Russian-speaking women in Finland who engage in commercial sex, struggle between visibility and invisibility in society

Russian-speaking women who engage in commercial sex in Finland work independently and do not need to defer to pimps or traffickers. However, their lives and experience are constrained by the surveillance and regulation of the Finnish state and non-stage agents. These results are published in a doctoral dissertation completed at the University of Helsinki.

Russian-speaking women who engage in commercial sex need to constantly monitor their own movements and behaviour to avoid being identified as someone who engages in commercial sex. Identification may lead to problems in crossing the national border, inability to find housing, encounters with the police, and anxieties about their personal information being shared with social services, landlords or future employers.

Russian-speaking women who engage in commercial sex respond to this by being very mobile. This, in turn, increases their earnings, but disrupts their connection to their countries of origin and prevents them from forming strong bonds of belonging in Finland.

- Furthermore, as the women’s formal and informal skills are not recognized within the Finnish labour market, they are routinely channelled into poorly paid forms of care work. Commercial sex, on the other hand, allows them to utilize their existing skills and develop new skills, while offering better pay, better hours, and, often, more personal autonomy and choice, says Doctoral Candidate  Anastasia Diatlova.


National values of social equality clash with existence of commercial sex

According to the study, commercial sex presents a problem for the Finnish national project, as it does not harmonize with the claimed national values of gender and social equality. This creates a particular environment for migrants who engage in commercial sex, as they become perceived as the, de facto, representatives of commercial sex.

- Due to the historical legacy of the 1990s, Russians-peaking women in Finland tend to be associated with mercantile sexuality, regales of whether any sexual acts take place or not, Diatlova says.

In this environment, Russian-speaking women engaged in commercial sex oscillate between visibility and invisibility. As they navigate border-crossings, the rental market, the banking system, and the public and semi-public spaces of clubs and streets, they come face-to-face with surveillance and scrutiny that they must either address or dodge.

- If the women are suspected of selling sex, they could be turned away at the border, refused rental flats, or stopped by the police. Consequently, they have to constantly premeditate their interactions with state and non-state agents through avoiding particular public spaces, modifying their own behaviour in private spaces, and enlisting assistance of clients to remain out-of-sight, Diatlova states.

In conjunction, the legislative efforts to restrict commercial sex in the name of gender and social equality and the common perception of Russian-speaking women in Finland as the sexual “Other” creates a hostile environment which Russian-speaking women engaged in commercial sex have to navigate.  

The data collected for this research includes observations conducted in clubs, privates, and an NGO that provides services for sex workers in Southern Finland; interviews with key actors in the field of commercial sex, and interviews with Russian-speaking women engaged in commercial sex in Finland.

According to Finnish legislation, prostitution is legal, but soliciting in a public place and organized prostitution are illegal.


Anastasia Diatlova will defend the doctoral dissertation entitled "Between Visibility and Invisibility: Russian-speaking Women engaged in Commercial Sex in Finland" in the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki, on 11 October 2019 at 12:00. The public examination will take place at the following address: Porthania, Hall PII, Yliopistonkatu 3.

Professor Teela Sanders, University of Leicester, will serve as the opponent, and Professor Lena Näre as the custos.

The dissertation is also available in electronic form through the E-thesis service.

Further information:

Anastasia Diatlova