FEMEN’s Unfeminist Tactics? A Response to Rising Sex Tourism in Ukraine

In 2008 a small group of college women in Ukraine joined together to form an organization called FEMEN. Concerned with the challenges facing Ukrainian society in the 21st century their primary goal is “[t]o react and influence the acute social issues of the Ukrainian society, especially those that directly touch upon the interests of the Ukrainian Women.” Since then FEMEN has taken on a range of national and international issues. At the top of their agenda is challenging the increase in Western sex tourism into Ukraine over the last several years and the complacency of the Ukrainian government to this practice. FEMEN’s famous tag line is “Ukraine is Not a Brothel!” What makes FEMEN controversial are the tactics they employ to draw attention to these issues. These include theatrical public displays with partial or complete nudity and provocative dress. In the early stages of the FEMEN organization this garnered national media attention, primarily in the Kyiv Post and the Ukrainian Business News. More recently, FEMEN has gained international media attention from the German publication Der Spiegel, and U.S. publications such as AlterNet, The Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the World Affairs Journal blog.

FEMEN’s controversial tactics have been labeled by many outside observers and women’s organizations as “unfeminst.” Urszule Nowakowska, the director of the Women’s Rights Center of Warsaw, Poland, commented, “If there is a negative attitude towards feminism in the country, I think such provocative methods may have a negative impact on feminism as well.” FEMEN itself rejects the feminist label. When asked if FEMEN is a feminist organization, the group’s leader, Anna Hutsol, a 26-year old who often writes about FEMEN for the Kyiv Post, replied, “No. We use eroticism in our approach and our dress. That’s not sanctioned by feminism.” Notwithstanding or maybe because of this controversy, FEMEN has created quite a stir in Ukraine — not to mention around the world.

FEMEN is a politically independent organization. Its members gather in cafés and brainstorm new campaigns, make placards, and design pamphlets. FEMEN also relies extensively on email and social networking sites to communicate. At its inception FEMEN was a small, local, grass-roots women’s organization seemingly incapable of impacting Ukrainian society and posing no threat to the Ukrainian government. However, over the last two years FEMEN has grown into an organization of approximately 300 members (mainly student activists) with an email and internet support base of approximately 25,000. FEMEN membership is primarily female university students and has a 5-member executive board. Funding for FEMEN’s activities comes from member donations. Additional funding comes from what FEMEN describes as those “closely connected with us: they help us, fond of our ideas and deliver them.”

One of FEMEN’s earliest demonstrations occurred on in July 2008. Protesting against the increase in Western sex tourism into Ukraine, the 50-person demonstration included eight skimpily clad female college students and an array of male ballet dancers dressed as pimps in flashy suits. Capturing the attention of the local media FEMEN managed to bring to the fore of Ukrainian society the consequences of neoliberal economic globalization on domestic society.  

In Ukraine, sex tourism (traveling to engage in commercial sexual activity) is arguably a self reinforcing relationship between the men who seek out prostitutes and the women who engage in sex work. On the one hand, Western men, often from Israel and Turkey, take advantage of relaxed visa requirements and cheap flights making Ukraine a popular destination for sex tourism. The country’s weakened currency — it has lost around 40 percent of its value against the dollar and the Euro — also contributes to the rise in sex tourism in Ukraine. On the other hand, young women struggling to get by in a staunchly patriarchal society, under harsh economic conditions, opt for prostitution among very limited choices. Often these young women choose sex work as a means to fund their studies. According to a sociological study examining the sex industry in Ukraine, unofficial numbers suggest there are approximately 250,000 prostitutes in Ukraine. According to the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) approximately one in eight prostitutes is a university student. However, Anna Hutsol of FEMEN argues that the numbers are much higher in Kyiv, estimating that 60 percent of prostitutes are university students. According to U.N. and U.S aid workers (and the prostitutes themselves) “sex trafficking through the city [Odessa] has moved away from being an industry run on fear to one driven by voluntary, if desperate, participation.” Ukrainian women are faced with the double binding paradox of gender subordination within Ukrainian society bound with economic insecurity that is exacerbated by neoliberal economic globalization. This precarious situation in which Ukrainian women find themselves is ripe for further exploitation or what the activist Vandana Shiva calls “the double fascism of globalization.” The economic fascism that destroys people’s rights and the fundamentalist fascism that feeds on their displacement and dispossession. In this case the Ukrainian government has taken full advantage by using its women as a competitive advantage in the global market.

In Ukraine, as in much of the former Soviet Union, democratization was assumed to require the full-scale embrace of the market, in part as a way to assert that it was not Russia. Not surprisingly, its transition from a centralized economy to a market economy was marked by economic and political instability. In his book, How Ukraine Become a Market Economy and a Democracy, Anders Ashland’s describes how after nearly a decade of national building, Ukraine was the last postcommunist country to implement serious market economic reforms. As the title suggests Ashland links Ukraine’s market economy with democracy suggesting that the adoption of neoliberal economic policies coincided with the rise of democracy in Ukraine. While Ashlund concedes that this transition has been “turbulent” and that Ukraine’s democracy is “fragile,” the fact is that neoliberal economic policies brought with them detrimental social consequences. In addition, wrought by corruption and often with no regard for civil liberties, Ukraine’s democracy can be described as illiberal at best. However, Ukraine still struggles to establish a stable democracy and a globally competitive market economy. A brief look back at Ukraine’s political and economic struggle, however, helps to put the current phenomenon in context.

According to statistics provided in Ashlund’s book, from 1990 to 1994, just three years after independence, Ukraine’s GDP fell about 48 percent. During this period only about 15 percent of Ukraine’s GDP came from the private sector. The rest largely came from the public sector, a public sector which provided social welfare and utilities to its citizens. As the Ukrainian economy declined rapidly, the government accepted billions of dollars in loans from the IMF during throughout the 1990’s. Under threat of withdrawal of financial support, Ukraine, under the auspices of the IMF, was forced to concede to extensive structural reforms including the reduction of government agencies and privatization of industry. The ambiguity from closing state enterprises and transitioning to a private market economy created a vacuum that resulted in the growth of shadow economies and transnational criminal networks operating working in conjunction with other post-soviet crime rings. During this period the underground economy increased from 12 percent to 46 percent of GDP, inclusive of prostitution, pornography and trafficking in women for commercial sex. With social safety nets removed and an economy in still in severe economic decline Ukraine found itself with a youth unemployment rate of 25.6 percent, a poverty rate of nearly 26 percent and a standard of living that declined for most Ukrainian citizens.

In 2004 Ukraine found its niche as an export-led economy hitting a growth rate of 12 percent, primarily due to an international rise in steel prices. But Ukraine’s economy, along with that of much of the rest of the world, fell again into deep economic crisis in 2008.

Politically, in 2004 Ukrainian citizens challenged their weak democracy, launching what was known as the Orange Revolution, a series of national protests against mass corruption and voter fraud that finally resulted in “free and fair” elections. Alexexander Motyl has suggested that FEMEN is one of the grassroots organizations that are the intellectual and cultural offspring of the Orange Revolution. It emerged to address the problems faced by Ukrainian women, who have disproportionately suffered during the economy’s ups and downs.

As a casualty of neoliberal economic reforms and national patriarchy, women — often educated women — lost their jobs and their economic security en masse. Confronted with high unemployment rates, low incomes and a cost of living similar to that of Western Europe, women’s choices have been restricted to the bottom strata of society. Consequently, Ukrainian women in the thousands either fell victim to traffickers for commercial sexual exploitation, or voluntarily took their chances in the sex industry abroad, primarily in Western Europe. The International Office of Migration estimates that by 1998 nearly 420,000 women had been trafficked out of Ukraine. In 2006 Ukraine was the second top country of origin for migrant sex workers in the EU. As transnational criminal networks grew, trafficking in women became a lucrative commercial enterprise because of the “debts” incurred by women in their own trafficking, their sale and re-sale and remittances sent back to their families. In 2008, however, Ukraine’s rank dropped to 4th on the list of countries of origin for migrant sex workers in the EU. According to the TAMPEP International Foundation, which has mapped sex work in Europe over the last decade, a possible explanation for this is that Ukrainian sex workers abroad returned home to the burgeoning and (relatively) lucrative sex industry in Ukraine today. According to the World Bank the Gross National Income (GNI) of Ukraine is $2,800 per year. Since 2008 unemployment in Ukraine increased 50 percent and poverty rates have remained incredibly high. Sex work for young Ukrainian women offers a lucrative option. On average prices range from $20 for oral sex to $5,000 for VIP clients — general services fetch about $100 to $300. Under these conditions the incentive to enter the sex industry, either at home or abroad, is high. In terms of domestic economic development, the Ukrainian government, of course, cashes in.

In 2007, 23 million foreigners visited Ukraine, up 22 percent from 2006. From 2008 to 2009 this number increased another 2 million. Estimate also suggests that profits from the Ukrainian sex industry have nearly doubled, from $700 million to $1.5 billion. The combination of a weak currency, high rates of unemployment and poverty, cheap flights and relaxed borders has essentially created a “greenhouse” for sex tourism in Ukraine and an economic boost for a country that has been stagnating since 2008. As Hutsol explains, “The problem was bad before the crisis, but now it’s booming.” The advantage to the Ukrainian government is that prostitution doesn’t exist in isolation. The tourism aspect brings in revenue for airlines, hotels, nightclubs, restaurants, local businesses and on and on. Despite the fact that it is marketed otherwise, prostitution in Ukraine is illegal but the law is rarely enforced. Often pimps enjoy a semiofficial relationship with local law enforcement. This implies that the economic survival of Ukraine in a global market economy is becoming dependent on using its women — who are white, blond and in demand — as a global competitive advantage and the sex industry as a legitimate economic plan for growth and development — a phenomenon that is not unprecedented given what happened in Thailand in the 1990’s. FEMEN recognizes this; however, they are less focused on the economic implications and more opposed to sex tourism because of the social ills and pathological consequences it has created in Ukrainian society, particularly for young women.

According to Hutsol, Ukrainian women are already equated with prostitution abroad. This, coupled with Ukraine’s reputation as a prime destination for sex tourists, has lead to negative assumptions about Ukrainian women in general.  A survey conducted by FEMEN and KIIS showed that 2 out of 3 women in Kyiv between the ages of 17 and 22 were solicited for sex from a foreigner.  Hutsol states,

“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. 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.”

One of FEMEN’s tactics is to actively confront foreign men, pejoratively called sexpats, who come to Ukraine for sex. When Hutsol was asked why FEMEN confronts foreign men on the street her response was, “Because foreign men confront us!” Other tactics employed by FEMEN have included dressing in revealing faux police uniforms with batons and shields conducting mock beatings (including on reporters) to mimic police behavior or dressing in skimpy school uniforms and having men dressed as teachers spank their bottoms to represent the mistreatment of students. FEMEN also protested at an event promoting Iranian culture against the death-by-stoning sentence handed down to an Iranian woman for adultery. Members of FEMEN stripped down, threw stones on the ground, and shouted slogans against what they called court sanctioned murder. Recently, FEMEN staged an anti-Putin demonstration in downtown Kiev to protest Russia’s exploitation of Ukrainian resources. Protesters were bare-breasted holding signs proclaiming “You Can’t Fuck Us” and “We Don’t Bend Over That Easily.” Hustol argues that this is an effective strategy; “It gets people talking. Our sexy image causes debate. You need to have debate if you are going to move forward.” The question is: is FEMEN’s unfeminist approach working?

Over the last two years FEMEN’s success in raising awareness of the increase in sex tourism in Ukraine has rested on two tactics. The first is their shocking and controversial public displays of protest and resistance. The second was their decision to take on broader international issues garnering FEMEN global media attention which cycled back to domestic issues. This compelled the Ukrainian government to take them seriously, although this has not been positive. According to an op-ed piece written in the Kyiv post by Hutsol herself, many FEMEN activists have been harassed and threatened by the Security Services of Ukraine (SBU). FEMEN’s tactics have also, on occasion, forced the Ukrainian government to explain its actions in response to international criticism. For example, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov was forced to explain himself after a FEMEN demonstration outside the Cabinet of Ministers against his all-male cabinet calling attention the to the lack of leadership positions for women in government. Despite this success, FEMEN is at a crossroads. They can’t take their clothes off forever — a position FEMEN also recognizes.

To discuss whether FEMENs unfeminst tactics are appropriate is moot. The bottom line is Ukraine is deeply patriarchal with a weak and corrupt democracy. Judging FEMEN by a Western standard is to assume they have the economic and political enfranchisement to pursue conventional tactics that they are choosing to bypass. This is simply not the case. Like the women they are fighting for FEMEN’s options to affect change are limited. They use what they can. The point now, however, is what should they do with the power they have harnessed and the international media attention they have achieved? FEMEN has expressed interest in transforming themselves into a political party and running for parliamentary seats in 2012 to affect change from within.

This arguably exposes a contradiction between an organization that seeks to be a movement for fundamental change and one that seeks to become part of the state apparatus. It misses an intermediary opportunity for reform: a chance to assert social control and mitigate the effects of the market on the human condition. A better option is for FEMEN to stick with some of its original goals still unfulfilled. This includes building itself up as a civil society movement with an effective lobby and cooperating transnationally with women’s organizations to carry out programs in Ukraine.

Karie A. Gubbins is a Ph.D. candidate in Global Affairs at Rutgers University and an Adjunct Professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at William Paterson University. Her book, The Global Sex Trade: Economics, Politics and the State is forthcoming from Pluto Press. This piece is part of a larger work on local resistance movements to increased prostitution, sex trafficking and sex tourism brought on by neoliberal economic development models.

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