Migrant sex workers & the sex industry in London

Guest Blogger: Elisa Ruiz Burga, PhD candidate

This study explored the experiences of male migrants selling sex in London. Twenty-five males, who were working as independent internet-based escorts in London, contributed to this study through the telling of their individual stories. Latin-Americans and Europeans evenly composed the group. It was a diverse group in terms of age (from 15 to 30 years), levels of education and employment condition at the date of emigration, as well as the length of time living in the UK (from 01 to 23 years). Information compiled about the legal status at the date of the interview demonstrated that the vast majority (21/25) had obtained the European citizenship.

Connecting trajectories of migration and engagement in sex work

Despite the fact participants reported different family backgrounds and socio-economic circumstances at the time of leaving their home countries, a large majority explained emigration throughout familial experiences of poverty, independently of the region of origin, and the role of economic providers of their families. In addition, a disappointment in their work conditions, self-awareness of the same-sex desire, homophobia, and violence, were other relevant factors. Immigration, therefore, was perceived as an opportunity to accomplish ‘a dream’ of self-development and freedom.

The examination of the narratives determined two distinctive trajectories towards the UK – males who migrated directly to the UK (represented mainly by Europeans) and those who migrated to another European country before coming to the UK (largely composed of Latin Americans). Likewise, while six participants were engaged in sex work before their emigration, for the great majority their entrance into sex work was a progressive event that occurred along with the migration process. Interviewees who sold sex before their departure associated their entrance with poverty that pushed them to assume the role of economic providers. These participants can be portrayed as young male sex workers (aged 11 – 25), and follow the pattern described in previous research. Compatible with previous studies, this study found that for participants who engaged in sex work as migrants, their engagement was perceived as an extra income, an opportunity to obtain a more suitable and better-paid job, and a chance to improve their lifestyles. The findings also show that the hopelessness and frustration that characterised their immigration status drove males to sex work in an attempt to renegotiate their position in the host country, incorporating themselves into a more lucrative, although marginal and informal economic sector, such as the sex market. In nearly all cases, the engagement in sex work was linked to the presence of friends, partners, or acquaintances working as sex workers.

Male migrants and the sex market in Europe

Participants who became sex workers in the first receiving country decided on a new emigration because they were experiencing adverse sex work conditions (e.g. language barriers, unsafe settings, the economic crisis in the first receiving country, individual financial problems, and the necessity of sending money to their home countries, etc.). They selected the UK as a new receiving country, attracted by a range of characteristics of the sex market as well as the presence of social networks linked to sex work that facilitated their accommodation and incorporation into the local male sex market. In this sense, their second immigration was predominantly economic-labour orientated. Other pull factors to the country listed were – their interest in learning English, opportunities for self-development, the opportunity to pursue further education, and wanting to live in a Cosmopolitan and ‘tolerant’ city like London.
At the time of the interview, participants were working as independent escorts, which corroborates previous reports that locate migrants in indoor settings in the UK. The study found that the process of incorporation of male migrants into a local sex market deployed a set of strategies to gain presence, competence, and expertise to overcome a perceived ‘highly competitive’ male escort environment. Some participants had even diversified their activities working as actors in adult movies. In this manner, participants reported a wide range of services available in their adverts. They went from sexual to non-sexual services offered (e.g. personal assistant, social events companion, etc.). Within the sexual services, the most popular were – “vanilla sex” (also called “normal sex”), “blow jobs”, “erotic massage”, “full-service”, “domination services” and “kinky services” (“bondage”, “water sports”, “scat”, etc.). Participants offered sexual services to men, and a great majority (22/25) provide a versatile sexual role (active and passive). However, an important proportion of participants (10/25) also reported a female clientele in the context of sexual services for couples (man and woman) that usually involved penetrative vaginal intercourse. This service was provided independently of the sexual orientation of these participants. Viagra was used to accomplish these sexual services. Participants also reported the provision of cross-dressed services without this being their gender preference and only motivated by the prospect of higher earnings. The findings suggest characteristics amongst participants to construct a more nuanced picture of mobile masculinities. Hence, the narratives propose a sense of participants’ adaptation in a highly sex-saturated environment in which societal expectations are often at odds with clients’ expectations and demands, and the sex worker identity.

Risk perception and unprotected sex in commercial sex

All participants declared themselves to be risk-averse, according to their initial intention to ‘always’ use a condom as a policy of behaviour as sex workers. However, there was an unclear process that articulated this initial intention and connections with unfavourable personal attitudes towards the use of a condom. In this sense, these findings suggest that the intention of safe sex reflects the agreement to specific sexual practices, rather than the actual sexual behaviour within the context of commercial sex. Furthermore, 16 out of 25 interviewees reported incidents of unprotected sex (including oral) and nine of them declared unprotected anal intercourse (UAI) in the previous 12 months. An examination of the incidents of unsafe sex suggests two different perspectives according to the degree of perceived control. The first explicated the risk-taking decision to perform unprotected sex based on a system of clients’ assessment and selection of low-risk sexual practices. This system of risk management aimed to avoid losing customers and reduce the chances of acquiring STI-HIV. However, it was found that this system presented cognitive issues and misinterpretation of knowledge of risk that undermined participants’ real capacity of self-protection. The second perspective depicted scenarios of non-perceived control where emergent circumstances determined a powerful dynamic of physical and verbal control of the client, the use of recreational drugs and sexual arousal of the participants favoured unprotected sex. Indeed, the majority connected these events with the use of recreational drugs during the “chem-sessions” (also called ‘chemical session’) that they provided as part of their ‘overnight’ services. The consumption of recreational drugs has frequently been reported amongst Internet-based male sex workers. Participants of this study reported cocaine as the drug most commonly used with clients. Other drugs reported were: GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate), ketamine, mephedrone, and crystals (crystal methamphetamine). Only one participant reported the use of heroine. Regarding unsafe sex, ten interviewees informed their access to the PEP scheme because of these events, three of them had received this scheme more than three times.

In addition, this study found that participants had constructed a perception of STI-HIV risk based on their personal experiences, experiences of ‘important others’ (friends and partners), and the information received from health programmes. It is important to highlight that undoubtedly the most important source of information was participant’s illness experiences with STI-HIV. As other studies have shown almost all participants (22/25) of this study had been diagnosed with one or more STI, and some (3/25) self-reported as people living with HIV.

In conclusion, this study provides different dimensions of the experiences of male migrants selling sex in London. It also provides insights into their experiences operating as independent escorts, and finally, their risk perception and unprotected sex, based on past events reported in the context of commercial sex, which allow the examination of risky sexual behaviour from the perspective of an occupational risk.

Additional resources

Mai, N. 2011. Migrant workers in the sex industry. Final policy – Relevant report London Metropolitan University

Tampep 2007. European Overview of HIV and Sex Work – National Country Reports. Amsterdam – Netherlands: The European Network for HIV/STI Prevention and Health Promotion among Migrant Sex Workers.

Ballester-Arnal, R., Salmeron-Sanchez, P., Gil-Llario, M. D., et al. 2013. The Influence of Drug Consumption on Condom Use and Other Aspects Related to HIV Infection Among Male Sex Workers in Spain. Aids and Behavior, 17, 536-42.

Blackwell, C. W. & Dziegielewski, S. F. 2013. Risk for a price: sexual activity solicitations in online male sex worker profiles. Journal of Social Service Research, 39, 159-70.

Cusick, L. 2002. Youth prostitution: a literature review. Child Abuse Review, 11, 230-51. DOI:10.1002/car.743

Counselling and health programmes in London that provide services to male sex workers:

NAZ Project London offers counselling, support and sexual health services to sexual minorities

Antidote programme provide help and support to people who perceived in abuse and dependence of alcohol and recreational drugs

Terrence Higgings Trust – Information of Post-Exposure prophylaxis

About the author

Elisa is a Peruvian researcher currently based in London, UK . Her research focuses on MSM, gay men and transgenders. Her main interests include sexual behavior, STI-HIV prevention and community intervention trials.