American foreign policy has wide-ranging effects across the globe, from Syria to China, Ukraine to Cuba.
However, people often don’t consider the surprising secondary effect of a local strip club scene.
Until 2015, there was both an embassy and an army base being built stationed in the dusty and mountainous outpost of Bishkek; the capital city of Central Asian country, Kyrgyzstan. American soldiers, builders and engineers; mostly male and flush with cash compared to their Kyrgyz hosts desired to release tension.
Christina, a woman with many stories to tell in her young 23 years says, she “could earn up to $1,000 in a really good night.” A lot of money for someone in a location, where the average annual salary is around $3,000. “If you weren’t going to be a lazy ass and get up each day and work hard, you could make $3-4,000 a month in just tips” confirms Nastya, 21, and an ex-dancer of 4 years.
However, wages drastically declined when the soldiers, builders and engineers returned back to the States. Nastya, mother of a young daughter, comments
“After I gave birth, I was only making 15,000 soms a month ($215). The problem was, the strip clubs began giving jobs to girls who weren’t pretty, couldn’t dance or couldn’t even talk nicely.
There were a lot of foreigners. There was an American air force base, can you imagine how many soldiers and guys who worked there.
But when they went, new customers would come, and experienced girls would reject tips of 500 soms ($7). Save it for taxis. I’m not going to get my ass out for 500 soms.”
Nastya and Christina share common themes with their pasts but have remarkably different outlooks on their former employment. Nastya would move to Moscow and continue dancing there if she had her husbands’ permission. Contrarily, Christina hated her experience.
Both girls started young. Too young. At ages 15 or 16, girls should be at school and studying, not getting their kit off in front of oglers. However, financial need from both sets of parents led Nastya and Christina to the strip bar.
Christina’s folks took a loan they couldn’t afford to repay. Their apartment was in jeopardy. Christina needed to help, first taking a job as a bartender through a mutual friend.
“But then I told my boss I was a twin. My boss thought this was awesome and that I invite her here as well. After that, she said I should change into different clothes.”
“My mother said that I need to help, that I need to understand. It was a horrible experience to begin. I just not think about myself and think of the money.
Just block everything and drink every night and during the day to block it. I wouldn’t be alcoholic, but I would need to be a little bit drunk in the first 5 months because I didn’t like men.”
Ironically protective, Christina’s mother would often visit whilst she and her by then stripper twin were on shift.
“It was strange. To be honest I don’t know why she came. Maybe she wanted to look after us because we were young and should’ve been doing something different.
She wouldn’t talk about work. When I worked there, we just didn’t talk at all. Sometimes I had to sit on men whilst she was there. Not old men though, under 40.”
Nastya’s experience again, was different. “I started helping my mother because my mother was in a troubled situation, but I enjoyed it. I don’t think I am rare in thinking that.”
“After one year I told my mother and she accepted it. As long as I was safe and wanted to do it and didn’t move into prostitution. She supported me if I was working and providing money for the family.
I never told my father, but he understood. We never talked about sex, but he saw all of my costumes and shoes. Once he turned up to the club for his own employment, to fix the pipes. He never saw me dance, although his friends did.”
The relationship between Christina and her parents wasn’t so understanding. “It’s hard because my mother’s like a baby. One time she apologised because my sister told her how hard it was. She started crying and said sorry, that she was a stupid mum. It was only talk.”
“I don’t talk to my father. When I started, he had a normal job, and he was more worried about a friend of his going to see me rather than my health. He drinks a lot, that’s why he doesn’t care.”
Just how were two girls able to start stripping under the lawful age of 18? According to Nastya, “people would be put in prison but there is always corruption and you can always pay money. I had a fake ID that I made myself.”
Anyway, as Christina states, “we had a lot of customers who work in the police and they are assholes. “I’m big, I’m old, I have money.””
Nowadays though says Christina, girls don’t tend to start so young. “Back then, the oldest girl was maybe 21. Now the girls are 25-30. They are the one who enjoy the work. I still meet with them.”
Some of the experiences Christina talks about are as fascinating as they are gut-wrenching. Whereas Nastya felt in control of herself and “had never had an experience that could shock” her, Christina suffered the polar opposite.
Attacked as a teenager, Christina was prevented from being raped by an alert stranger who chased off the assailant. This incident festered a deep mistrust in men for the vulnerable girl.
Although now Christina is in a happy relationship with a man, she admits she “was a lesbian because I didn’t like the behaviour of men. From there I changed my life, because I became scared of men. That was when I was 15. That made me hate men and hate men in the clubs.”
Another incident Christina recalls, was when a customer broke her legs. “I was dancing on a sphere hanging from the ceiling. A guy took my leg and started pulling me down, I tried to kick but I fell down. It was after many months that I started walking.” This left her not only physically inactive, but also out of pocket, besides a 10,000 soms ($140) donation from her boss.
There was one person Christina could turn to for support, her twin sister.
“Before we started dancing, we weren’t close, but when we started dancing, we became closer because we needed to support each other.
I hated my sister and she hated me, but now we don’t. The work helped our relationship. We had one problem, and it wasn’t ours, it was our family’s.”
The sibling relationship became a bit too close, when egged on by their boss; Christina admits that she got “creative” with her sister with an incestuous lesbian show.
“We definitely weren’t comfortable. We were semi naked. It was the boss’ idea, because it was interesting for the business, and the male customers liked it because we were twins.”
Talking to Nastya, you can sense she felt an awful amount of self-choice and power. She was in control of who she entertained and interacted with.
“You wouldn’t be able to touch the girls if they don’t let you. I was ok if the guys touched shoulders or legs, but not boobs or bum. The girls I know wouldn’t let guys touch them, but maybe girls now let guys touch them.”
“If I liked the customer, I’d let him touch me just in private, nobody else would see, and it would only just be boobs. No more. But if I didn’t like the customer, I’d just dance quickly. Thank you. OK. Bye.”
Surprisingly, during this time period of the Western male influx, Nastya found that a vast proportion of guests weren’t searching for sexual satisfaction, but to repair their loneliness.
“Most of the customers were just not getting attention from their wives or relationships. That is why they came to strip clubs, to try to get some attention.
Also to talk about themselves, their problems and to have someone to listen, just like a human being, to have someone who is going to be interested and be ready to pay for it.”
“Ok there are guys who just try to have sex, but we all know about that type of guys.”
One rule Nastya says that girls did have to attend to was how they lived their lives outside of the club.
“We weren’t allowed to meet guys outside the club. If girls were meeting guys or customers, even in a friendly way, then they were fired.
Bishkek is such as small city that if you were seen with somebody, people would know about it in the club the next day. It is impossible to hide, as everybody knows everything.”
Unfortunately for Christina and her sibling, some guys tried to take this rule into their own illegal governance.
“After work, we were waiting for a taxi. There were two guys, who were guests and they were waiting for us when they left the nightclub, right after we got out, they just took us and put us into their car.
Basically, a kidnapping.
They were driving around the city saying, “Look we’re not going to touch you, we like you we just want to talk to you.”
We were yelling at first, but they didn’t understand, so we had to try another way.
Yelling would make them angry, so we acted feminine and after one hour the guys said, “let us take you home” but we showed a different address so they wouldn’t be able to find us later, waited for another taxi and left.
Those guys never returned to the club.”
“Of course I was scared. We didn’t call the police because our phones were dead. I work in a strip club, so the police here wouldn’t protect us anyway.
There were happier experiences. Not all customers were assholes. Maybe 30% were nice, but those guys don’t live here. They’re usually American or Russian guys.”
As the conversations with the women come to the end, the topic of returning to the strip scene is discussed, and both admit there is a lure. Nastya has already said she would move to Moscow with the permission of her husband but wouldn’t return to work in Bishkek because of the “small, old person mentality.” Even Christina, currently working as a nail technician and who spoke with such raw emotion says a return to the pole isn’t totally out of the question.
“I have friends who say “hey, come on back and try in this place” but what I said tonight is a drop in the ocean, because I know many strip girls who don’t have good stories. They started drugs and just lose their minds.”
“When you are dancing, you do feel freedom. You close inside and you don’t care who is sitting. Dancing I like, but not dancing with a guy or private dancing. I know I can do it in the future if I really have to and if I haven’t money. But I also remember how I hated it. When my boss said to me one night, “take a pill and dance”, that was the tipping point. Now I feel much happier for me and free to live.”