1.3.1 Prostitution and the city

Prostitution is often looked at in relation to where it takes place. This is especially the case in the urban context where women in prostitution are confronted with urban planning interventions, policing practices, and very often community resistance (Campbell & O'Neill, 2006; Sanders, 2005; Weitzer, 2014). Window and street prostitution are the most visible forms of commercial sexual exploitation and therefore incite the most attention (O'Neill et al., 2009).

Zones of window prostitution worldwide are referred to as “red-light districts”, in reference to the neon lighting (Weitzer, 2014). Although the women remain indoors, they are visible from the street through the glass windows from where they attract clients. Weitzer (2014) distinguishes single-use zones that are mostly removed from the city core and only offer sexual services, and multi-use zones that also host other businesses and functions. Especially in the latter case, the societal perception or meaning of prostitution is very significant as the visibility of the windows makes the women observable not only to clients but also to all residents and passers-by and this situation makes the women more vulnerable to harassment (Gilfoyle, 1999; Campbell & O’Neill, 2006).

Although research tends to highlight prostitution as an urban phenomenon (Persak & Vermeulen, 2014), recent trends of gentrification also include a moral dimension as contemporary criminalization and criminal policies focus on the exclusion of prostitution from public urban spaces (Persak & Vermeulen, 2014, p. 15). Increasingly, prostitution takes place in private houses and brothels, facilitated by the abundance of advertisements through the Internet (Vandecande-laere, 2019). Meaning that although prostitution is often portrayed as being urban and here (in society) to stay, the exclusion of prostitution from the same urban spaces is often blatant.

1.3.2 Prostitution and migration

“Because the financial rewards of working in the commercial sex industry are comparatively high, increasing numbers of migrant women work in this industry in the UK and other European states” (O’Neill et al., 2009, p. 12). For many migrants, prostitution offers low-skilled and flexible work (with cash-based direct income) that pays more than domestic and cleaning work, which are the other sectors that historically attract migrant women (Agustin, 2006; Rodri-guez, 2014). Migrants have been the dominant demographic in prostitution work in Europe since the 1970s with South-East Asian, Latin American, African, and Eastern European women (Kempadoo et al., 2012). Many of the challenges they face (linked to prostitution), such as little or no access to health care or vulnerability to labour exploitation, are interdependent and closely linked to their migratory condition (Sassen, 2003).

As migratory movements have changed, the diversity of sex markets has also increased and indicates the need for context-specific research (Andrijasevic, 2013). Thorbek and Pattanaik (2002) highlight the diversity in experiences when it comes to migrant prostitution, e.g. between permanent and temporary migrants. It is thus important to examine the specific migratory trajectories and conditions of the women and how these inform and shape their work in prostitution.

The literature on prostitution and migration is often intertwined with research on human trafficking as migrants from economically disadvantaged places are particularly vulnerable to being exploited (O’Neill et al., 2009). This is also the case for most of the Nigerian women who end up in prostitution (Carling, 2006). A significant number of these women came to Europe through the trafficking networks centred around Benin City and whose “modus operandi” has been extensively researched and documented since the 2000s (Carling, 2006; UNODC, 2006; Leman & Janssens, 2013; United States Department of State, 2018). Concerning policy, O’Neill et al. (2009) draw attention to the “conflict between a focus on the criminality of illegal migration and the need for a more humanitarian approach to trafficked persons” (p. 12).

1.3.3 Prostitution and policy

The complex relationship between migration, exploitation, and prostitution has always made it a difficult topic for policy makers (Wagenaar et al., 2017). Policies are often based on stereotypes and rarely pay attention to the experiences of the men and women involved. Furthermore, there are different opinions that inform and profoundly shape its legislation (Aronowitz, 2014). Ranging from complete criminalization to legalization, most countries employ a policy of tolerance and install certain regulations or practices to “monitor” the activity. Recent research has looked into the effects of different legislative models on the lives of women in prostitution (Campbell & O’Neill, 2006; Di Ronco, 2014; Persak & Vermeulen, 2014) but the conclusions differ, often according to the ideological premise of the authors (Wagenaar et al., 2017). What is clear, however, is that the policies directly influence the well-being of those working in public forms of prostitution such as street and window prostitution. In some cases, policies have a reverse effect and can lead to violence or displacement of the activity (Wagenaar et al.. 2017). That is why it is important to continuously examine the relationship between the intent and effect of policy while placing the well-being of the men/women at the centre. Finally, we should never lose sight of the way certain areas where prostitution takes place are being actively shaped by female sex workers (Hubbard & Sanders, 2003).

Since the 1980s, the number of support services aimed at men and women who work in the sex industry has increased. This initially happened within the framework of HIV prevention (Campbell & O’Neill, 2006). However, the focus broadened over the years and now actors providing support to sex workers work much more holistically to take into account the diversity of experiences (Pitcher, 2006). The importance of providing confidential and non-judgmental advice has been highlighted to be beneficial in monitoring exploitative situations. However, the “group” of men and women working in prostitution is very heterogeneous and research has shown that not all have the same needs or even want to access services (Pitcher, 2006).


1 Although this research was designed to describe the situation in Schaer-beek. the whole area of the carrés is considered, including the (largest) part located in Saint-Josse. The area is relatively small (three streets) and the municipal border is not visibly present. As a result, most of the women/ clients are not aware of this border.

  • 2 The initial assignment of the research project drafted by the municipality of Schaerbeek used the term “Sub-Saharan women” to refer to the African migrant women in question. In this book, we will use “Nigerian and Ghanaian women” to refer to the two countries of origin of the participants, or occasionally "African women” which is more generally a label the women used when referring to themselves. It is however, important to note that for one of the participants the country of origin is unknown.
  • 3 We use the term “sex workers" in this text when it is the term used by the author or organization that we are referring to.
  • 4 “Agency” is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own choices (Barker, 2003).
  • 5 It joins three interrelated dimensions: a material dimension of a certain living standard, a subjective dimension of certain emotional aspirations, and, finally, a relational dimension. This relational aspect is very important, as well-being is also defined in relation to others or to one’s place in society (White, 2010).


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