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MOSCOW (Reuters) - A popular joke among Russian oligarchs has one telling another, "I have bad news, I have lost $5 billion." The second replies, 'Well I have lost $7 billion. But the good news is that whores are back to costing $100.'
It may seem a typically Russian view of the economic crisis -- selling and paying for sex makes up much of Moscow's notorious nightlife, and some "night butterflies" say they are slashing their prices to compete. But they add a new kind of customer has emerged who wants emotional support, not sex.
Adriana, a prostitute in her 30s who works in the flat she shares with her 18-year old son, said her role has evolved to being a shoulder for her customers to cry on: "They complain and many (now) don't come for sex," she said, downing a flute of champagne in a noisy bar and flicking back her jet-black hair.
She recalled a recent experience with a client whose salary had fallen by a third to 40,000 roubles ($1,200) per month: "He stopped after three seconds and suggested we had drinks and talk."
Sex drive and economic prosperity are strongly linked, said British sex expert, columnist and writer Tracey Cox.
"Lots of men define themselves by their jobs and how much money they make... Our libido is definitely affected by times of financial difficulty. Stress is a huge contributor to (its) loss," she told Reuters.
"A prostitute is someone who is basically paid not to judge them for whatever they ask for... she therefore becomes the logical person to talk to."
Though illegal, paying for sex is widely accepted by many Russian men. The eight-laned highways which stretch out of the sprawling capital of 10.5 million teem with prostitutes, some of whom agree demand for sex has fallen.
"Now they often talk about work," said Olya, who is in her early 20s and works independently without a pimp near the MKAD, the capital's main ring road. "They are afraid of losing their jobs."
On Web site www.x-love.ru where men can search for prostitutes in their area, a banner invites them to de-stress by simply talking: "When your stock price is falling, what better way to relax than chatting with one of our girls?"
Moscow police decline to estimate how many prostitutes work in the city but media reports and rights groups say it houses more than 100,000 -- roughly 10 times higher than estimates for London and New York.
Police and law enforcement agencies often turn a blind eye to prostitution or ask girls for either a bribe up to 6,000 roubles or free oral sex, several prostitutes said.
Moscow police declined to comment on bribe-taking but said the fine for women selling sex is 2,000 roubles, and much higher for pimps who organize them.
The number of Russian billionaires has halved in the last year to 49 as the financial crisis destroyed mass fortunes. With the jobless rate currently at an eight-year high and salaries shrinking across the board, prostitutes are also cutting prices.
Pay levels for Moscow's prostitutes vary widely, but many say they can eke out a decent living, earning at least $2,000 a month dealing with several men a night. A small elite charges thousands of dollars per session.
Marina, 26, who offers sex through her own Web site, said she is now offering an all-night special at 6,000 roubles, a 30 percent discount on pre-crisis prices.
Men also have ample anecdotal evidence that women from the provinces where unemployment is high are coming to Moscow and St Petersburg to sell sex, driving prices further down.
A trucker said girls new to the trade are offering oral sex in small countryside towns for a mere 300 roubles -- a little more than the cost of a sandwich and a coke.
Adriana has cut her prices by 500 roubles an hour to 2,000 roubles -- the same charged by the girls on the highway and the lowest girls in Moscow are willing to go to.
"People who came three times a week suddenly don't visit at all," said Adriana, adding that this is the biggest dip in custom she has seen since she started the job a decade ago.
Despite the fall in business, she hopes to stay on the game for another five years before relocating to Bulgaria, where she is eyeing property.
But with some of Moscow's wealthiest men still in the market, the elite prostitutes appear to be surviving the crisis unscathed.
Under the glowing red lights at one of Moscow's prime nightclubs near the Kremlin, prostitutes who charge between 300-500 euros ($395-$658) an hour said it's business as usual.
"We service the whole world from here and absolutely nothing has changed," said 34-year-old Natalya, waving a thin, tanned arm across a room of businessmen from the Middle East.
Lena, also in her 30s and with a shock of peroxide shoulder-length hair, nodded at her co-worker.
"The men who come to us are very rich, very successful and know what they want. Business is good," she said, reclining in a plush armchair.
Editing by Sara Ledwith