Trading the Red for the Bed: Part II

Prostitution vs. Human Trafficking Rights Under the Russian Federation

(Read Part One, The Fall of Communism and Rise of Prostitution in Russia here)

In her essay From Vixen to Victim: The Sensationalization and Normalization of Prostitution in Post-Soviet Russia (2006), Katherine P. Avgerinos draws a clear and necessary distinction between the problems of consensual prostitution versus the problems of the human trafficking that has become so tragically widespread in Russia.

"By focusing on stories of women who have been coerced and kidnapped in the midst of economic collapse and social chaos, such anti-prostitution advocates overlook the reality of women who turn to selling sex because no other profession is available to them."

Avgerinos points out that because sex-trafficking is universally and rightfully agreed-upon as criminal by people in all different types of government, anti-trafficking rescue efforts are some of the only sex industry-related groups to receive funding (The Angel Coalition—a women’s organization in Russia dedicated to the fight against human trafficking, but which also takes an abolitionist view of all prostitution—was strongly backed the Bush administration). This is primarily because the core, gross abuse of humanity associated with human trafficking is so unbelievably and obviously tragic. However, the issue of willing prostitution is also not considered because bureaucracies cannot agree on how it should be dealt with.

"Nongovernmental organizations in Russia are dependent on outside funding from foreign philanthropic organizations and governments, and the Russian government is not able (or not willing) to provide funds for such social work. Because the topic of ‘sex workers’ rights’ is controversial and considered less urgent than the human rights violations associated with sexual exploitation, it is easier for NGOs [Non-governmental Organizations] to secure funding to rescue sex-trafficking victims than it is to find funding to protect the rights of willing sex workers." She goes on to say that:

"discourse on prostitution and sex-trafficking has been waged mainly by non-sex workers, who often oversimplify the situation"
—Katherine P. Avgerinos, From Vixen to Victim: The Sensationalization and Normalization of Prostitution in Post-Soviet Russia, 2006

Avgerinos' argument confirms that a strong abolitionist approach to all prostitution is the most palatable to the widest variety of governments. This is because the blatant lack of consent in incidents of kidnapping, coercion and force are clear-cut, unlike situations where women born and raised in poverty are driven to prostitution because they have no other choice. The idea of self-chosen work in the sex industry is one that has many layers, and threads of willingness versus predisposition are hard to tease apart. The patriarchic undercurrent of women’s accountability for their own sexual exploitation echoes the overall discomfort and dismissiveness that is felt toward women who "willingly" choose a widely derided lifestyle. Prostitution is hardly an image of empowerment when women have no other choice to feed their families, but removing this income option so many women are forced to rely upon would absolutely be detrimental to their lives; particularly when better job and education opportunities are not made available to at-risk women and children.

"The situation is further unbalanced by the lack of a strong feminist discourse in Russian civil society, as democracy and civil society are relatively new concepts in Russia and still in need of development," says Avgerinos.

1999 saw the beginning of improvements in Russia, with the average income rising notably by 2004. An economic slump caused by the more recent financial crisis was responsible for numerous layoffs and cases of unemployment in 2008 and 2009, though the situation didn’t escalate to the severity of the 1998 crisis or the situation in the earlier 90s.

The country still suffers a disparity of wealth and social inequality, and the climate of overall economic growth has presented its own new set of troubles. Prostitution has blossomed into a huge business in some areas, with a rise in forced prostitution and human trafficking.

"The fast pace of development in Moscow has fueled demand for a range of cheap workers, including prostitutes… Aid agencies say they are handling a growing number of deeply traumatized victims rescued from brothels and pimps in the Moscow area." (CNN World, 2008) 

"For millions, Russia’s new economic prosperity has been a blessing. But for those caught up in the sex trade, it’s a curse." —CNN World, 2008

Whether sex-trafficking is more widespread or simply more widely reported upon now is unclear, but Russia has fallen under scrutiny for its coping tactics with the trafficking epidemic. In 2008, Alexander Krasnov of Russia’s Interior Ministry Police said, "we still don’t have a basic law that defines victims' rights. At the moment, it’s mostly aid agencies that deal with it." (CNN World)

In late May of 2010, Russia closed all but two of these help centers, including the The Angel Coalition Center. This followed the May 6, 2010 Human Rights Hearing between Russia and the US. It was not publicly disclosed whether these center closures were a direct result of the hearing. If they were, one could infer it as hope that Russia plans to take responsibility for victims at a more directly governmental level instead of relying on aid agencies. However, many express dire concern about the fate of victims who no longer have the help of these agencies at their disposal.

Rosemary Van Deuren, 2011.