The young woman stands with her high heels glued to one another as she shifts back in forth in the smoke-infested, testosterone-infused night club. With characteristic straight-cut bangs across her forehead, long dark blonde hair, and a pretty face frozen in a partial smile, she resembles a Precious Moments doll. But she is not. She is a human being.
The young woman stands with a bouquet of individually-wrapped roses. Her task for the night is to sell the flowers, most likely to old men seeking young women. In Russia, flowers are an ironic, yet essential, part of the courting process. It is ironic because the men who are checking out the women--a full, 360-degree physical assessment of privileged lust--range from thirty to fifty-something years old (and remember, the average life expectancy of a male in Russia is just around sixty-years-old) while the women are sometimes barely legal. It is essential because relations between men and women are still very heteronormative, traditional, and gender-stratified, which in practice means only that men are expected to give flowers while women are expected to give sex.
My friends and I sit at the next table over from what echoes a perverted father-daughter relationship. The young woman cannot be over nineteen-years-old; the man, at least forty-years-old. We begin to analyze the all-too-common situation that occurs regrettably on "Ladies' Night" tonight at the club. She leans over to him, enticing him with at this point, only vocal affection. He is postured sturdily in his chair, posturing to the young woman. She continues to reel in his attention, albeit with difficulty. I think to myself, Is this de facto prostitution? She understands that she will make roughly 50% of what this man makes after she graduates from university (the average monthly salary for a woman in Russia is ~$360; for men it is ~$720). She knows that she needs security and someone to support her. He knows that she is willing to go to lengths to ensure that. Yet is it exploitative? Is the choice one of complete freedom, or are there dire economic and social consequences to not behaving in this manner? Who is benefitting the most from this perverted version of there being "plenty of fish in the sea," but few fishermen?
The young woman stands with contemplative, searching eyes. In contrast to her lighter hair and carefully foundation-ed face, her dark eyes are striking. As my two girlfriends and I rest our feet at the table next to her, I catch her eye a number of times. I smile, hoping to extract a similar expression. She seems to be smiling a little, but maybe I am just being optimistic. I remember that her original expression also was a slight smirk. Either way, she continues to hold the flowers daintily while circling the club. No one talks with her. When people push through the croweded room, no one seems to mind that they knock the fragile doll-like creature over. If it phases her, she does not show it.
As almost everyday in Russia, my heart breaks. I begin to pray silently for her. An hour later we leave the club.
The young woman continues to stand alone, hoping to sell a few more flowers to make ends meet. The nineteen-year-old is throwing up violently in the bathroom.