Today in Swindon, three migrant sex workers were arrested and served deportation papers. The Swindon Advertiser reports: “All three women had been advertising sex work online … Police say they were very open about their sex work and confirmed the [adverts] were their own, which they had set up and paid for. The women said they had never had any bad experiences and that they do sex work of their own volition because they can earn more money than they would in Romania.” The three women were arrested for brothel keeping, and are currently in custody.
The criminalisation of brothel-keeping targets sex workers working together for safety. These laws are often claimed to criminalise only our managers – however, under current law across the UK, a ‘brothel’ means any flat in which two or more sex workers work – and the sex workers sharing such a flat can be arrested and prosecuted for ‘brothel-keeping’. As we can see with these three women in Swindon, this use of the law is not hypothetical.
These laws clearly do not make sex workers safer. If we work with friends we are safest – but are subject to the risk of a life-changingly traumatic prosecution and conviction; if we work alone we are isolated and vulnerable. This choice is particularly stark for migrant sex workers, who – as we see in Swindon! – are disproportionately the target of police raids.
It is absolute salt in the wound of their arrest and imminent deportation that this has been justified with reference to the women’s “safety”. The Detective Superintendent told reporters: “this is a very positive outcome as the women are now safe and away from their clients and are no longer vulnerable to the risks of off-street sex work”. This is brushes over the fact that raids, arrest and deportation in themselves constitute material state violence – and that in being taken to an immigration detention centre, they are being taken to a place where violence against women is endemic. We very much doubt that the women in question feel safer today than they did when they were working together in a shared flat.
The police reference to the “risks” of sex work is particularly sourly ironic as raids such as these not only constitute violence in themselves, but also create the conditions in which sex workers are vulnerable to other forms of violence. Sex workers, particularly migrant sex workers, cannot go to the police if they are harassed or assaulted at work, because they face arrest or deportation if their occupation is found out. Violent people know and use this fact against sex workers. As this case shows, the threat of criminalisation is absolutely real.
Arrest and deportation is state violence against migrant sex workers. As such, we demand the immediate release of these women, the full decriminalisation of sex work, and the full decriminalisation of migration. Sex workers need to be able to share a flat without fear of arrest – migrants need the right to travel, work, and assert their labour rights without fear of deportation. The sex worker rights movement often talks about New Zealand as the ideal legal model, and while it is the best legislative model that currently exists in the world, we need to be clear that it does not go far enough. This Swindon case is an example of why: these women have been targeted both as sex workers and as migrants. Migrant rights and sex worker rights are deeply intertwined and the two cannot truly exist without each other. We need to defend migrant sex workers without compromise.
SWARM is organising an action in support of these women – keep an eye out for updates.