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.

By Louise I. Shelley
Published: September 17, 2004

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 trafficked women.

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 problem.

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.


Social advances for women in Western Europe have jeopardized women from former socialist states.

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 region.

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 ( Along with Sally Stoecker, she is an editor of "Human Traffic and Transnational Crime: Eurasian and American Perspectives," to be published later this fall.