Armed with high heels and wit, these rebels are quintessential Ukrainian women. Their crusade is not as weighty as the Orange political revolt, but their aims are lofty all the same.
The women’s organization Femen – a derivative of feminine – wants to knock prostitution and sex tourism offtheir legs in Ukraine with the help of unconventional street shows.
In front of the Turkish embassy on Sept. 21, a dozen Femen members were dressed as sexy nurses. Their smudged makeup, high pink heels and infectious giggles washed away the blues of another rainy weekend in Kyiv.
The orchestrator behind this acting and playing is an entertainment event organizer from Khmelnytsky who graduated with a degree in economics. But the Femen leader, Anna Hutsol, who at 23 is several years older than most in the group, has more than fun and games in mind.
Hutsol wants to rid Ukraine of a virus she describes as sex tourism, an affliction that many foreigners – not just Turks – seem to catch when visiting the nation. And if sexiness can help drive home the protesters’ point, so much the better.
Femen’s Turkish embassy protest was the third erotically-flavored media event this year. Prior to it, the girls laid out their slogan “Ukraine is not a brothel” with their own bodies on the hill in front of the Cabinet of Ministers. At the end of July they stormed Independence Square, the place of the fateful Orange revolt in 2004 that overturned a rigged presidential election. Together with pop stars, they staged a play about how foreigners smell Ukrainian roses but fail to pick them – meaning that some expatriates seek out Ukraine for no other reason than to propose sex to women, hence the term “sexpats.”
The unconventional methods of Femen raise questions about the group’s effectiveness and how they expect to achieve their goals.
“If we dressed like cleaners, we would not attract as much attention to the issue,” Hutsol said, defending the skimpy outfits and screaming lipstick of her fellow campaigners.
“Our (Ukrainian) girls are used to wearing short skirts,” she said. “It’s a part of our culture. But we are not for sale.”
One method of stopping the growing trend, Hutsol suggests, is self-control. “Foreign men should simply stay out of Ukraine if they cannot restrain themselves,” she said. Failing that, Hutsol thinks Femen can still make a difference.
How did this become her burning issue?
In high school, she dreamed of marrying a French man. But this dream faded with the reality that a foreign tongue does not always speak love or truth.
Later, Hutsol became attuned to the sad stories of girls duped by false promises from abroad. So she founded Femen and started the group’s public theater – or protests with flair – this year.
Female university students between 18 and 20 years old form the backbone of her movement. Their exact number is hard to track because Femen has not been registered as a public organization yet. But Hutsol estimates that there are nearly one thousand of them communicating through social nets on the web.
The young women are racking their brains, trying to find the best ways to wake up law-enforcement agencies, legislators and the public at large to the reality of the sex trade industry.
They are doing so without the luxury of an office or a budget.
They usually meet in a Soviet-style cafeteria next to Russian banyas in the center of Kyiv.
After the Turkish protest on Sept. 21, the rain drove the women into the nearest cheap pizza parlor to brainstorm their next event. Wet and happy, they tossed out ideas with the intensity of the raindrops outside.
“How about we campaign against fur?”
“In winter, we should make snowmen with anti-sex slogans and put them in front of all the embassies!”
“We should disrupt [Interior Minister Yuriy] Lutsenko’s visit to the book fair and present him with our own book of sex centers in Ukraine,” they said, referring to Lutsenko’s recent visit to a book fair in Lviv.
They discussed whether the book should be pink and whether a girl dressed like an angel should present it to the minister. For these women, putting on a good show seems more important than having a plan for what comes next.
They are aware of their limitations.
“We are not going to become policemen or write laws for the politicians. We will shout, dance or sing about the problem and they should take action,” said Viktor Svyatskiy, one of the few men in the movement.
“A woman in this country is born as a sex object,” Svyatskiy said. “The mentality from the film “Pretty Woman” prevails in our culture and I don’t like it.”
Femen leaders blame the economy as the ultimate cause for sidelining women and letting them slip into sexy high heels to make a living. They also blame foreigners who fail to learn that prostitution is illegal in Ukraine and arrive for sex services in large numbers.
Svyatskiy said that a couple of middle-range hotels in Kyiv regularly arrange viewings of girls from the suburbs to groups of foreigners who arrive on business.
“A bus pulls in the backyard with high school girls. Turks that arrived for a textile exhibition make their choice and take them up to their rooms,” Svyatskiy said, describing how the system of sex trade works in Ukraine. He says that girls usually hop on this bus to pay off a debt, to earn some cash or because they were fooled.
Together with the Institute of Political, Sociological and Marketing research, Femen polled 1,200 female students in Kyiv. Their findings suggest that nearly 70 percent of those polled were proposed sex for money and most offers came from Turkish men.
With Euro 2012 approaching, Femen wants sex tourism defined and officially banned. Its leaders suggest imposing criminal responsibility on traveling “sexpats,” the word that is used to describe expatriate tourists looking for sex.
Hutsol is adamantly opposed to legalizing prostitution in Ukraine.
“We live in a wild country. You can’t do it here,” she said. “More women will slip if we make it legal.”
The teenagers surrounding her are nodding. They are young, naive, enthusiastic and hungry for action. But without funding and support, they are afraid they will fizzle out.
Masquerading on the streets of Kyiv keeps them going for now. But it will take more than a show from the pink brigade to shatter Ukraine’s stereotype as a country of relatively cheap, readily available and no-strings-attached sex.
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