On date two she told him she thought he could be her soulmate. By the end of the week he was sure he had found his future life partner. It was an expensive week, with the dinners, taxis, and payment for a translator all adding up, but Stephen was delighted that he had found love. But love in Odessa is not all it seems. Perhaps 10 years ago, the scenario had been what I imagined, with men swooping in, and women keen to swap the hard grind of poverty-stricken Ukraine for a new life in the US, even if it was a ramshackle house in a North Dakotan town or a sleepy midwestern farm, rather than a Manhattan penthouse or LA beachfront home.
Now, it seems, things are different. I left Stephen ready to propose, but two months later he told me by email that it had all unravelled. Todd did not even get to the date stage; in retrospect, perhaps a lucky escape. The women took their cut of cash for chatting with him, but did not answer his calls when he arrived.
He later wrote to me: I've decided to close that chapter in my life and move on. And to pursue the other hopes and dreams that I have. Will I ever find my other half? One can only wonder. At least I can say I tried.
If I die a bachelor, so be it. I was able to uncover exactly how the scams work due to a chance encounter with Alina, one of the women involved, who felt weighed down by her collusion in what she called "emotional prostitution". She explained the whole sordid array of techniques, from a light impersonalised online-chatting version to a full-service chauffeur-driven platinum fraud, where men are rinsed of cash for a full week in Odessa, thinking they are cementing a lifelong relationship while actually they are being strung along on platonic dates that end with them dispatched to the airport with heavy hearts and empty wallets.
Many of them come with ridiculous expectations, of course, but I am not sure that anyone deserves this treatment. For the women as well, although hundreds of them make a living from the scams, it is not an easy psychological burden to bear.
Alina was evidence of that, and year-old Chris, the tour's youngest member, found that when he confronted his date with accusations about the nature of the business, she burst into tears and said she felt awful, but needed the money to support her mother after her father had died.
Other women were genuinely looking for a young and interesting partner and wanted to leave Ukraine, but spent hours chatting with elderly men in order to make money. Anastasia International, while not directly colluding in the scams, runs a highly profitable business model that allows them to flourish.
While real and lasting liaisons do occasionally form through the site, more often it only serves to increase the concentric circles of mistrust, disappointment and heartbreak for all involved. Anastasia insists that it weeds out scams whenever it finds them , and has banned some women from the site. It also says it will reimburse clients who fall victims to scams, and provides advice on how to avoid them. Larry Cervantes, the company spokesman, wrote to me after the tour: So what's the difference?
Throughout history men have pursued the unattainable, and throughout history they've made fools of themselves. How is this any different? But the difference, of course, is that the company is making a huge profit from the men making fools of themselves, and while many women are making money out of the schemes too, it is not clear that it is beneficial to them in the longer term.
Far from ending the practice, the recent unrest in Ukraine has only enhanced it. Alina told me that her friends working in the business are expecting several American men to arrive in the coming days, while the less discreetly named sugardaddyforme. The new Ukrainian government has rather a lot on its plate, but ending the trade in emotional exploitation is something they should tackle sooner rather than later.
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