St Petersburg based organisation advocates for the decriminalisation of sex work
Russian prostitutes are “the best in the world” claimed Vladimir Putin, commenting an alleged scandal involving Donald Trump a few months ago. Despite President Putin’s appreciation, sex workers continue to be one of the most stigmatised groups in Russian society.
Three million outcasts
According to article 6.11 of the Russian Administrative Code (“Engagement in Prostitution”), sex work is an administrative offence punishable by a fine of up to 2,000 rubles. Despite the modest fine, being convicted with 6.11 often results in a life-long stigma which prevents sex workers from finding employment elsewhere and turns them into social outcasts.
In Russia, sex workers are frequent victims of violence and their status as “outlaws” dissuades them from asking the police for protection. In fact, a considerable number of abuses suffered by sex workers are perpetrated by the police officers themselves. According to a 2011 poll conducted among 900 prostitutes from St Petersburg and Orenburg, 34% of them had been subjected to sexual coercion by the police in the previous year.
“Three million sex workers in Russia are treated like criminals and are deprived of their civil rights” argues Irina Maslova, an ex-sex worker and head of Silver Rose, the only Russian organisation that represents the interests of people working in the sex industry. Silver Rose was founded in 2003 when the police carried out massive raids in St Petersburg brothels on occasion of the 300th anniversary of the Northern Capital.
“Every time that there is an important event coming up in a Russian city, the police carry out cleansing operations to get rid of all ‘undesirable elements,’” explains Maslova. On that occasion, she experienced police brutality on her own skin. After such episodes, Maslova and other St Petersburg sex workers founded Silver Rose as a peer-to-peer support group. Nowadays, the movement counts more than 400 volunteers in forty Russian cities.
The right to make a choice
Silver Rose defends sex workers’ fundamental rights, providing legal support in case of abuses. Collaborating with other Russian and international NGOs, it carries out prevention programmes aimed at tackling the spread of HIV. While it is a common belief that sex workers are among the main carriers of the AIDS epidemic sweeping across Russia, it is actually sexual coercion and violence against them that facilitates infection.
Silver Rose advocates the decriminalisation of sex work by promoting social tolerance and challenging negative stereotypes. While many critics see the sex work industry as intrinsically coercitive and enslaving, Silver Rose defends adult people’s free choice for engaging in sex work. “People who see us all as victims that need to be saved, deprive us of the right to decide ourselves what we need. This is my body and I have the right to decide what to do with it,” argues Maslova.
According to Maslova, the criminalisation of prostitution is a legacy of the totalitarian Soviet past, when the state meddled in the private lives of citizens in an attempt to keep absolute control over society. “It’s about condemning people for being different, for holding a different set of moral values,” she argues.
The “bread of the police”
Despite numerous attempts to register as an official organisation, Russian authorities rejected the activists requests. The official reason is that “sex worker” does not feature in the official classifier of professions.
The real motivation, according to activists, is that the activity of Silver Rose goes against the interests of law enforcement agencies, which are regularly extorting money from sex workers. “Police officers call sex workers ‘bread’ since they feed on them,” explains Marina, an ex-police officer now working as a lawyer for Silver Rose. Recalling her experience in the police, she laments the lack of motivation among recruits: “Many people do not enrol in the police out of the desire to help citizens, rather, they are looking for power and the chance to abuse it.”
According to the activists, the police obtains evidence against sex workers through illegal means. They break into their apartments without any official permit or approach them disguised as customers, buying their services before detaining them.
In case sex workers don’t have money to pay off the police officers, they are brought to the police station, where they are forced to testify by mean of threats and even physical violence. The policemen often confiscate their phones and threaten to call their families if they refuse to collaborate.
“Policemen do not care if the girl’s’ mother dies of a heart attack or if a girl cuts her wrists out of despair. They only care about filling their report,” comments Marina.
Every week, Marina goes out to the streets of Krasnoyarsk, offering consultations and legal advice to street-based sex workers. However, Marina considers psychological support as one of her most duties. “As long as girls think of themselves as scum, they don’t even think about defending themselves,” she explains. “Our task is to convince them that they are not doing anything wrong, that they deserve protection. Only when they feel the need to know how to defend themselves, then I can help them as a lawyer.”
Silver Rose gathers data on the abuses against sex workers and submits alternative reports to various UN human rights organs. Maslova hopes that continuous international pressure will eventually lead to the decriminalisation of sex work in Russia. In October this year, the UN committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights addressed the Russian government with a recommendation to stop discrimination against sex workers, by allowing them full access to health care, reigning in police violence, and taking into consideration the decriminalisation of sex work.
“We are trying to change the system both from inside and outside, and will continue to appeal to our government so that eventually it is compelled to repeal article 6.11” says Maslova.