an instance she saw in her practice. In the suburbs of Moscow, a transgender woman was bringing clients to her apartment, which got her in trouble with the building’s super, who called them “perverts." The super called the police after the passage of the new, stricter law, and filed a complaint against the transgender tenant. "The regulations had just come into force and were not yet strictly enforced, so they kept her at the station until the evening and eventually released her, but such cases will increase," Hatess predicts.
A widely-known law against “non-traditional sexual relations among sex workers" also imposes a heavy fine on transgender sex workers, referring to them as instruments of “gay propaganda.” One man from Moscow was asked to pay 100,000 rubles (more than €1,000) for posting photos of himself in drag in an online profile.
“First they came for the gays; now, they’ll come for you”
LGBTQ sex workers also cannot count on support or solidarity from many cisgender women in the industry — many of them have no problem with the bans on “gay propaganda," even though they themselves have experienced repression and violence based on their gender and their sex work.
"There is no lack of internal stigma and homophobia," says Awramienko. "Sex workers write all sorts of things about LGBTQ people in online chat rooms. We explain to them: it doesn't even matter what you feel about homosexuals or trans people; it's their business,” she says. “Now they stigmatize them; next, they will stigmatize you, because we too, as the authorities say, corrupt decent citizens, destroy the institution of the family and spread diseases."