Prostitute myth has strong pull

May 9, 2003

Students at Russia's top universities who engage in casual prostitution are falling for the Pretty Woman myth, research suggests.

A survey by US student Shonda Werry, who is studying international politics at Moscow State University, found that many girls regarded prostitution as "their ticket to a better life".

The women Ms Werry talked to at Moscow State and other top universities see selling sex as a harmless way to meet wealthy foreign men and increase their chances of leaving Russia for a comfortable life overseas.

The girls rarely consider themselves prostitutes - whom they see as poor girls forced onto the game by pimps - and consider potential trouble from the police or Mafia the major drawbacks to selling their bodies.

The most popular way into prostitution, the young women said, was to "try it for a night" at one of Moscow's many private clubs. Men may watch the girls dance and then negotiate a price - usually about $200 (£120) - with the one they desire.

Ms Werry, who is a student from Chicago University, said few of the girls paid attention to the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, their chief concern being long-term financial security, prestige and the prospect of gaining a green card for immigration into the US.

Ms Werry said: "Many college girls talk about prostitutes' glamorous lifestyle and are impressed with the benefits that come with the job. The girls in my dorm told me that prostitutes are invited to the most elite clubs in Moscow. Russian girls are familiar with the film Pretty Woman and many express hope that they will, like Julia Roberts (the film's star), find true love through prostitution."

Ms Werry's research challenges notions that stereotype Eastern European prostitutes as poor, ill-educated women duped into sex rackets through force or lured abroad by phoney offers of well-paid jobs.

The MiraMed Institute, a Moscow-based anti-sex trafficking agency founded by American physician Juliette Engel, where Ms Werry works as an intern, is using the research to support its campaign to raise public awareness among women in Russia of the dangers of selling sex.

A telephone survey by MiraMed found that many victims of prostitute trafficking and women who consider going abroad for work are well-educated professionals. Of 264 calls from women, 78 were in jobs such as teaching, nursing, accountancy and legal services.

Dr Engel said: "Our research shows that in Russia all groups (of women) are vulnerable (to prostitution and trafficking), independent of educational level or employment opportunities.

"Information gathered from shelters in Europe indicate that at least half of the women rescued held higher education degrees and/or had jobs when they were recruited by traffickers."

Dr Engel added that a public information campaign, carried out by MiraMed in Russia's six most populous regions two years ago aimed at women and girls aged 15 to 22, reached an estimated 20 million people. It warned of the dangers of accepting offers to work abroad at face value.

The campaign, however, received only short-term funding and has not been repeated.

Dr Engel said: "Public education is the proven anti-trafficking strategy that traffickers fear most. Only when girls and young women begin to question the veracity of the powerful economic and psychological messages that traffickers use, and stop responding to the ads and persuasions of 'recruiters', will the supply of these naive recruits be reduced."

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