Kaupunki

Prostitution has moved online, but Helsinki’s African sex workers defy freezing temperatures and racist shouts in the streets

Women from Africa face racism, violent attacks and bitter cold winter temperatures to work as prostitutes on the streets of Helsinki. So what motivates them to come to Finland, and how do they conduct business without falling foul of the law? One sex worker tells her story.

As you settle down for a Saturday evening in front of the television with your family, Pamela prepares herself for another night selling sex to strangers.

A slick of plum-coloured lipstick, and powder blue eye shadow on her dark brown skin, black hair falling around her shoulders. Pamela knows she has to look respectable if she wants to earn money.

As you enjoy a night on the town with friends, going from restaurant to bar, Pamela settled herself into a doorway opposite the name-brand store, around the corner from the luxury hotel. This is the stretch of street she'll work this evening. If she's very lucky someone will pay her for the whole night. But realistically, she concedes, ”I might stay here until daybreak”.

Pamela is one of the hidden foreigners of Helsinki. Out of sight and out of mind. You probably don't notice her at first, but she sees you.
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She sees the men who pause a fraction too long on her street, or pass in one direction, then walk back again a few minutes later. It’s a sign they might be interested in doing business. She calls out to them softly ”moi”. And if they approach, ”how are you? Would you like to go somewhere?” The price is negotiable.

Much of Helsinki’s sex work is done behind closed doors. The Thai women have their massage parlours. The Finns, Russians and other East Europeans are online. But the few African girls in the Finnish capital stick to an old fashioned business model, walking the streets, and propositioning men: sex for cash.

”Prostitution is not illegal” explains Detective Superintendent Petri Rainiala, whose Helsinki Police unit monitors trafficking and aggravated pimping.

”You can sell your sex services privately in Finland, but the main principal is if there is a third person somewhere behind, for instance a pimp, it is illegal”.

Modern pimps are far removed from the 1970s Blacksploitation cliché of a man in flared trousers, jewels and fur, running a stable of scantily-clad working girls.

Under Finnish law, you can be considered a pimp if you knowingly take part at any stage of prostitution, and profit from it. You could be buying phone credits for a friend or letting them use your bank account; renting an apartment for one or more girls to live in; placing an advert in the newspaper, or taking any cut of her earnings. And in the world of sex work, it seems that everyone wants to get paid. It's a hierarchy, a pyramid scheme, an easy payday.

”If there is one girl in Madrid, and she knows some other girl and the other girl says ’hey I have one friend in Helsinki, I can call to my friend and see if she can arrange something’” says Rainiala.

”If they have some contacts, they are helping each other to make money. If someone helps you, you have to pay, the help is not free. And if someone helps you it is expected that you have to pay something to her. Everyone in the chain of command has to earn something. It's a network and it depends on the contacts of the girl but very often there is someone behind it” he says.

Pamela says she knew someone in Helsinki before moving here. An uncle – although she is quick to stress he didn't bring her here to be a sex worker. In the West African culture where Pamela grew up, an ”uncle” could be a relative, a family friend or just an older acquaintance.

This is Pamela's second winter in Helsinki. It’s too cold here she says, but she needs the money to send back to Ghana. Her family there think she cleans offices, or looks after an old lady; and Pamela is conflicted by the lies she's told, so she prays. ”God forgive me I pray every day, because what I am saying to them is not true”.

Before Helsinki, there were good years. Pamela says she lived for a long time in Milan, working in a factory producing mannequins. But she lost her job when work was outsourced to China. With no husband to support her and her two children, and no job prospects in Italy, Pamela decided to move to Finland.

Her story is confirmed in part by an employee at the Italian factory's head office, who said the company ”reduced employees in the production” around 2011 after expanding operations in Shanghai. She was unable to verify if Pamela – certainly not her real name – had worked there, or whether she had been made unemployed at that time.

And so when she found no legal job on arrival in Finland – ”if I got a job tomorrow I would stop” –Pamela ended up as a sex worker.

Walking the streets might sound like the lowest rung on the prostitution ladder, but it can have some advantages in terms of safety. Like being able to look at a client in the eye, assess how much he’s had to drink, or gauge whether he looks dangerous. But all the time, decisions are driven by the need to make money. And inevitably risks are taken.

”Even if they estimate that there is potentially some risks of violence, they take the risks because they need the money” says Jaana Kauppinen, Executive Director of Pro-Tukipiste, a Helsinki-based non-governmental organisation that works with prostitutes.

The potential risks to the African working girls come not only from customers, but from law enforcement. Detective Superintendent Rainiala says that while the girl don't like the uniformed officers, they do trust them.

”If they have violent customers, very often they call the police officers”.

But as Jaana Kauppinen explains, being involved with the police is not always an option for sex workers, especially those girls from Africa.

”If there are black women walking in that kind of zone in the very city centre, the police will probably stop them and ask for travel documents, and ask ’what are you doing here’, or they tell them ’I know what you are doing here’, or ’if I see you still after 15 minutes I take you to the station’”.

The girls can fall foul of the law in two ways: they can be stopped on suspicion of selling sexual services, or asked for their travel documents under the Alien Act, and ultimately deported if they can't prove they’re here legally.

On nights when business is slow, Pamela faces other problems – casual racism and hurled insults.

Between clients, sometimes the girls look for a place to take a break. Especially in the middle of winter, they want to warm up. Burger King, Pamela says, is off limits.

”Maybe it's because we are prostitutes” she muses. ”We always go to McDonalds”.

”Many people when they pass, say vittu, negra, go back to your country” she recounts, indignantly.

”Many, when they just pass in a group, they talk bad, turn back and look at you, you know they talk bad. But I say you don't know my problems, you don't know what I'm passing [going] through”.

”Finnish people know what we are doing and when they drink too much they are violent [...] and so we hide”.

Two summers ago, Pamela found herself on the receiving end of that violence, when a customer beat and strangled her. She says she endured a sustained assault lasting 40 minutes.

”I met with a Finnish guy and he wanted to kill me” she says bluntly.

”After he gave me some money he wanted to sleep, but he got up from the bed. I was naked and he was naked”.

That's when the attack began, and he started to strangle her.

”He continued pressing on my neck, my tongue was hanging out my mouth”.

It was only when she grabbed his genitals that he stopped. But the pair continued hitting and kicking each other. Pamela says she struck out at walls and furniture trying to attract attention to her plight, but nobody came.

Eventually she got to the door of the apartment, and found a neighbour outside in the hallway already calling police. Officers took the man away, and advised Pamela to also report to the station, but she never did. Detective Superintendent Rainiala says it's impossible to verify the details, and he couldn't easily find a report of such an incident in police files.

”I think their position is very vulnerable and they feel like there is a huge risk to report the violence against them” says Jaana Kauppinen from Pro-Tukipiste.

”They think that the consequences will be much [more] harsh for them compared to the guy, and also they are very vulnerable to different types of exploitation because they cannot demand their rights, because they do not have any rights”.

Some of that exploitation is in the transaction itself between sex worker and customer, pressure to do something they don’t want to. Pamela says she won't have sex with a man unless he’s wearing a condom.

”Even if they pay €1000 we don't do without condom” she says. ”I prefer to have €100 and I’m safe”.

Pro-Tukipiste, funded in part by the gambling monopoly RAY through the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, offers anonymous counseling and testing services for sex workers.

African girls ”are very interested in their health” says Jaana Kauppinen.

”They want to have tests, but for many women their basic knowledge about the human body and how to take medicines, it might be very poor”.

For Kauppinen's staff, there’s an ethical component as well to testing sex workers for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

”If you are not entitled to any treatment, what do you do? If you are not living permanently in Finland, if you are not entitled to Finnish health care services?”

Pro-Tukipiste’s medical staff will give prescriptions for medicines, but not everyone has money to pay the pharmacy costs. Another issue is the extreme loneliness of going through medical care in a foreign country when you are a marginalized member of society.

Kauppinen’s colleague recounts a story of a sex worker from Africa who gave birth in a Finnish hospital that same morning. The new mother had commented that nobody was there for her during child birth. She felt deeply alone. In her own community she would have been surrounded by female relatives, supporting and joyful.

It’s memories of home, where her children are going to school, that give Pamela some comfort on the coldest of Helsinki winter nights, as the clock rolls round to 2am and the all-important 'real feel' temperature shows minus 14 degrees.

”Here we always think about home” says Pamela. She closes her eyes, thinking of Africa and smiles widely, asked to recall a vivid memory.

”When the rain was falling, the scent, I was sitting on my balcony and feeling happy. I said, this is African rain”.

In Finnish: Pamela päivystää illasta toiseen kaduilla myymässä seksiä – tällaista on afrikkalaisten katuprostituoitujen arki Helsingissä

 

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