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Sex workers as artists and sociologists

Creator and the chairwoman of the Union of artists and sex workers "Teresa" Vika Begalskaya together with the researcher of the Center for Independent Social Research Alexander Kondakov held an unusual study in St. Petersburg. They organized a survey on those who professionally provide sexual services, and the interviews were taken by sex workers themselves.

   According to the head of the Russian Association of Sex Workers "Silver Rose" Irina Maslova, there are about three million sex workers in Russia today and 20% of women involved in prostitution have the primary place of work - at hospitals, kindergartens and other state organizations.

   The organization "Teresa" - is, as stated on its website, an open creative union of sex workers and artists regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, nationality and religion. Vika Begalskaya together with like-minded people involves sex workers to participate in the performances - some of them are of shocking character. The basis of the performance "The belt of Aphrodite" is built on interviews and life stories narrated by sex workers. Vika Begalskaya said :

   - This performance was based on the stories that have happened to sex workers themselves during their professional activities. It is laughter through tears, because, on one hand, the stories were funny, on the other hand - vital, compelling.

   - After the performance, a round table was organized with the participation of well-known scientists and journalists. It was dedicated to "Overcoming the stigmatization of sex workers by public perception."

   - The union exists for only one year. During this time, we have implemented four projects: first one - the performance "The belt of Aphrodite", then a sex worker Tyra has made a solo performance "Loving Heart" based on his own scenario. It was featured in ESG-21 - "Experimental Sound Gallery".

     The third event was held when we were collecting extensive interviews with sex workers together with the Center for Independent Social Research in the summer of last year.

     Another project that we have implemented in the fall was the performance called "Military boots are asking for tenderness. Sex-peacekeepers in the rear of the enemy." It was dedicated to the theme of war.

                           What reasons drove sociologists to start such unusual research?

The research associate of the Center for independent sociological researches Alexander Kondakov tells:

– We set many different objectives because very different players were involved in this research. We were contacted by Vika Begalskaya, the founder of the Union of artists and sex workers "Teresa". Her interest was to involve sex workers in a new creative. The scientific part of this research, of course, was interesting to us. And here we went with a non-standard scenario.We tried to make it so that female sex workers and male sex workers became sociologists for some time and carried out some part of this work. They were fully involved in sociological research, not only as informants, but also as real scientists. And one of our task was to check whether such method would work.

    What is understood by the phrase "sex worker"?

– Of course, other word – "prostitutes", "prostitution" is more habitual. However in the modern researches of this phenomenon people came to a conclusion that this word bears stigmatization of this activity, and most importantly, stigmatization to those involved in it. Respectively, there is such humanistic intention – to remove this stigma from the language and to offer something different. And sex workers (not from Russia, but from other countries, in particular from Latin America, Europe. Generally from those countries where they started uniting in labor unions) invented for themselves such name – "sex workers", which reflected their working, public, social position – instead of this stigma.

According to the results of your research, sex workers treat their professional activity as work first of all?

– Yes, during the interview it was shown that at the language level people see their activity as work and not as an entertainment, a crime, a sin or anything else. They spoke about schedule, salary, working conditions, they described people who are involved in management and in administration. All these words – from the dictionary of work.

You spoke about stigmatization. How does it affect sex workers?

– Stigmatization is a social process.It means that negative opinion on sex work is deeply rooted in the society.. Of course, it can be, as it is defined in sociology, institutionalized - it is when already at the rights level, political programs and statements of this phenomenon receive very negative connotations or meanings. In Russia it is at the level of the right. In the Administrative code we have an article defining punishment for providing sexual services for money. There are also articles defining punishments for keeping brothels. Then there is punishment for trafficking too, which is defined as the transportation of people from other countries (in this case – into Russia) to engage them in this line of work or to have them work for free, and the punishment for slavery. They are connected to prostitution though the trafficking and slavery can be found both in construction and on the retail trade.

– What did your research find?

– The fact is that it isn't finished yet. We still need to analyze the interviews collected (and there are only 43, but many hours of work). I don't know yet what the outcome will be, but the charm of sociology is in this. At least, if speaking about the perspective of those sex workers who were involved in this research, their main problem is with working conditions in this field of work. And it is important not only for them, but also for the entire society. After all, such working conditions can arise not only from their field of work, but also from other areas. Bad working conditions are the outcome of the current handling of legal status. There is an administrative article, there is a criminal article, and together they work to create unprofitable, intolerable conditions for the person working in this field. First of all, it creates  dependence on the employer, and  because the work is illegal, they can dictate and define the working conditions.

    Law enforcement bodies can also add to the pressure. Looking at the statistics of cases opened in Russia under these articles, it becomes clear that there are only some thousands per year. It could mean that, perhaps, organizers of this business and representatives of law enforcement agencies have informal agreements. It is a problem of the protection of the law and order. It is unclear how to work in this situation. Perhaps, the analysis of our interviews will help solve this problem.

     Nowadays some legislators propose to add another article to the Criminal Code. They believe that it is necessary to fine and penalize customers and taxi drivers who are part of this business, because they transport female and male sex workers to clients or also transport their guards. All of them were supposed to be criminalized. However, based on the preliminary results of our study analysis, it is necessary to do the exact opposite - to decriminalize as many people as possible and control only the most radical phenomena such as trafficking or slavery.

- And how do you see it?

- There are different scenarios, but in Russia the situation is more complicated than in other countries. For example, in Western Europe sex work is regulated by different taxation schemes. There is a notion of legalizing sex work, which means that it is necessary to introduce some rules for its implementation. I think in Russia such rules are not needed, as it will lead to sex workers going under care of some other control bodies instead of the law enforcement. And in Russia it often means that the authorities will be able to control the business. Do we want that? If the firefighters will come to brothels and just collect tribute, as the police did, will it change anything?

I think that the legalization of prostitution - is not the way for Russia, we have to forget about it. And activists from various organizations and sex workers themselves have to fight for decriminalization, that is, by removing prostitution from the Criminal and Administrative Codes. After all, the 500 rubles, which is payable to the police for working in this area, won't change the situation, apart giving the police power over the person.

- Alexander, don’t you feel uncomfortable about your opposition - in relation to the situation of sex workers - against the so-called "guardians of moral norms" like deputy Vitaly Milonov, who is demanding tougher laws in the name of morality?

- I investigate sex work. I study homosexuality. And I do not say that these studies have moral subtext as promoted by Milonov or someone else. For me, this topic is about the relationship between people and between different groups in the society, and not about how to save some abstract "norms". It is about how to do better for people, - said the sociologist Alexander Kondakov.

- The head of the Russian association of sex workers "Silver Rose" Irina Maslova said that about 20% of sex workers are working somewhere else: in kindergartens, factories. Do you share her view, Vika?

- During the interaction with sex workers and when recording the interview in our project I got the impression that there aren’t many people like that.. We have collected more than forty interviews, and only two of those had such combination of work: one of them was a ticket inspector, and the other one was a pastry cook. All others worked a single job, that is, were engaged professionally and exclusively in sex work. You can understand why: the income levels are incomparable. A cook earns much less than a sex worker. People who combine such work - are an exception, - said in an interview for Radio Liberty Vika Begalskaya, chairwoman of the Union of artists and sex workers "Teresa".

Source: Radio Svoboda 

Link to the broadcast in russian here