When I was younger, I looked up to girls like you. They seemed so mature. But even though they lived behind the Iron Curtain, I didn’t understand why they wanted so badly to get to the West. Western guys weren’t fairytale princes any more than the local boys, and I knew because I’d grown up on both sides of the Curtain, in Finland and Soviet Estonia. Most of the girls who wanted to leave had absolutely no idea what the West was really like. To hear them talk, Western men were a kind of dream job that would open up a new world of social and economic opportunities for them.
When the borders finally opened, that dream became a possibility, and you were one of the ones who grabbed hold of it. The desire to seem more Western is the convenient explanation for why you changed your name from Melanija Knavs to Melania Knauss. But I’d wager there’s more to it: by then, Eastern European girls had developed a certain reputation. In the West, women cast them suspicious glances, and men ogled them, all of which came as a complete surprise to the newcomers, presumably including you. Your accent alone suddenly let everyone know you were for sale, and cheap.
A woman for the cost of a pair of pantyhose
I remember the beginnings of the sexualization of Eastern European girls in Finland during the Soviet period. Back then, Tallinn, a quick ferry ride away in Estonia, was known as a city where you could buy women for the cost of a pair of pantyhose, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that flocks of Eastern European women appeared on the streets and squares of Finland carrying signs saying, “Pussy 50 marks.” That phrase became fixed in the Finnish lexicon. The incoming flood of foreign sex workers was an unprecedented sight and an embarrassment for the Estonians. No one talked about the dangers of human trafficking in those days. Even though the breakup of the Soviet Union had meant the collapse of the entire social system of the Eastern Bloc, no one was much interested in the forces that drove women into the sex trade.
Once Estonia regained its independence, it soon became a rising star, a model Eastern European economy with more to offer than easy women and cheap booze. Tourism increased, and international press about Estonia became more varied. I didn’t get propositioned on the boat to Tallinn as often, and Russian and Estonian women no longer had to lower their voices on the street in Finland. All this made me happy.
Feeding the entertainment industry's desire
What I didn’t realize was that the sex tourism I’d seen was only the first wave in the stampede to Eastern Europe. Even though where I lived the image of Balts and Slavs had gained more nuance, elsewhere their reputation was crumbling. Brothels all over the world were filling with Eastern European girls, and their march onto the stage of Western popular culture was just beginning.
In retrospect, this all makes sense. For half a century, the nations of the Eastern Bloc had only existed for the West as part of the Evil Empire. If a Slav showed up in a movie in the West, he was just some Ivan in a fur hat. The Iron Curtain insured that few Westerners had any sense of the individual nations, whether it was Estonia or your homeland, Slovenia. There were no public narratives that reflected the realities of these countries that suddenly appeared on the map.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cold War stories fell out of fashion in popular culture. But titillating images of prostitutes quickly filled the void: What more does the entertainment industry need than tits, high heels, Russian mafia thugs, and damsels in distress? The fact that these girls came from a blank space on the map only increased their exoticism. News stories about the link between the sex trade and organized crime added a dash of danger, further heightening the effect. The East was the new Wild West.
The Melania effect
You are the First Lady of the United States of America, but whenever you hear a familiar accent on TV, the woman on-screen is a prostitute, a stripper, or a mail-order bride. And she doesn’t get many lines, either, because what would be the point?
Melania, despite your position, you haven’t caused any “Melania effect,” as Vanity Fair pointed out. No one is rushing out to buy the dresses you wear, no matter how beautiful the garments your stylists drape over your perfect body. You aren’t a fashion icon. You aren’t an idol. And how could you be when your face elicits #FreeMelania, #SadMelania, and #SaveMelania. Those are the hashtags of the passive victim in the stereotypical story of an Eastern European girl, not the First Lady.
A friend of mine from Slovenia says she’s started avoiding questions about her home country. If she tells men where she’s from, she gets that look. You know the one. The demeaning one. All her expertise and professional accomplishments are instantly erased by her background. That’s the effect you’re having, dear Melania.
Your husband's idea of womenhood
Unfortunately, you are the best thing that’s happened in ages for the market in Eastern European girls. You’ve become the face of the entire industry. “I’m not a nagging wife,” you say and otherwise keep your mouth shut and accept your husband’s sexist comments. Which is exactly the kind of wife men go looking for in the former Eastern Bloc. One who keeps within the boundaries of “true” femininity by fulfilling her “fundamental” role of providing pleasure for men. A woman who looks like a supermodel but was raised by her grandmother, as one matchmaking agency’s slogan puts it. Each new article about the indignities you’ve endured in your marriage sells more bachelor getaways, attracts more customers to the dating apps and interpretation services. That’s why your silence isn’t a private matter. It affects the lives and opportunities of countless other women.
The dominant narrative about Eastern European women—one of inequality and exploitation— shapes how we’re treated. It causes anxiety and depression, and makes us ashamed of our own bodies. Did you know that women with this immigrant background find it difficult to report the abuse and violence they experience? They’re afraid no one will believe them. The stories the media tells create the impression that they want to be subjugated, that being objectified brings them pleasure.
That’s your husband’s idea of womanhood, and that’s what you’re normalizing through your silence.
Lead by example
Today Eastern European girls—cheap and white—are the most desirable commodity in the sex industry the world over. They are coming from countries where the standard of living is low, the social safety nets are weak, and corruption is endemic, offering excellent ground for trafficking and sex work. But the better a country’s economy, the more gender equality we find, the fewer girls from that country turn to prostitution or to marrying a man they’ve barely met.
But we still need help, and we need it from women like you. Be the First Lady and change the world, as First Ladies before you have. Start a foundation, visit shelters, raise awareness, help people to recognize the signs of trafficking and abuse, and give courage to victims to come forward —make them feel they have the right to do so. Lead by your example, break your silence, and we will welcome you with open arms. You can do it. You can make a difference. You can be a hero to us all.
Translation by Owen F. Witesman
Sofi Oksanen is a writer and Expressen contributor. Her most famous novel is "Purge", which has recieved numerous awards, including the Finlandia Prize (2008), the Runeberg Prize (2009) and the Nordic Council Literature Prize. "When the Doves Disappeared", her latest novel, was longlisted for Dublin International Literary Award.