Sluts and Trophy Wives.
Eastern European Women in the Eyes of the West
Marta Wójtowicz, Lancaster University
Think about the last time you saw a mainstream production depicting an Eastern European woman who was NOT a cleaner, sex worker, trophy wife, gold digger, or had something to do with the Russian mafia. It is difficult, isn’t it?
Let’s face the truth. Regardless of their ethnicity, women are victims of the sexist stereotyping in the media. However, certain groups are also subject to double-entanglement of stereotypes, when their gender, as well as the country of origin, merge into a rigid and iniquitous cliché. While stereotypes around, for example, French women are seen to reflect rather positive connotations, which is not the case with Eastern European women. People say that there is always a grain of truth to every stereotype, and that is why we will take a closer look at the situation of Eastern European sex workers in Western Europe, as well as an interesting (yet very disturbing!) phenomenon of mail-order brides industry.
How true is the ‘Eastern European prostitute’ cliché?
According to the 2009 TAMPEP International Foundation European Mapping Report, approximately 70% of all sex workers in Western Europe come from Eastern Europe. Around half of Berlin’s sex workers come from the former Soviet bloc; in Belgium, more than 70% come from Bulgaria; and the majority of the workers in Amsterdam’s Red Light District are Hungarians (mostly of Roma descent).
8 out of the top 10 countries of origin for sex workers in Western Europe are in Eastern Europe. The inequalities between sex workers who are the country’s nationals when compared to migrants are gross. According to the report, 61% of nationals get to keep their earnings, while a mere 39% of migrants can do so. The facts are undeniable. Eastern European women are largely overrepresented in the Western European sex industry. The authors of the report point out the different circumstances that brought them to the West. Some of them were victims of human trafficking, some were promised a well-paid job as a waitress, and some made the decision to leave their country. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that those women come from deprived backgrounds and becoming a prostitute often seems like, not necessarily the easiest, but the fastest way to earn money.
A model with the values of your grandmother
The 2014 United Nations report stated that there is a growing problem of women being trafficked into the West and forced into sex work that is concealed by the name of international dating agencies. While such extreme cases are in the minority, the so-called ‘mail-order bride’ industry is also highly problematic. Mail-order bride services offer help in finding the right partner. Men browse through the website’s catalogues of women and choose whomever they like. Even though many of those agencies are trying to brand themselves as modern international dating sites, their internationality seems to be rather limited. The potential husbands are usually American men, while Eastern Europeans and South-East Asians are by far the most numerous potential brides. Unlike actual dating websites or apps where women have some agency to choose men, they would be interested in, on mail-order bride sites it is all up to the men. To add, many of the women displayed in the agency’s catalogues do not speak English, the messages they exchange need to go through translation for which a fee is applied. Although it is the men who are obliged to cover the costs.
The supposed end-goal of those exchanges is marriage, dr. Yuliya Zabyelina observed that the vast majority of the websites present an increasingly sexualised representation of women with some photographs classed as pornographic. Interestingly, right next to the over-sexualised photographs we can find brief descriptions of the women including information about their beliefs and core values. The most popular answer is Christianity and family values. No wonder those agencies advertise themselves by slogans such as ‘Finding a woman in Ukraine is like dating a model, but with the values of your grandmother.’
Various studies on the mail-order bride industry found that the potential ‘customer husbands’ tend to embrace a traditional patriarchal family. Jonathon Narducci, a documentary filmmaker who released a film ‘Love Me’ (2014) tackling the issue of mail-order bride industry, said that the power imbalance between men seeking Eastern European wives and the potential wives attracts misogynists. Many men claimed they were looking for a life partner, but, in reality, they were just looking for a sex object (who could ideally clean and cook). The language barrier seemed of little significance to them - something which certainly prevents building a relationship based on partnership, and something which clearly emphasises the power imbalance, especially when the wife moves to her husband’s country. She is then dependent on him in every aspect of her life and might even feel like she needs to endure her husband’s male chauvinism because he ‘saved’ her from her ‘miserable life’ in Eastern Europe.
Mutually beneficial arrangement?
The libertarian view on the case of the mail-order bride industry is that women have free will and they voluntarily sign themselves up to those types of agencies. Marriages resulting from such services are seen as mutually beneficial – men get a ‘life companion,’ women get a ‘better life.’ Nonetheless, Donna M. Hughes, a leading international researcher on human trafficking, asserts that this industry is a new type of ‘global enterprise premised on men’s search for compliant, non-threatening women.’
Although, women may insist on their ability to exercise their free choice and free will, thinking about this phenomenon cannot be separated from their social and economic inequality which makes them vulnerable to exploitation and internalisation of colonial and patriarchal notions which treat them as objects. Put simply, the mail-order bride industry is a profitable business which immorally capitalises on women’s economic disadvantaged circumstances and their willingness to obey patriarchal rules which is an outcome of the cultural norms in which they grew up.
Who came first - Eastern European women or the idea of ‘Eastern European women’?
What needs to be questioned is whether the demand for Eastern European sex workers and mail-order brides is genuine or whether it is artificially fabricated by the deep-rooted stereotypical representations of Eastern European women - the age-old question of whether art imitates life or life imitates art? Much like the idealised vision of the ‘wealthy West’ held by Eastern Europeans, so do Westerners have an oversimplified perception of Easterners. Still, while Easterners have access to diverse representations of the West, representations of Eastern European women in mainstream media can only go in two directions – the women are either morally corrupt sluts, or dutiful but dumb, trophy wives. And the great irony of it all is that the world’s most powerful man (and one of the world’s most well-known misogynists) has a thing for Eastern European women.