Precarious Intimacies: The European Border Regime and Migrant Sex Work

Finnish border (via NH53).
Finnish bor­der (via NH53).

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.

  1. Eliz­a­beth Bern­stein, “Carceral Pol­i­tics as Gen­der Jus­tice? The ‘Traf­fic in Women’ and Neolib­eral Cir­cuits of Crime, Sex, and Rights. The­ory and Soci­ety 41.3 (2012), 233-259; Melissa Gira Grant, Play­ing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work (Lon­don & New York: Verso, 2014); Julia O’Connell David­son, Mod­ern Slav­ery: The Mar­gins of Free­dom (Lon­don: Pal­grave MacMil­lan, 2015); Car­ole Vance, “Inno­cence and Expe­ri­ence: Melo­dra­matic Nar­ra­tives of Sex Traf­fick­ing and Their Con­se­quences for Law and Pol­icy,” His­tory of the Present 2.2 (Fall 2012), 200-218; see also openDemocracy’s resources on “Beyond Traf­fick­ing and Slav­ery.” 

  2. Enrica Rigo, “Cit­i­zen­ship at Europe’s Bor­ders: Some Reflec­tions on the Post-colo­nial Con­di­tion of Europe in the Con­text of EU Enlarge­ment,” Cit­i­zen­ship Stud­ies, 9.1 (2005), 3–22; Enrica Rigo Rajo­jen Eurooppa [Europa di Con­fine] (Helsinki: Tutk­i­jali­itto, 2009); see also Jukka Könö­nen, “Tilapäi­nen elämä, jous­tava työ. Rajat maa­han­muu­ton ja työvoiman prekarisaa­tion mekanis­mina [Tem­po­rary Life, Flex­i­ble Work. Bor­ders as Mech­a­nisms of Pre­cariza­tion of Immi­gra­tion and Labor],” dis­ser­ta­tion in Social Pol­icy, Uni­ver­sity of East­ern Fin­land, 2014. 

  3. TAMPEP, Sex Work in Europe: a Map­ping of the Pros­ti­tu­tion Scene in 25 Euro­pean Coun­tries (Ams­ter­dam: Tam­pep Inter­na­tional Foun­da­tion, 2009). 

  4. Nick Mai, Migrant Work­ers in the UK Sex Indus­try. Final Pol­icy-Rel­e­vant Report, 2009. 

  5. I con­ducted field­work in Helsinki at two night­clubs, street solic­i­ta­tion areas, and a health and social ser­vice provider Pro Cen­ter  in 2012 and 2013. I did for­mal inter­views with 55 sex work­ers, 13 social and health care work­ers and 2 mem­bers of the police. 

  6. On this cri­tique see, for exam­ple, San­dro Mez­zadra and Brett Neil­son, Bor­der as Method, Or, The Mul­ti­pli­ca­tion of Labor, (Durham: Duke Uni­ver­sity Press 2013); Seal­ing Cheng, On the Move for Love: Migrant Enter­tain­ers and the U.S. Mil­i­tary in South Korea, (Philadel­phia: Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia Press, 2010). 

  7. See, for exam­ple, Bern­stein, op. cit., 235. 

  8. Nick Mai has coined the term “sex­ual human­i­tar­i­an­ism” in his “Between Embod­ied Cos­mopolitism and Sex­ual Human­i­tar­i­an­ism”, in Lisa Anteby-Yem­ini and Vir­ginie Baby-Collin et. al eds., Bor­ders, Mobil­i­ties and Migra­tions: Per­spec­tives from the Mediter­ranean, 19-21st Cen­tury, (Brus­sels: Peter Lang, 2014), 175-192.  

  9. Brett Neil­son and Ned Rossiter, “Pre­car­ity as a Polit­i­cal Con­cept, or, Fordism as Excep­tion,” The­ory, Cul­ture & Soci­ety, 25.7-8 (2008), 51–72; Guy Stand­ing, The Pre­cariat (Lon­don: Blooms­bury Aca­d­e­mic, 2011); Lau­ren Berlant, Cruel Opti­mism (Durham: Duke Uni­ver­sity Press, 2011). 

  10. Judith But­ler, “Per­for­ma­tiv­ity, Pre­car­ity, and Sex­ual Pol­i­tics,” Jour­nal of Iberoamer­i­can Anthro­pol­ogy 4.3 (Sep­tem­ber-Decem­ber 2009), i-xiii; Judith But­ler, Frames of War: When is Life Griev­able? (Lon­don & New York: Verso, 2010). 

  11. See Stand­ing, op. cit.; also see Leah F. Vosko, Martha Mac­Don­ald, and Iain Camp­bell, “Intro­duc­tion: Gen­der and the Con­cept of Pre­car­i­ous Employ­ment,” in Vosko, Mac­Don­ald, and Camp­bell (eds.), Gen­der and the Con­tours of Pre­car­i­ous Employ­ment (Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 2009), 1-25. 

  12. Jukka Könö­nen “Pidätelty elämä [Sus­pended life],” unpub­lished arti­cle draft, 2013. 

  13. See e.g. Eeva Joki­nen, Jukka Könö­nen, Juhana Venäläi­nen & Jussi Vähämäki (eds.), ”Yrit­täkää edes!” Prekarisaa­tio Pohjois-Kar­jalassa (Helsinki: Tutk­i­jali­itto, 2011). 

  14. Pre­carias a la Deriva, Hoivaa­jien kap­ina: tutkimus­matkoja prekaarisu­u­teen (Helsinki: Like, 2009), 15. 

  15. Laura Fan­tone “Pre­car­i­ous Changes: Gen­der and Gen­er­a­tional Pol­i­tics in Con­tem­po­rary Italy,” Fem­i­nist Review 87 (2007), 5–20; Encar­nación Gutiér­rez-Rodríguez Migra­tion, Domes­tic Work and Affect: A Decolo­nial Approach on Value and the Fem­i­niza­tion of Labor (New York & Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 2011), 102. 

  16. Könö­nen op. cit. (2013). 

  17. Markus Hima­nen & Jukka Könö­nen, “Pako ja pakko – tur­va­paikan­hak­i­joiden koke­muk­sia prekaarista työstä,” in Wrede, Sirpa & Nord­berg, Camilla (eds.), Vieraita työssä. Työelämän etnistyvä eri­ar­voisuus (Helsinki: Pal­me­nia, 2010), 45–71; Dmitris Papadopoulos, Niamh Stephen­son, and Vas­silis Tsianos, Escape Routes: Con­trol and Sub­ver­sion in the 21st Cen­tury (Lon­don: Pluto, 2008). 

  18. See Könö­nen, “Venäjä valt­tiko­rt­tina”,  in Joki­nen, Eeva, Könö­nen, Jukka, Venäläi­nen, Juhana & Vähämäki, Jussi (eds.): ”Yrit­täkää edes!” Prekarisaa­tio Pohjois-Kar­jalassa, (Helsinki: Tutk­i­jali­itto 2011); Vähämäki, Jussi,” Tehdasase­tusten palaut­ta­mi­nen”, in Joki­nen, Eeva, Könö­nen, Jukka, Venäläi­nen, Juhana & Vähämäki, Jussi (eds.): ”Yrit­täkää edes!” Prekarisaa­tio Pohjois-Kar­jalassa, (Helsinki: Tutk­i­jali­itto 2011). 

  19. Bev­er­ley Skeggs, Class, Self, Cul­ture (Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 2004), 292. 

  20. Mai, op. cit. (2009), 21. 

  21. Linda Bosniak, The Cit­i­zen and the Alien: Dilem­mas of Con­tem­po­rary Mem­ber­ship (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 2006), 11. 

  22. See e.g. Sex Work­ers in Europe Man­i­festo, 2005. 

  23. Jukka Könö­nen (op. cit., 2014) has the­o­rized the role of res­i­dency sta­tus on the strat­i­fi­ca­tion and hier­ar­chiza­tion of labor mar­ket in the clean­ing and hos­pi­tal­ity indus­try in Helsinki. Hywel Bishop, on the other hand has the­o­rized the role of res­i­dency sta­tus on the immo­bi­liza­tion of migrants and their exploitabil­ity of migrant work­force in the UK care indus­try. These two works form the back­ground for my analy­ses. I extend and mod­ify the frame­works they have devel­oped to the field of sex work. See Hywel Bishop, “The Pol­i­tics of Care and Transna­tional Mobil­ity,” doc­toral the­sis, Cardiff Uni­ver­sity, 2012. 

  24. Rigo, op. cit. (2005 ) and (2009). 

  25. Rigo, op. cit. (2009). 

  26. Könö­nen, op. cit. (2014). 

  27. Rigo, op. cit. (2005). 

  28. See Nicholas P. DeGen­ova, “Migrant ‘Ille­gal­ity’ and Deporta­bil­ity in Every­day Life,” Annual Review of Anthro­pol­ogy 31 (2002), 419–47. DeGen­ova dis­cusses the pro­duc­tion of ille­gal­ity through deporta­bil­ity, but here I refer more specif­i­cally to the pos­si­bil­ity of being removed from the space of the nation-state because of the nature of one’s work (sex work). In DeGenova’s sense, all migrants are deportable as long as they don’t have cit­i­zen­ship. 

  29. Bishop (op. cit., 31) points to the increased entan­gle­ment between immi­gra­tion con­trols and wel­fare pro­vi­sions in the UK. Könö­nen (2015) has referred to same mech­a­nisms in his work. 

  30. Bishop has the­o­rized dif­fer­ent forms of insti­tu­tional immo­bi­liza­tion; see Bishop op. cit., 87. 

  31. Anna Kon­tula, Punainen ekso­dus. Tutkimus sek­si­työstä Suomessa (Helsinki: Like, 2008), 52. 

  32. See also Ombuds­man for Minori­ties in Fin­land, National Rap­por­teur on Traf­fick­ing in Human Beings: 2014 Report (Helsinki: Ombuds­man for Minori­ties Pub­li­ca­tion, 2014), 67; Johanna Niemi and Jussi Aal­to­nen, “Abuse of a Vic­tim of Pros­ti­tu­tion: Eval­u­a­tion of the Effec­tive­ness of the Sex Pur­chase Ban,” Pub­li­ca­tion of the Min­istry of Jus­tice in Fin­land 39 (2013), 72. 

  33. Brid­get Ander­son, “Migra­tion, Immi­gra­tion Con­trols and the Fash­ion­ing of Pre­car­i­ous Work­ers,” Work, Employ­ment, Soci­ety 24.2 (2010), 300–317; Könö­nen op. cit. (2014). 

  34. Ander­son, op. cit. 

  35. Könö­nen, op. cit. (2014). 

  36. Ibid.; See also Könö­nen, op. cit. (2014) and Bishop, op. cit. 

  37. Berlant, op. cit., 192. 

  38. San­dro Mez­zadra and Brett Neil­son, “Bor­der­scapes of Dif­fer­en­tial Inclu­sion: Sub­jec­tiv­ity and Strug­gles on the Thresh­old of Justice’s Excess,” in Éti­enne Bal­ibar, San­dro Mez­zadra & Ran­abir Samad­dar (eds.), The Bor­ders of Jus­tice (Philadel­phia: Tem­ple Uni­ver­sity Press, 2011), 181-203. Also see the authors’ longer study, Mez­zadra and Neil­son, op. cit. (2014). 

  39. Könö­nen, op. cit. (2014). 

  40. Bosniak, op. cit., 11. 

  41. See Bosniak op. cit.; Rigo op. cit. (2009); Könö­nen op. cit. (2015); Bishop op. cit. (2011).  

Author of the article

is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at Rutgers University. She is part of the Free Movement Network, a grassroots level migrants' rights organization in Finland.