10:12 Oct. 10, 2016
Sexpats' disappearance is symptom of perceptions of war and chaos, and not universally welcome
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 ageing 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.
"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."
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."