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You Don’t Have to Turn on the Red Light: Human Trafficking, Sex Tourism and Prostitution in Eastern Europe

A strip club in Old Town area of Riga

November 12, 2010

By Laura A. Dean

The author at the Resource Centre for Women, Marta, where she worked on anti-trafficking initiatives as part of a Fulbright Research Fellowship.

The author at the Resource Centre for Women, Marta, where she worked on anti-trafficking initiatives as part of a Fulbright Research Fellowship.

Čaka iela, a main street running through the Latvian capital of Riga, was named for the famous Latvian writer Aleksanders Čaks, but in the post-communist period it has become synonymous with something more sinister. I first crossed this street in 1999, while studying abroad at the University of Latvia through my undergraduate institution, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. I crisscrossed the infamous Čaka Street daily, naive to the working women of Čaka Street, the main street for prostitution in Riga.

One evening, while returning home with friends, the women on Caka Street began yelling things to me, but not knowing Latvian or Russian at the time, I could not understand what they were shouting. Arriving home I asked my host mother about the women and she told me, very matter-of-factly, that they were prostitutes and it was their choice to stand on the street and sell themselves. This thinking symbolizes the Latvian mindset toward prostitution for me and it was not until many years later that I learned firsthand that this was not the whole story, that many of these women did not have the luxury of choice.

A strip club in Old Town area of Riga.

A strip club in Old Town area of Riga.

My experience in Latvia taught me that without language and cultural knowledge I stood no chance of ever approaching the full story or understanding these women. Returning home, I changed my major and began taking every class available concerning Russia and Eastern Europe. I then continued my education at the University of Washington, the only university in the United States that offers classes in Baltic Studies and Latvian language. This education gave me the tools to live and conduct research in Latvia. In 2007-2008, I was fortunate to be awarded a Fulbright Research Fellowship, to research the issues that caught my attention eight years earlier. I examined the political implications of the exploitation of women in Latvia by focusing on sex tourism and human trafficking. Women are trafficked from and transited through Latvia, as well as brought to Latvia to work in the sex tourism industry.

Sources estimate that anywhere from 600,000 to 2.5 million women are trafficked around the world annually for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation.1 According to the United Nations Palermo Protocol, human trafficking is the recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving of a person through use of force, coercion or other means, for the purpose of exploitation.2  Many of these trafficked women come from Eastern Europe, Russia, and Eurasia and are sent to fuel the sex industries of Western Europe.3

Why are the women in this region so vulnerable to human trafficking? The transition from a command economy to a market economy caused a polarization of income levels, which has left many people unable to meet the needs of a changing society while others profited sizably. In this economic transition, women were among the first to feel the burden, which left them looking for work abroad and susceptible to exploitation. Women’s organizations have sprung up in the region to address this crisis, supported by the international community and western feminists. During my year in Latvia, I volunteered at the Resource Centre for Women, Marta, the leading women’s organization in Latvia and the only organization, at the time, rehabilitating victims of human trafficking.  Volunteering for such an organization was the only way I could gain firsthand experience with this issue. At Marta Centre I witnessed the battle ground for trafficking. I participated in training seminars for police and border guards, gave a speech to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and lobbied the Latvian government. I saw how difficult it was for the centre to stay true to its feminist beliefs and still obtain funding from the Latvian government, something many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the region struggle with.

Another unexpected result of the economic transition from a planned economy is the influx of sex tourists to the region. The sex tourism industry in Latvia blossomed in May 2004, when European Union membership and the introduction of low cost airlines to the Riga airport made the country more accessible than ever before. Cheap alcohol and semi-legalized prostitution have also facilitated sex tourism in the country. The sex tourism industry in Riga is centered on the “old town locale” and consists of strip clubs, massage parlors, and other types of adult entertainment, legal and illegal. The most common form of sex tourism in Latvia is stag or bachelor parties consisting of 20-40 year-old men who mainly come to Riga and other cities in Eastern Europe in search of a good time and cheap sex. However, it must be noted that not all members of stag tours are sex tourists, rather only those who employ prostitutes for sexual purposes. Interviews with sex tourists that I conducted in the summers of 2008 and 2009 have shown that the majority of sex tourists are from Western Europe and come to Riga for cheap alcohol and to purchase sexual services.

While the debate on the linkages between prostitution, human trafficking and sex tourism is beyond the scope of this article, it is important to note that many feminists dispute the argument that legalized prostitution fuels the sex tourism industry and facilitates human trafficking. This past summer, I set out to examine the other side of the coin and talk to women who chose to work in this industry. I performed outreach work with the NGO Dia+logs, which delivers condoms and clean needles to prostitutes and other inhabitants of Riga on a nightly basis through an HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention program. This eye-opening experience gave me access to prostitutes through people they trusted. As a result, I learned intimate details about why they chose prostitution and attempted to see things from their perspective. Finally, to view the issue in its entirety, it is important to consider the demand side as well. This includes the men and women who choose to buy these sexual services, without whom there would be lower demand for prostitution, sex tourism, and human trafficking.

This last trip to Latvia allowed me to come full circle with my research. Due to a law that the Latvian government passed designating certain areas outside of the city for prostitution, Čaka iela is no longer the gathering place of Riga’s prostitutes. I now realize, though, that the name was actually quite fitting. In my quest to better understand Latvian language, history, and culture, I became more familiar with the works of Aleksanders Čaks who chronicled the life of the city through his poetry as he confronted issues not known to most Latvians such as night life, urbanization, homelessness, and even prostitution.

Laura A. Dean is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science and a Graduate Certificate Student in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Kansas. She has a MA in Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies from the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. She can be reached at deanla@ku.edu.

Estimates vary significantly due to the nature of trafficking and under-reporting which make it difficult to determine exactly how many trafficking victims there are around the world. Polaris Project Human Trafficking Statistics http://nhtrc.polarisproject.org/materials/Human-Trafficking-Statistics.pdf (October 26, 2010)

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2000. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/what-is-human-trafficking.html (September 26, 2010)

Anna Jonsson. 2009. “Human Trafficking and Human Security in the Baltic Sea Region” in Human Trafficking and Human Security. Routledge: New York.

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