Precarious Intimacies: The European Border Regime and Migrant Sex Work

Submitted by vicent on February 17, 2016

The combination of migration and sex work often evokes images of sexual violence and exploitation associated with sex trafficking. Mutilated, imprisoned, and silenced young women and children populate the media headlines around trafficking. Many activists and scholars have begun to criticize the proliferation of the sex trafficking discourse and the way it has begun to dominate current discussions on prostitution and sex work in general.1 They recognize that the extent of sex trafficking is exaggerated and that trafficked persons do not form a majority of persons in prostitution. It is clear, then, that the trafficking framework is inadequate to the task of describing the variety of experiences of labor and exploitation in the field of commercial sex: the problems migrants encounter in this field are more often related to the institutional structures of immigration and the implementation of prostitution policies that restrict and prevent possibilities for autonomous work and access to alternative spheres of labor than to individual traffickers.

This essay provides a theoretical and conceptual framework to discuss the role of borders in creating living and working conditions for sex workers within the European border regime. This regime both restricts and enables a structural background for migrant sex work. Following the formulation of Enrica Rigo, borders need to be viewed as institutions that produce social relations.2 I categorize these relations as precarious intimacies in order to describe the ways in which intimacy, commerce, and borders often intertwine in the lives of migrants engaged in commercial sex work. In order to better flesh out this concept, I draw upon insights gained from my fieldwork among and interviews with migrant sex workers in Finland, as well as long-term participation in providing legal counsel to migrants with Freedom of Movement, a grassroots migrants’ rights network in Finland.

Escape and Coercion, Mobility and Precarity

Sex work is a migrant-dominated field in Europe. A recent mapping shows that a majority – 60 to 90% – of sex workers in Europe are migrants.3 A study of one hundred sex workers conducted by the London Metropolitan University, found immigration status to be one of the most important factors impacting working and living conditions for sex workers.4 My encounters with migrant sex workers during the 18-months of fieldwork I conducted in Finland indicate similar conclusions.5

While sex work is not criminalized in the majority of the European states, migrant sex work is often regulated through immigration policies. In Finland and Sweden, for example, selling sex is a sufficient reason for deportation, and in many countries immigration officials are part of the policing of sex work. Also, in countries where sex work is legalized, like Austria or the Netherlands, working permits for migrants coming outside the EU in the sex sector are unavailable or very difficult to obtain. This creates “double” markets where migrants work in more precarious sections. If we want to understand the condition of migrant sex workers in Europe and the factors that make their exploitation possible, we need to examine the role of contemporary European immigration policies and how they intersect with prostitution policies.

Questions of agency need to be accorded a central place in public discussion of both migration and sex work. Migrants are often conflated with the circumstances they struggle with, such as poverty. The multiplicity of their desires and reasons for migrating are easily flattened down to the push-and-pull of structural factors.6 The feminist debates around sex work and prostitution, the so-called “sex wars,” evince this problem of agency in theorizing sex work, and the situation becomes even more complicated when sex work and migration are brought together. The dominance of trafficking discourse has meant that migrant sex work is mainly conceptualized in the context of sex trafficking or “modern slavery,” which reduces migrant sex workers to a simplified image of victims that are exploited by individual evildoers, such as traffickers or clients. Seeing sex workers only as victims obstructs their struggles and negotiations in regards to restrictions of movement, constraints in the labor market, and economic survival.

To make matters worse, trafficking discourse also sidelines the institutional and structural framework that makes the sexual exploitation of migrant workforces possible in the first place: immigration controls, visa requirements, lack of labor protection, and other measures mediated via the nation-state. Sex workers’ rights activists and feminist scholars have pointed out that instead of granting rights and labor market protection for people in sex work, this victimization results in demands for carceral prostitution and immigration policies and the increased involvement of the criminal justice system.7 Or alternatively, this sexual humanitarianism lends itself the moral urgency of a raid and rescue mission.8 Analysis must avoid rendering migrants as victims while not disregarding the structural constraints that they meet in their work and movement. Feminist conceptualizations of precarization offer a fruitful starting point to discuss the tension between the structural constraints that the border regime imposes on migrants and the way migrants negotiate these constraints.

The concepts of precarity, precariousness, and precarization have become popular in current public and academic discussions around the ongoing changes in the capitalist mode of production, working conditions, and modes of life in general. Many theorists and social commentators refer to these changes by tracing the shift from a Fordist to a post-Fordist organization of production and labor force.9 These concepts refer to the same ongoing social processes and their effects in contemporary Western societies, but carry slightly different meanings: as adjectives, precarious and precarity can refer to the shared ontological vulnerability of life,10 or to socially produced conditions of precarity.11 Precarization, on the other hand, refers more precisely to the social processes that expose people to precarity and produce precarious conditions.12 Researchers and social commentators have mainly applied precarization to the sphere of employment, where it is understood to relate to atypical or irregular jobs. However, precarization also has a deeper and more comprehensive meaning, referring to the crises traversing the support mechanisms that sustain modern social life, as well as the institutions that bring stability and continuity to life: the welfare state, education system, and wage labor. Precarization means processes which produce a lack of protection, insecurity, instability, and social or economic vulnerability.13

Feminist theorizations of precarization emphasize the multifold characteristics at work within these processes: many aspects of precarization are bad (vulnerability, insecurity, poverty), some good (accumulation of multiple skills and knowledge, creating of new networks) and some are ambiguous (mobility, flexibility).14 Precarization, in this light, is inherently contradictory and potentially creative, not simply as a forced condition.15 Feminist conceptualizations of precarization thus enable us to capture the vexed nature of sex work and migration as both forms of agency and as life strategies, as well as processes that are subjected to various forms of control and governance.

Jukka Könönen has described precarization as a process that separates what people are capable of doing to do from what they can do.16 In the lives of migrants especially, precarization limits the possibilities of action and turns efforts that strive for an independent and satisfactory life into survival struggles. As a consequence, migration is one way to escape insufficient economic conditions and to create a more independent and pleasing life.17 This escape should not be conceived as only reactionary, but as an active decision to improve one’s life. Immigration policies and labor market restrictions, however, set the conditions for this escape.

Borders – the spaces where these policies and restrictions are materially condensed – often strip migrants of their acquired and accumulated resources like education, profession, and expertise. Borders compel people to resort to making use of their embodied resources, like language skills, sexuality, or assumed gendered and racialized characteristics.18 Beverley Skeggs provides a means of conceptualizing this strategy by urging us to view gender and sexuality from an angle that would not reduce them to objects or properties of identity, but as resources that can be deployed and combined in various ways.19 Many of the sex workers I met are relatively well or highly educated, but they have not been able to capitalize on their education and skills in migration because of their legal residency status, Finnish language proficiency requirements, restricted access to labor market, and problems in education accreditation.20 As a result, it is intimacy, in the form of gendered sexuality, that becomes the means of acquiring mobility and income. Intimacy, then, assumes a double function: it is both a resource and a source of precarity in many migrants’ lives, a dual nature I try to capture with the concept of precarious intimacies. The majority of the sex workers either migrate with help of temporary visas to do sex work, or, if they are more settled migrants, they had often initially arrived through marriage and later ended up in sex work. Marriage or other intimate arrangements with former customers are also central to the sex workers’ residency strategies.

Contradictions in the Composition of Migrant Sex Workers

“Like citizenship itself, noncitizenship is a complex and divided condition.”21

The Schengen agreement is the basis of the common European border regime. It guarantees the free movement of European Union’s citizens and permanent residents, and removed internal border controls inside the Schengen area. A visa to one Schengen country guarantees free movement within the Schengen area. Many of the sex workers I met during my fieldwork in Finland use the possibilities of free movement to find more satisfactory forms of income. As one Latvian woman traveling to Finland put it: “It is big money. Not so big, but bigger than what you can get if you just work in some small shop or in some factory. Of course this money is bigger.” Most of the sex workers met in Finland are circular migrants, who travel between their country of residence and Finland. They had often worked in several EU countries, and were highly mobile.

Immigration policies form different opportunities of movement and income for migrants depending on their country of origin. The majority of the sex workers in Finland come from Russia and former Soviet countries. One reason for this is that it is relatively easy for Russians to get a tourist visa to the EU, unlike migrants from African or Southeast Asian countries. Large income differences between these countries and the central and Northern European EU countries make cross-border sex work a lucrative option for migrants. For many, sex work is a way to finance their studies, home renovations or other temporary projects, or to support their children while they are growing up. Working abroad also offers a possibility to do sex work in an environment where there is little danger of the nature of their labor to be exposed to their social circles. The majority of the migrants said that they don’t sell sex in their country because they want to avoid the stigma attached to sex work, they only do it while traveling. Migration enables innovative forms of income and possibilities of better life, but at the same time, immigration policies restrict the possibilities for creating permanent living situations and access to other spheres of income besides sex work.

Sex workers also find themselves in different positions depending on their race or ethnicity, working environment, age, gender, income security, and support networks.22 All these factors affect the working and living conditions of the sex workers. However, for migrants one central structural factor that defines their working conditions and level of precarity is their residency status.23

Migrants selling sexual services reside in Finland on either a permanent Finnish residency permit or citizenship; a tourist visa; EU citizenship of another country; a temporary Finnish residence permit (based on study, work, or marriage); another EU country’s residency permit; or without a permit (undocumented). Each of these statuses is associated with a different set of rights. I have illustrated the dispersion of rights between the various permit categories in the following table:


The major groups selling sex in Finland – Ethnic Finns, Russians, Estonians, Nigerians, and Thais – are all in different positions. The differences are not primarily due to their ethnic group affiliation or cultural belonging, but because these groups have different kinds of residency permits. Russians most often reside on a three-month tourist visa, Estonians are EU citizens, Nigerians typically have a residence permit in another EU-country, and Thais are mostly former marriage migrants and therefore usually have a permanent residence permit in Finland.

Enrica Rigo has noted that the contemporary European border regime’s “main function is less concerned with ‘separation’ than with ‘differentiation.’’’ Rigo refers to the fact that contemporary border controls and immigration policies have detached borders from their pure territorial function.24 Rather than simply separating people, contemporary borders differentiate them by creating different legal statuses based on a person’s residence permit status. This differentiating function of borders is extended within the nation-state through the residency permit and visa system.25 Könönen has theorized how borders produce a hierarchical fragmentation of the legal subjectivities of people residing in the same area.26 Borders thus do not only draw territorial delimitations, but also boundaries of difference between individuals: in other words, boundaries of status.27 Residency status defines migrants’ right to work (access to formal labor markets), the length of their stay and their deportability, meaning their vulnerability to removal from the country.28 In addition, residency permit status defines the access migrants have to state services.29 In a welfare state like Finland, such services are a significant benefit and reduce dependence on sex work as the sole source of income, which for sex workers translates into less of a need to see clients and more control over what kind of clients they receive.

Crucially, circular migrants do not have access to welfare state services or standard housing markets. They often reside in hotels or rent rooms through their networks, which can cost two or three times more than the standard housing market, plus travel costs. Circular migrants also experience the economic strain via increased stress: they work more often, sometimes having none or one day off a week. As such, they have less control over their working hours and conditions. When under economic stress, circular migrants are more likely to sell services cheaper and to clients that other sex workers wouldn’t receive, like men who are drunk or perceived as difficult. The fluctuation in commercial sex income is high and circular migrants don’t have the buffer of welfare benefits.

Another important factor that affects the position of sex workers is labor market access. Migrants residing with tourist visas, mainly Russians and visiting Thais, and those with another EU country residence permits – mainly Nigerians, who especially were eager to get “any kind of job” – are practically excluded from the formal labor market. To take one example, a 31-year old Nigerian women with residence permit based on asylum in Spain explains her situation in trying to find another job:

I would like to stay in this country, if I would get the papers in this country. I don’t know if I can do this job [sex work] because I don’t like this job. I can try my best to live. The job, it’s difficult. But in Spain it’s very difficult to stay. And in Spain I cannot live on the job, but here I can live on the job. […] I’d like to sell something in a shop. I like to do hairdressing or clean, I like to take care of old people. Anything I can do to have money to live my life. That’s what I want.

To have access to the labor market, third-country nationals need to apply for a work permit, a task is almost impossible if you do not have strong personal networks to rely on, which many migrant sex workers do not. To apply for the permit, the employee needs at least a six-month-long work contract from the employer, at near-full time hours. Because they can’t start working before the permit is processed (which usually takes three months), the employer has no inclination of how this person is as a worker. Immigration policies and restrictions on labor market access in part “trap” this group of migrants into sex work, even if they would prefer to do other kind of work. Hence labor market restrictions can function as an institutional form of immobilization of these migrants.30

For these individuals, the fact that sex work constitutes their only source of income means that they have less control over their working pace, choice of customers, and overall working environments. To add to these constraints, if they are suspected of or caught while selling sexual services, they can be deported. Even though selling sex is not illegal in Finland, it is a ground for deportation for third-country citizens. If a person is deported on those grounds, she or he might receive a denial of entry lasting from one to five years. Another Nigerian woman who has a residence permit based on asylum in Spain described the importance of documents and the way the fear of deportation affects her daily life:

Here we have fear. Here we have the fear of the police. I have pressure. My mind is bouncing always, I’m walking fast. I know that sometimes the police come, but not always. If you are walking on the streets here, sometimes they control you, check your ID. They will [deport and] ban that person to not to come here for four to five years […] That’s a reason why we’re afraid. If you have a European passport [citizenship], they are a little bit nicer – because most of people with European passport have a job here, they have Finnish documents. I’m not like them. They have two jobs, work in the street and work in factory. They don’t get shocked like me when they see the police.

Deportability and the fear of the police also affect the working conditions and safety of sex workers in other ways. When I talked with a Russian woman who has a permanent residence permit in Finland about difficult clients, she answered that she always tells her clients in advance that she lives in Finland permanently. This way, she says, the clients know that she is not afraid of police and cannot be threatened with calling the police like the ones who are on tourist visas: “They are afraid for their visa, but I am not afraid and they [clients] know not to make trouble.” According to an earlier study in Finland, clients who harass sex workers know that migrants coming from outside EU – Russians, Nigerians and Thais – have less protection from the law and therefore target these sex workers.31 In other words, the deportability of these circular migrants put them at a higher risk of becoming a target of violence.

Fear of deportation prevents sex workers from contacting officials in cases of violence or exploitation, and forces them to work in more hidden locations. This legal stratification of the field of commercial sex is further buttressed by racist policing practices. During my fieldwork in Helsinki, the police especially targeted black sex workers, and compelled club bouncers to use racial profiling by threatening the clubs with human trafficking accusations. This forced Nigerian women onto the streets and out of safe, social indoor nightclub working environments. A brief look at available statistics shows that the Finnish police also seem to have selective deportation practices. Although Russians outnumber Nigerians in the club and on the street scene, according to 2011-2014 police statistics on deportation on the grounds of selling sex, 70% of the persons deported were Nigerians living in another EU country, as compared to 30% of Russians on a tourist visa who are “equally deportable” third country nationals.32

From these necessarily brief snapshots, it’s clear that immigration policies have become part of labor market regulation.33 In combination with irregular migration processes, immigration policies help to form a labor force that is in a more precarious position and which then clusters to particular segments of the labor market. Stratifications emerge, producing people with different sets of rights related to labor market and welfare services. In short, immigration policies create particular relations to the labor market and produce institutionalized uncertainty for migrants’ lives.34 Combined with the legal regulation of prostitution in Finland, these policies result in a structural differentiation in the field of sex work.

Precarious Intimacies

This focus on the border regime allows for an understanding of how it produces people residing within a nation-state with differential rights, differential access to the labor market, and variable access to the services of the state.35 These differential rights have a structural role in the differentiation of the commercial sex sector, as well as in determining how migrants use intimacy in their migration processes. However, through another optic, intimacy and intimate relations can be viewed as resources – as workable and effective strategies – in these women’s aspirations to create more satisfactory and independent lives from their position of structural disadvantage.

For migrant sex workers with precarious legal status, intimate relations are a way to stabilize their residence in the EU. Many of the migrant sex workers see finding a husband or a rich lover as a great accomplishment. Marriage is the most solid way to obtain a permanent residency permit and a future in Europe. Many sex workers see a European husband as a means for greater material security and a better future. Marriage grants access to the state-provided rights and services, which can be significant not only for the current life situation, but also for future well-being.

In one example, a Russian sex worker had made a marriage arrangement with a Finnish man 20 years older than she in order to receive a permanent resident permit. She said that they do not live together, she wants to have her own independent life. Instead she visits her husband regularly, and while visiting they share different kinds of intimacies: sex, dinners, hanging out watching television and the like. She told me that they are not in love, or at least that it has never been love from her perspective. Instead there is a “long friendship and mutual understanding between them,” and she clearly had warm feelings towards her husband. This woman described her husband as “a generous friend who was helping her” and she said that she has been “lucky in that sense.”

The institutional framework of immigration regulation, however, often reduces women’s autonomy in these intimate arrangements and exposes them to different kinds of vulnerabilities and gendered relations of dependency. According to the Finnish Aliens’ Act, a person has to be married for four years before receiving a permanent residence permit. Sometimes women are literally “counting the days.” One day during my fieldwork several sex workers were celebrating with hugs. I asked a woman what was the cause for revelry; she explained to me that one woman had received a permanent residency permit after being married to her husband for over four years. The woman’s residency permit was no longer dependent on her husband. She seemed to have loving feelings towards her husband and was not planning to divorce him or to end the relationship. Rather, the women were celebrating the fact that she had gained an equal position in a relationship: a certain dependency on her husband had ended.

Some husbands use their position of power to restrict the independence of their wives. For example, some men do not want their wives to work outside the home or take Finnish language courses. The border regime produces further dependencies on spouses. Some current or former husbands take care of all the practicalities concerning their wife’s life, like unemployment and welfare benefits, communicating with the authorities regarding residence permit applications, healthcare, and overall finances. In the case of a divorce, this dependency often turns against the woman. For example, the husband of one Thai woman had not applied for her permanent residency permit even though she was entitled to it. The husband knew that once she had a permanent permit, she would no longer be dependent on being married to him for her residence.

Other forms of precarious intimacies fall short of formal marriage. In one case, a Russian woman’s client had become her client-lover. The client was already married and therefore could not marry her in order to grant her residence permit. Instead, this woman’s lover organized a job for her in his company so she could receive a work permit. She, however, did not actually work at the office – instead they had an intimate arrangement where she was his part-time lover. Their arrangement worked well for some time, but the woman explained to me that at some point her lover became violent and jealous, and she ended the relationship after gaining a permanent residence permit.

Migration scholars emphasize that immigration policies produce precarity in the formal labor market through creating institutionalized uncertainty and burdening employment relations. This makes workers dependent on employers for residency permit sponsorship.36 But for migrants who are positioned in the informal labor market of commercial sex, immigration controls and the legal positions they carve out do not create particular relations of dependency to employers; rather, they produce gendered relations of dependency to customers, husbands, and lovers. Lauren Berlant writes that “at root, precarity is a condition of dependency – as a legal term, precarious describes the situation wherein your tenancy on your land is in someone else’s hands.”37 This etymological description of precarity effectively captures the situation of migrant sex workers: their tenancy was temporarily in the hands of their husbands or boyfriends. The lack of alternative modes of movement and income places migrant women into precarious intimacies: uncertain and shifting gendered relations of dependency that they use to advance their lives, but which also make them vulnerable to different forms of exploitation.

For the migrant women I encountered, intimacy, in the form of gendered sexuality, has become the main resource of mobility and income, as well as a strategy to stabilize their residence in the EU. At the same time that these intimate contracts or relations offer women an escape and a promise of different, less precarious future, they also create gendered relations of dependency and precarious forms of intimacy.

Conclusion: Borders and the Production of Precarious Social Relations

Borders are no longer institutions that solely separate the alien from the citizen. Instead of simple processes of inclusion or exclusion – legality or illegality – borders produce forms of differential inclusion.38 In other words, contemporary immigration policies have resulted in a complex system of residency statuses that are connected to differential sets of rights.39 This means a multiplication of the precarious positions that non-citizens occupy, such as asylum seeker, refugee, student, holder of a work permit, victim of a trafficking, or a family member. These statuses have a fundamental effect on the lives of migrants. Different statuses are connected to differentials in labor market access, political rights, as well as access to welfare and health care services. Trafficking and exploitation of migrant labor are manifestations of these differential rights and statuses.

Migrants working in the field of commercial sex are not a homogenous group that can be discussed in a citizen-noncitizen axis, or even the documented-undocumented dualism. Linda Bosniak has demonstrated that noncitizenship is a complex and divided condition in a similar manner to that of citizenship.40 This complexity of non-citizenship is an important factor in understanding contemporary field of sex work in Europe. Binary categories of citizen-alien or legal-illegal no longer capture the multiplicity of positions occupied by noncitizen sex workers within a nation space. Due to the changing nature of immigration regulation, border regimes, and racist police practices we now face a complex system of legal categories a hierarchical stratification of migrant sex workers.41

Borders structure migrants’ living and working conditions and possibilities, while also having a major effect on intimate life decisions. Migrant sex workers can use intimacy to create relationships that offer a promise of a different, less precarious future. But with the lack of alternative ways of movement, residency strategies, and forms of income, patriarchal relations of dependency and precarious forms of intimacy are also created. This points to the heightened meaning of borders in the contemporary world: borders have become important institutions in the reproduction of social relations.

Despite the fact that my observations are mainly based in Finland, the findings reflect broader transnational nature of the European sex industry. Finland’s immigration policy is not only tied to international humanitarian responsibilities but also to Europeanized border regimes and the global labor market. The residence permit systems, structure of labor markets, and the level of social security vary between European countries. But because the European Union has homogenized its immigration policies and the majority of European countries are bound by the Schengen agreement, there is a uniformity to situations in different countries. Many of the sex workers I encountered during my fieldwork have lived and worked in other European countries; some have citizenship or residency in other EU nations. The multiplication of borders, the proliferation of differentiated legal statuses of noncitizens, and the dispersal of rights are not limited to Europe or to Western countries, but reflect broader global changes in citizenship and immigration regulation. Borders have become a central element of the work and intimate lives of noncitizens, both within and beyond sex work.