Not just the money: Motivation for sex work migration

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Tanya Foundation (
Wed, 2 Dec 1998 09:01:42 -0000

Not just the money : a consideration of motivation for sex work migration.

The classical explanation for explaining sex work migration is that sex work migrants have an expectation of increased income that is supposedly required to meet their primary needs and as such they perceive sex work migration as being able to satisfy their previously unmet basic physiological needs.

In attempting to meet a basic physiological need any other consideration is subjugated to an overwhelming need to ensure food, clothing and shelter. Therefore this understanding of sex worker motivation is often reduced to a supposed choice of sex work or starvation/homelessness. Any other motivation beyond this is then usually accorded to greed rather than need and therefore is only applicable to a small and maladjusted few.

The first assumption appears to be based on an understanding of sex work as an activity that is only engaged in for immediate financial reward and as such can be considered within Maslow’s theory of motivation as an attempt to meet basic physiological needs. However sex workers are subject to the same range of needs as others and should their basic physiological needs be met it can be expected that they would seek to satisfy other more sophisticated needs. It is widely accepted that greed is not a motivation of consequence but often only a pejorative description of the behaviour of others seeking to meet needs relating to their total well-being.

It is also of note that many sex workers enter sex work from other situations where their basic physiological needs were already met, or from situations where other options were available to meet such needs. It is notable among the poor that most people do not choose or engage in sex work to meet their basic physiological needs.

I would suppose that sex work and particularly sex work migration is considered by many participants to offer better opportunities for satisfaction progression, and as such sex work migration is expected to allow greater opportunity not just for the meeting of basic needs but also for meeting desirable higher order needs.

Entry into sex work is not only precipitated by physiological or existence needs but also by frustration regression experienced by someone who is seeking greater life satisfaction. When an existing life course is not able or expected to offer satisfaction progression people will seek to re-route their lives in the hope of meeting needs relating to relationships, creativity, personal development and power.

In a survey of more than fifty Hungarian sex workers in 1995, their motivation for entry into sex work was prioritised by the sex workers as securing accommodation, food, clothing and an exciting lifestyle. Most acknowledged that they could meet the first three requirements through other options, most entered sex work from situations where basic needs were already met. It was the concept that sex work offered excitement that motivated the decision making of many women. Financial reward beyond meeting general needs was not expected or experienced, but excitement including danger, was considered very important.

I believe that motivation in regards to sex work migration is often articulated in terms of money as this motivation allows sex workers to disguise their true motivation behind a rationalisation of needing to escape crushing poverty. Escape from poverty is considered reasonable mitigation in explaining participation in stigmatised sex work. It is also an acceptable explanation within anti-prostitution circles as it represents sex workers as victims of structural poverty and social injustice.

The role of money and the escape from poverty as the motivating force for sex work migration allows for simple answers in preventing sex work migration. The creation of jobs for women that allow them to earn enough money to meet basic needs would supposedly drastically reduce sex work migration. However if sex work migration is driven by more sophisticated needs, such diversion strategies would need to be able to also meet those needs or be compelled to fail.

The failure of many work/skill based diversion programmes would suggest that sex work migration is often driven by more than just a basic physiological need.

Hungarian sex workers in Greece, describe their migration as being motivated by a desire to enjoy not extra financial reward, but a better climate and general working conditions. Romanian sex workers in Greece said that they had expectations of better financial rewards but also more friendly working conditions and greater recognition of their skills. Both groups described sex work migration as giving them a greater sense of opportunity, self-empowerment and achievement.

If we then consider an application of Herzberg’s two factor content approach to motivation we might be able to explain why sex workers choose to migrate rather than practice sex work in their country of origin. Herzberg showed that job satisfaction was enhanced by motivator factors such as the challenge of the work, responsibility, recognition, achievement, personal advancement and growth. The absence of these factors did not necessarily produce dissatisfaction. Satisfaction and dissatisfaction are not either end of a continuum. Dissatification was the result of hygiene factors such as working conditions, workplace policies, supervision, co-workers, status, job security.

It is therefore quite probable that sex workers will consider migrating not for only for improved financial rewards, but rather for safer and better working conditions. Sex workers will seek to work in environments where they are not so stigmatised and where there is greater acceptance. They will also be attracted to places where they can have greater influence regarding their role within civil society.

Therefore mitigation of sex work migration is more likely to be successful if instead of diversion projects aimed at alternative income generation, countries of origin address negative hygiene factors such as the status and working conditions of local sex workers.

A survey of Hungarian sex workers in 1997, showed that the principle factor in considering sex work migration was not financial but a desire to escape local police harassment.

It is therefore most probable that sex work migrants will also have expectations that their participation in sex work migration will have significant and desirable outcomes. In accordance with Vroom’s expectancy model we can presume that a sex work migrant will choose to migrate because they believe that such a particular behaviour when compared with other possibilities will have more desired outcomes than the other options.

The value or valance of these outcomes differs for each participant and as such performance of first order outcomes as a work related behaviour will depend on how the migrant values the perceives the instrumentality or relationship between that outcome and a desired second order outcome such as increased personal security and recognition. If the expected second order outcomes have adequate valance the act of sex work migration will be highly motivated.

A typical second order outcome expected is acceptance in the host country and through an initial participation in sex work finding other work or marriage in the country of destination. As such sex work migration is expected to be a temporary estate that will have a highly valued second order outcome that is located outside sex work. This expectation will also create substantial motivation to participation in sex work migration which is one of very few behaviours that allows women to relocate to desired countries of destination and so possibly achieve the second order outcome.

This motivation for sex work migration could be mitigated by increasing other migration opportunities for women and so making the required second order outcome possible through other options. Sex work migration would then be the choice of sex workers, and those who still considered sex work migration to have valance for their desired second order outcomes, rather than a default position.

Sex work migration can also be motivated by a desire for greater equity. Sex work offers women an opportunity to receive payments that are greater than many men in other work and to deliver sexual services according to their own criteria . The issue is not the money but the value represented by the payments for the services and increased control over how the services are delivered. Many sex work migrants originate from communities where women are underpaid and discriminated against in the majority of workplaces. Women perceive themselves as being treated unfairly in the workplace. Migration for sex work allows many of them to earn the same as a lawyer, or other highly paid professional. The work although stigmatised allows for a sense of considerable self-worth, and power. The money is not required primarily for meeting needs but is a demonstration of value, equity, and power. The need to establish equity is a powerful motivational force.

These various considerations are clear demonstrations that motivation for sex work migration is complex and can go far beyond the need to meet basic physiological needs. As such we should consider all of these factors in seeking to assist sex work migrants manage and control their migration experiences.

In addressing abuse in sex work migration it is important to recognise the expectations and motivation of women participating in sex work migration, so that interventions designed to counter abusive practices do not thwart or ignore the expectations of sex work migrants. If interventions do not offer adequate alternatives to achieving expected outcomes or realistic strategies to prevent abuses while the migrant engages in highly motivated behaviour the interventions will most likely be ignored by prospective migrants.

We must work with the sex work migrants to ensure that while they engage in such highly motivated and complex behaviour, they have access to information and services that will enable them to achieve their desired outcomes with the least risk and with minimal exposure to abusive forces.

It is essential that we engage with sex work migrants in designing appropriate intervention projects that deliver relevant services that recognise their expectations and motivation. Country of origin intervention should recognise the complexities in motivation and address sex work migration accordingly.

Many men and women are highly motivated to engage in sex work migration and should be assisted by relevant and non-prejudicial projects to be able to engage in such behaviour safely and with dignity. Men and Women who have no wish to engage in sex work migration should be able to receive services that enable them to avoid induction into sex work and achieve disengagement should they be inducted . However both groups need their particular needs addressed and both groups should receive recognition and respect for their determination to migrate within or without sex work as a way of meeting their various needs.

These are some early thoughts regarding motivation for sex work migration and as such I would welcome some discussion regarding how a better understanding of motivation could be applied to helping supply services that would be more effective and attractive for prospective sex work migrants in their country of origin.

I am presently writing up some PRA research completed in Greece, which will include a section on how to use PRA methods in identifying migrant sex worker locations as part of planning intervention/engagement among migrant sex workers. The method also includes engaging with local and migrant clients. I should be finished in a couple of weeks so if you would like a copy please send me a message with Greek PRA in the subject line.

I am away from my office from the 7th-13th December.

Best regards

John Davies

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