As Brexit looms ahead, many sex workers look to the future with fear
By Anna Freeman
The difficulties of being both a sex worker and a migrant in the UK shouldn’t be understated, and Brexit has just planted another missile-sized bombshell into the mix. As a country that (perhaps formerly) prides itself on multiculturalism and racial tolerance, the UK’s vote to leave the European Union has shattered social security for many immigrant communities, including those working within the sex industry. A large proportion of women working as prostitutes and sex workers come from EU nations, and the threat of tighter immigration controls and loss of freedom of movement has put an already vulnerable social group on high alert.
Fez Endalaust, a 21-year-old migrant sex worker based in Plymouth, south England, has experienced first-hand how tough it can be navigating the UK’s legal system while working against multiple systems of oppression. Born in Portugal to a single and homeless teenage mother, Endalaust was taken to Scotland at five months old and lived there until going to university in Plymouth, where she started working within the sex industry to pay for her tuition. She cannot competently speak Portuguese, and identifies as British, but she is deeply afraid of being deported to Portugal after Brexit negotiations are complete.
‘British sex workers can’t be deported, but migrants can, that is the huge difference between the two,’ Endalaust tells me, ‘When going through a process like my application for citizenship, much of what I have to do is based around proving that you’re a respectable asset to the country. Of course, sex workers aren’t considered respectable.’
Endalaust says that being a migrant is an instant disadvantage for women like her, not only because racist attitudes towards minorities affect her bookings, but also because trying to obtain a British passport requires her to prove that she has a ‘legitimate’ income. Even though HMRC, under European law, currently considers sex work a profession based on self-employment and is subject to taxation, deportation is always a threat just waiting around the corner as immigration officials take an increasingly harder line with EU nationals.
Endalaust has been crowdfunding on GoFundMe to raise enough money to apply for British citizenship before the UK officially leaves the EU, for fear she will be thrown out of the country against her will. As a sex worker who also suffers from autism, dyspraxia and mental health problems, Endalaust says sex work offers her the freedom to navigate her studies, sexuality and life on her own terms, where the British welfare state refuses to. At the age of 17, after becoming homeless, she claims her local MP said that the UK had no obligation to help her, and that if she wanted help from the state, she should ‘go back’ to Portugal.
‘Being told that I wasn’t entitled to welfare due to my citizenship was devastating,’ she admits, ‘On top of pursuing a full time degree, I’m left with few options to rely on for survival. Sex work is appealing to many disabled people because it is so accessible (there are no entry requirements!) and it is done by your rules: You decide what services you offer, what your rates are, and when you work.’ Endalaust has now reached her funding goal of £1,500 and is starting the process of applying for citizenship, which she hopes will give her the opportunity to pursue education and a prosperous career without the worries of Brexit looming ahead.
Stories like Endalaust’s are far from rare. Laura Watson, a spokesperson for English Collective of Prostitutes, says non-British women in the industry are rattled by the prospect of harsher border controls, particularly as police raids and mass deportations are on the increase. ‘We are worried it will be even worse for prostitutes than it already is,’ she explains, ‘Even EU migrants who are supposed to have freedom of movement to stay here are under threat. Romanian sex workers have been targeted, in particular.’
A large number of eastern European sex workers, mostly from Romania, have been detained and served with deportation papers since 2012. A collaborative police and immigration initiative, Operation Nexus, was set up to find EU nationals who are allegedly not fulfilling their ‘treaty rights’, according to the Home Office. The women, who predominantly work on the streets and in premises across London and Manchester, are sent letters notifying them that they are liable to be put on a flight back to Bucharest, with a month’s notice. And fears are, quite rightly, that this will become more commonplace when the UK officially leaves the EU.
In addition to instability and distress for those already living in Britain, stricter immigration policies would also make the sex industry far more dangerous for migrant women who try to enter the country illegally. Sex worker and activist Juno Mac, a campaigner for the decriminalisation of sex work and for greater human rights, argues that female migrants trying to reach the UK will be more vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking and sexual violence if legitimate pathways dry up.
‘If Brexit means tighter immigration controls, these migrants may be forced to rely more on people smugglers, who will then have power to abuse them with impunity,’ she says. These violations, Mac explains, can include sexual coercion, exerting control over women’s working conditions and which clients they see, keeping them in debt bondage, and wage theft. Sex workers are also less likely to report such violence and abuse.
Furthermore, a general anti-immigrant sentiment has been on the rise in the UK, with some reports suggesting hate crimes have risen by up to 100 per cent since the Brexit vote. Members of radical organisation SWARM Collective, which brings together sex workers from around the country, have warned that increased xenophobia and racism as Britain exits the union has put the lives of migrant women more at risk of attacks and physical harm.
Speaking as a group, SWARM insists that a move to restrict freedom of movement will justify racially-motivated acts of violence against minority groups. ‘This climate of xenophobia and racism will continue or worsen after Brexit,’ they argue, ‘When the government and media sanction xenophobia and demonise migrants, hate attacks on marginalised groups by members of the public rise, and increased border controls will justify these attacks in the eyes of the public.’
Although selling sex is not in itself illegal in Britain, the legal system, as it stands, works to penalise those working within the sex industry. Ironically, existing laws that claim to help reduce exploitation and abuse by criminalising ‘pimping’, brothel-keeping and soliciting on the streets actually contributes to more violence against sex workers. Whether Brexit will affect legislature is still uncertain, because sovereign nations determine the regulations that control the sex industry, but there is a strong suggestion that domestic support for banning the purchase of sex altogether is gaining traction, according to activist Mac.
What seems more likely, at this point, is that pulling away from the Court of Justice of the European Union could result in sex workers’ ‘self-employment’ status being challenged, as well as a deepening conservatism in the UK, with a coalition between the Tory government and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists, driving for harsher restrictions and punishments. But, like with every Brexit issue, all we can do is speculate.
The most pressing issue right now is safeguarding the human rights of sex workers currently living in the UK. Being an immigrant, a woman, and working within the sex industry is a position that automatically fights against numerous axes of prejudice, abuse and oppression. Struggling on the poverty line and trying to put food on the table for their families is often what leads non-British women to sex work, therefore ensuring access to basic goods and necessities, in whatever community or group, should transcend racial divides.