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Ukrainian women find refuge from war, but not objectification

This article discusses themes related to sex-based violence that may be triggering for some readers.

The world is closely watching Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. The encroachment of Russian military forces on major population centers has prompted the fastest mass exodus of refugees seen in decades, with over a million Ukrainian residents leaving the country in under ten days. However, while many women have found themselves able to flee the violence that has come as a result of the escalating conflict between the two nations, violence linked to a dehumanized perception of female bodies is not as escapable. 

As Russian troops have progressed through Ukrainian strongholds, reports have come out about soldiers propositioning Ukrainian women on Tinder, an online dating app. One woman decided to entertain some of the messages she received on the app, though she would “never consider sleeping with the enemy.” When she asked one Russian bachelor near Kharkiv if he was a soldier, he replied with an audacious GIF of actor Jim Carrey as if to say, “oops!” 

An apparent cognitive dissonance exists for male recruits: presumably, they are aware of the threat they pose to citizens of Ukraine, yet lack empathy toward Ukrainian women’s experience being sexually objectified. Where entitlement to land drives war, it is the perceived entitlement to a woman’s body that drives the frequent abuses of women. 

Pornhub, one of the world’s largest pornography websites, has recently displayed suggested content via its “Trending Searches” feature linking to videos with tags relating to the conflict in Ukraine. Videos tagged “ukrainian” and “ukrainian girl” illustrate the overarching problem of objectifying and perpetuating violence and exploitation against women. Those search terms would not be trending if they merely attracted a minority audience. Like most other pornography-hosting websites, there is little discretion used to ensure that Pornhub’s content does not contribute to the implication of pornography in rates of sexual victimization of women. 

Vulgarity and phrasing choices in the titles of many of the videos –– hinting at female parties’ underage appearance, referring to male parties as “Moscow,” a reference to an aggressing force’s attempt at domination or explicitly naming the interactions portrayed in the video as a type of sexual assault, all typically naming female parties with a degrading term –– convey exactly what they are meant to; the idea that not only is exploiting vulnerable individuals acceptable, but capitalizing on those individuals’ hardships to gain sexual gratification is something to be desired. 

Even in discussions of safe harbor for displaced Ukrainians, women are discussed as objects to be imported rather than autonomous individuals. One now-deleted post on the microblogging website Weibo cruelly joked that “priority will be given to those who are young, beautiful, unmarried, and fit,” regarding shelter for women seeking refuge from the conflict. 

Entitlement to the use of women’s bodies does not stop at sexual objectification but extends into matters of reproductive justice, as well. Ukraine has long had a booming surrogacy industry as one of the few countries that allows non-citizens to enter into surrogate arrangements. In a time of war, an already tangled conversation about bodily autonomy in cases of surrogacy is complicated even further. 

For the expecting genetic parents, a desire for security on behalf of their child is often expressed in demands for, or restrictions against, aspects of the lifestyle of the mother carrying the child. As the human life carried by the surrogate mother has been placed there and paid for by others, she may be required to abandon her own decisions for survival. Most people are able to abandon a job in the case of an emergency; in the case of surrogacy where the job is to be a mother, the person is the position. In those instances, the woman is treated as a commodity-supporting resource, as an object removed from her personhood.

For women –– even in the throes of war –– a culture of sex-based violence persists.


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