Nobody Paid Much Attention

In the old Soviet Union, Ukrainian women were considered the most beautiful in all the Russian empire. As is often the case with such things, this caused the women themselves more problems than not. And things haven’t changed much since the Union disunited, and Ukraine set out on its own.

Ukraine is today one of the largest “exporters” of women in the international sex industry. Women who freely choose such work are one thing, but many Ukrainian women have been lured into the trade under false pretenses, or are more or less forced into it for economic survival. Many are minors; some are simply slaves. Of an estimated 500,000 Ukrainian women who migrated to Western Europe in the late 1990s, an estimated 100,000 wound up in the sex trade. Ukraine itself has become a prime destination for those involved in “sex tourism”; the sex trade in Ukraine now rakes in $700 million per year, more money than the company makes that supplies the nation with natural gas.

An activist group of Ukrainian women traveling under the rubric Femen is not happy about this. “This is insulting to us and it harms the country’s image, since we’re increasingly becoming a country of destination for tourists whose sole purpose is to have sex with our women,” says Femen’s Anna Gutsol (pictured above, on the left).

Of late, Femen activists have, counterintuitively, begun protesting against the country’s treatment of women by staging demonstrations where they appear topless. Who knows—it may work. It has already embarrassed the hell out of Vladimir Putin.

When Putin visited Ukraine late last month, six Femen femmes stripped to the waist near a statue of Lenin, and chanted sexually-charged slogans instructing the Russian to keep his hands off Ukraine.

“Ukraine is not Alina,” went one, referencing Alina Kabayeva, an Olympic gymnast with whom Putin, it is widely believed, has exchanged bodily fluids. They also announced that “we won’t sleep with Kremlin midgets,” a dig at Putin’s diminutive stature.

Putin was not pleased.

As a result, “the police are becoming more aggressive now,” says Gutsol. “But at least that shows we are being taken seriously.”

Undeterred, Femen women last week doffed garments to disrupt an Iranian cultural event, in order to support Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtian, an Iranian woman imprisoned and facing execution for adultery.

Femen’s first topless protests, in late 2009, targeted solely the sex industry. But as the Putin putdown and Iranian expose illustrate, the Femen women are now broadening their agenda. Early this year Femen activists bared their breasts at a polling place to protest presidential vote-rigging, as the president himself, Viktor Yanukovich, arrived to cast his ballot.

The group has since staged 30 similar demonstrations. Most are brief, with a flash of skin accompanying slogans. Then the women are off, hopefully ahead of the police.

But they get attention.

“We started out being dressed but we found nobody took any notice. I’m a big fan of taking off our clothes. It’s how we get attention for our views,” said [Alexandra] Shevchenko.

“It’s all we’ve got, our bodies. We are not ashamed of this,” said 20-year-old Inna, a journalism student.

Femen was founded in 2008 by a group of Kiev university students, and it still consists primarily of students. There are 300 active members, with an internet and email support base of some 25,000 people.

Femen aims to improve the overall role of women in Ukraine. “We want to show that our women have a demeaning role in our society,” says Shevchenko. “Their place is seen as in the kitchen or in bed.” While sex tourists remain the group’s primary target, Femen has also campaigned against sexual harassment of students, and hectored meat parades like the Miss Universe contest. Mykola Azarov, the country’s male prime minister, was berated with breasts for forming an all-male government.

The Femen women have no acknowledged domestic role models. Former prime minister Yluia Tymoshenko, probably the country’s best-known female, Femen dismisses as just another cog in the political machine.

They are ambitious. According to Gutsol’s MySpace site, “we plan to become the biggest and the most influential feminist movement in Europe.”

Gutsol states that in Ukraine “[s]howing off your boobs and getting a free drink is promoted as the pinnacle of womanly achievement.” Although the women in Femen also bare their breasts (without the expectation of liquor), Gutsol points out the difference:

People sneer at us all the time: “You’re against the sex industry, but you are all dressing like sex-workers.” But Ukrainian sex-workers by and large don’t own their own bodies. That’s not how it works with us. When one of our girls went topless on Independence Square, she was doing it as a radical act. And it gets people talking. Our sexy image causes debate. You need to have debate if you are ever to move forward.

Gutsol maintains that the sex industry in Ukraine differs from that in some other countries, in that “around here, people don’t think about purchasing sex, they think of it as purchasing a human being. That’s very different from, say, a legal brothel in a nation where, perhaps, attitudes are different.”

Femen personally confronts foreign men who troll Ukraine for paid sex “because foreign men are confronting us!” Gutsol says. “I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve spoken to a girl who was treated like trash by some sex tourist who has decided that Ukraine is his personal playground. These men come here with attitudes of utter entitlement, and that needs to change.

“It can degenerate into street harassment . . . We have groups of young Turkish men literally shouting at women in the street. I asked a Turkish journalist recently: ‘What would happen if groups of Ukrainian men shouted at women like that in, say, Istanbul?’ He had a hard time even imagining such a scenario. Why should it be any different in Ukraine?”

Foreigners arriving in Ukraine lose their marbles because they hallucinate that the fact that Ukrainian women feel free to dress as they please means that they are prepared to bed any old greasy geek who gets off a plane. Says Gutsol:

Foreigners come here and have a completely bizarre reaction to our women. I say, they need to respect our traditions. There’s nothing wrong with women who dress provocatively. It’s our style. Get over it.

The other day, I saw this family on the street: a mother, a father, and a little kid. The woman was wearing incredibly tiny shorts and had an amazing body. There was nothing wrong or unnatural about it. Her husband looked happy to be next to her. They looked content and in love. Who the hell has a right to criticize that?

Gutsol is heartened that at least some Ukrainian police officers are responsive.

I believe that women must be educated about their rights, which is what Femen is all about. Just to give you an example: so many girls don’t even have a clue that if they’re being sexually harassed, they have the right to appeal to a police officer for help. Obviously, not all police officers might care, but we’ve had positive experiences. There are good cops out there. There is good out there in general.

I overheard one of our cops say something great to a street harasser the other day; he said, “hey, if it’s not yours, do not touch.” If that’s not wisdom, I don’t know what is.

This first song embedded below, “Totally Nude,” celebrates nudity in a positive way, as does Femen. Of it, a sage on YouTube writes: “I don’t care who you are or what you look like, if you dance around your place naked to this song then you are the sexiest beast on the planet!” And s/he’s right.

I just went ahead and embedded the next two songs, “Ruby Dear” and “Nothing But Flowers,” because back when music was released sequenced, on albums and tapes and CDs and stuff, sometimes the songs flowed so right, one right after the other, that you just had to keep listening right through, like I did with these three, from Talking Heads’ last release, Naked . . . about four or five hundred times.

You should keep dancing through those two, too.

The title of this piece, which otherwise might not make much sense, comes from the last tune.

Happy dancing. ; )

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When I Worked

November 2010

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