When you’re privileged enough to attend a top-tier American university such as Duke, losing sight of the fact that your fate may have been different often comes with the package. Strutting to class in a pair of pricey high heels to hear well-paid professors talk and relaxing afterwards with a glass of pinot grigio at night, many girls at Duke and schools like Duke never entertain a serious thought about the less fortunate members of their sex, the ones who service twenty so-called clients a day on a dirty mattress in a room with bars on the windows. For some, it’s even acceptable to poke a little fun at the “‘whores,” especially the ones who are imported from foreign countries.
There are a number of “isms” I could direct at my fellow students for this: racism, classism, over-privileged-idiocy-ism, but I’ve grown to believe that in order for criticism to work, it must be constructive. I grew up with mummy and daddy who sent me to private school instead of a brothel; it would be hypocritical of me to act like some kind of self-righteous Mother Theresa out to instruct the less-informed members of her gender on how to combat the plight of trafficked women worldwide. The truth is, a few years ago trafficking in humans barely registered on my radar.
Therefore, I would like to extend my gratitude to all those members of Duke’s international community who, in the past, have branded me a “Russian whore” and told me, with much glee, about what women like me do back in their countries. Without your little jibes, whether uttered in jest or in a calculated attempt at humiliation, I might have never woken up. I would have never seen firsthand the kind of complacency that allows for human beings to be sold like cattle into this special service industry.
A shout-out also goes out to the boys, both American and otherwise, who never bothered to hide their fascination with the sexuality of Slavic women. Excited utterances about the sexual prowess of these women, their desirability and availability, the mail-order bride fantasy, the crudeness and the naked superiority complex – all of this served my conscience well. I’ve been shocked out of my shell, reminded of the fact that while I was growing up in a cozy little enclave in Charlotte, North Carolina my compatriots were being beaten into submission by meaty thugs and pawed by drooling clientele.
I was born in Kiev in 1984 and these women and I, the Ukrainians and the Russians in particular, speak the same language but have been awarded different fates. How close did I come, in those months preceding our departure from Ukraine ten years ago, to that other side? What if the mob had killed my parents, the owners of a small business targeted in racketeering schemes like many others those days? What if there was no money, no toilet paper, no gas or water or sliver of hope glimmering on Kiev’s horizon? Would I, a trusting and pampered child, have become one of them?
This question is impossible to answer, but my close proximity to this nightmare now serves to remind me that I have the responsibility of educating others about modern-day slavery. Governments are not particularly committed to curbing it; national interests lie elsewhere. The State Department today will have us believe, for example, that Russia is actually actively combating the horrendous treatment of its female citizens by thugs; do not trust the State Department. They have a vested interest in not pissing off Putin too much. Trust yourself when you read these lines, taken from a book by Canada’s Victor Malarek:
“They called us Natasha. They never asked our real name. To them, we were all Natashas.
This fat, sweaty pig is reaching his climax and he begins to murmur, “Oh, Natasha! Natasha!” At first I thought it strange being called by another name. But very soon I came to accept it as my escape…” (p. xvi, The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade)
The above describes the experiences of a Ukrainian woman named Marika, who recounted her tale of being trafficked and sold into sexual slavery in Israel.
These are the experiences of Tanya, another Ukrainian, as recounted by Malarek:
“…Abandoned by her father at the age of four, she set out when she was twenty to find work to help her mother care for an invalid brother…According to La Strada [Kiev’s nongovernmental agency for assisting trafficked Ukrainian women, I have interviewed one of their associates], Tanya, who was described as ’slim and pretty,’ was offered an incredible opportunity when a friend of her mother’s proposed a job abroad in 1998. The woman told Tanya that wealthy Arab families in the United Arab Emirates were hiring maids. These jobs were allegedly paying up to $4000 a month. Tanya couldn’t believe her luck.
But when she arrived in Abu Dhabi she was taken to a brothel where a pimp told her that he had bought her for $7000. From that moment on she was to work as a prostitute until she paid off her so-called debt. After three months of captivity, Tanya managed to escape. She bolted to a police station and recounted her story. Incredibly, she was charged with prostitution and sentenced to three years in a desert prison. In 2001, psychologically crushed and ashamed, Tanya was released. Nothing happened to her pimp. Branded a prostitute by the Muslim nation, she was summarily deported back to her Ukraine.” (p. 12, emphasis mine)
This is how these women are “trained” to gratify their clients, as recounted to Malarek by a Romanian woman named Sophia who was abducted at knifepoint, sold into slavery, and “broken in” in Serbia:
“All the time, very mean and ugly men came in and dragged girls into rooms. Sometimes they would rape girls in front of us. They yelled at them, ordering them to move certain ways…to pretend excitement…to moan…It was sickening.
Those who resisted were beaten. If they did not cooperate, they were locked in dark cellars with no food or water for three days. One girl refused to submit to anal sex, and that night the owner brought in five men. They held her on the floor and every one of them had anal sex on her in front of all of us. She screamed and screamed, and we all cried.
…I saw what they did to one girl who refused. She was from Ukraine. Very beautiful, very strong-willed. Two of the owners tried to force her to do things and she refused. They beat her, burned her with cigarettes all over her arms. Still she refused. The owners kept forcing themselves on her and she kept fighting back. They hit her with their fists. They kicked her over and over. Then she went unconscious.
She just lay there, and they still attacked her anally. When they finished, she didn’t move. She wasn’t breathing. There was no worry on the faces of the owners. They simply carried her out.”(pp. 33-34)
Malarek writes that when one of the other girls dared to ask about the Ukrainian, she was taken to a forest where she was forced to dig a grave next to a fresh mound that was probably the final resting place of the Ukrainian girl; “Ask any more questions and you will end up in the grave,” the man told her. (p. 34)
On her third day of captivity, Sophia was ‘trained.’ She submitted without resistance. She moved as she was told. She feigned excitement at every thrust.”(pp.35)
Sophia was eventually trafficked to Italy and put on the street. She escaped after three months with the help of a john and ended up in a Catholic rescue mission. (p. 35)
To his immense credit, Malarek also writes about the women who entered into such contracts willingly, believing that anything was better than the destitution they faced back home. This is what he has to say about them:
Many of these women venture out with visions of the film ‘Pretty Woman’ dancing in their heads. They expect to rake in lots of fast money and in the process perhaps even meet Mr. Right. But those fantasies are shattered when, within moments of arriving at their destinations, they learn their true fate. Most end up in situations of incredible debt bondage, unable to earn enough to pay back the high interest on their travel and living expenses. They become victims of the worst possible forms of sexual exploitation. They are not free to leave, nor can they easily escape….All in all, no matter how ‘willing’ they were and regardless of how they fell into the trafficking trap, the vast majority of these women end up as nothing more than slaves-abused, used, and traded. And when they’re no longer useful or when they’ve gotten too old or too sick and riddled with disease, they are simply discarded. Only then can they contemplate returning home. Countless others never do go home. Many die from the abuse and the diseases. Others give up and kill themselves.” (pp.18-19)
Did you know that orphanage directors often sell the children they’re entrusted to care for to these thugs? I’ve seen some underfed, neglected, abused orphans in both Russia and Ukraine, and I can easily believe it, seeing as nobody gives a damn about these children to begin with. Did you know that some actual parents are more than willing to do this to their own kids for some extra cash? The government, meanwhile, looks the other way. The governments of the countries these women get trafficked to are not much better; if they are caught in raids, most of these women are treated like criminals, humiliated, imprisoned, thrown out of the country, or, in some cases, even raped by law-enforcement officials who then go unpunished.
A childhood friend of mine, let’s call her Sveta, tells me the following as we sat in a bar overlooking Kiev’s historic Podol district. She has elected to speak in third person, her eyes are unblinking:
“These four thugs camped out on the stairwell in our building one day when little Sveta was coming home from school. They took her to the basement and took turns raping her. That year, a lot of girls were raped in the neighborhood and a lot more disappeared. There was continuous talk about these girls being sold overseas, but the little girl never believed it, until that day. There was a gang of them operating, ‘test-driving’ girls, sometimes for fun, sometimes for business. The police looked the other way, of course. Sometimes she wonders if she got off lightly.”
The rapists were never punished and the girls who vanished were never heard from again.
Memories of my grandmother come rushing back. I am nine years old and sitting on the carpet in her apartment, demanding to be let outside to play. Grandmother keeps refusing me, until she finally raises her voice:
“You’re not going anywhere alone, what if you are taken by a man? The man will sell you to pleasure other men, in the Middle East for example. You want that to happen to you? You’re staying home.”
I am nineteen, a sophomore at Duke, visiting relatives in Ukraine during winter break. My cousins and I go partying at a high-level club filled with beautiful young women. After a couple of beers, I am seized by the urge to pee. An elderly matron in a sparkling black sweater is washing her hands:
“I was watching you girls dance. I am scouting girls for my bordello. I am looking for some very classy girls. That’s a nice skirt. Some men like nubile young women…”
Her eyes, framed by enormous fake eyelashes, look cold and dead as they appraise me like a cow at a market. She finally leaves, and I stare into the bathroom mirror, looking for traces of “nubility” on my face. At the time, I think the situation humorous. Looking back on it now fills me with dread.
And let’s not forget the relish with which Ukrainian tabloids discuss the fates of trafficked women and prostitutes; every story is laden with gratuitous detail, the so-called journalists eroticize these women’s suffering, the physical abuse inflicted upon them by clients, and the violent death that waits for them at the finish line. Here is a rough translation of one of these “gems” I found a few years back:
“Olya’s first client penetrated her anally; when she complained that she was in pain, he told her to shut up. When he was finished, she asked for her money and he laughed in her face, then threatened to beat her up when she insisted…Months later, Olya’s pimp, the man who bought her and claimed her as property for her own protection, was playing a card game on a train with his friends. The bet was placed on Olya’s life, and she laughed along with everyone else at this ‘joke.’ The man who lost took Olya outside the compartment, she followed obediently. He threw her off the train. Someone stumbled upon her partially nude body the next day, glistening with morning dew…”
One night, in Charlotte, North Carolina, a casual acquaintance of my father appears at our door with a gun. He is looking for a young woman he brought back from Russia having met her through an “agency.” He’s mad as hell, because she has run away. My father manages to talk him down as they sit in the living room. The entire time, I am wondering what kind of loving husband would go looking for his wife with a Beretta in his hand. But I’m a child, I do not matter, and I ask nothing. My parents shoo me out of the living room.
I encourage every single person reading this to pick up a copy of Malarek’s The Natashas, a book to which I am greatly indebted because it has confirmed yet again everything I have already seen and heard about. Yet, unlike those people back in Ukraine and all over the world who are content to blame the problem of trafficking on “feminism” (ha!) and “loose morals among young women”, Malarek does not pass judgment. His writing is a small island of compassion in a sea of complacency and self-righteous condemnation.
Let’s tell the State Department that it needs to do a better job in placing responsibility on governments complicit in the sex-trade. While we’re at it, let’s also tell the feds to get off their moral high-horse and focus on women trafficked into the good ol’ US of A. And let us not forget that while some of us are enjoying our lives as students in prestigious universities, certain people are making billions off the backs of women who are much like us.
You see, in America, we are accustomed to believing that slavery no longer exists; the idea that slavery should thrive in a world of Starbucks, seemingly benevolent red-light districts in Western European cities, and general openness and civility seems almost absurd. Only that, of course, is the illusion that allows us to sleep at night.