The Price of Sex
Trafficked across the borders of the former Soviet bloc,
the forgotten girls and women of Victor Malarek's new book are known in the sex
trade as Natashas.
For those who have observed the astronomical growth of the
global sex trade in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe over the past 15
years, the shock of Victor Malarek's "The Natashas" is unfortunately
all too familiar. But Malarek brings home the severity and tragedy of the
phenomenon through the personal stories of women who have been trafficked, his
encounters with peacekeepers across the world, and interviews with both men and
women who valiantly try to combat the ever-growing phenomenon with little
success and, often, great personal cost.
The most unusual part of this investigation is that it is written by a male.
Malarek's outrage at fellow men who blithely have sex with women whose tortured
bodies reveal that they are not willing prostitutes, or at international
peacekeepers who boast of the sex slaves they have bought, is a rare occurrence
in the trafficking discourse. While many men have written eloquently on the drug
trade, human smuggling and the arms market, anti-trafficking literature and
activism is dominated by women. The reasons are obvious -- the physical and
psychological suffering of young women, often minors, moves other women to
demand action from their governments and multilateral organizations. And yet,
with the exceptions of U.S. Congressman Chris Smith and Senators Sam Brownback
and Paul Wellstone, who sponsored anti-trafficking legislation in 2000, few men
have been as determined activists against the sex trade as Malarek.
Indeed, Malarek correctly reports, the activists, investigators and NGOs
combating the problem at its frontlines are among the few to be admired. The
poor countries that provide most of the trafficked women are too corrupt and
indifferent to address the problem, even though, in some of these countries, the
loss of women to trafficking is already having demographic consequences, a fact
overlooked by Malarek.
Ironically, recent economic and political advances for women in Western
countries have dramatically lowered and jeopardized the status of women from
former socialist states. As fewer domestic women voluntarily enter prostitution
in more affluent societies, the demand for foreign workers rises. Unfortunately,
the richer countries are doing little to reverse the process. Instead, South
Korea has expanded the number of entertainment visas issued to Russians and
other foreign women. These visas are nothing more than a cover for prostitution.
Malarek also neglects to mention that his own country, Canada, has dramatically
increased the number of visas issued to dancers, swelling the number of
Nor has the price for sexual services in Western Europe kept pace with
inflation. As Paul Holmes, one of the world's best anti-trafficking cops,
explained to me several years ago when he was still working in London's Charing
Cross police station, during the years he fought trafficking, the costs of
housing, food and all consumer goods rose dramatically. Only the cost of sexual
services did not go up, testifying to the enormous increase in the availability
of prostitutes from Eastern Europe.
Singling out Germany and the Netherlands as particular magnets for trafficked
women, Malarek suggests that the recent legalization of prostitution in those
countries merely expanded demand for foreign trade, since Western European women
who have alternative job prospects are less willing to seek employment in their
countries' huge red-light districts. According to Malarek, the Dutch sex
industry now makes up 5 percent of that nation's economy. There is therefore a
financial disincentive in countries such as the Netherlands to address the
A recent criminological conference in Amsterdam that I attended featured a tour
of the city's red-light district meant to highlight the successes of the Dutch
regulatory approach. However, Russian and Ukrainian attendees returned from a
lengthy trip to the same neighborhood complaining that all they saw there were
women from their own countries. The opening plenary address by one of the
Netherlands' top organized-crime specialists, Cyrille Fijnaut, echoed concerns
that the legalization of prostitution has greatly increased trafficking. No
European country has found the panacea.
Malarek also discusses the abuse of trafficked women in the Balkans by NATO and
by U.S., Canadian, British, Russian and French peacekeepers and DynCorp
employees. In possibly the most moving part of the book, he documents the
aborted raids of the United Nations International Police Task Force, the
frightened and tortured young girls, and the harassment by their superiors of
the few Americans ready to stand up to this mistreatment. It is an ugly story,
repeated throughout the world wherever peacekeepers are assigned. The abuse of
these women and the profits that accrue to the traffickers merely embed the
illegal sex trade more deeply in the community, undermining the democratizing
objectives of the peacekeeping missions.
If locals fail to stand up to the traffickers, it is often because the women
imprisoned in the brothels adjoining the peacekeeping missions are imported from
countries further east. Simply referred to as "Natashas," as Malarek
explains, the women have already lost their names and identities. It is a
phenomenon all too familiar in recent European history: dehumanization of the
Other and a readiness to overlook gross abuses of foreigners and weaker members
of society. In this respect, as well as in others, sex trafficking recalls the
genocides of the mid-20th century. Like many Holocaust victims who survived
World War II, the victims of trafficking are rarely able to rebuild their lives.
As Malarek points out, some 50 percent of women who escape from their
traffickers wind up being retrafficked. The reasons are clear: Broken by the
experience, these women have no other way of earning a living. The traffickers
who control the business are sophisticated, organized criminals with private
intelligence services. Often, victims on the run are grabbed at airports by
elements of the trafficking network and returned to sexual exploitation. In
other cases, the traffickers hunt girls back to their home communities, where
their families lack the resources to protect them. Widespread corruption in the
law enforcement agencies of most regions of the former Soviet Union rules out
security for these most vulnerable of victims.
As one International Organization of Migration official in a major source
country explained to me, "we can repair the broken jaws and provide false
teeth to replace those knocked out by the traffickers, but there is nothing we
can do to heal the psychological damage. There is no place for the returned
trafficking victims in this society." The same helplessness could be heard
from NGO caregivers in Siberia who had tried to repatriate victims from their
Social advances for women in Western Europe have
jeopardized women from former socialist states.
I concur with Malarek's conclusion that, despite new anti-trafficking
legislation, an increased awareness among the public, and the significant
resources allocated to fight trafficking by both the United States and Western
European countries, little success has been achieved in stemming the problem.
The profits are so enormous, the risk so low for the traffickers and the supply
of impoverished women so great that trafficking has expanded almost unhindered
to meet the rising demand.
Can the activism of women in the United States, Western Europe and the source
countries be sustained over the years it will take to address the problem? The
19th century saw the outlawing and sharp reduction of slavery in many areas of
the world as a consequence of significant popular movements. Perhaps, with such
determination, the 21st century will also see a decline in human trafficking,
one of the most tragic forms of contemporary slavery.
Louise I. Shelley is a professor at the School of International Service and
the founder and director of the Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at
American University (www.american.edu/traccc).
Along with Sally Stoecker, she is an editor of "Human Traffic and
Transnational Crime: Eurasian and American Perspectives," to be published
later this fall.
Copyright © 2004 The Moscow Times. All