Tatiana Vinogradova

2017 - Ongoing

The documentary project “Girls” is devoted to the problem of prostitution in Russia. It is a story about women and their destinies, the choices they do and don’t have, their strength and their weakness.

According to data collected by numerous nonprofit organizations, there are around three million female sex workers in Russia. In Saint Petersburg, 50 to 70 thousand women are involved in the sex industry; 40% of them are locals. For the sake of comparison: there are around 39 thousand school teachers in Saint Petersburg.

Despite the stereotypes, only a small percentage of these women become involved in the sex industry due to drug or alcohol addiction or extreme poverty. The majority of female sex workers are ordinary women with higher education, who have previously worked as salespeople, managers, teachers, etc. The decline of the Russian economy and the difficulty of finding well-paid work, combined with the burden of bank loans, mortgages and dependents, has led more and more women to join the sex industry.

Violence, at the hands of both clients and police officers, is a constant presence for women working in the Russian sex industry. After years of work and intense research, the non-profit organization “Silver Rose” has documented thousands of cases of assault, rape and murder of female sex workers. 80% of prostitutes surveyed had been physically injured, 43% raped and 15% threatened with weapons.

Indirectly, Russian law (Clause 6.11 of the Code of the Russian Federation on Administrative Offenses) actually exposes women to corruption and violence at the hands of officers, who often visit brothels undercover and use the women’s services. They then reveal their identity and threaten the women with fines, arrest and physical violence in order to extort bribes or force women to sign a confession. The law also mandates that all women convicted of sex work must be included in a database that can be accessed by many major employers. This can be used as a threat by officers to blackmail women, and it also makes it very difficult for women to leave the sex industry once their name is in the database.

I spent a year serving as a volunteer for the “Silver Rose” project, which focuses on AIDS prevention among female sex workers. I had a chance to visit brothels and talk to the women who worked there. I was astonished by the matter-of-fact, everyday way that they spoke about the trials they faced on a daily basis - physical and sexual violence, police blackmail, criminal raids by gangsters with knives and guns and their complete lack of legal protection and rights. What’s going on here? Could it be that it is the destiny of Russian women, who have suffered in silence for generations, to meekly accept their historic fate? Or are these women victims of the particular social and economic situation they find themselves in, which forces them into this world of violence, cruelty and humiliation? How can it be that a woman’s body, considered the pinnacle of creation, an object worthy of admiration and even worship, is being sold, exploited and subjected to violence on a daily basis and with complete impunity.

{{ readMoreButton }}

  • Natasha, 35, was born and raised in Arkhangelsk in the far North. She started working at 14, and was employed as a porter, courier and a shop assistant. Because of her alcohol addiction, Natasha lost her apartment and ended up living on the street, in old attics, basements, heating pipes. At night she often wandered around the town by herself. One day when she was 23 a car she didn’t know stopped right in front of her and she was offered a job. She’s been working in sex industry ever since. During this time, Natasha has experienced frequent police raids, sexual violence from clients and a dangerous job as a Moscow freeway prostitute. Recently Natasha underwent a complicated gynecological operation, but had to go back to work after several weeks since she needed money for medicine and rent.

    Natasha says: “The bosses leave the girls on a freeway at night. Cars stop right in front of you. They can take you to a forest, or a construction site - wherever they want. Nobody cares. One time they just put me in a car, took me to a forest and then raped me - all 13 men. Belorussian construction workers went first, then some Tajiks joined in. I had to put up with it. I was really scared - I had nowhere to run, and if I tried to say anything, they would just break my neck and leave me in the forest. In situations like that you have to take your pride and shove it up your ass - they all were drunk and high, who knows what could have happened”.

  • Asya, 30, moved to Saint Petersburg from Vladivostok four years ago. After spending some time in a training college studying mechanical engineering, Asya dropped out and subsequently found work as an electrician, janitor, landscaper, press manager and plasterer. Before turning to sex work, Asya worked as a cleaner. She was paid a miserly wage for hard 16-hour shifts but her requests for a raise were denied. In 2017, after thinking about it for a long time, she gave up searching for an alternative occupation and found a brothel’s address online. She went for an interview and stayed there as a sex worker. She explains how she soon grew completely disillusioned with men and stopped believing in fairytales about true love.
    Asya says: “My mom was always telling me: “You should just find yourself a good husband. Why bother getting higher education? You’re a girl, you don’t need it”. So they only helped my brother get a degree. Now my mother and my brother both know what I do for a living. At first my mom tried to change my mind, going on about morality and asking me why I was doing it. But I said: “Hello, you haven’t supported me since I was 16. I’ll never get this amount money anywhere else”. My brother joked about it at first, he didn’t believe I could go for such a job. When he saw that I could, he cut all ties with me”.

  • Alice, 27, was born in Saint Petersburg. She is a single mother, who has been working in the sex industry for 10 years. When Alice was 17, she dropped out of her college program in fashion design, found a vacancy in a newspaper called “Job for You” and ended up working in a brothel. Alice has been a victim of countless police raids, criminal attacks and sexual violence from her clients. However, Alice says her job as a sex worker saves her from loneliness and makes her feel validated as a woman. Alice’s dream is to get pregnant with her second child - she’s planning to use the service of a sperm bank in future to make it possible.

    Alice says: “One time we were at a sauna with some ex-convicts. After 5 hours of work we started packing up, I was already putting on my stockings. Suddenly one of our clients came up to me and started punching me right in the face. In the end they decided to take us hostage and refused to let us go until they got a ransom - our driver ended up getting the money for them. As you may guess, we didn’t inform the police afterwards. The brothel's management refused to reimburse our losses because this case counted as “force majeure”.

  • Mila, 27, was born in Nizhny Novgorod and grew up in an orphanage. She dropped out of a teacher-training college after two years and worked as a cashier and a logistics manager. One time Mila and her friend saw a newspaper advertisement offering jobs as masseuses. They called the number and found out the job was not in a massage parlour, but in a brothel in Saint Petersburg. Neither of the girls could support themselves at that time - they even wore each other’s clothes to save money. After thinking it over for a long time, they decided to try. They told their friends that they were going to Saint Petersburg to sew curtains. Mila has been working in the sex industry for six years.
    Mila says: “I’ve been caught up in lots of police raids, at least six. I was also held at the police station, but I would always bribe them to let me go. Policemen just want money. They charge Russian girls 3000 roubles; Uzbek girls have to pay 5 to 15 thousand, black girls are charged crazy money. Some of the girls were kept there for 2-3 days. There were also times when policemen came and robbed the brothel, took all the alcohol, valuable stuff, money - even the food from the fridge”.

  • Elena, 53, was born in Saint Petersburg. She was married for 25 years, but her husband died not long ago. She has two grown up children and grandchildren too. A qualified industrial machinery technician, she worked for many years in the industry. However, she was made redundant due to her age and found herself with nothing to live on. Her husband was died, her kids had grown up and she had no job. On the recommendation of a friend, she entered the sex industry. The money she earns has allowed her to travel a lot. In five years she’s visited fourteen countries. Elena’s children know about her current profession.
    Elena says: “The key to success is to flatter these stupid men. I mess around with them - I say nice things but I’m thinking “I wish you were dead!” I always stroke their hands, legs, compliment their skin. They love compliments - they are such idiots. For real. And sex - well, it’s always for 5 minutes maximum. The rest of the time it’s just bla-bla-bla. As I get older, I feel like longer sex is more humiliating - I feel more used. It’s so disgusting and gross that it makes me want to cry. But I think about the money and put up with it. Urgh! Sometimes they smell so bad, a mouldy smell, like in a zoo. And they’ve all got verucas and warts! How can their wives live with them! I even say that to them, but they don’t give a shit, they don’t even blush”.

  • Lily, 25, born in Saint Petersburg, is divorced and has a young child. She’s got a degree in Manufacturing Management but after graduating she’s worked as a waitress, cashier and administrator, and also in marketing. Her ex-husband was planning to start his own car repair business and took out a $7000 bank loan in Lily’s name. However, the business went bankrupt, Lily and her husband divorced and he refused to pay back the loan. There was even a period when she couldn’t afford to buy food. To pay back the loan, she decided to start working in a brothel - she’s been a sex worker since 2017.
    Lily says: “Before starting at the brothel, I didn’t have a goddamn thing. No lipstick, no mascara, no tights, nothing. There were times when I couldn’t even eat. I needed money and needed to be doing something. I couldn’t care less what might happen to me. I was so mad at my husband; I think that also influenced my decision to work in the sex industry. I thought: “it’s better to be fucked by all the men in the city than that moron...” But I also have a dream - I want to open a coffee house. Clients laugh when they hear that. Why? Because I’m a hooker”.

  • Zhenya, 37, was born and raised in Saint Petersburg. She is a single mom with a degree in sports management; she used to work in the security team at a private company. After her divorce, Zhenya was left with no financial support. She says that she had been thinking about sex work since she was 18, when she first watched the Soviet film “Intergirl”. Zhenya first came to a brothel after finding its address in an advertisement. She’s been employed in the industry since 2015 and she says that the job has greatly improved her self-esteem.

    Zhenya says: “One time I had a client who was a member of the city government. He was a totally obese, disgusting man. As soon as he found out about all my additional services, he started basically raping me for two hours. I couldn’t even scream - he squashed me under his entire weight and raped me. I could hardly breathe. Despite hearing my moans and screams, the administrator didn’t react - she thought I was screaming out of pleasure. I was in such pain afterwards that no money could ever fix that”.

  • Maya, 24, was born and grew up in Bashkiria. She’s got a college degree in sociology and has worked as a dancer, dishware retailer and bank clerk. In 2011 she moved to Saint Petersburg and got a job in a sex shop, but her salary was incredibly low - $10 per day. Maya couldn’t afford to pay her rent, so she had to sleep on friends’ couches. One day she saw an ad offering “Work for young women”, which promised decent pay and housing. Out of curiosity Maya decided to go for an interview and ended up staying. She started doing sex work when she was 18 years old. When she got her first wages, she bought food and an orthopedic pillow.
    Maya says: “Before starting out in the sex industry, I imagined prostitutes as gorgeous, model-like girls in chic lingerie, or, on the other side, drug addicts and alcoholics waiting for clients at the side of the road. Two extremes. It turns out that they are ordinary women - former teachers, shop assistants. I was so surprised”.

  • Anna, 38, was born and raised in Saint Petersburg. She got married shortly after graduating from high school. Her husband didn’t want her to go to university so she never got any qualifications. Now she is a divorced single mom with two children; her ex-husband is reluctant to pay alimony or support her financially. Before entering the sex industry, Anna worked as a typographer’s assistant, a real estate agent, a seamstress and a cashier. After the financial crisis of 2014 prices went up and Anna’s wages went down, with her bonuses stopping completely. Her family was on the brink of poverty. Since 2015, she’s been working in a brothel. She says that her income is now 3-4 times higher than it was; her job allowed her to buy a laptop for her son, install double glazed windows in her apartment and afford braces for herself.

    Anna says: “I remember how I came to that brothel for the first time. I thought I would see lavish interiors, leather couches, mirrors, mosaics on the walls, enormous pools. It turned out to be a gloomy, smoke-filled apartment. The administrator - a woman in her fifties wearing sweatpants and flip-flops - immediately started convincing me to stay: “Work with us - I’ll find you a towel right away! Such a pretty woman like you could get $50-100 a day. In Europe all this is legal and socially acceptable. We do all the same things with our men at home, but for free, right? Here you’ll meet interesting people and get flowers and candy boxes”.

  • Linda, 37, is a single mother-of-one with a degree in economics. She has worked in customer service, sales, a factory and a call center. In 2010 she took a bank loan for 7 thousand dollars to invest in her business, but it went bankrupt. Threats started coming to her home address saying that she had to pay up. She moved to Saint Petersburg to try and earn the money. She tried to find a good job that matched her qualifications and experience, but when that didn’t work out she decided to try the sex industry. One time Linda and her friend were “delivered” to a police station, where they had to do three hours work for free. She uses the money she earns to support her elderly parents and save up for her retirement.
    Linda says: “Employers in this country are absolutely sexist. When I was looking for a job they just gave excuses - “You’re not married. You have a little child. You’re too old. Too young. Not enough education, not enough experience…” - anything to avoid hiring a woman. Many women turn to the sex industry when they’re around 40 because nobody wants to give a good job to a 40 year-old woman. In Russia, 40 is considered old. Until that changes, poor women will be forced into prostitution.”

  • Vera, 45, was born in Saint Petersburg. She is a single mom, who worked for twenty years as a staff cook, and for four years after that - as a caretaker on a construction site. In 2011 Vera’s son was diagnosed with schizophrenia - he had to drop out of school and needed medication, doctors and tutors. Vera had no one to help her and her salary, $400 a month, was far from enough to support her and her son. One day she saw a job posting for “nightclub administrator” - the club turned out to be a sauna with sex services available upon request. Out of desperation, Vera took the job - she’s been working in the sex industry for two years now.

    Vera says: “From my early childhood I was always a shy, miserable, unpopular kid. My mom was always calling me clumsy and ugly - she was constantly putting me down. I got married at 23 - I thought it would be forever and ever. I was such a good wife, so dutiful, caring; I was a great mother and I sincerely loved my husband. But he turned out to be an alcoholic - we got divorced after 8 years. I realized that marriage wasn’t a woman’s ticket to live happily ever after - it was an illusion. Men just need sex. And I need money”.