Living the border: Russian-speaking sex workers in Finland

Living the border: Russian-speaking sex workers in Finland

Anastasia Diatlova and Lena Näre

Whenever sex work and border crossings are mentioned together, the spectre of trafficking looms large over the discussion. There is certainly no shortage of articles, exposés, and films that paint a grim picture of what happens when women cross borders for sex. As Jo Doezema (2010) notes, in this landscape of popular discourses the definition of trafficking becomes diffused and the nuance of experiences of women who cross borders for sex is often lost. Along with the popular discourses, there is the myriad of national and international anti-trafficking campaigns and policies, which, when examined, offer very limited protections against abuse and exploitation, while establishing additional forms of migration control (Agustín 2007; Doezema 2010). We do not want to deny the abuse and exploitation that can take place when women migrate, whether it is for sex or other work. Instead, we want to draw attention to the unintended consequences of legislative practices informed by the anti-trafficking discourse in the lives of women who cross borders to engage in sex work.

We analyse the case of Russian-speaking women who are engaged in commercial sex in Finland from the perspective of everyday bordering practices. In this article, we focus on the bordering practices to refer to the various ways in which borders are enacted and reproduced in everyday action by various state and non-state agents. According to Nira Yuval-Davis (2013, 10), bordering is not just something that happens at the physical border between states or at the level of documents and politics, but rather it is a multi-layered process that includes ideologies, discourses, and everyday forms of transnationalism. As such borders permeate everyday situations and practices. Thus we can speak about bordering practices to refer to the ways in which borders affect everyone’s lives, especially those who are criminalised or who are excluded, disciplined and othered (Sigona 2012).

Finland offers an interesting case for a sociological analysis of bordering practices, migration and commercial sex due to its geographical location as an Eastern border of the European Union, historical relationship with near-by countries, and legislative framework. We draw on data collected by the first author consisting of over forty interviews with Russian-speaking women who are engaged in commercial sex in Finland. In addition, ethnographic fieldwork was conducted in two large cities in Southern Finland and interviews were undertaken with different state and non-state agents working with commercial sex, migration or both. Finland shares land borders with Russia, Sweden and Norway and the Baltic Sea expands the number of countries that can have a direct access to its shores. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the EU enlargement these physical borders have become more permeable and there is continuous cross-border mobility between Finland and the neighbouring countries. With over 75,000 Russian speakers out of over 350,000 foreigners residing in Finland, Russians are the biggest migrant group of in Finland (Statistics Finland 2017). At the same time, however, with increasing limitations to non-EU migrants, the internal borders have become solidified and enforced by different kinds of policies, organisations, and individual actors.

In the Finnish context, discussing the experience of Russian-speaking women in relation to commercial sex is particularly useful. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the increased visibility of foreign sex workers in Finland prompted the academic and popular interest in the topic of commercial sex. Consequently, commercial sex began to be perceived as intertwined with a diffused notion of Russianness. In our research, not all interviewees were Russian citizens or ethnically Russian, but they still had to cope with assumptions made about Russianness in relation to commercial sex.

Unlike its neighbours, Sweden and Norway, Finland does not criminalise sex-buying as such. However, the legislation does limit where, how and from whom sex can be purchased. The legislation in its current form was greatly influenced by the increased concern over foreigners selling sex in the 1990s and the UN’s Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (Skilbrei & Holmström 2013). The law prohibits buying and selling sex in public spaces, including streets, parks, bars and clubs. It is illegal to advertise sexual services; to rent out premises for selling sex; or to profit from the sale of sex by others. In addition, it is illegal to purchase sexual services from victims of trafficking and pimping, and under-aged individuals. Those who lack citizenship or permanent residence can be turned away at the border or sent out of the country if they are suspected of selling sex.

There are two things that can be gleaned from this legislative framework. First, implicit in it is that some forms of commercial sex are more legally acceptable than others. If done under the right circumstances, in the right place and by the right people, it is no longer illegal. While Finnish sex workers may have the social and linguistic resources to place advertisements, rent, or purchase housing, foreign sex workers often lack the knowledge, the language skills or the computer literacy to arrange these things for themselves and must rely on facilitators.

Secondly, this legal framework is part of everyday bordering and can inform its practices. The law marks certain space off limits for commercial sex, makes it difficult to access housing, frames certain forms of support offered to those who engage in commercial sex as illegal and renders remaining in the country challenging. Through such legislation, the state can call upon different agents including private individuals, NGOs, police and migration services to exclude certain people from certain rights and services.

Access to housing is one such area where exclusionary practices can be enacted under the guise of the protection of marginalised individuals from abuse. As it is illegal in Finland to rent out spaces for selling sex, those who do sell sex in Finland may find the possibility of renting housing extremely difficult. Through the legislation the responsibility is placed on landlords and they are expected to monitor and determine who may be engaging in commercial sex. Our data suggest that landlords do cooperate with the police in trying to determine who could be engaging in commercial sex, but the criteria for the exclusion seems to be largely up to the landlords themselves. Consequently some women reported difficulty in securing housing and remaining there. One interviewee described her strategies of staying invisible inside her rented flat: “You just have to be very careful. Don’t run around wearing high heels. Don’t bother the neighbours, so that you wouldn’t be caught out. When a client comes, you tell him, ‘please be very, very quiet.’”

As such, the legislation makes it perfectly legal to deny housing on the grounds that someone is a sex worker. This can complicate the relationship between sex workers and the police. While the general attitude to the police as an institution among the Russian-speaking women interviewees was favourable, there was a lot of apprehension about the possibility of dealing with the police in the context of engagement in commercial sex. There were concerns that encounter with the police would have future consequences in terms of finding housing, applying for visas or finding other kinds of work.

There is another way in which the police are involved in maintaining everyday bordering practices. They are the ones who check the validity of immigration documents. They also maintain public order, which means making sure that sex is not being sold in public places. These tasks, however, overlap with their task of preventing crimes such as trafficking, pimping, and abuse by clients. The police are then expected to approach those who engage in commercial sex as both potential perpetrators and as potential victims of crimes and infractions. Whether the sex workers are construed as victims or criminals, the result is that they are placed under additional surveillance.

The everyday bordering practices could also be observed in other areas of day-to-day life. Banking and accessing social services were identified as areas where access was not guaranteed. One interviewee gave this account of her experience with the banks: “They stopped my account and set up a meeting. It’s not even in their jurisdiction. There’s the tax office for that. They demand an explanatory statement – what is the account. They don’t ask the Finns. They asked me, specifically: do you have accounts in other countries? What about real estate? Do you have friends or family members who are oligarchs?”

The interviewees often had to rely on the assistance of clients, friends or NGOs to get housing, open bank accounts or to deal with other day-to-day needs. As such, the bordering practices were not only enacted by certain individuals at certain points in time rather their effect was diffuse and affected the interviewees’ everyday life. Bordering practices had to be managed through the use of interpersonal networks and organizations that support sex workers as well as through other coping strategies. Interviewees talked about how they inhabit their rented flats to minimize any possibility of being identified as sex workers, how they negotiate their encounters with clients to ensure that clients do not assume that they are victims of trafficking or pimping and how they navigate the city to avoid being noticed by the police. Even when state and non-state agents were not immediately present, there was still a need to regulate one’s behaviour in relation to the bordering practices.

While none of the women reported being trafficked or pimped at the time of the interview, and while they were all relatively confident in their ability to manage their encounters with clients, the limitations placed on them through everyday bordering practices were a constant source of anxiety, uncertainty, and stress.

It is worth adding, that physical borders and the possibility of crossing them can be of vital importance to those who engage in commercial sex. The women interviewed travelled extensively for both work and leisure. They travelled in order to maintain interpersonal relationships, to increase the profitability of their work and to relax and unwind. Furthermore, the existence of a physical border could supply them with a more concrete way of separating their work life from their private life. The distance allowed for a clear distinction between their work and their family and leisure time, and offered them a space where they did not have to worry about being recognised. But the legislation that was ostensibly meant to deter trafficking, pimping and other forms of abuse put the women interviewed under additional surveillance and manifested in exclusion from housing and other services. It injected bordering practices into their day-to-day lives without necessarily contributing to their sense of safety.

Migrant workers can be marginalised because of their precarious legal status, but in the case of those who migrate to engage in commercial sex, it is this engagement that leads to their marginalised status. It is therefore essential to thoroughly scrutinise legislation that targets border crossing and commercial sex and to assess how it affects the everyday lives of those who engage in commercial sex across borders.

Agustín, L.M., (2007). Sex at the margins: Migration, labour markets and the rescue industry. London: Zed books.
Doezema, J. (2010). Sex Slaves and Discourse Masters: The Construction of Trafficking. London: Zed Books.
Sigona, N. (2012). ‘I have too much baggage’: the impacts of legal status on the social worlds of irregular migrants, Social Anthropology 20(1): 50-65.
Skilbrei, M.L. & Holmström, C. (2013). Prostitution Policy in the Nordic Region: Ambiguous Sympathies, Ashgate Publishing, Farnham.
Statistics Finland (2017) Population structure.
Yuval-Davis, N. (2013). ‘A Situated Intersectional Everyday Approach to the Study of Bordering. In Working Paper 2, EUBorderscapes


Anastasia Diatlova is a PhD researcher in Sociology at the University of Helsinki. Lena Näre is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Helsinki. This article is based on a longer article currently under review in Nordic Journal of Migration Research.