By Anna Freeman

Brexit is not only screwing the Great British pound and the price of Tesco’s Finest Prosecco – it’s screwing sex workers, too. A huge number of women selling sexual services in the UK hail from the EU-28 (43 percent of non-British sex workers in 2009 were EU nationals, according to a TAMPEP study). The threat of tighter immigration controls and the loss of freedom of movement has put an already vulnerable social group on high alert. Migrant sex workers now face even greater levels of precarity, marked by violence, fear, and the constant threat of deportation. Until sex work is legitimised in the eyes of the law, this workforce will be forced to stalk the shadows of a state-sanctioned black market. 

Sex work in the UK exists as a quasi-criminalised industry. Although selling sex is not in itself against the law, the legal system, as it stands, works to punish those who do. Ironically, existing laws that claim to help reduce exploitation and abuse – by criminalising ‘pimping’, brothel-keeping, and soliciting on the streets – in fact contribute to greater insecurity for sex workers. In essence, it is only legal for sex work to be performed in isolation, without advertising and on private premises. This is a total impossibility for many. 

It is migrant workers who are made most vulnerable by this legal framework. Niki Adams is a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP), a leading campaign group that supports the decriminalisation of prostitution. She told Nine Twenty Magazine: “All the laws surrounding sex work make women totally powerless and vulnerable to exploitation because you’re torn between working alone in dangerous conditions and getting arrested… and since Brexit, we’re seeing that migrant workers are being targeted far more with police raids, so they are scared to work in groups… and they’re reluctant to report violence, which has increased against EU nationals in an unprecedented way.” 

The Home Affairs Committee published its first ever inquiry into the sex industry in 2016, recommending a radical overhaul of how legislation on sex work is implemented. It even went as far as to argue for potential decriminalisation. The inquiry noted that lawmaking approaches often arise from “moral values” rather than fair precedent, and that there is “no clear evidence” that treating soliciting as an offence reduces demand for prostitution. Migrant sex workers who are slapped with criminal records for said misdemeanors cannot then find alternative work due to stigmatisation and racism. They may also have their EU settlement applications denied on the grounds of “criminal activity”. More frequent police raids on premises are seen by many sex work advocates as kowtowing to populist anti-immigrant narratives, handing immigration services easy targets for deportation. 

UK sex markets generally fall within the informal and unregulated economy, despite European Law ruling that sex work is a profession based on self-employment and should therefore be subject to taxation. As with most unregulated sectors, however, there is a gaping disparity between legality and law in practice. EU migrant sex workers are being told that they are not exercising their treaty rights because sex work is not work. According to Dr. Laura Connelly, a criminology lecturer at the University of Salford, a large number have been forced to seek a second source of income such as retail or cleaning to reference “legitimate work” in their EU settlement applications. “Removing laws that criminalise consensual sex work will pave the way for it being seen as legitimate work,” Dr. Connelly explained to Nine Twenty Magazine. “That way migrant sex workers could apply for the right to stay as legal workers in the UK.” 

Too often, lawmakers conflate consensual sex work with trafficking and forced sexual labour. The controversial 2018 FOSTA-SESTA bill introduced in the US, aimed at reducing trafficking at the expense of autonomous sex workers’ rights, is a blueprint for Western legislative approaches. If decriminalisation is a prerequisite for improved working conditions and policy reform, then cultural conceptions of what sex work is fundamentally need to change. But even if attitudes could shift on the legitimacy of sex work, deepening conservatism in UK institutions – compounded by a spike in racially-driven hate crimes – is a more troubling impediment. Migrant workers in the UK are characterised as public nuisances, criminals undeserving of basic human rights.

Brexit has given rise to a highly vocal anti-immigrant sentiment. Dr. Connelly is currently collaborating with SWARM Collective and ECP to examine the far-reaching effects of Brexit on the UK sex industry, and preliminary findings show that migrant sex workers feel especially targeted. Dr. Connelly sent out a survey online asking migrant women about their experiences in  post-Brexit-vote Britain. Over half of the respondents reported an increase in hate crimes against them. 65 percent said the attitudes of their clients had changed because of popularised xenophobic beliefs. The majority of sex workers surveyed expressed heightened fear of arrest and deportation, which in turn made them more powerless to deal with problematic clients. 

Dr. Connelly referenced one migrant sex worker whose client threatened to report her to the Home Office if she didn’t give his money back. Other surveyees echoed similar treatment, pointing to the ways dangerous clients feel more emboldened to hold the balance of power over sex workers and act with impunity. In a tragic catch-22, these sex workers are then less likely to report violent and abusive clients for fear of forced removal from the UK. Some migrant sex workers are changing their habits, Dr. Connelly explained, working longer hours for less money, and taking on high-risk clients in unsafe circumstances in order to survive.

Further to the insecurity felt by those already living in the UK, stricter immigration policies will make the sex industry more dangerous for female migrants entering the country illegally. These women will be more vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking and sexual violence if legitimate pathways dry up. “Women don’t cross borders for nothing, and that’s not going to change,” Adams says. “Punitive border controls do not stop the flow of immigration. Instead we will see an increase of women entering the UK sex industry in dangerous and precarious ways.” Relying on people smugglers is one such route that leaves migrant women vulnerable to abuse. Sexual coercion, exerting control over women’s working conditions and which clients they see, keeping them in debt bondage, and wage theft are just some of the violations that have been documented by human rights groups. 

On a broader scale, the Conservative government’s hard line on immigration has chipped away at the visibility of migrant sex workers’ rights movements. Women previously on the forefront of legal battles and protests, like the Romanian groups challenging UK immigration policies, are in retreat, according to both Adams and Connelly, because simply existing puts them at risk of deportation. I can personally attest to this new reality – no migrant women agreed to be interviewed for this article, even anonymously. ECP’s press officer told me in an email exchange that this has been one of the biggest impacts of Brexit: that “none of the migrant women in [their] network who were previously very actively campaigning will now speak publicly.”

Doors closed. Shutters drawn. The true price of selling sex in a post-Brexit future is still unknown. Collective organising by migrant sex workers has not disappeared, but it has been forced underground – like sex work itself. Women exchange information in whispers via Whatsapp groups and educate themselves about their rights in covert meet-ups, Adams said, but it is unclear if and when they will step out of the dark once again. 

Without their voices, social and political reform feels unlikely. How can sex workers galvanise change if mainstream culture deems their work unworthy of radical transformation? It falls on some of the most disenfranchised in society and their allies to call for – nay demand! – fair and legitimised employment rights. Sex work is work. Period.

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