The documentary project "Girls" is directed at the problem of prostitution in Russia. According to data collected by numerous nonprofit organizations, there are around three million female sex workers in Russia. The decline of the Russian economy and the difficulty of finding well-paid work, combined with the burden of bank loans, mortgages and dependents, have led more and more women to join the sex industry. Violence at the hands of both clients and police officers is a constant them, and the law mandates that all women convicted of sex work must be included in a database that can be accessed by many major employers. This can be used as a threat by officers to blackmail women and also makes it very difficult for women to leave the sex industry once their name is recorded.
I spent a year serving as a volunteer for the Silver Rose project, which focuses on AIDS prevention among female sex workers. I had a chance to visit brothels and talk to the women who worked there. I was astonished by the matter-of-fact, everyday way that they spoke about the trials they faced on a daily basis - physical and sexual violence, police blackmail, criminal raids by gangsters with knives and guns and their complete lack of legal protection and rights. What is going on here? How can it be that the woman’s body, considered the pinnacle of creation, an object worthy of admiration and even worship, is being sold, exploited and subjected to violence on a daily basis and with complete impunity?
Natasha, 35, was born and raised in Arkhangelsk in the distant north. She started working at 14 and was employed as a porter, courier and shop assistant. Because of her alcohol addiction Natasha lost her apartment and ended up living in the street, in old attics, basements, heating pipes. At night she often roamed around the town by herself. One day when she was 23 an unfamiliar car stopped right in front of her and she was offered a job. She has been working in the sex industry ever since. During this time, Natasha has experienced frequent police raids and sexual violence from clients. Recently Natasha underwent a complicated gynecological operation, but had to go back to work after several weeks because she needed money for medicine and rent.
Asya, 30, moved to Saint Petersburg from Vladivostok four years ago. After spending some time in a training college studying mechanical engineering, Asya dropped out and subsequently worked as an electrician, janitor, landscaper, press manager and plasterer. Before turning to sex work Asya was a caretaker. She was paid a miserly wage for hard 16-hour shifts but her requests for a raise were denied. In 2017, after thinking about it for a long time, she gave up searching for an alternative occupation and found a brothel’s address online. She went for an interview and stayed there as a sex worker. She explains how she soon grew completely disillusioned with men and stopped believing in fairytales about true love.
Alice, 27, was born in Saint Petersburg. She is a single mother and has working in the sex industry for 10 years. At 17 she dropped out of her college program in fashion design, found a vacancy in a newspaper called “Jobs for You” and ended up working in a brothel. Alice has been a victim of countless police raids, criminal attacks and sexual violence from her clients. However, Alice says her job as a sex worker saves her from loneliness and makes her feel validated as a woman. Alices dream is to get pregnant with a second child – she plans on using the service of a sperm bank in the future to make it possible.
Alena, 33, comes from Ukraine. She lived in an orphanage from the age of 4. In college she studied food technology. After graduating she worked as taxi service operator, bartender, a gas station clerk. When the war in Ukraine started she had to move from Donetsk to Saint Petersburg. Her friend promised to get her an office job at a brothel. As soon as Alena arrived, she realized that she would actually have to work as a prostitute. Reluctantly, she agreed to stay and work at the brothel, where she also lived. She has been working in the sex industry since 2014.
Mila, 27, was born in Nizhny Novgorod and grew up in an orphanage. She dropped out of a teacher preparation college after two years and worked as a cashier and a logistics manager. One time Mila and her friend came across a newspaper advertisement offering jobs as masseuses. They called the number and found out the job was not in a massage parlour, but in a brothel in Saint Petersburg. Neither of the girls could support themselves at that time - they even wore each others clothes to save money. After thinking it over for a long time, they decided to give it try. They told their friends that they were going to Saint Petersburg to sew curtains. Mila was 21. She worked in the sex industry for six years and had clients in Norway as well as Russia. Now she is married and her husband knows what she does for a living - his friend was one of her former clients. Mila says that she no longer works as a prostitute but provides private massage sessions for men.
Elena, 53, was born in Saint Petersburg. She was married for 25 years, but her husband died not long ago. She has two grown-up children and grandchildren as well. A qualified industrial machinery technician, she worked for many years in the industry until dismissal due to her age. She found herself with nothing to live on. Her husband was dead, her kids had grown up and she had no job. With a recommendation of a friend she entered the sex industry. The money she earns has allowed her to travel a lot. In five years she has visited fourteen countries. Elena’s children know about her current profession.
Lily, 25, born in Saint Petersburg, is divorced with a small child. She has a degree in manufacturing management but after graduating has worked as a waitress, cashier and administrator, and in marketing besides. Her ex-husband was planning to start his own car repair business and took out a $7000 bank loan in Lily’s name. But the business went bankrupt, Lily and her husband divorced and he refused to pay back the loan. There was even a period when she could not afford to buy food. To pay back the loan, she decided to start working in a brothel – she has been a sex worker since 2017. She dreams of opening her own coffee house one day.
Zhenya, 37, was born and raised in Saint Petersburg. She is a single mom with a degree in sports management; she used to work in the security team at a private company. After her divorce, Zhenya was left with no financial support. She says that she had been thinking about sex work since she was 18, when she first watched the Soviet film “Intergirl.” Zhenya first came to a brothel after finding its address in an advertisement. She has been employed in the industry since 2015 and says that the job has greatly improved her self-esteem.
Maya, 24, was born and grew up in Bashkiria. She has got a college degree in sociology and has worked as a dancer, dishware retailer and bank clerk. In 2011 she moved to Saint Petersburg and got a job in a sex shop, but her salary was incredibly low - $10 a day. Maya could not afford to pay her rent, so she had to sleep on friends’ couches. One day she saw an ad offering work to young women, which promised decent pay and housing. Out of curiosity Maya decided to go for an interview and ended up staying. She started doing sex work at 18. With her first wages she bought food and an orthopedic pillow. She was married to a former client for 3 years, but they have split up.
Linda, 37, is a single mother of one with a degree in economics. She has worked in customer service, sales, a factory and a call center. In 2010 she took a bank loan for $7,000 to invest in her business, but it went bankrupt. Threats started coming to her home address, demanding that she pay up. She moved to Saint Petersburg to try and earn the money. She tried to find a good job that matched her qualifications and experience, but when that did not pan out she decided to try the sex industry. One time Linda and her friend were delivered to a police station, where they had to do three hours’ work for free. She uses the money she earns to support her elderly parents and save up for her retirement.
Anfisa, 21, has a degree in economics. Before switching to the sex industry Anfisa worked in real estate and in a bank. Several years ago her father was sent to jail and Anfisa was obliged to leave her job at the bank. At the same time she had to pay her father’s legal fees and support him in prison. She moved to Saint Petersburg and started working as a hostess in a strip club. Later in 2017 she found an online advertisement of a brothel and decided to go for an interview. She has worked in the sex industry since then. Anfisa uses her money to pay off a bank loan, support her mother, younger sister and even her brother-in-law. According to Anfisa, she became lesbian after working in the sex industry and completely lost her trust in men.
Vera, 45, was born in Saint Petersburg. She is a single mom, who worked for twenty years as a staff cook, and for four years after that as a caretaker at a construction site. In 2011 Vera’s son was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He had to drop out of school and needed medication, doctors and tutors. Vera had no one to help her and her salary, $400 a month, was far from enough to support them. One day she saw a work ad for a nightclub administrator position. The club turned out to be a sauna with sex services available upon request. Out of desperation, Vera took the job. She has been working in the sex industry for two years now.