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The red umbrella is the international symbol of sex workers. Source: Human Rights Information Centre. Ukraine used to be depicted as a paradise for sex tourists. The news that the country would co-host the European Football Championship in was followed by alarmist predictions that more local women would be drawn into sex work, conveying a moral panic and a desire to titillate all at once.
When Femen were just starting out in Ukraine, the feminist activist group campaigned against sex work, which was seen as being part of the systematic exploitation of Ukrainian women. Western men who visit Ukraine for sex tourism have been known to document their adventures online.
Graham Phillips, a pro-separatist British blogger, wrote about his encounters with young Ukrainian women, including sex workers , before his interests turned to geopolitics. Western journalists have explored the topic in stories that often focus on the seediness of sex work and the beauty of Ukrainian women — stories where sex workers' perspectives or voices are often absent, like this Politico article by a male journalist on the decline of sex tourism after conflict broke out in the Donbass.
Indeed, since the conflict in eastern Ukraine began, the topic has taken on a new dimension — supporters of the pro-Russian side occasionally compare Ukraine to a prostitute, a lost woman who has forgotten her ancient and deep connection with Russia in order to sleep with the EU and the US for money. But what of the actual people doing sex work in Ukraine? What do they have to tell us?
And has the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine changed the realities of sex work in the country? If one is to speak with sex workers, the city of Kropyvnytsky, in central Ukraine, is a good place to start. The provincial city that appears after a five-hour drive through the snow is home to Legalife , Ukraine's leading sex workers' organisation. When I arrive, the head of the organisation, Natalia Isaeva, is taking a cigarette break with some of her colleagues — the stairs of their office are filled with smoke and laughter.