I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Migrant Sex Workers in the UK
Migrant sex workers in the UK have spoken out about their lives as part of a research project whose findings have just been released. Here, in the first of a two-part feature, we look at the relationship between the industry and immigration law. Read part two here.
Problematic immigration law in the United Kingdom is making the sex industry an attractive option for some migrants—and is also making those who work in it more vulnerable, new research has found.
The research, done over a period of two years, was conducted by the Institute for the Study of European Transformations at the London Metropolitan University, and was based upon in-depth interviews with 100 migrant sex workers, who came from a variety of backgrounds and were working in all sectors of the industry.
Prostitution is not illegal in the UK, although street prostitution, kerb crawling, brothels (this includes two or more women working out of the same home) and pimping are, and the profession is not regulated. Advertising sexual services is also illegal, although this is often ignored. Laws on public decency and nuisance can also be used in relation to sex work.
Even if immigrants can work legally, they often have to do the shitty jobs, in which they work long hours, are mistreated or exploited by bosses, are bored out of their minds—and get paid fuck-all for the privilege. With all these things going on, you can see why sex work might be appealing to people who have moved to the UK from other countries.At the moment, the British government seems interested in "getting tough" on prostitution, and has been considering some form of law that would make it illegal (in England and Wales, anyway) to pay for sex with someone who is "controlled for another person's gain," such as a pimp. In some European countries, like Sweden, it is illegal to pay for sex. Proponents of this argue that this kind of law is good because it criminalizes the clients, and not the prostitutes. However, opponents argue that it does nothing to help prostitutes—or stop prostitution, as some want to do—and, in fact, drives sex work further underground and generally makes life more dangerous and difficult.
Just to give a bit of context in terms of immigration law (bear with me, this does relate to sex work!), the European Union (EU) has enabled citizens from the various European countries (or "member states") to work in other EU countries. So, for example, a French person is allowed to work in Spain, or a Swedish person can work in England. This is great for European citizens and has allowed for a lot of mobility.
However, it's not so great for anyone whose country is not a member of the European Union, because there are very strict rules for people who wish to live in Europe and are not European citizens. This means that there are very few legal options for people from Africa, North or South America, Asia and pretty much anywhere else who want to live in Europe (the exceptions usually include those who are highly qualified in a field such as IT or medicine, or those who are married to a European citizen).
In 2004, EU immigration policy got even weirder than it already was. In that year, ten European countries joined the European Union. These included the likes of Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia—basically, a lot of Eastern European countries, as well as a couple others such as Malta and Cyprus.
Worried about an Eastern onslaught, only three countries (Ireland, the UK and Sweden) allowed citizens from the new EU member states to live and work without any restrictions, even though it should have been their right to do so everywhere within the EU. In 2007, Romania and Bulgaria also joined the EU, and citizens from those countries faced similar restrictions.
Then, even if immigrants can work legally (and this is the case all over the world), they often have to do the shitty jobs, in which they work long hours, are mistreated or exploited by bosses, are bored out of their minds—and get paid fuck-all for the privilege.
With all these things going on, you can see why sex work might be appealing to people who have moved to the UK from other countries.
"This is something that came out quite strongly: the relative non-exploitative nature of the sex industry," said principal investigator Dr. Nick Mai, at the presentation of the research in London. "Most people... thought that it was a bit of a better solution compared to the other experiences of work, which is why they decided to work there and not in other jobs."
However, it wasn't just that migrants working in the sex industry found it preferable to other sectors. Immigration status was a key factor in determining whether or not the sex workers could exercise any rights, in regard to their work or their personal lives, the research found. In fact, it found that this, coupled with the stigmatization of sex work, often made them vulnerable to abuse, violence, exploitation and trafficking.
"Undocumented people can work without being asked for papers, so the very nature of law enforcement sometimes made the job preferable," said Dr. Mai. "So here we have to reflect about how current obsessions with the sanitization of the sex industry, but also with trafficking, can end up by making sex work one of the few safe spaces for people who have got no documents, because if you make it more difficult for people to work without documents, then obviously the sex industry is a place which is very informal."
So, what would help improve the lives of migrant sex workers in the UK? First off, most believed that working towards fully legalizing sex work would help reduce their vulnerability.
However, it's not just the laws around the industry that need to be worked on. Dr. Mai continues: "It makes it difficult, today's migration legislation, to update and maintain legal status. In a way, migrants in the sex industry are excluded from regularization twice because they are not even included in the very precarious system of regulation of labor that is regulating other sectors.
"As you know, the system of regulation of migrant labor is quite problematic in this country—but they don't even have access to that, because if we recognized that some specific forms ... of selling sex or working in the sex [industry] are legal, then some of the anti-discrimination, anti-exploitation measures that are applicable to what is defined as work could be used to protect workers."
PS: Contrary to popular opinion, many of the sex workers said they were NOT forced into the industry. Next week, I will be looking into this, as well as exploitation, trafficking—and why anti-trafficking measures don't always help those working in the industry. In the meantime though, you can go here for Dr. Nick Mai's full presentation.