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What Scared Ukraine’s ‘Sex Tourists’ Away

In 2012, Ukraine briefly became gripped by hysteria over “sex tourism.” The country was preparing to host tens of thousands of football fans for the Euro championships, leading many to predict a sharp rise in prostitution. The high-profile sporting event would “promote sex tourism in Ukraine, and demean women here even more,” Anna Gutsol, the founder of the radical feminist group FEMEN, said at the time, as she led a group of topless activists in protest in Kiev. “In Europe, Ukrainian women have the unfortunate reputation as beautiful, cheap sex dolls,” she said. “And when the fans get here that image will only be reinforced.”

When carousing the bars during those impassioned times, women often asked me point-blank whether I was a “sex tourist.” Expat friends refrained from wearing bright clothes or strong cologne for fear it would mark them out as predators. It didn’t help our cause that the cafés in downtown Kiev were packed with aging Western men on “dates” with their potential Ukrainian brides. At the height of the hysteria, roving gangs of vigilantes even beat up foreigners who ordered prostitutes, and posted the videos online.

Fast-forward four years and the pejorative term “sex tourist” has gone out of vogue. Wracked by a fierce economic downturn and a slow-burning war with Russia in the East, Ukrainians have bigger things to worry about than priapic male tourists.

Even FEMEN has given up the fight, and moved its headquarters to Paris. The group now focuses on more global issues, like abortion rights and the denigration of women in Islamic culture. With downtown Kiev’s hipster cafés and speakeasy bars packed with visiting NGO staff, journalists, military advisers and anyone trying to cash in on Ukraine’s brief moment in the international limelight, girls in bars are more likely to out you as a “spy” than a “sex tourist.”

“Sex tourism is no longer an issue as it was four years ago,” said Volodomyr Paniotto, director at the Kiev International Institute of Sociology. “We’re now much more concerned about homophobia, which is hampering our efforts to join the international community.”

With gay pride marches frequently attacked by right-wing thugs, Ukrainian society has turned its focus inwards. Under pressure from the EU, parliament passed a law last November banning companies from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

A script I wrote years ago with a high-profile Ukrainian director that initially included a FEMEN demonstration now features a violent gay pride march instead. The director feels that we now have a better chance of receiving state funding.

Gay rights, not sexual tourism, is the new cultural lodestone of the post-revolutionary era in Ukraine.

If Ukraine’s gaze has shifted, it’s also true that the sex tourist geezers of yore have headed for the exits in the wake of the war with Russia. In cafés, I almost never see those bright-eyed, gray-haired men communicating stiltedly with stunning young women through bored translators anymore. Though Ukraine has become a lot cheaper in dollars after the currency collapsed in the wake of the 2014 Maidan Revolution, and its major cities are as safe as their counterparts in the West, fear has kept the sex tourists at bay.

Online forums are chock full of posts warning punters to stay away from Ukraine. One post claimed visitors would be “kidnapped by separatists and tortured, or ambushed by right-wing thugs.”

Julia Omelchuk, a Ukrainian model who works in Milan, noticed that Italian men are afraid of visiting Ukraine. “They think it’s all war and chaos,” she said with a touch of sadness, as we chatted outside the well-organized Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in Kiev last week. The fashion week was held in a brand new glass-and-steel business center on the embankment of the Dnieper that was once a helipad for the ex-President Victor Yanukovych. The complex includes a swanky pan-Asian restaurant that wouldn’t be out of place in New York or London. Continue reading on

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