KIEV, Ukraine — In 2012, Ukraine briefly became gripped by hysteria over “sex tourism.” The country was preparing to host tens of thousands of football fans for the Euro championships, leading many to predict a sharp rise in prostitution. The high-profile sporting event would “promote sex tourism in Ukraine, and demean women here even more,” Anna Gutsol, the founder of the radical feminist group FEMEN, said at the time, as she led a group of topless activists in protest in Kiev. “In Europe, Ukrainian women have the unfortunate reputation as beautiful, cheap sex dolls,” she said. “And when the fans get here that image will only be reinforced.”
When carousing the bars during those impassioned times, women often asked me point-blank whether I was a “sex tourist.” Expat friends refrained from wearing bright clothes or strong cologne for fear it would mark them out as predators. It didn’t help our cause that the cafés in downtown Kiev were packed with aging Western men on “dates” with their potential Ukrainian brides. At the height of the hysteria, roving gangs of vigilantes even beat up foreigners who ordered prostitutes, and posted the videos online.
Fast-forward four years and the pejorative term “sex tourist” has gone out of vogue. Wracked by a fierce economic downturn and a slow-burning war with Russia in the East, Ukrainians have bigger things to worry about than priapic male tourists.
Even FEMEN has given up the fight, and moved its headquarters to Paris. The group now focuses on more global issues, like abortion rights and the denigration of women in Islamic culture. With downtown Kiev’s hipster cafés and speakeasy bars packed with visiting NGO staff, journalists, military advisers and anyone trying to cash in on Ukraine’s brief moment in the international limelight, girls in bars are more likely to out you as a “spy” than a “sex tourist.”
“Sex tourism is no longer an issue as it was four years ago,” said Volodomyr Paniotto, director at the Kiev International Institute of Sociology. “We’re now much more concerned about homophobia, which is hampering our efforts to join the international community.”
With gay pride marches frequently attacked by right-wing thugs, Ukrainian society has turned its focus inwards. Under pressure from the EU, parliament passed a law last November banning companies from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.
A script I wrote years ago with a high-profile Ukrainian director that initially included a FEMEN demonstration now features a violent gay pride march instead. The director feels that we now have a better chance of receiving state funding.
Gay rights, not sexual tourism, is the new cultural lodestone of the post-revolutionary era in Ukraine.
If Ukraine’s gaze has shifted, it’s also true that the sex tourist geezers of yore have headed for the exits in the wake of the war with Russia. In cafés, I almost never see those bright-eyed, gray-haired men communicating stiltedly with stunning young women through bored translators anymore. Though Ukraine has become a lot cheaper in dollars after the currency collapsed in the wake of the 2014 Maidan Revolution, and its major cities are as safe as their counterparts in the West, fear has kept the sex tourists at bay.
Online forums are chock full of posts warning punters to stay away from Ukraine. One post claimed visitors would be “kidnapped by separatists and tortured, or ambushed by right-wing thugs.”
Julia Omelchuk, a Ukrainian model who works in Milan, noticed that Italian men are afraid of visiting Ukraine. “They think it’s all war and chaos,” she said with a touch of sadness, as we chatted outside the well-organized Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in Kiev last week. The fashion week was held in a brand new glass-and-steel business center on the embankment of the Dnieper that was once a helipad for the ex-President Victor Yanukovych. The complex includes a swanky pan-Asian restaurant that wouldn’t be out of place in New York or London.
The contrast between the cosmopolitan feel of Ukraine’s ambitious capital, which has set its sight on becoming a “European” city under the leadership of its charismatic mayor, former boxing legend Vitaly Klitschko, and outsiders’ negative perceptions couldn’t be greater. With the media focused on casualties of the war in the East and car bomb attacks against dissenting journalists, most Westerners still see the country as an “unstable black hole.”
It’s this fear that has stanched the flow of sex tourists to Ukraine: They’re not an adventurous bunch, after all. They don’t have the grit of war correspondents or even foreign NGO workers. The ideal older sexual predator — whether seeking a wife or a Lolita-esque girlfriend — now prefers to book his holiday in a cheap, friendly, safe country like Thailand — or even Russia, perhaps.
For long-term expats in Ukraine like myself, that’s a good thing. We were tired of our love for our adoptive country being mistaken for sex addiction. It’s also a relief not to have to watch grizzly plumbers from Marseilles, or hoary truck drivers from Ohio prey on young women with few options in life.
While the sex tourists are gone, for the most part young women, unfortunately, have an even harder time in post-revolutionary Ukraine than before. Salaries have plummeted, while inflation has skyrocketed. Many are still keen to seek a more stable future in the West, and are awaiting visa liberalization with the EU with bated breath. A recent survey by a major newspaper indicated that 65 percent of Ukrainians would emigrate to the West, given a chance.
That’s a depressing statistic, and indicates that the demand for a “Western husband” might still be strong, even though the supply has dried up.
When the country stabilizes and Kiev eventually makes peace with Russia, the sexpats may well return. Ukraine, after all, still has some of the most beautiful — and traditional — women in the world. Plenty of newspaper articles, including in London’s Daily Mail and the Independent, make this claim. They’re often praised for being feminine and passive, and for respecting the dominant role of the male in a relationship. For those reasons, many claim that they make ideal wives. That aspect of Ukrainian women hasn’t changed since the revolution.
“Our women still have very traditional ideas about sexual roles,” said Paniotto. “The revolution hasn’t changed the mores of society yet, as some had expected.”
But while Western men wait for Ukraine to stabilize, Kiev, and cities like Odessa, on the Black Sea, have become a hunting ground for another group of less skittish sex tourists: the Turkish Romeos. Locked out of Russia after the public spat between Putin and Erdoğan over the downing of a Russian jet in Syria, Turks with a predilection for Slavic women have focused their energies on Ukraine. They’re a ubiquitous presence these days in the city’s few bright and shiny nightspots.
Having weathered a violent coup and terror attacks by ISIL, the tough Turks — unlike Westerners — aren’t afraid to travel to Ukraine. Visiting Ukraine for sex tourism is such a cliché in Turkey that there’s even a popular film “Sev Beni” (“Love Me”) about a Turkish man who falls in love with a Ukrainian girl during a stag weekend in Kiev.
While Turkish men were once reviled for being uncouth and lacking respect for women, their star has risen now that Europeans have stopped visiting. It’s sad that having fought so hard to join Europe, Ukrainians are still locked out of the Continent, and seek some solace in relations with Turkey, that also feels similarly shunned by Europe. It’s a bitter irony of the heady Maidan Revolution, which neither the gung-ho bride hunters of yore or the topless warriors of FEMEN could have predicted.
Vijai Maheshwari is a writer and journalist. His novel “White God Factor,” about Moscow in the 1990s, was published by London’s Coptic Press. He also publishes a magazine, B.East, about trends in the East and was editor-in-chief of Playboy Russia.