“I don’t plan to give up prostitution, because I consciously chose this profession.”
Attitudes in Russia towards sex-industry workers are contradictory. Some people view prostitution as a societal evil that needs to be eradicated. Others consider it a “regular profession” and are fighting to legalize it. In any case, sex work in Russia is a field that remains unstudied and obscure. As yet, it escapes the attention of the authorities. At the same time, there are around 500 bordellos in St. Petersburg, with hundreds of workers. Their lives are the subject of countless urban legends, unfounded stereotypes, fear, and conjecture.
Lera Viktorova (her name has been changed), is 36 years old. For seventeen of those years she has worked in the sex industry. She has been living and working in St. Petersburg for ten years now. In our interview, Lera tells us about the difficulties sex workers encounter in Russia, about how to protect yourself from possible risks, and how to live a full and authentic family life while working in a “massage parlor,” or salon providing intimate services (called “the House,” for the purposes of this interview.)
Lera, why did you choose this profession?
– From necessity, at first. Because of financial instability. I started working in 2003. I had a small child then, a son, who is now eighteen. He was born when I was seventeen. At that time I was married, but I got divorced. Back then, the whole country had collapsed. It was very hard to find a way to provide for myself and my small child. I was working at a carwash, and I realized that I just wasn’t going to make it. Every human being needs some kind of emotional support, someone who has your back. If you don’t have that, you have to make choices on your own. It was then that I realized that I liked sex work, that it was “mine.” I even have a higher degree—I’m an economist. But I don’t see the point in getting paid 30—40 thousand rubles a month (450—550 dollars), when I can earn 100—150 thousand (1,500—2,000 dollars) doing this.
What do you like about the work? (Besides the pay.)
I really don’t have to put too much effort into it. The job isn’t stressful. Of course, sometimes, when you work with a client for a long time, you get tired of drinking with him, entertaining him and laughing at his dumb jokes. Some clients need constant attention. I take a smoke break, and then get right back to it—offering sexual delights and comforts. Sometimes I’m so tired after a week of this that I can’t even talk anymore. But there are more positive aspects to the work than negative; in my case, anyway. I’ve always had good luck with my clients. No one has ever tried to humiliate me, to beat me. That has happened to other girls, of course. Everyone has a different story. But that’s their experience. My practice has been much easier: a respectful attitude towards me, nice conversation, and, maybe, pretty good sex. Maybe good sex while high on alcohol, or some chemsex. Almost every girl in this line of work tries drugs. You can’t escape it. But, again, if you’ve got half a brain you know when to stop.
But are there any hidden downsides, things that aren’t that obvious?
– Once you start, it’s really hard to quit. You get used to always having money. You can make 30 thousand rubles (450 dollars) in one shift. Even if I’m not done with my shift, but I already know how much I’ve pulled in, I can take five or six thousand (70 or 80 dollars) from the cash register, say, and order some take-out. For the most part, even the people who come into the work with one specific goal or some inner doubts about it (“I’ll make some money and then quit” or “I’ll buy an apartment first, and then get out”) never leave. Get married? To a client? That’s absurd. There’s not a single client who would ever make a good husband.
Does it ever happen?
– Sure. Clients want free sex. And when they’re sick of you they throw you out. Meanwhile, you dream up all kinds of fairy tales, thinking everything’s going to turn out all right. And you’d better hope you don’t get pregnant. That’s a complete disaster. Then you have to slave away to support the child.
Have any of your clients wanted to have a serious relationship with you?
– Of course.
Did you refuse?
– Why refuse what people give you from no other motive but love? Lots of guys just want to make you happy. Sometimes they buy you perfume, give you jewelry or flowers, a box of candy. That makes them happy, too—simple gestures of kindness. Just to see you smile. Because what you think, the way you feel about them, is important to them. They appreciate what you give them. What I mean is they relate to us not as some inferior class of people, but as real women. They don’t pay for sex with me, they aren’t buying me—they’re paying for the time I spend with them.
We’ve heard that sex workers prefer not to spend time with clients when they’re not on the job.
I only spend time with one former client outside of work. I’ve known him for ten years. He’s already like a friend of the family. Sometimes we’ll get together, have a drink, go to the movies. When he was my client, we never had sex per se. We just drank ourselves silly for a few hours. And that cemented the friendship. Otherwise, no—I don’t mix work with private life. A client is work. Home is something else. It’s like having a split personality. On the job I’m Lera the Whore, but in everyday life, I’m, basically, Lera the Unapproachable Woman.
Do other girls have close relations with their clients?
A lot of them do. But I don’t see the sense in it. Because they date for two or three months, live together for a while, and then it’s back to square one. “Hey, girls, I’m coming back to work.” “But you said you had gotten married?” Men are very sly. They know how to charm a girl. Especially the ones who are, in their eyes, socially and economically vulnerable. They think we’re all uneducated idiots. Although at least half the call girls have a higher education and know several languages.
Are their services more expensive?
— No. It only affects the personal relationship with the client. If he sees that you’re not dumb, and that he can have an interesting conversation with you, you’re more attractive to him. Though, for the most part, people like dumb girls more.You have to make him think he’s a macho man—but a smart one.
Is it more profitable to have regular clients?
— Naturally. You can count on them coming to see you and rely on a steady income.
And what about security? Or is there no such question?
— Regular clients can’t be safe. Today he is a regular client, and tomorrow he will be a shit. I never work without the House. The client can come to me 150 times and be good, and after that if I will come alone, maybe he will kill me, beat me, or something else.
Does the House guarantee your safety and afford you physical protection?
— Of course. There are off-premise security guards who come at a moment’s notice. I’m absolutely protected. And I can choose the House I want to work in. If it’s a place where everything is on camera, it’s safe. If not, you’d have to be a fool to work there.
Do you get physical pleasure from your work?
— It depends. Sometimes it’s okay; and sometimes the most that can be said is that it’s not disgusting. Quick and good. My ideal client is someone who puts on the condom, enters, and comes. Just like that, one two three. Those are the best boys. If only they were all like that! (laughs).
What kinds of men visit you most often?
— All kinds. All ages, all social backgrounds: from ordinary working men (not the homeless, though; they can’t afford it), to bankers and government officials.
Do women come to the House?
— Not to the House—we only make home-visits to them. I’ve never worked with women by themselves, only with couples. There’s no demand for it. You only get a request from a single woman every couple of years.
Do you ever have to do things you don’t want to do?
— No. I never do what is unpleasant to me. I just refuse the client.
Are the services fixed?
— Yes, they are. Traditional sex, twice maximum, with a condom, and oral stimulation. That is, I give him oral sex, then regular sex two times, he comes, and then leaves. Sometimes I don’t do anything. We just sit and talk. Everyone visits with a different goal. Sometimes it’s a guy with no personal life at all, sometimes it’s someone who’s sick of his personal life and needs to relax and take a breather. Sometimes there’s a guy who needs the release of a chance encounter—he comes to me, pours out all the crap that has piled up, gets a quick energy-fix, and leaves satisfied. Not only does he get to turn his soul inside out, he gets sucked off in the bargain, what more could he need?
Do people in relationships visit you often?
— Who’s not in a relationship these days? (laughs) Only ten per cent of men aren’t in a relationship. All the others have families, children. Not long ago we had a client with a newborn baby. He just needed to get drunk, and maybe get sucked off, in record time. I understand the guys who spend nine months fussing over their wives. My own wife was pregnant, too. It was pure hell.
You mean you’re in a relationship right now?
— Yes, I’m in a permanent relationship. She knows where I work, and she accepts it. We have a daughter, five years old. We’re a regular family. We live an ordinary life, like everyone else, with the same routines, the same dreams.
Is it hard to maintain romantic relationships if you’re a sexual-services provider?
— Yes. Very, very hard. Because you have to lie. And lying is hard. “I’m working today, honey!” “Where do you work? Let me come and pick you up from work.” How in the hell are you going to meet me if I don’t work as a cashier in a store, as I told you, but in a whorehouse? Relationships like that can’t last forever. It’s deception, and every relationship based on deception, predictably, fails. I think you need to be honest to a fault about these things.
Did you tell your wife immediately?
— Yes, she knows the Life, but from the other side.
Do any of your relatives know where you work?
— Only one of my relatives knows, someone I trust absolutely—my older sister. She accepted it when she saw that, for me, it was already something very normal. I told her a little bit about it, so she wouldn’t be too afraid. Because everyone thinks that if you go into prostitution—it’s like, OMG, you’re going to get raped, they’ll take away your internal passport, you’ll be tied up on a leash, chained down, like in films. People think all sorts of stuff, without really knowing anything . . . even that film, The Spot [dir. Yury Moroz, 2006—interviewers note]. The girls stand around on the street, and guys drive up, saying: “Hey, chick, get over here.” That’s not at all what it’s like for us!
Really? But there is cheap-sex business that offers its services in that way.
— If you’re a complete idiot, go ahead. Stand on a street corner. It’s ridiculous. Yes, that kind of thing still exists. But what kinds of girls are they? Drug addicts with HIV who need a fix. They’ll do anything you want once they get in the car.
Does anyone in the House ever test positive for AIDS?
— No. I tested three girls from three different Houses, forty in all. There were Russians, Uzbeks, and Black girls. Not a single one tested positive. At the same time, the Houses have no strict controls on anything. If we think we need it, we do it. No one will lift a finger for you. No one needs you. No one pays any attention to you.
Doesn’t the House supply you with condoms?
— No, they don’t give a damn if you’ve got rubbers on you or not. Who’s going to spend the money on you? It does happen, of course, that you run out. They’ll give you some, but then you have to pay them back.
What exactly does the House do for you?
— They give me a place to live, a driver, advertising promotion, and work. Our job is to meet, greet, entertain, and see out the door.
Do you always have protected sex?
Are there clients who would prefer unprotected sex?
— Every other guy. Sometimes they even take off the condom and think you won’t notice they’re trying to sneak into you without it. And when you offer to test them first, they say: “But why? I got a blood test yesterday. I’m clean!” But they can’t produce a certificate with the results. (laughs)
So you test clients for HIV? Because there is a risk . . .
— There’s a risk, of course. But, again—protected sex and lubricants help. You have to put the condom on properly, so it won’t tear. And if you sense you’re too dry, apply some lubrication. Because sometimes it goes on and on, for forty or fifty minutes. He enters you, and forty minutes later you’re lying there thinking: “Good Lord, when are we going to get this thing over with?!” In our line of work we always monitor our own psychological state and keep a watchful eye on the clients. When an older dude comes in, within five minutes I understand what he needs: whether refined, intelligent interaction, or to be humiliated, or to do some role-playing, calling you names, like: “Hey, you bitch! Hooker! Whore!”
And how do you feel about that?
– I couldn’t care less. As long as there’s no physical discomfort. Morally speaking, I don’t give a damn what he says. It’s impossible to humiliate me by calling me a prostitute, a whore, or a fat cow. Let’s say a dude comes to me and tries to humiliate me. But he gets paid 30 thousand rubles (450 dollars) a month, gives three of it to me, then lives on macaroni and cheese for the rest of the month. Who is he to try and humiliate me?
Do you get blamed and judged by society?
– Yes, and by the same clients. They might say: “You’re all whores here.” We’re not whores. A whore sucks you off for a bottle of vodka in a bar or puts out in the bathroom. But prostitutes like us work for money in exchange for strictly defined services: traditional sex, oral fondling, all with the use of condoms, maximum two times an hour. Max! And that’s if you have time. When time’s up, they knock on the door. No fifteen minutes extra. He gets dressed and leaves. But they think we’re dumb idiots, that we’re afraid of everything. Some of them say: “Let me buy your way out.” Like they’re your saviors or something. They think I’m a sex slave.
Do you feel the government has failed to protect you?
– Absolutely. I’ve been working here for seventeen years without weekends or vacations. Do you think they’ll give me some kind of pension? Even though I work like a horse. Maybe even harder than someone with a factory job. It would be better if I built up a pension, paid taxes, if I knew I could survive in my old age. What do I have now? What’s the minimum pension in Russia? Seven or eight thousand (100 or 150 dollars)? I survive, and I earn bundles of money. But I can’t take out a mortgage, I can’t tell the bank that I earn 2,000 dollars a month as a prostitute! Who would believe me? In Germany they supply the girls with condoms. They even have a trade union. An effing trade union! It’s unbelievable! They can get credit, and at a lower interest rate, as an economically disadvantaged group, The government actually helps them! They take a client to court if he doesn’t pay, for example. But I have no protection whatsoever. I can’t even say that I’m officially unemployed if I go to the hospital. I only go to my own, trusted gynecologist. But my doctors don’t know about my profession. They think I’m a nymphomaniac. When I had my tonsils removed, and I had to go back to work right away, I told the doctor: “My fiancé and I are going on vacation, and we like to engage in oral sex. When will it be safe to practice it again?” I have to say everything in a roundabout way.
In the Russian Code of Administrative Offences, article 6.11 concerns “Engaging in Prostitution.” This activity comes with a fine of only 1500 to 2000 rubles (20 to 30 dollars). Does this law have any effect on the life of sex workers?
– If you want to work in a government agency or institution at some point in the future, it’s dangerous—your name appears in a permanent data base. My name isn’t listed in the data base yet. It’s very unpleasant—you go to court, and the judge says, for instance, “Anyone can afford a car, why go into prostitution?” Like “I’m such a cool judge, I drive a Maybach, but you, pathetic little hooker, why don’t you go find a regular job somewhere?” Well, would he want a job that pays only 300 dollars a month?
Are there any drawbacks to legalization?
– There’s one—that more people would enter the profession. Still, I think there are more advantages than disadvantages. If prostitution is legalized, we’ll be treated better. People won’t think that we’re HIV-positive, that we spread disease. Because now they think that we’re the lowest of the low, worse than cockroaches. And that’s not true. We are ordinary people, living ordinary lives, like everyone else.
Anastasia Gromova and Tatiana Yuminova