Posted at 13:00 on 18 Nov 2009 by Pandora / Blake
As various kinky expats will know, the Ukraine is a long way behind the UK on gender equality and women's rights. Sex tourism is a real problem, exacerbated by the country's depressed economic situation. Most sex workers are under the age of 18 or living in fear. "We can't turn any [client] away now with the crisis," said Iryna, an escort in Kiev. "Foreigners pay better. Plus you don't have to worry about losing your life. I don't know whether we should close down the sex industry. But I do know that I haven't seen any happy prostitute."
Relatedly, sexual harassment is also a problem - 70% of female students surveyed said that they had been solicited for paid sex by foreigners. In this sort of chauvinist social environment it's perhaps not surprising that a book entitled "Ladies, Back to the Harems", which asserts that women belong to the herd and should be prepared to have sex at any time, has sold over 10,000 copies.
However, some Ukrainian women are willing to fight back. The author of this offensive book got a cream pie in the face at a book reading, from a member of controversial protest group Femen. The group is politically independent, mostly consisting of female university students, with some men and high school students. They plan their campaigns online and meet in cafes to discuss their strategies. Past actions have included dressing up as syringe-wielding sexy nurses to "cure foreigners of addiction to sex-tourism", and taking to the street wearing surgical masks and bikinis to raise awareness about the Ukrainian government's exploitation of the swine flu scare in the run up to the presidential elections.
Their latest stunt is even more eye-catching.
"Activists of FEMEN, a Ukrainian women movement defending women's conditions in the society, perform during their protest action in front of Ukraine's Education Ministry in Kiev to denounce sexual harassment of students by some university professors in the country."
My feelings about this are mixed. On the one hand, I completely admire the creativity and guts of these women. They are successfully raising awareness about important social issues, and they are aware that they wouldn't get so much publicity without the sex appeal. On the other hand, is letting yourself be objectified to raise awareness about objectification really helpful? How many people walking past these protests will think "oh wow, I didn't know about that issue - that's really shocking" and how many will just think "hurr hurr, I'd do that"?
Anna Hutsol, who founded the group in 2008, is aware that their tactics are controversial. "I set up FEMEN because I realised that there was a lack of women activists in our society, Ukraine is male-oriented and women take a passive role," she says. "Here at FEMEN we have developed our own unique way of civil self-expression based on creativity, courage, humour, efficiency and shock. People wouldn't pay attention to the serious problems we tackle if it weren't for the way we dress. We are not afraid to go topless or wear bikinis if it serves a purpose." According to another activist, Femen is not a feminist organization. "I like it when a man holds the door open for me," she says, "or takes me out to dinner."
Feminist or not, they are certainly getting noticed. Their actions have a strong visual appeal and intelligent symbolism which communicates across language barriers. Even if you just take them as spanking photos, their most recent performance is unusually daring, funny and erotic. But there is undeniably more to it than that.
However pretty these images may be, I think it's a sad comment on society that the best way for women to make political points is to take their clothes off. But I cannot help but admire these young women for working the system to their advantage, on their own terms, for causes they care about - and clearly having fun while doing it. They choose their own subject matter and, presumably, only do things they're comfortable doing. I wish them all the best - and I hope this campaign is as successful as the photos are hot.
(Huge thanks to Chross for collecting these fabulous images.)