The Price Of Sex review
Last month YKTS attended the Human Rights Film festival. More information about the event can be found here
The sex industry is known as ‘the world’s oldest profession’, however as photo-journalist, Mimi Chakarova’s, harrowing documentary, The Price of Sex, shows, this is an ill-informed, convenient turn of phrase which absolves responsibility and distracts from reality. For the estimated 2.5 million girls caught up in human sex trafficking each year, this ‘industry’ instead represents the oldest form of oppression.
What makes the documentary so affecting is how it places the individual, the human, who for so long has been bluntly objectified, at the centre of proceedings. Opening to a black screen and subtitled dialogue with Vika, one of the women who is most open about her story, the darkness suddenly subsides and we see her face. This is key, for all the women interviewed, because it gives them their identity – making their voices impossible to ignore. Vika sits composed and determined, utterly beautiful, explaining how the first English words she learnt were ‘how much’. Lured by the promise of a relatively secure, highly paid waitressing job in Dubai, Vika quickly found herself in too deep. By the time she realised what was going on, it was too late. As her handlers put it, ‘you will serve…but in a different way’. Her oldest customer was 81, the youngest only 12.
Vika’s tale of entrapment is strikingly similar to the other 1.5 million Eastern European girls trafficked since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Chakarova, herself Bulgarian born, pinpoints post-war instability as a key proliferating factor for trafficking in the satellite states. As a child who grew up in the immediate aftermath, Chakarova’s investigation holds strong personal relevance. Utilising numerous contacts built up over a decade, the documentary casts its net wide, revealing the breadth and depth of the interconnected trafficking nexus: from Moldova to Dubai, pimps to complicit authorities.
In exploring the sordid underbelly of each region, the work is well researched; recognising Transnistria, an unrecognized territory tucked between Moldova and Ukraine, as an increasingly popular stop-over location for traffickers. Equally as astute is the use of media to illustrate the points; photographic stills combining with eye opening undercover footage to achieve maximum impact. Due to Chakarova’s inside knowledge gained from the research, she is able to record from inside the hornet’s nest, even posing as a member of a prostitution ring to expose Turkey’s infamous Aksaray district. These insights prove invaluable in the effort to break down the facade and reveal the reality as pimps circle the clubs, tightly controlling the district, knowing confidentiality is key to business. However, once through the door, the clubs are far from subtle: the female toilets packed as the women get changed for the long night ahead. Time is money.
Crucially, the documentary manages to invalidate the common counter argument that the women are to blame for their predicament. Interviews with girls such as Olesea, give an insight into how the vulnerable are preyed upon and quickly rendered powerless. Frequently beaten by her husband and hailing from the poorest region in Europe, she jumped at the chance to begin a new job abroad following her divorce. Unfortunately for Olesea, her neighbours who offered the job were being bribed by the local traffickers. Upon arrival in Turkey, the handlers took her passport and promptly sold her on. From this point onward, she was forced to repay her ‘debt’ by having sex without receiving any payment for as long as the pimp deemed appropriate. Even when she fell pregnant, the abuse still continued, a hole carved into her bed to allow her to lie ‘comfortably’ on her front. Pregnant women are highly sought after by brothel regulars, and therefore command a higher price.
It is not that these women do not want to leave, but rather that they have no way of contacting home. The majority of girls, just like Olesea, come from economically destitute areas, ravaged by migration to the West. For those older generations left behind, there is no link to the new, digital information age. As a result, the only way these girls can break free is either by risking their lives in an escape attempt, or, to put it crudely, decreasing their commodity value. In Olesea’s case, imminent child-birth saw her sent back home. Elsewhere, Jenea, in her desperate bid for freedom, tried to climb down the side of the building. Tragically, a fall from the third floor left her with permanent, irreversible trauma to her spine. Despite the pimps paying off hospital staff and securing her return to the brothel – where she was compensated with extra cigarettes and a lighter workload of 15, rather than 30 customers per day – her injuries rendered her damaged goods. In return for her release, the pimps demanded her sister temporarily took her place as penance to make up some of the lost profit.
Chakarova also manages to weave these emotive stories into an apt study of the broader reasons behind how such an unregulated, environment is allowed to exist. The study of Dubai is particularly poignant. Although the country maintains a strict Muslim allegiance, its booming business sector, with 80% foreign born, makes it the playground of the Middle East. Consequently, the sex trade is much more open there than anywhere else explored, so much so that it has become integral to the social fabric of the state. Perhaps this explains why, when a government official is interviewed, his attitude is simply to transfer the blame onto globalisation, ‘you brought it here’. These unhelpful attitudes are reinforced by the widespread corruption across authorities. The documentary reveals how police officers are frequently customers themselves and therefore turn a blind eye. Toward the end of the documentary, Chakarova manages to interview some police officers who are regulars at local brothels, who defend their actions, ‘we help them, they work hard’. This translates into an easy ride for the men once inside the courtroom, who often do not bother attending. Instead the women are held responsible – Olesea serving six months for her sins.
Such misplaced persecution is perhaps the greatest crime, because it reinforces the culture of female degradation inherent in society. Most significantly, the women caught up in the nexus internalise these messages of worthlessness. One interviewee turned down the chance to return home, explaining, ‘this is my life now’. Jenea, now using a wheelchair, even expressed regret at being born, ‘death can’t be worse than this’ she exclaimed. Simply, the mental wounds never heal; even the women who do manage to return home do so in disgrace, made pariahs of the community. To take inspiration from Rousseau, woman rather than man ‘is free but remains everywhere in chains’.
The Price of Sex finishes by tentatively examining the steps that could be taken to fix the problem. Ultimately, all the answers demand a fundamental mind-set change toward male/female relations. Women like Olesea and her mother, who stood up to the pimps following her return home due to her imminent child-birth, need to be congratulated and supported. Her son needs to be proud, not ashamed. The closing shot sees Vika asked how things could be improved, she almost loses her composure, a million words in her gaze: ‘next question’ she replies. Vika and Chakavora have fulfilled their responsibilities by exposing the brutality and injustice. It is the responsibility of the world to react.
Listen to a Q and A with Mimi, held after the screening. Be aware this was recorded on my phone so the volume may need to be turned up:
Want to help? Visit www.priceofsex.org to learn more about the making of the documentary, the problem of trafficking and how to get involved with aid organisations.