Horsemeat of the Brothel

Yan, thirty-one, was born in a small fishing town in Fujian province, China. Although wealthy Fujianese expatriates are notorious for the extravagant ceremonies they perform in honor of their ancestors, the average annual income in the province was less than 6,000 Yuan (about £600) in 2005. Yan grew up in an empty shack, surrounded by damp walls covered with posters of celebrities and oxidized calendars, and made an arranged marriage to a distant relative, who, when she went into labor, played mah-jongg all night long.

By the age of twenty-three, she was the mother of two undernourished children, knitting fishing nets for a living, serving as a fulltime caretaker for her disabled mother-in-law, and feeding her children with whatever she could find. Then she heard about an "entirely different life" in England from a visiting expat who spoke of earning 10,000 yuan a month working for rich Fujianese families in the UK.

A year later, when her marriage ended, leaving her with nothing but a black eye after a night of violence, Yan finally made up her mind. She sent her children to her mother’s and borrowed 70,000 yuan from a snakehead who promised her the kind of job she dreamed of. This loan was staggering, but her fear of living in despair and destitution was greater. She was smuggled onto a boat, and after close to two weeks creeping around inside a shipping container and urinating into a plastic bottle, she arrived in the UK.

The rest of the tale was fairly predictable. Yan was submerged into the depths of a hidden massage shop in a two-story residential house, taken there by a friend of the snakehead who had learned to survive by feeding off Britain’s vast underground prostitution trade. In a shabby bedroom decorated with blood-red oil-painted pendant lamps, she met two Fujianese women who had arrived under similar circumstances. For days, they were cajoled by the mama-san, a senior, seasoned prostitute, who knew all too well that they had little choice other than—to use the Chinese euphemism for taking up prostitution—“jumping into the sea.” Yan reluctantly accepted her fate, although during her first month, anyone who saw her in bed with her clients would think the men were having sex with a corpse. She numbed her pain by telling herself it could be worse: she could have suffocated in the shipping container, or she could have been caught by the UK Border Force and sent back to China, or the legs of her children could have been chopped off by the snakehead because of their mother’s inability to pay off her debt . . . yes, it could be worse.

I saw and heard plenty of stories like Yan’s while I was working briefly in London’s Chinatown in 2010. Yan was not the unluckiest. She could (if she had wanted to) gain the trust of her mama-san by working up to eight hours a day, pay off her debt, then leave the brothel behind. The women who depend on selling their bodies, but are physically incapable of working due to damage caused by excessive sexual activity, are in a far more distressing situation. The pressure to continue gets ten times worse when you don’t have a visa.

In 2012 I was employed by Britain’s Channel 4 to translate dialogue from footage filmed secretly in the Chinese-run brothels in east and north London for a documentary on the lack of health care in the UK sex industry. These women don’t seek medical attention because they are too afraid of being caught by the police. Some of them were smuggled into the country, some came to the UK on six-month tourist visas and overstayed, and some were initially asylum seekers but struggled to prove their cases in the “guilty until proven innocent” UK asylum system. Some arrived on dependent visas but lost their status when their relationships broke down as a result of domestic violence; some were on student visas but working over more than the maximum permitted twenty hours a week. However, all of them come from non-EU states; they are the human vessels for all kinds of miseries beyond our imagination, and many of them do not have access to public funds or are unable to register with a doctor simply because they are not legal residents.

Another woman, Lisa, worked occasionally as a volunteer in a charity shop in north London. She was also a dishwasher in a Chinese takeaway, and after six months of working a twelve-hour shift, earning £2 per hour, she felt the life was being sucked out of her. "Rent, food, and a monthly [bus] pass, nothing left!! Crazy, huh?! Now, me a XiaoJie [prostitute], at least I can save some money for my future. When I get my PR [permanent residency] then I can afford to buy a flat," she told me. She had overstayed for nearly two years; she had thrown her passport away. She dreamed that in about thirteen years, she would be able to obtain her PR; she worked in the charity shop to enhance her future application.

Lisa moved around London from one brothel to another, never working as a prostitute at any one of them for too long. A “new girl” is always more desirable to the regular clients, so she would not stay in one place for more than a month. She would start work at 7:00 a.m. for the early birds and would finish by 2:00 or 3:00 pm. The standard rate was usually £80 per hour, negotiable, for straight sex, with half given to the mama-san. She could make money for herself with extras: £10 for oral sex with a condom, for example, £20 without. There are always low seasons when no one gets a penny for the whole day. That’s why she ate nothing but instant noodles, and rewarded herself with discounted food only on exceptional occasions, such as the Chinese moon festival.

Although she had learned how to say "you naughty man" or "no anus, please" in English, this was not enough to prevent her from becoming sick from time to time. She had no idea about weekly STD tests. She said she did not mind displaying her vagina to her clients because it was “just a piece of rubber,” but queuing up outside an examining room once a week somehow felt awkward to her, and she had never had a doctor anyway. She took the cheapest aspirin tablets or went to see the quacks who only provided her with fake assurances and some "magic ancient herbs."

I met Lisa before the new immigration legislation came into force. Now, if Lisa wants to get her PR, she will need to continue her life in the UK for another sixteen years or so, instead of eleven. The last time I saw her was nearly three years ago in the charity shop where she worked. She was about to spend £3 on a sexy dress that she had found among the shop donations. "I am going away to Aberdeen!" she said to me jubilantly, as if she were being lifted by a balloon from the middle of her tiny waist attached to the shop ceiling. Then she disappeared forever.

I wonder how many people would feel true sympathy for women like Yan or Lisa, because they are not just illegal prostitutes, they are also illegal immigrants. We live in a world where campaigners are still battling to gain fundamental rights for legal immigrants, or to legalize prostitution for their native-born sex workers.

Legal or not, regardless of whether they come to this country with criminal intent, immigrants are still automatically seen as guilty of some offense. This opinion has been forged successfully in the public mind after years of scapegoating and demonizing by the xenophobes and the social media campaigns of right-wing politicians. The growing successes of the UKIP party in the European elections this year was a prime example of the outcome of this constant demonizing.

That’s why the xenophobes and sexists hate these “sob stories”; they dismiss these women as inferior creatures who deliberately make themselves stateless by coming over to this wonderful country solely to spread STDs. To some degree, these women have become little more than “horsemeat in a miniskirt”; smuggled, cheap, illegal, a living scandal to be eliminated through border enforcement.

Although making these women’s residence in the UK illegal might not be seen as intrinsically unjust, and introducing a maximum life sentence for the worst cases of human trafficking and exploitation may be seen as one effective tactic to end this modern-day slavery (as the Tories claim whenever tougher sanctions are suggested to counter illegal immigration in the UK), will harsher penalties be sufficient? In many cases, it is not just the traffickers being penalized, but also their victims.

Women like Yan and Lisa could possibly end up in detention camps awaiting deportation. Removal centers, such as Yarl’s Wood, a female immigration center in Bedfordshire which houses up to 400 women at a time, have been criticized for years for their inhumane treatment of residents. In April, a forty-year-old woman was found dead there, but a UN investigator was denied access, presumably by the Home Office.

Is deportation of these women the only solution? What if they face the very real possibility of harm, punishment, or further slavery if forced to return? This is the real problem that needs to be addressed. The regulations and human trafficking laws are purportedly put in place to protect the victims of trafficking. But victimizing the victims, and endangering the lives and well-being of those victims, simply exacerbates the problem. The flaws of the immigration system may well be the main contributing factor creating these “inferior creatures” in the first place. Unless legislative and practical measures are put in place which acknowledge both, the factors that drive those victims from their native countries and the obstacles that they face in their adopted lands, this will not change. 

© 2014 by Wang Bang. All rights reserved.