Not By Force: Choosing Sex Work
In this second part of a two-part feature into the lives of migrant sex workers in the UK, we look at issues surrounding force, exploitation and trafficking – with many sex workers arguing that they chose to go into their profession.(Read the first part here.)
These days, much of the political discourse around prostitution, at least in European countries, focuses on trafficking, exploitation and force. Many speak of sex workers as victims, and cannot fathom that there might be non-exploitative sex work—in which people freely choose to work in the industry—as well as exploitative sex work. Also, the discussion is often linked to immigration, and much xenophobic discourse has been disguised as anti-trafficking talk.
However, the research into migrant sex workers, conducted by the Institute for the Study of European Transformations at the London Metropolitan University (which we looked at last week), found that most of the interviewees chose to work in the industry, and were not forced into it.
"Trafficking and exploitation were the reality for a minority of interviewees—this is a very important finding," said principal investigator Dr. Nick Mai at his recent presentation of the research in London. "The majority of interviewees felt safe in their current jobs and described relations at work as friendly and respectful. ... Only a minority felt that they had been trafficked and exploited."
Cari Mitchell, from the English Collective of Prostitutes (some of whose members were interviewed for the research) concurs with Dr. Mai's findings, in that it is also her experience that most people are not forced into sex work.
For migrant women, legal and social realities are major factors influencing their choice. "It's very hard to get a so-called legal job if you're coming in as an immigrant woman," says Ms. Mitchell. "Racism is rampant in this country. Women can do casual work, in restaurants or the hotel business, that kind of thing. But the money is very bad. And if you're black or an immigrant, people assume you can be a cleaner or work in some shit job in a hotel, but frankly, women really want something a bit better than that—and so many women do decide to work in the sex industry."
Ms. Mitchell says that for many migrant sex workers, earning enough money to send some home (which makes a huge difference to the people still living there) is one of the big motivations for choosing to work in the industry.
"But also, women have always taken on the responsibility of getting up and seeing what can be done," she says. "And women say, I'm sexy still, I can do this work, I'll do it while I can do it, I'll use what I've got, and I'll send the money home. Why not? I don't have very many choices, and this is something I can do, and I will do it—and then people assume, if you come from another country, that you're trafficked."
Of course, some people really are trafficked and exploited, and this is never justifiable. Interestingly, though, both Dr. Mai and Ms. Mitchell spoke about degrees of, or nuances in, exploitation—situations in which women are agreeing to be temporarily taken advantage of or "exploited" in order to gain something in the long-term.
"A lot of women have to get help to come in, either they're brought in on a lorry, or some passport is put together or someone pays for a ticket or some way to get in," says Ms. Mitchell. "And then once they're here they pay off whoever has helped them, and then they're working independently."
"The women don't mind, it's worth it for them. Someone's going to pay for their ticket, that's fine, they earn the money, it's doesn't take that long—and then they're off, and they can decide what to do with themselves.
"And even women who've been trafficked, who have been found to be trafficked, then do decide to [still] work in the sex industry, even after they have been sorted out—because they have very few options.
"But there are men around every sphere of life looking out for women they can rip off. I mean, that's not new for women. I mean, how many married women do you know? How many women are being ripped off in every solitary situation? How many men come home and put their feet up and the women are working 20 hours a day to keep them going?"
Ms Mitchell adds that anti-trafficking measures and police raids make life more difficult for those who don't have anything to do with trafficking.
"In this country, the trafficking legislation doesn't require the police to bring any evidence of force or coercion," she says. "So, women who are not doing any trafficking but who are running parlours where immigrant women are working, and maybe loaning them the fare to come over, are being done for trafficking.
"More than one woman working together is a brothel, and brothels are illegal. So, anybody who tries to work with anybody else, for safety or against the high expenses and whatnot, can be [arrested] for running a brothel or for controlling others who are working in a brothel. And you don't have to do much, you know—open the door to customers or answer the phone, and then you're running a brothel."