Prostitution ban misses the target, argue migration researchers

April 8, 2013 - 06:15

Legalise prostitution and consider foreign sex workers as immigrants who leave their home country to earn money to support their families, said researchers at a recent ‘Intimate Migration’ conference in Denmark.

Although life in the sex industry can be hard, most of the women in the trade choose this life of their own accord, new research suggests. (Photo: Colourbox)

They may not be the happiest of workers, but most women who travel to a richer country to sell sex do so voluntarily, according to an increasing body of research. The women are migrants who dream of a better life or more money away from home.

“You have a rather pigheaded view of women if you regard foreign prostitutes as weak wretches who have no influence on their own destiny. This indicates a view in which they as women passively put up with the poor conditions in their home country, while the men on the other hand travel out into the world in order to support their families,” said Danish anthropologist and gender researcher Christian Groes-Green about foreign sex workers from poor parts of the world such as Africa, Southern Europe, Southeast Asia and South America.

“But these women are not passive. They make their own choices. They are active and provide necessary funding for their families.”

Groes-Green was speaking at last week’s ’Intimiate Migration’ conference at Roskilde University, Denmark, where the world’s leading migration researchers met to discuss their latest findings.
Poverty creates prostitution – not murky traffickers

Our part of the world is so attractive to women from poor countries that some of them don’t mind selling sex to stay here.
Christian Groes-Green

The world’s economic inequality is the real reason why women leave their home country and become sex workers, he concluded, based on his own and several colleagues’ research.
“Our part of the world is so attractive to women from poor countries that some of them don’t mind selling sex to stay here,” he says.

Many of the researchers at the conference have carried out anthropological and sociological studies which show that a vast majority of the women who leave their countries to sell sex do so voluntarily.

The women are widely different, but common to them all is that they choose to leave their home in the hope of creating a better life in the West. In very rare cases they are forced into the sex industry by unscrupulous traffickers, according to their studies.

When the poor women leave their countries, most of them are fully aware that they are likely to end up having to sell their body to support their family in their home countries, which ScienceNordic reported on recently in the article ‘Victims of sex trafficking return home to great expectations’

Sex-industry money is dirty
Money takes on a new meaning when the women have earned them in the sex industry. Many women consider sex-industry money so dirty that they’re quick to spend it on themselves, while they send welfare checks or other forms of public benefits that they receive on the side back home to their families.
May-Len Skilbrei

In a series of research projects, Norwegian sociologist May-Len Skilbrei has looked into what makes Nigerian and Eastern European women travel to Norway and enter the sex industry there.
Her studies included in-depth interviews in which the women reveal their feelings about selling their bodies.

”Money takes on a new meaning when the women have earned them in the sex industry,” she told ScienceNordic.

“Many women consider sex-industry money so dirty that they’re quick to spend it on themselves, while they send welfare checks or other forms of public benefits that they receive on the side back home to their families.”

Selling sex is preferable to many unskilled jobs

Many of the foreign women in the sex industry migrated from their country because the life they can achieve as sex workers is better, all things considered, than the conditions they live in back home, said the British migration researchers Nick Mai, of the London Metropolitan University.

We cannot protect the sex workers by banning prostitution and shutting down sex clubs. On the contrary: the criminalisation helps to further stigmatise the foreign sex workers, and that makes them even more vulnerable because they’re afraid of being punished and sent home if they go to the police and the authorities looking for help.
Nick Mai

He has interviewed 100 women and men from Eastern Europe, South America and Southeast Asia, who work in London’s sex industry. Only six percent of the female interviewees felt that they had been pushed into the industry without having any influence on it themselves.

”When I interviewed them, I treated them as regular immigrants,” said Mai. “I encouraged them to tell their stories openly. A majority of them said that they would rather work in the sex industry than in other unskilled jobs where illegal immigrants are often underpaid and treated poorly.”

Migrants in the English sex industry can earn enough to get by in London and at the same time send money home, so the standard of living for their families is also significantly improved, he explained.

Prostitution ban has the worst effect on foreign sex workers

Just like in Denmark, the British authorities have clamped down on trafficking, partly by banning prostitution. Many Brits believe that the criminal traffickers who force weak, foreign women into prostitution are the ones who are worst affected by this ban.

Facts

Migration researcher Nick Mai heads the comprehensive British ESRC Project: Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry

Mai and other researchers involved in the project recommend that prostitution be decriminalised, and that foreign sex workers are given the same opportunity as other immigrants to obtain work and residence permits in England.

“But most of the foreign sex workers are independent migrants, who have made a conscious decision to work in the sex industry because after all it’s better than the other options open to them,” said Mai.

”It’s time that we start treating them on a par with other illegal immigrants rather than subjecting them to a double stigma because they’re both sex workers and illegal immigrants.”

As a result of his three-year research project, which was completed in 2009, May is highly critical of the British strategy against prostitution, because tight rules and prohibitions marginalise the sex workers and make them even more vulnerable to attacks and exploitation, he says.

”We cannot protect the sex workers by banning prostitution and shutting down sex clubs. On the contrary: the criminalisation helps to further stigmatise the foreign sex workers, and that makes them even more vulnerable because they’re afraid of being punished and sent home if they go to the police and the authorities looking for help.”

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Read the Danish version of this article at videnskab.dk

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