Four years ago, I began a photo project on the sex trafficking of young women in Eastern Europe. I interviewed and photographed girls who had escaped. Some had been trafficked to Turkey and Russia. Others were taken as far as the United Arab Emirates, lured by the promise of legitimate jobs and a brighter future. Once they arrived in the new country, they were priced and sold, and their documents taken away. The young women told me they were forced to service mechanics, soldiers, priests, butchers, tourists, and even U.N. personnel who were supposed to protect them.
I grew up in Eastern Europe and met Vika on my second reporting trip to Moldova. She told me she had been trafficked to Dubai, at times serving 30 clients a day. She quickly learned the only English words necessary to keep her owner from hitting her: “How much?” and “With or without plastic?” Once, without plastic, her luck ran out and she got pregnant. It didn’t matter. Her pimp kept her working for the duration of her pregnancy.
After hearing Vika’s stories, Dubai became a place I felt I had to see to understand.
Dubai has been described as the Las Vegas of the Middle East. Emerging as a world business hub in the last decade, the city strives to keep breaking new records: the world’s tallest building, the world’s first seven star hotel, the world’s biggest shopping mall, the world’s largest manmade port. Dubai’s free trade zone is a major enticement for foreign investors, and the boomtown atmosphere has attracted more than 180 nationalities to come live and work here. In this playground of the Middle East, I found indoor ski slopes, camel races and dizzying skyscrapers.
When I arrived to report this story with my video camerawoman Sachi Cunningham, I was prepared to confront the human degradation of Vika’s experience, but I was surprised to find something else. I met women working as prostitutes who told me that they were doing so because they had chosen to. Sasha, for example, was trafficked from Siberia and serviced clients against her will. But then she managed to run away from her madam and decided to continue to work as a prostitute on her own. Her English was good, so I asked her why she didn’t find a job as a salesperson in one of the many shopping malls in Dubai. She said she could earn more in one night as a prostitute than working a whole month in sales. And she wouldn’t have to stand on her feet all day. Like many other girls I spoke with, Sasha charges $500 dirhams per hour (about US$140). She told me that the money she sends home to Siberia has allowed her family to build a house.
I met another woman from Azerbaijan who was living with a “boyfriend,” the term she used to describe one of her regular clients. She told me how he would often lock her in the apartment to keep her services exclusively for himself. When I first met her, she talked about her son back home and how she had sent money to buy him his first computer. The second time we met, she was drunk and missing a front tooth. When I asked her what had happened, she shrugged it off: “We got into a fight, he punched me,” she said, lighting up another cigarette.
Men outnumber women 3 to 1 in Dubai, and the variety of places to purchase sex is abundant — from the brothels where Vika described being sold and resold and the back alleys where migrant workers pay for a few minutes of pleasure, to the mainstream Westernized nightclubs, often inside upscale hotels, where women from all over the world congregate according to their nationalities awaiting the next client.
In a Muslim country, where prostitution is illegal, we decided the only way to get a closer look at Dubai’s barely disguised sex trade was to visit some of these clubs and capture for ourselves the city’s night secrets.