Opinion: Behind the myth of the "happy hooker"

CHISINAU, Moldova and CHICO, California — “They brought us to a hotel and led us up a staircase — seven floors.

"I remember … wondering when they would let me go to my sister. The big Russian woman led us into a room with couches against the walls. There were men sitting, talking, drinking tea, laughing on the couches. One girl started to cry silently. I suddenly understood what was happening.

"They made the first girl stand in the middle of the room. They ordered her to take off her top. She hesitated so they beat her. Then it was my turn. I lifted my top for a second and pulled it right down. Then I noticed the curtains fluttering out the open window…. Time slowed. I heard a ringing in my ears and the room faded. I remember that I said a prayer — ‘God give me wings.’ I ran across the room and jumped over the men on the couch and out the window.”

When Marina woke up in the hospital she had shattered one leg and broken the other. She had a concussion and some internal bleeding. It was only then that she discovered that the Russian woman she had paid to take her to Italy had taken her to Istanbul instead and sold her to modern-day slavers. She was one of several women being auctioned to brothel owners when she jumped out the hotel window.

I met Marina in the fall of 2008 in her village, Drotcia, where I was doing field research for a book on human trafficking. One of her legs is held together by a pin and she walks with a pronounced limp. She continues to suffer from nightmares and headaches. Yet, hers is a rare success story. Many thousands of other women from Russia and Eastern Europe are not so lucky.

Generating an estimated $32 billion dollars annually, human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal activity in the world today. It is also the most lucrative. According to a 2005 International Labor Office (ILO) report, just a single female held for sexual exploitation yields an average of $67,200 annually in Western Europe and North America.

The United Nations estimates that between 800,000 and 4 million men, women and children are deceived, recruited, transported from their homes and sold into slavery around the world each year. Eighty percent are women, girls and young boys trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation. Of these, more than 200,000 women and children from Russia and Eastern Europe are forced into prostitution each year.

Western demand for Eastern European prostitutes fuels today’s sex-slave industry. Currently, the market for Slavic woman and children in brothels and in pornography in "developed" countries — particularly the EU and the U.S. — is the hottest compared to other parts of the world, and is drawing on an endless supply of impoverished and vulnerable women.

A multitude of recent studies try to explain why women get snared into the trade in flesh. Researchers point to poverty, chronic unemployment, domestic violence and drug addiction as the primary “push factors.”

But sadly, there isn’t enough discussion of the real root of the problem — the men. Human trafficking is basically  international sexual terrorism perpetrated against women and children on a mass scale by men. It is their demand for illicit or predatory sex that generates huge profits for the slavers and leaves behind the tortured minds and broken bodies of those women and children they violate.

According to a 2008 study by the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, the majority of men who buy prostitutes do so in order to obtain sex they are uncomfortable asking for. As one interviewee put it, “I want to pay someone to do something a normal person wouldn’t do. To piss on someone or pay someone to do something degrading.” The same study revealed that johns subscribe to a tremendous amount of denial — 87 percent thought women choose prostitution, “just like any job,” and 64 percent believed that the women they bought were sexually satisfied by the encounter.

Though corresponding data isn't easily accessible in Eastern Europe, it is widely assumed by experts that men in most countries share the same beliefs. Research suggests that in most countries men buy women with impunity. For example, Victor Malarek, in his recent book "The Johns," cites numerous international studies that estimate that approximately 70 percent of men in southeast Asia and Japan buy sex; and between 19 and 39 percent of European men regularly buy sex depending on the country.

And yet, the vast majority of women worldwide who engage in prostitution endure extreme abuse and violence, ranging from being raped to being kicked while pregnant or being choked with wire. Many prostitutes interviewed in a U.S. nationwide survey in 2004 said they had been punched, burned with cigarettes, hit with baseball bats and had their heads slammed into walls and floors, or held underwater in the toilet. That same survey revealed that 64 percent of women suffered permanent disabilities as a result of beatings and 33 percent had sodomy forced upon them. A 2006 British study held similar findings — 80 percent reported being “severely” beaten and 90 percent were forced into engaging in sexual acts they refused to perform.

If we are to really address the horror of the buying, selling and trafficking of human beings for sexual exploitation, then we must make efforts to stop the demand by making the buying of sex a crime with harsh penalties. At the same time, the selling of sex should be decriminalized so that the women, who are already victims, are not further abused by the penal and immigration systems. (Legalization of prostitution only exacerbates slavery — human trafficking flourishes where prostitution is legal.) It is time we recognize that the commodification of women and children is a nefarious form of sexual violence and stop pretending that it is benign.

Prostitution is rarely a free choice and it is never a preferred career path. Behind the myth of the “happy hooker,” hides a horrific human rights abuse.

Kate Transchel is a professor of Russian and Eastern European history at California State University in Chico, California. She is currently working on a monograph entitled, "Hidden in Plain Sight: An Oral History of Slavery from Russia and Eastern Europe."