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.