When I first started hearing about FEMEN, a Ukrainian women’s organization, I got the impression of a curious hybrid between short skirts and progressive politics – an aggressively visual movement whose members aren’t afraid to, say, dress in next to nothing to highlight their opposition to sex tourism in Ukraine. But in a way that goes above spectacle, FEMEN’s young leader, Anna Gutsol, already has a reputation for being an ideologically advanced social activist with strong, if scandalous, convictions.
I recently sat down with Gutsol in a cafe by Kyiv’s Independence Square, to talk about everything from her organization’s tactics of harassing sex tourists to the endless debate about women and housework.
Natalia: Before we get into the meat of things, I have to ask – do you ever get scared? You must piss off plenty of people.
Anna: Everyone’s been asking me this question lately. At this point, I’m wondering: should I be scared? But the thing is, I refuse to. I believe in what I’m doing. And there are plenty of people in Ukraine who are sympathetic to our cause.
Natalia: I’ve read a lot about FEMEN recently, but I’d like to hear you describe your organization firsthand.
Anna: FEMEN is based on the idea that girls need to be active participants in society. And by “active,” I don’t just mean “active enough to land themselves husbands.” We want more women to develop a social consciousness. We’re also against the idea of sex tourism and the sex industry in general in Ukraine. And we want to package our message in a way that’s going to be appealing to young Ukrainian women. Look around you, nobody wants to be a Girl Scout here.
Natalia: Your image is definitely not Girl Scout-esque. Do you get criticized for your provocative social protests?
Anna: Of course. 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. So many activists have no idea how to engage the media and the public. They’re dour, uninteresting. FEMEN is the opposite of that.
Natalia: Would you describe yourselves as a feminist organization?
Anna: No. We use eroticism in our approach and our dress. That’s not sanctioned by feminism.
Natalia: Personally, I’m a feminist and I’m down with eroticism and revealing clothing. I bristle when some of my Western compatriots criticize me. I tell them that this is how every woman in my family looks, and I’m not about to switch from dresses to burlap sacks because of someone else’s perverted reaction to the dresses.
Anna: Exactly. Look, this is part of our culture. To deliberately make yourself unattractive in Ukraine is to consign yourself to the margins. That’s not what we want.
Natalia: Our culture, of course, has its dark side.
Anna: Yes, because we conceive of beauty as something that’s there to be demeaned. Look at our night clubs. This is where our young girls go to get groomed to trade on their looks as if it’s their main function in life. Showing off your boobs and getting a free drink is promoted as the pinnacle of womanly achievement.
Natalia: Which brings us to the sex industry. Why do you so strongly disapprove of it?
Anna: Ukraine is a very patriarchal society. Our sex industry is fueled by poverty and, let’s face it, ignorance. It’s a completely immoral, exploitative business.
Natalia: What do you think of harm reduction and decriminalization in regards to sex-work?
Anna: I’m not going to stand on the street and beat prostitutes over the head with my purse and ask them to reflect upon their deeds. I think harm reduction is important. These women should be working without additional risks to their lives. But let’s get real about Ukrainian society. If we decide that prostitution is suddenly OK, all hell will break loose. 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. You know, I even heard that in foreign brothels, nobody wants to entertain Russian or Ukrainian clients, because these men have a reputation for serious abuse.
Natalia: Why do you think this is the case in Ukraine?
Anna: We never had a sexual revolution to speak of. In the Soviet days, we were all repressed. We’re still reaping the consequences of that. You know the old saying: “there’s no sex in the Soviet Union.” On one level, that was true. Sex was largely unacknowledged. I don’t think that things have improved so much in recent years. We don’t have decent sex education in this country. And we’re still very sexist.
Natalia: I’ve read some accounts of what prostitutes around here go through on a regular basis, and have spoken to several, and some of the stories are hair-raisingly horrifying. Even the people who are supposed to be protecting these women often get in on the act.
Anna: I’m telling you, the sex industry here is merciless. So when people talk about decriminalization, or legalization, I have to ask them to stop and think about the implications. I think our sex-workers need help, but I also worry about the young girls who are set to become sex-workers. What they’re getting into is a nightmare.
Natalia: FEMEN has also been actively involved in confronting foreign men who come to this country to get laid. Why do you choose these methods?
Anna: Because foreign men are confronting us! 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.
There is a strong anti-trafficking effort going on now, which is great, but people forget that sex tourism and trafficking can be linked. How many girls were wooed by some charming foreigner to end up being sold into a brothel abroad? The Euro 2012 Football Championship is coming up as well. Can you imagine how brutal it’s going to be around here when drunken football fans descend on this country? Can you imagine how our women are going to be treated by them?
Natalia: Flying in and out of this country, I sometimes get stuck next to a really sleazy American or Brit. Once he ascertains that I want nothing to do with him, he’ll start pressing me to introduce him to my friends and relatives.
Anna: Oh, it gets much worse than that. It can degenerate into street harassment. Now, I’m not talking about foreigners who come here to work or study or whatever, I’m talking about those people who are deliberately here to take advantage of women. 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?
Natalia: Stereotypes about us are pretty cemented. In the Middle East, I made the mistake of disclosing my ethnic background to a taxi driver once. He instantly decided I was sexually available. After that, I’d just tell people I’m American. Of course, they’d take a good look at me in the rear view mirror and say, “But you look so Russian!” The way they stared at me when they said it, it was frightening.
Anna: I have a friend who works as a bartender in Germany, and she looks like you – a typical Slav. She tells everyone she’s from Finland. She used to be more honest with people, but then they’d offer her money to have sex with them. Pitifully small amounts of money too! Not only do they think you’re a whore, they think you’re a cheap whore, someone whose desperation can exploit. It is frightening. And these people don’t have a clue about the economic and social circumstances that lead so many of our women into this trade. Or else they are happy to overlook them. Well, we’re here to remind them that no, actually, you don’t get to overlook that.
Natalia: I once sat next to an American at a dinner here in Kiev, and he spent the entire evening talking about how Ukrainian women are disgusting bimbos because so many of us don’t exactly like to cover up. Maybe if I had been a FEMEN girl, I’d have thrown a pie at his face.
Anna: It’s strange, isn’t it? 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?
Natalia: Speaking of love, is it hard for a politically active Ukrainian woman to find it?
Anna: Sure. I work in concert organizing, but consider FEMEN to be my actual career. There’s a phrase I use a lot right now: “another one has run away.” For me, it’s hard to find a man who understands me and takes what I do seriously. But it’s not impossible either. There are plenty of men out there who are kind. Kindness, I think, is what’s important. Plus, it’s not like you have to start out a relationship with talking about politics. You have to click first.
Natalia: Do you think Ukrainian men are generally threatened by strong women?
Anna: I think many Ukrainian men find strong women inconvenient. Think about your typical Soviet set-up, which is still around nowadays: both partners work, but when the wife comes home at 6 p.m., she launches herself into housework, while the husband relaxes. A strong woman may not stand for that. I’m not saying this is a problem in every household, but it exists. It’s prominent.
Natalia: I’m struck by how Western women often talk about there being a clear choice between career and home. I don’t think Soviet women entertained that notion.
Anna: A career is something you do devote yourself to immensely. You make sacrifices. It’s not that those sacrifices are necessarily incompatible with having a family, but it can be much harder. In terms of plain old work – you are right. Our women did both. And continue to do both. And it’s often very thankless.
Natalia: So how do you go about changing that mentality wherein a woman is exploited but doesn’t do anything about it?
Anna: 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.
We can change things here. People tell me, “hey, Ukraine’s not so bad, at least child prostitution here isn’t as bad as in Thailand.” And I say – oh yeah? So should we wait around until it’s worse than in Thailand? No. We need to be active right now. That’s the ultimate goal: helping women get to that stage where more and more of us refuse to be docile, or to be treated as objects, as original sin in the flesh.
I overhead 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.