Niina Vuolajarvi, PhD candidate, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey and visiting researcher, Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University

Precarious Intimacies – Migration and Sex Work in the Nordic Region

The combination of migration and sex work often evokes images of sexual violence and exploitation associated with sex 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 commercial sex in general. They recognize that the extent of sex trafficking is exaggerated and that trafficked persons do not form a majority of persons in commercial sex. 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.

Based on an ongoing fieldwork among migrant sex workers in Finland, Norway and Sweden this paper examines the meaning of borders - the spaces where immigration policies and restrictions are materially condensed - in the lives of sex workers. Following the formulation of Enrica Rigo, borders need to be viewed as institutions that produce social relations. I provide 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. Migration enables new forms of income, but at the same time borders often strip migrants from their acquired and accumulated resources and compel them to resort instead to their embodied resources. As a result intimacy, in the form of gendered sexuality, becomes for many the means of acquiring mobility and income. This paper explores the forms of intimate relationships migrants develop in their migration and residency processes. Migrants’ various types of intimate relations to men function as ways to get income, organize housing, gain access to the country, avoid police harassment and gain permanent residence. These relations posit migrants into uncertain and shifting gendered relations of dependency that they use to advance their lives, but which also make them vulnerable to exploitation. Intimacy, then, assumes a double function: it is both a resource and a source of precarity, a dual nature I try to capture with the concept of precarious intimacies.

Niina Vuolajärvi is a PhD student at Rutgers University, Department of Sociology. She has conducted over two years of ethnographic fieldwork and around 200 interviews with primarily migrant sex workers, but also with national sex workers, social and health care workers, the police, and policy-makers. Her PhD project studies the so-called Nordic prostitution model and its intersection with immigration policies in three countries that have adopted some degree of client criminalization: Finland, Norway, and Sweden.

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