It’s been months since I visited Estonia, but I’m still haunted by the sex trade that exists there. Estonia is not unique in this regard but it was unexpected because it seems disproportionate to its population. My observations are admittedly superficial and I am no one of significance when it comes to politics or international relations, but my impression is that the growing sex trade in Estonia is dangerous to it — and is creating challenges for Estonia that could undermine its culture and social integrity long-term. I care because I care about Estonia and its people.
Estonia is among the wealthiest former Soviet satellites sharing an uneasy border with Russia, and it is one of the least populous countries in the European Union (EU). Its low population density is apparent from its uncrowded streets and beautiful landscapes. When I visited Estonia during summer 2014, approximately 1.3 million people lived there – similar to the population of San Diego, California. Roughly 430,000 people lived in its capital city of Tallinn. Since declaring its independence from Russia, sex trade in Estonia has reportedly flourished. By 2014, the ratio of prostitutes in Estonia to its overall population reportedly exceeded the European average – eclipsed only by Germany, Austria, Belgium, and Holland. Some women are prostitutes by profession; some other young women do not consider themselves prostitutes but may engage in sex for money on occasion, according to some female college students I met there.
The sex business in Estonia has become part of the economic and cultural fabric of this relatively young, democratic republic. It seems that the majority of Estonians consider prostitution inevitable. Tourists in Tallinn may be solicited by the sex business on signs and accessible literature printed in multiple languages. Prostitution is legal in Estonia (although brothels and pimping are not), and it seems to be fueled by the demands of predominately Estonian, Finnish, and Russian men. There is no separate “red light” district that I’m aware of within the capital; sex-oriented businesses are word of mouth, identified by taxi drivers, ferry operators, tour operators, airline operators, or hotel employees, or they simply, visibly coexist throughout the city, alongside storefronts and other tourist destinations. According to my Estonian guide, the overwhelming majority of prostitutes in Tallinn are Russian-speaking women, often from areas outside of Tallinn where there is higher unemployment and where they tend to be less educated. My guide was an attractive, twenty-something Estonian woman who had been college educated. According to her, Russian-speaking women from rural areas sometimes come to Tallinn with dreams of securing a better life there. However, their dreams for a better life are usually disappointed and they become quickly disillusioned – particularly if they do not speak Estonian well, and particularly when they confront the traditional gender pay gap within Estonia’s workforce. Their vulnerability is exasperated by the fact that many of the women engaging in prostitution begin when they are quite young, naive, and inexperienced in the ways of the world — particularly if they are orphans or come from broken or dysfunctional homes.Lured by the promise of a better life or human connection, some enter the world of prostitution willingly.
In 2014, the age of sexual consent in Estonia was 14 years old. By comparison, the age of sexual consent in the United States is between 16 and 18 depending on the state. Whether some of Estonia’s prostitutes may be victims of adult or child trafficking is unknown but likely. During my visit, my guide shared that Estonia is facing significant social challenges to its culture and to its society — challenges that are traditionally associated in the West with prostitution, including increasing rates of drug use, the highest rate of HIV infection in the EU, crime, alcoholism, family dysfunction, child pornography, and social fragmentation. However, whether she and other Estonians associate those challenges with prostitution is unclear. It appeared she did not. Perhaps most revealing to me was my guide’s assertion that prostitution is a “victimless” crime in Estonia. According to her, most Estonians view prostitution as a free market, business decision that does not affect ordinary Estonians – not a moral decision, not in a context where vulnerable populations may need information or protection, and not in a context where prostitutes may need help. There are Estonians who might disagree with her, but my guide believes most prostitutes in Estonia engage in prostitution to make money when they cannot find work elsewhere, to supplement their income, or to pay for addictions. Although she expressed no objection to prostitution in general, she appeared to judge the prostitutes of Estonia harshly. She revealed that prostitution is increasingly controversial within Estonia, and indicated that “like most Estonians” she would not want her children playing with the children of a prostitute; nor would she want to work or associate with a former prostitute – “especially if they were Russian.” When asked if it would make a difference to her whether a prostitute had been recruited as a child, had been unable to support herself any other way, or had been desperate for money to feed her children, she replied it would not. I had the sense her views reflect those of many Estonians who are not involved in the sex industry.
I do not pretend to understand the Estonian people, their beautiful culture, their complex politics, or their impressive history. Nor do I have the answers to moral questions that have forever taunted democratic republics as they balance free market principles with the desire to protect vulnerable members of their population from exploitation. However, I am concerned for any nation if a group of residents who it is obliged to serve and protect perceptively becomes unjustly alienated, persecuted, or isolated from the rest. And it is in is this context that I have vague but unshakable misgivings about the consequences of Estonia’s sex trade attitudes. Simply put, it haunts me that so many children and women in Estonia appear to be at risk; the decisions they make at vulnerable, uninformed, or desperate stages in their life appear capable of resulting in their condemnation by Estonian society without end. Unlike prison terms that consider the circumstances surrounding a crime and that expire for time served, women who engage in prostitution in Estonia have not broken its laws but may nonetheless be forever ostracized and excluded by society for their actions. Whether women and children have the opportunity to make informed decisions before entering the sex trade in Estonia; whether sex trafficking or other forms of coercion is occurring; whether the legal and social consequences to men, women and children involved in the sex trade is fair, equal, and just; whether the sex industry in Estonia is being driven domestically or from abroad; and, whether adequate consequences exist for foreign and domestic customers who flame the fires of Estonia’s spreading sex trade is the subject of debate.
I would argue only that the stakes are high for Estonians to get it right. If my guide is correct – if she indeed represents the majority of Estonians in her belief that prostitution is a victimless crime — it’s my concern that Estonia may not be able to react effectively to social change and issues associated with prostitution because it might not identify them as such in a timely manner. Further, if the result of their commercial sex business is the mistreatment, isolation, or neglect of a vulnerable segment of their population, I’m concerned that treatment of women and children affected by prostitution in Estonia may become a moral issue to world observers as controversial as sex trade itself. If the people who may be preyed upon, harmed, or neglected by Estonia’s attitudes continues to represent primarily Russian-speaking residents, my concern is that the cries of its Russian-speaking cubs will be heard by their mother bear to the east — giving Russia an excuse to come to their defense. Sure, I concede the latter concern is probably a stretch. But as Aesop observed nearly 3,000 years ago, “any excuse will serve a tyrant.” In a country passionate about freedom, Estonia’s existing sex business may conceal costs to it that are not worth the price.
PHOTO CREDIT: Risto Hunt (123rf License)