Migrating for sex, love and liberation

Anthropologist Sine Plambech reveals the raw strength and fragility of women who move to Denmark for work in the sex industry – or the rare prize of a husband

“I became quite close to a young girl who was a sex worker in Pattaya, and she revealed to me one day that she was pregnant,” anthropologist Sine Plambech tells me in her office, recounting a moving experience during her research in Thailand.

“Abortions there are expensive – not to mention illegal – so she asked me to arrange and pay for it. When it was done, I offered to pay her so she could rest – but the very next day she was back at work servicing clients. It’s a truly surreal world to be involved in when you see how these woman have so few choices and receive so little compassion.”

Plambech is a researcher, anthropologist and filmmaker who has come closer to the industry of sex and love than most of us would care to. She has been a passenger on hundreds of emotional journeys, and is now a pioneer in sharing the stories of these women, in hope of a generating a broader understanding and acceptance of their work.

Plambech says it was her very liberal background that instilled in her the values of feminism from an early age.

“Curiosity drove me to start asking these questions,” she explains. “I’ve always been interested in the lives of women and our progress in the world.”

Plambech is best known for the research and anthropological work into the migration patterns of Thai women who had moved to the small North Jutland town Thy in pursuit of love and stability.

The work formed the foundation of the award-winning 2008 documentary Fra Thailand Til Thy (Love on Delivery), directed by Janus Metz. The documentary follows the journey of a young woman named Kae, who travels to Denmark to join a group of well-integrated Thai women who successfully help her find a Danish husband.

Dignity and agency
Last year, Plambech (left) directed Becky’s Journey, the harrowing story of a 26-year-old Nigerian woman who moves to Italy in search of a better life, only to end up in the sex industry.

In one of the film’s most memorable moments, Becky explains that she was more than willing to engage in prostitution as the price of a happy ending. Plambech says Becky’s story is actually rather typical for thousands of people who migrate to Europe.

“I don’t like to use the term prostitute, I don’t like that it sounds as if the sex-worker has no agency at all,” she says.

Although many of the women engage knowingly with the sex industry, Plambech says most would have chosen a different path if they felt they had real and sustainable alternatives.

“They have dignity, agency and a strong perspective on what they do.”

Plambech has expert knowledge in a range of controversial areas, including the Danish sex industry, sex tourism in Thailand and Nigeria transnational marriages in Denmark, and human trafficking. As a result, she is a respected voice in the media on the subject of women’s welfare, and currently works for the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS).

When in Denmark, Plambech carries out most of her fieldwork in Northern Jutland and in Vesterbro’s red light district. Her objectives are to assess how the women she studies live, and whether their migration to Denmark has been marked more by promise – or problems.

According to the SFI (The Danish National Centre for Social Research), approximately 3,000 men and women worked in the sex trade between July 2012 and June 2013. It is estimated that around half are foreigners. Of the approximately 600 foreign women working the streets, 50 percent derive from Central and Eastern Europe, and another large percentage from Africa, particularly Nigeria. The largest single nationality among foreign sex workers, however, is Thai.

Differing circumstances
According to Plambech, the majority of women working in the industry are here temporarily, usually coming to Denmark on a three-month tourist visa before returning with their earnings to their families.

“A few also come from unsuccessful marriages to Danes, and have had to find a way to support themselves,” she adds.

There are also those who choose to stay illegally. Their circumstances are much more dire – for them, going home is usually a highly unattractive option.

“Some women from Nigeria, for example, arrive on a valid visa, but once it expires and they have no means of obtaining another, they simply go underground and continue to work,” she explains, adding that some are also trafficked into the country.

A significant issue covered in Plambech’s research is the assessment of women who are deported back to their home nations when they have been caught residing without legal paperwork in Denmark. Her PhD-Thesis argues that many Nigerian women, which are repatriated, some after being judged to be working against their will, suffer from the experience, as they lose their source of income.

Repatriation policies do not consider these social impacts, Plambech argues, adding that the definition of ‘trafficking’ has become increasingly blurred over the past few years. She also believes that some common misconceptions about the Danish sex industry need to change.

“We often have this rather condescending view of these women because they’re selling sex,” she says. “But for many it’s just work. Of course, not any kind of work, it is very tough and exhausting – but it doesn’t always raise the moral implications that we would imagine.”

Plambech also explains that many women end up mired in debt after arriving in Denmark, often owing to the cost of their journey. The sex industry is sometimes their ticket to freedom.

“Sex work per se isn’t always the problem, for many it’s the solution. Through all the years I’ve spent working with these women, I’ve met many who were, despite their difficult situations, independent and trying to do business.”

The women featured in Plabech's documentary 'Love on Delivery'. L-R: Mong, Basit, Sommai and Kae. Photo: Henrik Bohn Ipsen

The women featured in Plabech’s documentary ‘Love on Delivery’. L-R: Mong, Basit, Sommai and Kae. Photo: Henrik Bohn Ipsen

A better future
Plambech has also worked extensively in Pattaya, Thailand, and in Benin City and Lagos, Nigeria. She explained that fieldwork in the home nations of these women is crucial to developing an informed understanding of the big issues behind migration.

“Spending time with these women in their homes gives me a richer sense of their experiences, particularly their reasons for moving and their life ambitions. It has also led to some really valuable personal relationships. I truly enjoy being around these women – they know how to have a good time, they’re honest and incredibly strong.”

Despite how moving and inspirational she finds them, Plambech says that she often finds herself in confrontational and heartbreaking situations with the women. Like her friend in Pattaya, difficult abortions cases aren’t uncommon. She explained that she knew of another woman who had to wait until she was five months pregnant before she could afford to terminate the pregnancy.

“So often you see these women fighting to obtain better lives but having to face one inhuman and degrading experience after another: rape, abuse, divorce from their children and loved ones to name but a few,” she explains.

Her studies in Nigeria have also revealed that some women are brought to Europe under false pretences, such as the promise of a job.

“I’ve met so many young women from Lagos who had the same aspirations for their lives as I did,” she says. “It’s crushing that the opportunities are so limited for them and that their dreams will probably never come to fruition.”

It may be difficult to understand, Plambech shares a distinctive optimism with many of the women she has come to know in the sex industry. They deserve our respect rather than our pity, she argues, for choosing to leave their troubled or unfruitful backgrounds in search of a safer or more promising future. M

Features, News

By Lesley Price

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