Kiev, Ukraine – Ana was told to ask for a room number at the hotel, but when she arrived at reception, staff told her the room number did not exist.
It was late March. The 24-year-old sex worker from Kiev messaged her client, who had said he was a German tourist.
She texted to say she was waiting for him at the bar in the hotel lobby.
Suddenly, two men grabbed her and pulled her towards the exit.
“We’re going to the car,” they said.
“I knew I had just a few seconds to get help before I’d be out on the street,” Ana told Al Jazeera.
A couple of guests ran to help her.
“She’s a disgusting prostitute,” said the men. “We have messages that prove it.”
They produced ID cards from their pockets suggesting they worked for the anti-trafficking department.
The guests threatened to call the police, arguing there was no reason to detain Ana. They eventually helped her back to her apartment.
Ana believes the two men were from the anti-trafficking department, but “weren’t coming after me because I broke the law”.
“They wanted to blackmail me,” she said, “force me to give them money or something else. I didn’t sleep all night, thinking about what would’ve happened if they got me in their car.”
I know these forums help because sex workers tell me so. They help women to be selective, to know what questions to ask the clients to make sure they're safe.
Shaken, Ana wanted to warn others.
She wrote about the incident and posted the photos of the men in a forum for Russian-speaking sex workers around the world.
To date, three users have responded saying that they have also had bad experiences with the two men. One user gave Ana the number for a lawyer.
Sex workers in Ukraine are increasingly using online networks to protect each other.
Some allege that they are not only unprotected by the state’s police but abused and exploited by them.
Searching for security
The Russian-speaking forum has a blacklist of clients, agencies, hotels and other locations around the world, which Ana said is useful as women often travel for temporary work.
Users write anonymously about experiences with abusive clients or police and share tips on the warning signs to look out for.
They also exchange legal advice so women know their rights in different countries.
Yulia Tsarevska, project manager at Kiev-based NGO Convictus Ukraine, told Al Jazeera that there are several online platforms, some of which can only be accessed by invitation from an existing user.
“I know these forums help because sex workers tell me so,” she said. “They help women to be selective, to know what questions to ask the clients to make sure they’re safe. Some women post the phone numbers of abusive clients.”
Women working on the streets without access to the forums were “limited” by comparison, she said. “They have to rely on word of mouth.”
Sex work is illegal in Ukraine and punishable by a fine up to 255 HR ($10).
According to Legal-Life, an NGO which supports sex workers, there are 80,000 in total.
They are vulnerable to abuse, sexual assault and blackmail by police and clients, activists claim.
Pimps pay bribes to keep themselves out of trouble. Sex workers are the ones who are fined or arrested, and pimps often intimidate them to take the punishment. Pimps almost always get away unscathed.
A 2014 Legal-Life survey of sex workers throughout Ukraine showed that of women detained by police – 90 percent of the time by the anti-trafficking department – more than 40 percent reported sexual assault and 60 percent said officials extorted money from them.
Yulia Dorohova, a former sex worker and director at Legal-life, told Al Jazeera sex workers who report abuse to police risk being fined and arrested.
Ana became a sex worker at 22 and says abuse is inevitable.
After struggling to find employment after her graduation, she worked full-time in a supermarket earning about $200 a month.
She saw a job advert for a well-paid office manager.
At the interview, she was told the job was to be a prostitute for Vasily’s Apartments – one of Ukraine’s largest sex work agencies, well known by the police.
Instead of the 50 percent cut of her fee that she was promised, Ana only received 30 percent, which worked out to about $30 an hour.
“It’s nothing for this kind of work. The pimp said the rest goes to the police,” she said.
Ana says Vasily’s Apartments advertises itself through individual women with different phone numbers, so they cannot be traced back to a specific agency.
The agency allegedly pays police to be able to advertise the numbers.
Police have also been accused of posing as clients to find out which agency the sex worker represents, and then demanding money or sexual services in exchange for keeping the number online.
A police spokesman told Al Jazeera corruption has plagued law enforcement.
“Thanks to the reform in the interior ministry and national police, the overall level of corruption in the police has significantly decreased, but the fight is not over,” the spokesman said.
“In 2017, the police investigations department incriminated five policemen for corruption crimes in the field of human trafficking, and arrested four people for trying to bribe anti-trafficking officers.”
Escaping poverty and violence
Tsarevska said sex workers are never protected.
“Pimps pay bribes to keep themselves out of trouble. Sex workers are the ones who are fined or arrested, and pimps often intimidate them to take the punishment. Pimps almost always get away unscathed,” she said.
According to the police spokesman, there were more than 700 cases involving sex workers and “pimps” in 2017.
One night with a man brought in the same pay as working several 12-hour days in a supermarket. It was an obvious choice.
Dorohova, the former sex worker, said most women are in it for survival. “Many women are trying to escape their difficult circumstances – poverty, domestic violence. They’re desperate for money and sex work pays better than other jobs,” she said.
Nataliia Isaeva, a former sex worker and Legal-Life director, is among those who turned to prostitution out of financial desperation.
“I was a single mother and struggling to look after my child. I didn’t have any qualifications.
“One night with a man brought in the same pay as working several 12-hour days in a supermarket. It was an obvious choice,” she said.
In the virtual world of forums, abuse can be recorded and the warnings could, Ana hopes, spare someone else trauma.
“When men pay for sex, they pay for the control and freedom. He doesn’t have to be respectful,” the 24-year-old sex worker sais. “A client once started suffocating me during sex. The pimp didn’t care, the client wasn’t blacklisted.”
The site she uses has almost 19,000 users and gets around 16,000 daily visits. The rules are strict: no advertising services – anyone doing so ends up banned from the online community – no personal data, and only use the forum for exchanging tips, advice and news.
Sex workers told Al Jazeera that some also use apps and group chats to share information.
“I’m lucky,” Ana said, remembering the time she was physically assaulted. “I know women who have been raped, beaten up by clients and police.”