UK: On speaking terms

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jul 25 14:25:39 UTC 2007

Forwarded from edling at

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On speaking terms
English language lessons for migrant women working in the UK sex industry
aim to tackle exploitation by clients and bosses

Diane Taylor Wednesday July 25 2007 The Guardian

A group of foreign women who sell sex in London have turned their hand to
teaching English - but the words they are imparting to their students are
unlikely to feature in tourist phrase books. The classes are aimed at
migrants working in London's sex industry and phrases such as "I do not do
anything without a condom" are required learning.

The capital's sex industry is booming and around 80% of women involved in
off-street work - going to flats, escorting, working in saunas and strip
clubs - are thought to be migrants. Brazilians, Thais and eastern Europeans
dominate, although Chinese women are increasingly becoming involved.

Many foreign sex workers struggle to string a sentence together when they
are negotiating prices and sexual acts with clients. When men put pressure
on them to provide sex acts without a condom, it is much harder to refuse
when they are unable to cajole punters into accepting something safer. The
language barrier means they also fail to secure themselves the best possible
deals and working conditions with brothel owners.

Fake visas

Debt bondage comes with its own set of problems, particularly among women
from south-east Asian countries who have travelled to the UK to work in the
sex industry. They pay an agent a fee of around £20,000-£30,000
for an air ticket and a visa, which is often fake, and then work off their
debt in a brothel. Some women continue to work in the industry after they
have paid their debt, to send money home to their families.

Alice (not her real name), a 25-year-old Australian who is in London
studying for her masters in post-colonial theory, is the brainchild of the
language classes. She says: "There are some pretty horrific stories of
exploitation among women in debt bondage ... These women are asking for
their conditions to be different."

Alice also works as an escort, commanding rates of between £200 and
£350 an hour. She is involved in the International Union of Sex
Workers and formed a group with 14 other women - many of whom are working in
the industry - to set up the classes. "Women are [working in the sex
industry] for the money, not because they like meeting four or five strange
men a day," she says.

Those behind the "x:talk" project believe in "the autonomy of all people
moving across borders and the dignity of every gender employing their
resources in the sex industry". The organisation's website says: "Central to
our understanding of gender and social relations is an understanding of sex
work as labour ...". x:talk aims to create an open and critical space to
collectively organise and empower workers in the sex industry and to
encourage and support critical interventions into discourses about gender,
labour, migration and human rights.

The idea of the language classes first came to Alice when she sold sex in
flats and realised that some of the migrant women she worked alongside, both
those in debt bondage and those working independently, were unable to talk
their way out of sex acts they did not want to perform. "During down times,
when we were waiting for bookings, I found myself giving impromptu English
lessons to these women," Alice says.

The teachers secured a modest grant from the Feminist Review Trust
grant-giving body, and a central London hospital that provides a health
service for sex workers offered a venue.

All 15 places on the 12-week pilot course have been taken, and the students
include women from Brazil, Argentina, Italy and Thailand. They have been
learning vocabulary to describe their appearance, how to negotiate working
hours, and how to handle conflict situations, such as telling a man they
will not kiss him or have sex without a condom.

"We wanted to develop a project to improve the working conditions of
migrants in the sex industry," Alice says. "Our aim is to give women the
skills to get out of certain situations they may not want to be in. So much
of sex work involves language, and not having language stops people from
negotiating with bosses and clients."

Jane Ayres, manager of a central London NHS sexual health project for sex
workers, welcomes the new initiative. "A significant number of migrant sex
workers come to Britain with little or no English, and without language you
can't negotiate," she says.

Ayres adds that migrant sex workers with precarious immigration status are
reluctant to report sexual assaults from punters because they fear that
going to the police will hasten their deportation. Perpetrators often know
that this group of women are soft targets.

Support system

As well as teaching the sex workers English, the classes aim to provide a
support system for this group, who are often isolated and are concealing the
nature of their work from friends in Britain and family back home. They also
enable foreign women to "network" with others in the industry. Ayres says:
"Traditionally, women in the sex industry have supported each other, passing
on information about dangerous punters, but migrants don't get this

One of the key components of the course is how to make small talk with
punters. "The more the women can talk to the men, the less time they have to
spend having sex with them," says Alice.

· For more information email xtalk.classes at or visit

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Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited


Harold F. Schiffman

Email:  haroldfs at

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