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"The purpose of my life is decriminalization of sex work in the Russian Federation". Interview with Irina Maslova

An interview with Irina Maslova by Elena Derzhanskaya from Initiativa Pozitiva, an organization that deals with HIV/AIDS in Moldova.

Irina Maslova is a Chairwoman of the non-profit partnership of sex workers and their supporters "Silver Rose" as well as Chairman of the HIV / AIDS Coordinating Committee of the Russian Federation. A few weeks ago Irina came to Moldova to the meeting of the Global Fund Community Delegation. I had managed to make an interview with Ira, and after this my personal attitude to sex workers changed dramatically. I hope yours will change as well.

Irina, you advocate that sex workers should not be called commercial sex workers or in any other way in lot of interviews. Why?

This decision was not made by us only, it was made at a general conference of sex workers in 2005. At the same time the declaration of sex workers, which enumerated all their basic rights, was developed.

Why you do not like the phrase "commercial sex workers"?

Tell me, what does "commercial" has to do with this?

Probably, it has to do with the fact that a woman does something for money.

In this case then, any person can be called commercial. You, for example, earn money, then you are a commercial journalist. Or a doctor who receives a salary is also a commercial doctor, and even a president is a commercial president, a commercial judge, commercial police...

It is true that your organization is still being denied official registration?

Exactly. The Ministry of Justice refuses official registration of our society for the third year in a row. That is why we are sex workers movement, a creative usion so far. Now we have filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court and if we are denied again, we will file the claim to the European Court of Human Rights.

Listen, aren’t you bothered by the fact that many are against your society becoming an organization?

Milonov, for example, regularly says that I should be burned at the stake, but so what?

You are definitely a brave person.

When you are scared very much you need to face your fear, otherwise it will eat you. Fear is a normal protective bodily reaction. But I am more than just a body, I have brain, social status, age, after all. One jet starts to understand one day that she/he has a goal in her/his life. The goal of my life is sex work  decriminalization in Russian Federation. I understand that one way or another all post-Soviet countries look up to us. In our country they show those 'control purchases' regularly that are taking place not only in Russia, but also in the ex-Soviet countries, when the police break into the next brothel. They behave as if they were conquerors. In fact, what is happening there is violence, robbery, anything.

Have you ever been in such a situation yourself?

Yes, I spent 48 hours in detention cell for one person back in 2003. This was that 'magic' kick when I told myself: "I will change this".

What is happening during 'control purchases'?

First of all, the girls are being robbed: everything is taken away from the brothel: bed sheets, toothpaste, washing powder, fridge contents. Then a part of the girls is taken to the police station, although any administrative violation should be documented right away at the place. But the girls are still being taken away. They are arrested for at least one night, although according to the law they should be released within 3 hours. As a result, they manage to just buy off to get released.

Is there any particular fee?

Of course, each department sets it itself. And apart from this, the police takes away a particular sum of money from the street girls on a monthly basis. Until there are prohibition and criminalization from the point of view of an Administrative Code, the sex workers stay a feeder for the police.

Generally, what we teach them in the first place is how to write a protocol. One needs to write three following magic sentences: According to the Article 51 of the Constitution of Russian Federation, I have a right not to witness against myself. I strongly disagree with any filming and spreading my personal information. I strongly disagree with the accusation of prostitution.

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She has written the protocol, and then what?

If it does not buy off, she is taken away to the court the next morning after the arrest. The judge does not care about what was written in the protocol. But if the protocol is written correctly, and you begin to defend yourself, then such hearings end up with nothing, and the girl is released. It is the most difficult to defend drug addicted girls. I remember we once came with one defendant to the judge, and the judge told me the following in response to my arguments: "Take them out”. I answer: “From where?” And he is saying: “From the street”. I cannot give them what they came for in this job. I cannot give them social guarantees that the state is obliged to provide them. A woman who goes to work in a brothel or in the street, often does so for her family, in order to ensure that her children have more or less decent life. What does commerce have to do with this? This is survival. So what are they to blame? Are they to blame of the fact that the state does not give them all that it is required to give? Sooner or later, a woman will leave this hell on her own. But only on condition that she is not sucked in, or she is not beaten up to death by cops.

Has it happened before?

We jailed a policeman who had kicked to death a girl, after which he threw her into a car, drove into the forest, covered with branches and disappeared. We had been running this case for 2.5 years and at the end we managed to jail the culprit to 8 years of strict regime. And initially they wanted to give him only a three-year suspended sentence for the involuntary manslaughter.

Because he is an insider man, and it is natural [to protect him]

It's an incredible story. Apart from the jail time, he was ordered to pay the victim's parents 1 million rubles in compensation. Now we are negotiating with Amnesty International in order to make law recognize such crimes as crimes of hate. In this case, we will be able to jail for longer jail times.

Irina, how popular is sex work among men? And they are at risk?

Men are few in this topic. Those who engage in sex for money with women call themselves "gigolo". There are sex workers who offered sex to men, I work with them, and they, unlike the first, are much more at risk.

What is your attitude to them?

I accept people for who they are, and I want to be perceived in the same way. It is none of my business what he is and what he does. If he does not violate my personal boundaries, I do not care.

Ok, let’s come back to the “Silver Rose” association led by you. How can one find you?

We have our website, although we are not promoting it. We have our office. Mostl of all, the information is spread out by the word of mouth. Now we are covering almost 10.000 sex workers in St.-Petersburg.

What is the basis of your work?

Goodwill.

How many people are there in the team?

There are 30 active workers. So far we are working with salons, but we are planning to reach out to the streets as well.

Can you explain how work in the street is different from work in a salon?

These are drug addicts who work in the streets most of all.

Is it the reason they are not being accepted to salons?

Yes. There is a very interesting story there. When there is acquisition by seizure of a salon, the owner can be incriminated an article for management of a disorderly house and prostitution. If during the acquisition by seizure they find drugs, they can initiate a case for management of a drug den, and this means much longer jail sentence. Nobody wants to risk, that is why the drug users are not accepted to the salons.

The image of a sex worker is inextricably linked to a pimp in the eyes of a lot of people. Is it always the case that there is a manager behind a street girl (sex worker)? the girl that the street is some master?

Not always. In St. Petersburg, where almost all street sex workers are drug users, it is likely that there is a husband or boyfriend standing next to a sex worker, because in such a way she earns money for a dose for both herself and for him. A lot of years ago when I was still working with street girls, I conducted a questionnaire with one of them. I was writing down her age, and she answered she was 18 years old. I asked her how many customers she had daily. And she told me: "Twenty." It made my eyes pop up. It turned out that her boyfriend had just been released from prison, and she earned money for his living and entertainment.

In such cases can you tell her a jobation, shout at her, overall talk sense into her, so that she stops doing this?

What kind of jobation can we talk about if she loves him?

Does this mean that you never lecture and never give advice?

No. What I was taught to be a trainer, I was taught once and for all: you are not giving advice to people. And I do not give advice. Overall, one needs to save other people in the following situations: if this is a small child, and if this is an unconscious person.

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Do stories like in the “Pretty Woman” film happen with your girls? Do they get a client who is a billionaire and who falls in love in her and holds her in his arms?

Marriages with clients are rarely happy. Because sooner or later, when the man faces a difficult situation, he will definitely lose his temper and say, "You should thank me, I pulled you out of shit". And who asked you? There are certainly heroes, they like street girls more. They usually offer an expensive clinic to cure a girl’s addiction, she certainly agrees, but three days after she leaves the clinics, she loses composure, because it is very difficult to treat drug addiction, and the reason always lies very deep. I always say that our girls are those who lacked love in their life.

Why do women, girls go for it?

There is no an average temperature in a hospital. But almost in all the cases a woman finds herself in a difficult situation and cannot find a way out, that is why she goes out into the street.

But there is always a way out.

This is a wonderful wording! But sometimes you do not see the way out. And you decide to get out of a difficult situation in such a way. Look, this is my body and my right to do with it what I want. And no one has the right to judge me. And if someone tries, then let the person first open her/his wardrobe and look at her/his own skeletons. Once I was at the training with serious-minded adult women from a governmental agency. I asked them to write on pieces of paper the answer to the following question: “Can you remember the last time you had sex with your husband when you did not want it, and can you please write why you did so?” At the end of the training, I was reading the papers aloud and the answers were as follows: “so that he leaves me alone”, “so that he takes the child to the kindergarten”, “so that he gives me his salary”, “so that he buys me a fur coat or goes with me to a restaurant”.

This is some kind of "Our Russia"

This is not "Our Russia", this is our life. I have just remembered that there was another marvelous answer: “so that he does not cheat me”. In other words, she does not want the man physically, but it is a matter of principle to her to be married. And then such women tell the following about my girls: "They are such bad girls, how dare they to do by other women’s husbands”. We do not need your husbands!

But why do men go for it?

Ask a man about this.

Ira, please…

Look, a man was, is, and will remain an animal inside, as any other human being. His instinct requires procreation through a larger number of females, that is, he must sow his seed, and it does not matter, whether a child will be born or not. A woman is in an opposite situation: she needs to conquer the best man who will ensure continuation of the species. For her it is important to keep him, and he needs to sow the seed. Animal instincts are still present even in the super-intellectual society. And if this exists, then we need to face it. And let’s finally face that a man who goes to a sex worker, does so because he stopped getting something in the relationship with the woman with whom he is living, building a house, raising children. I have close friends who lived together for 43 years, and after that he left her. She is always wails to me: "I do not understand how it happened." Well, if you do not understand, then ask the man. If I do not understand something, I go and ask.

Not all people are like you.

And it would be nice if everyone would have been like me.

You have not told what else you teach your girls.

We teach them to put on a condom correctly. We do not have sexual education and upbringing. It is still a shameful topic in a conversation.

What else?

To be able to say 'no' to a client.

Is this very important?

It is the customer who insists on having sex without a condom. Men have a huge number of myths, such as that he will not feel anything with a condom, etc. A woman should build her own safety boundaries, and a man should accept them.

For example, she refused to provide a service without a condom. There is a possibility that he would use force, isn’t there?

He came to receive a service, this means that he must abide by the rules. Besides, the girls become brilliant psychologists after a while! In order to survive, we must be able to get ourselves out, to smooth acute situations, and this requires knowledge and skills.

I read that you are against the legalization of prostitution. You are still against it?

Yes, because it will give nothing in return. I have seen all the legislative initiatives proposed by our MPs who favour legalization. I have serious doubts that these people understand what sex is work and its essence are. One female MP offered to customers, who visit a girl several times, to marry her. The impression is that those who invent these bills do not know what life is.

Is it important for you that the people who work with you have had such [sex-work] experience?

Not necessary. A person should have an innate desire to fight injustice. Then it is my person. You know, if you do your thing, there are people who help you and follow you. If it's not yours, there is a bunch of obstacles in life, but for me there are no obstacles.

But there is a system, iron system, which is impossible to change.

Please, do not tell me about the system, I'll break it anyway. It stands on clay feet, if you file or push somewhere, it will break.

You wrote once that the fact that you were not infected with HIV was pure luck. Is that true?

Of course, there was violence in my life, customers were taking off condoms, I just got lucky.

By the way, are you still engaged in support of pregnant sex workers, who are drug dependent?

Yes, I helped with the birth of more than 400 healthy children. The problem of our drug addicted girls is that when they use drugs, they have no outer signs of menstruation, so it's easy to overlook pregnancy. When pregnancy is diagnosed, it is too late for an abortion. Even if she refuses the child, she/he has the right to be born healthy. And it's very hard to withstand the withdrawals during pregnancy. Unlike your organization, we have even no methadone. Some of those pregnant girls got out of abstinence syndrome "on the teeth." This is when during the 36th week you stop taking a dosage of 5 grams of heroin by yourself, without painkillers. I was sitting close to such mummies for three days, calming them.

Are those children, who are born, happy?

They are with the mother, this is important. Maternal instinct is stronger than all the others. Woman is still a female and she will cherish and love her cub as she can.

The Coordinating Committee on HIV / AIDS, which you head, what is it for you?

It is my life, people are working here without money. I have been working here since May 2014, when the GF grants gradually began to leave Russia and SSM was dissolved. Now the GF allocated for us $ 11 million for two and a half years on the prevention of HIV infection in Russia among key groups, but it is not a small amount, it is minuscule amount.

This position is for me is an opportunity to develop a community, to force NGOs that simply distribute condoms to see sex workers not only as clients or beneficiaries, but as partners of these programs.

The most recent example: in the last GF program one sex worker was assigned 110 condoms per year. Can anyone explain to me, where these numbers are coming from? When we recently wrote a module for the new application, we requested and managed to receive three times more - 365 condoms per year.

And how many do you actually need?

On average, girls have 3-5 customers per day, and they need 1-2 condoms per customer. By the way, do you know why Thailand fully stopped the spread of HIV among sex workers? Because there is hundred percent coverage of condoms. And here in Russia the program is considered to be effective if the need for condoms is covered by 60%. The state should make sure that condoms cost a penny, just so they would be available. And now, tell me will a student spend half of his scholarship for condoms? The answer is "no", therefore we have a huge number of early pregnancies and STIs, I'm not even talking about HIV.

I know that you have two adult daughters. How do you deal with their sexual education?

When they were both of kindergarten age, I bought him a book, "Where do babies come from." In a few days the book was read by all of our neighbors in the dormitory, as well as by several groups in the kindergarten they attended. I always talk about sex, pregnancy and childbirth. I grew up in the department of pathology of pregnancy, my mother was a gynecologist. So, for me this is a normal process, I see nothing terrible in this.

Unfortunately, many of our outreach workers cannot talk about sex, protection methods, pregnancy freely. The easiest way is to ban, but the most difficult is to explain how to make the work as safe as possible. Why do we need outreach workers who simply hand out condoms? You can just set everywhere special machines for that. Try to start talking, explaining, then you will be heard and listened.

Irina, what is your power, if we can say so? After all, you have gone through a lot, achieved a lot. And now you are sitting in front of me, so beautiful, relaxed, you do not like a typical married woman of your age at all.

I'll tell you what the problem of those typical women is: they are afraid of discovering a woman inside, but if they dig well inside, they will find her. I have found myself, I have accepted myself just the way I am. I do not owe anything to anyone, I do not regret about any of my actions, and I am grateful for the whole experience I acquired. I have nothing to reproach myself.

You know, I do not drive, but many of my friends do. And I often hear the expression "it's air through the engine" from them: when some unexpected situation happens, you react quickly and you go on. Because if you start replaying all back, for sure you will get into troubles. We have to go here and now, because the situation is changing every second.

I have recollected one important question: why “Silver Rose”?

A rose symbolizes femininity, and silver color means that the rose is very cold, very beautiful, very kind, but such unaccessible. Last year, one of my friends brought me an amber and silver brooch from a antique shop. It has its own legend: Warsaw, World War II, a wife is taken to a concentration camp, her husband manages to hide. She survives, and when they meet again, he makes this brooch for her (her husband was a jeweler), and gives it to her a token of his love. When my friend had told me this story, I realized that everything came together. The conclusion is that you just survive in any situation, no matter how complicated it is. And you become stronger. By the way, the friend told me later that the owner of the antique shop made his a big discount. I asked him: "Why?" And he said: "I just told him your story."

Text, photo: Elena Derzhanskaya

Source: http://positivepeople.md/irina-maslova/, August 3, 2015

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