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two-women-sitting-at-a-bar-1902.jpg!LargeEvery reviewer has to mention a different defect in the book under review: That was my conclusion when reviews of Sex at the Margins were proliferating. Some of the defects pointed to said more about the reviewer than the book, like the English academic who dismissed the research because it had taken place in Spain. I laughed a lot at that one. If you’re interested in migration and globalisation then nation becomes a funny category.

The other day I was interviewed by an investigator interested in undocumented migration in The Three-Headed Dog. We met in a blue bar and drank from stemmed glasses. She agreed I may publish a few points of our conversation, on the subject of place, location and nationality. Her name is Zelda.

mapZelda: Why did you situate The Three-Headed Dog in Spain? Is the plot special to the Costa del Sol? Or could it be moved to Britain or Italy or the state of Florida?

Laura: Spain has long been part of my own life and I lived in Granada while I was reading and doing fieldwork for and then writing what became Sex at the Margins. The Costa del Sol is one of the most fluid and confusing places I know, full of every sort of human mobility, and therefore appealing to me.

The stories in The Dog could be moved in terms of every important concept: How migrants reason and feel about what they’re doing and the sorts of networks they live in. The way they have to look for jobs and housing, the existing in and crossing out of social margins. Those are universal dynamics for undocumented migrants anywhere in the world. But margins feel different according to the terrain and the historical moment. migrantes-coahuiIf the scene were set elsewhere plot-mechanics would vary according to local laws and policing, cultural ideas about sex and women’s mobility, the availability of black-market jobs and the ease of getting out if things go wrong. If there is a coast, boats are an option. Sometimes trains are easily hopped.

Zelda: What about the migrants, are they interchangeable? Could the group of Dominicans on the airplane just as well be Chinese? What about the young Romanian smuggler, could he be Greek? Could Polish Tanya be French? Does anything about nationality matter?

Laura: The human responses portrayed are not unique to any nationality, but some of the mechanics of migration would have to change if you were to make arbitrary switches. For example, Tanya might humanly be French, but she’d be less likely to set up a cleaning service in Madrid. Or the Dominican club-owner, Carlos: If he were Chinese he might certainly run a hostess-bar, but it would be in another part of Madrid, and have a different style, perhaps with gambling, and would the protagonist Félix plausibly have become his close friend?

125969_day labor_GMK_The key to making the story work in any particular place is knowing how migrant networks function and the patterns that have developed based on (1) the possibility of getting visas to other countries and (2) colonial and other dependency/linguistic histories that lead to family relationships. For instance, Brazilians have visa-freedom to travel to Portugal, which is part of Schengen territory, meaning they cross easily into Spain and rest of Europe. Dominican women have a long history as maids and sex workers in Spain – over generations. These are migrations that give meaning to the word transnational.


Zelda: Can migrant women become sex workers anywhere, whether there’s some kind of regulated sex work or not?

Laura: The two jobs available everywhere to undocumented women are maiding and sex work, but if the plot were picked up and put down in Hong Kong, say, then adjustments would be needed to the kinds of sex businesses where migrants are likely to get employed. And to take up any kind of sex work without knowing the local context and laws, without knowing a few people on the inside, who can give informed advice, is highly risky. This is why there are roles for ‘protectors’ in the migration process, and most of them are not monsters. The plot would have to reflect this.

Zelda: What about racism? Aren’t some countries worse in that way? Wouldn’t that make a big difference to where you set the story?

imgresLaura: In the book, several of the Dominicans reflect on racial hierarchies that affect them in Spain, including those that give some dark ethnicities more cachet than their own. All cultures have ideas and prejudices about Others. But also mixing and hybridity are everywhere, even if more in some places than in others. The consequences are always the same: natives feel threatened, some promote xenophobia, governments talk about tightening borders. But there are colonial histories that can make natives feel that some foreigners are closer to themselves than others, whether their skin is blacker or not.

Zelda: So colonial things, like language. Dominicans who go to Spain already speak Spanish, which has to be an advantage, right? What would happen if you changed the group on the plane to Chinese? Isn’t the whole thing much harder if it’s a new language?

20130516-3L: Not as much as you imagine. Félix visits a Chinese migrant who runs a big variety store and who stands up well to extortion attempts because she has community behind her. Migrants come via networks whether they are legal or not. And migrants from different communities often communicate more easily with each other in the new language, because they all speak more slowly or with a common vocabulary. Then, too, sharing language can work the other way: when Dominicans speak, Spanish listeners know where they are from and bring negative cultural baggage to bear.

Z: The Costa del Sol has all kinds of ethnic groups in it, but you mention places like a Danish church and the urbanizaciones where everyone living there is the same nationality. Don’t a lot of migrants stick to their own kind? Isn’t there insularity among other Europeans who have made second homes on the coast?

CDN-Annons-tidning-2014-09-Svenska-400Laura: There is, but not forever for everyone. Europeans trying to settle and start businesses feel ambivalent about what they’ve left behind and anxious to hold onto their national selves. You see signs in Swedish or German, shops with food items imported so other cuisines can be maintained. But over time things loosen up for a lot of people, they become more curious and less fearful, they make new connections and cultures blend. And for some people, being in a mixed place with a shifting sense of belonging becomes interesting. They don’t find it so easy to answer the question Where are you from? It’s more about This is where I am now. I wrote about this kind of cosmopolitanism among sex workers in Leaving Home for Sex, many years ago.

For more about The Three-Headed Dog, a noir/mystery novel on sexwork and migration, see
Sexwork and Migration Mystery
Melodrama and Archetypes
Jobs in the Sex Industry

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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vance11e-1-webIn the last couple of weeks, on twitter, I tore into a piece of research funded by the US National Institute of Justice entitled Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities. During that time every media outlet in the world reproduced the claimed findings as if they were facts, despite how ridiculous most of them are. I made a few punchy points in an interview:

Q+A: Why Pimps Can’t Be Trusted to Talk About Sex Economics

Lauretta Charlton, Complex City Guide, 17 March 2014

Last week, the Urban Institute released a landmark study called Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities. Its abstract states that “the underground commercial sex economy (UCSE) generates millions of dollars annually, yet investigation and data collection remain under resourced.”

The Institute’s research was focused on gathering information about the sex economy based on evidence in eight major cities across the US. The research relied heavily on interviews with pimps, traffickers, sex workers, child pornographers, and police. According to a quick recap of the study on the Urban Institute’s website, the major findings include:

  • Pimps claimed inaccuracy in media portrayals.
  • Pimps manipulate women into sex work.
  • Women, family, and friends facilitate entry into sex work.
  • Unexpected parties benefit from the commercial sex economy.
  • The Internet is changing the limitations of the trade.
  • Child pornography is escalating.
  • The underground sex economy is perceived as low risk. 

But critics say that the study is misleading and intentionally biased. It’s an oversimplification of what researchers like Laura Agustín, also known as the Naked Anthropologist, argue is a very complicated system. City Guide asked Agustín a few questions via email hoping to get a clearer picture.

In your words, how has this study misrepresented sex workers in America?

LA: It’s not a study about sex workers at all but rather an attempt to view particular sex economies through the highly limited lens offered by of convicted ‘pimps’. The study was designed in a way that assured bias from the start. Women who sell sex are seen as objects manipulated by Bad Men. There’s next to no information about sex workers.

The interview subjects were mostly black/minorities. How is this reflection of continued racism in America?

LA: Again, the bias was guaranteed when researchers chose to centre pimps, but the only pimps they could conveniently interview are incarcerated. Black men predominate in prisons and predominate in the kind of pimping researchers know about, so the study reproduces the usual racist idea that black men pimp white women. This then is made to seem to be the most important aspect of the sex industry, which is laughable.

How have reports of the study misconstrued the real issues at hand?

LA: Media reports uncritically accept and focus on the numbers provided in this study: which city has the biggest sex or drugs economy, how much money pimps earn. I haven’t seen any reporter ask why researchers accepted prisoners’ stories as fact. All interview research has to factor in the possibility that subjects lie; in this case that factor is very big indeed as prisoners can be expected to brag about their exploits.

Do you believe the issues of race and sex work are mutually exclusive?

LA: I’m not sure what you mean. People the world over take up sex work for thousands of reasons and are pulled into or attracted to it by their positions vis-à-vis class, race, ethnicity, gender. No single condition decrees how a sex worker will fare; to understand any individual you need to listen to their story.

Analyze this quote from the study, “They have a saying in the pimp game, ‘If it ain’t white, it ain’t right. If it ain’t snowing, I ain’t going.”

LA: Analyse? I’d say that’s a typical cocky man’s comment aimed at showing how in-control he is. Perhaps a black man said it to a white woman? In which case he was ‘snowing’ her.


Next Huffington Post Live did a brief show with four panelists using Google Hangout. The technology allows participants to interact verbally, but there’s no eye contact, which limits things. This was called Understanding The Modern Sex Work Industry

Most of the critical commentary after this event centred on Dennis Hof’s screwy comments about unregulated sex workers’ having AIDS and being sex-trafficked, as he single-mindedly promotes the model of commercial sex he understands – his own Nevada brothels. More to the point, the show was meant to be about the Urban Institute study, but I doubt Hof ever even looked at it. This meant the already brief show lost focus. Still, because of twitter this small critique took place, which is a good thing.

Someone would have to pay me to write up a real critique of the Urban Institute study. The bottom line is researchers were funded by a crime-oriented agency to confirm everything the US government already does. Even sell-out researchers could not find the kind of horrible connexions between sex-drugs-weapons they wanted, but they admitted the possibility that things could be much worse than study shows (the Weapons of Mass Destruction ploy). I can imagine the study’s results leading to proposal for national-US antiprostitution law – ‘to facilitate policing’. Here’s a selection of tweets from 12-20 March 2014 (from @LauraAgustin). More like raw data, in no special order, hashtags removed.

“Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in 8 Major US Cities” Ludicrously banal
Urban Institute report on US sex economy is obsessed with pimps. In fact the report is about pimping, not the sex industry, not sexwork
This will become the Bible for End Demand. pimps are their sole interest.
Today news items worldwide shout about a badly biased US govt-funded study of pimping. Bad Men- what everyone loves
Headlines include “US pimps can pull in $33 000 a week” & “Street Gangs Deeply Involved In Commercial Sex Trade”. No sexworkers visible.
“Commercial sex trade widely segmented, the report found” Really? They call this study a first but it’s the last to say the most basic stuff.
“The focus is through the lens of imprisoned pimps & traffickers & those who put them behind bars” Barefaced bias that should be dismissed. Read the rest of this entry »


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Photo of Laura Agustín by Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland)

Doing public gigs exposes one to all sorts of comment, some nice and some not so nice. At University College Dublin I sketched out the ideas in Sex at the Margins – a book that began in the early 90s with me listening to Dominican villagers, ten years later became a doctorate on the Rescue Industry and three years after a published book. At the Anarchist Bookfair I talked about Sex Work as Work (a video of the talk will be online soon).

This talk was only 30 minutes long so I had warned I didn’t intend to get bogged down in arguments about the meaning of prostitution. Nevertheless, the first person called on after my talk began to lay out an argument that prostitution is oppression of women and so on, so after not long I interrupted her from the stage to ask Do you have a question? No, she said, she wanted to debate. I said, This time is for questions about my talk. She quickly framed one, which was

Will you condemn the sex industry as patriarchy?

I said no, because that question is too broad and general to have meaning for me. It’s a bottom-line question, and by saying no without explaining all the ins and outs of my thinking I will have sounded like an anti-feminist to some. But if I travel so far to speak without pay I really do want to hear audience reaction to what I do say, not to what I don’t say.

All other questions asked were interesting, but at the end there was

How can we move toward a society in which sex is not commodified?

Photo by Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland)

Anarchism takes in a wide variety of ways of thinking. I accept that talking about revolution and how things would be afterwards is really interesting and important to many, but my talk had been about feet-on-the-ground ways to better the lives of people who sell sex through employment policy and organising. So I replied

I don’t know. Everything else is commodified, why should sex be different?

This provoked a tweeter to say

Michael O’Leary, the million or billionaire owner of Ryanair, is widely hated in Ireland. I can’t find a single significant thing he and I have in common. When I have more time to talk about commodification I discuss the odd point that even mother love is accepted by most of the same objectors as being ok to buy and sell in the form of nannying and caring for children and older and sick people. The same tweeter said

Although an interest in revolution and utopia are only one of many possible topics subsumed by feminism or anarchism or any other ism, those wanting to discuss them always assume the moral high ground. Practical, pragmatic arguments about the here and now would seem to occupy a lower place in the hierarchy according to some. But not according to me, and I also dislike being challenged to show I am a good or righteous person publicly, merely as an exercise to label me – really to show I’ve failed some ethical test.

People ask me how I deal with being disliked or vilified. I accept that appearing in public exposes me, and I don’t always express myself perfectly. I don’t read prepared papers and I avoid standing behind protective podiums. I’m not a trained performer. But beyond those reasons, in order to talk about the formal-informal sector divide in government accounting and how it affects employment policy, the ILO’s conclusions in its report The Sex Sector and what the term ‘sex industry’ comprises, in 30 minutes, one has to omit the disclaimers. I could begin every point by condemning inequality, sexism, racism, imperialism, the oppression of women and poor people, but then I would lose a big chunk of the time I’ve got for the talk, and I’m not willing to do that. So I regret when I am misinterpreted badly, but I accept that it comes with the territory.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist




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In Are Evangelicals Monopolizing, Misleading US Anti-Trafficking Efforts? Yvonne Zimmerman, author of Other Dreams of Freedom: Religion, Sex, and Human Trafficking, is asked if US anti-trafficking crusades could be called colonialist. She replies, ‘It’s an argument waiting to be made’. Since I’ve been making it for ten years, I had to write to her. It’s certainly true that the critique of colonialism is not often heard, despite the term Rescue Industry‘s spread.

Evangelical bloggers did not like hearing the word. John Mark Reynolds reacted scathingly in Surprise! Evangelical Efforts Against Sex-Trafficking are ‘Colonialist’! followed by Derek Rishmawy in Sex-Trafficking, Evangelical ‘Colonialism’ and the Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. He gets prize for the most ignorant sarcastic crack: If that’s ‘colonialism’, then it’s the holy colonialism of God at work through his people. Welcome to the White Man’s Burden, shamelessly justified all over again, where the idea of colonialism is treated like a joke – or ‘joke’.

To make things worse, Reynolds used a flagrantly racist image to bias his own piece, showing a dark-skinned and/or dirty man handling an innocent white child. The shot is one of several someone created for campaigning purposes – whether they understood the inherent racism I don’t know.

I asked Yvonne to tell me what Other Dreams of Freedom is about and why she wrote it.

It is very popular for American Christians to be involved in anti-trafficking activism. Although some American Christians are interested in a broad understanding of trafficking that includes exploitative labor, usually they mean sex trafficking. And usually by sex trafficking they mean commercial sex – any exchange of sex or sexual services for money. They think that if people no longer sell sexual services they will be free from trafficking, so they favor programs that ‘fight trafficking’ by trying to get people to leave the sex industry. Means to this end vary from educational scholarships to job-training programs to brothel raids. In terms of law and policy, many American Christians support the abolitionist agenda to criminalize all sex-money exchanges.

I am a scholar of religious studies and ethics. I wrote Other Dreams of Freedom to examine why this anti-trafficking perspective feels so appealing and ‘right’ to many American Christians. When I was doing the research between 2005 and 2008, George W. Bush was president and his administration was constructing an international anti-trafficking agenda, often referring to God, God’s intent for human life and Good and Evil. I focused on anti-trafficking legislation (TVPA), the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, public policy statements and press releases. These were not trying to be religious, but I saw how they expressed a very particular religious and moral sensibility.

But Other Dreams of Freedom is about more than Bush. The understanding of human trafficking that his administration endorsed is wildly popular in the US; Americans who identify with a wide variety of other religious traditions defend this view. My book shows how Christian theology rooted in Reformed Protestantism infuses and shapes much American culture and moral sensibility, including the connections between sex, freedom and morality. My analysis of the theological sources clarifies why Americans are so quick to see commercial sex to be inherently degrading and immoral. The book discusses the unintended consequences of using a single religious perspective to build foreign policy in a multi-religious world.

Morgan Guyton at Mercy not Sacrifice also wrote about the original interview, and Yvonne left a comment that mentioned me, so I left something, too. Guyton replied:

What I have carried with me from my first job at a little NGO in DC called the Nicaragua Network is that any kind of real support we offer to people in disadvantaged situations anywhere must always have its terms dictated to us by the people we’re supposedly helping. We called it the solidarity model. In Christianese, I would call it ‘servanthood’ rather than ‘service’. It’ s great that young evangelicals are interested in social justice, but it seems like the way it’s often packaged makes it more like a form of tourism than anything else. I’m interested in reading more.

Yvonne Zimmerman is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

Note that Christian Evangelism exists outside the US and behaves similarly when it comes to trafficking: here is a recent note about CARE in the UK.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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I have attended more than one meeting where abolitionist protesters take over from the floor, grabbing the roving microphone or shouting down speakers whose ideas they find objectionable. Before my talk at the Vancouver Public Library last year I was warned that people from the Vancouver Rape Relief and Aboriginal Women’s Action Network might come and protest.

Saying I would handle any questions they chose to ask, if they waited until the end to ask them, I proposed we have a plan for disarming any more disruptive protest. All I wanted was a couple of people willing to go to the protesters and escort them out of the room. One of the organisers was upset at my suggestion, saying If they really want to protest then there’s nothing we can do, we’ll just have to close the event down. I was startled by that, and privately asked a couple of people if they would do this for me. One of them hesitated but acquiesced and the other didn’t reply.

The protesters that came, who were known to the organisers, left quietly after listening to about 40 minutes of my talk. The reasoning afterwards was The way you talk it’s not easy for them to find a place to launch an attack. One of my ways to disarm such attacks is to mention myself early on the upsetting issues and keywords that protesters are ready to say are omitted; in this case imperialism, genocide, indigenous rights, rape, the horrendous situation in the Downtown East Side of Vancouver, police negligence, racism.

France’s new Minister for Women, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, was disarmed for several minutes the other day by protesters from ACT-UP and STRASS as she began to talk about her proposal to abolish prostitution. When this proposal was first presented in the Guardian, I wondered whether she might actually be unaware of the very long tradition her ‘idea’ belongs to, but it is being linked to some sort of new leaf turning over in France since all the DSK brouhaha.

My point is about something else here – how easy it was to disrupt an event dependent on middle-class norms of politeness that expect everyone to accept hierarchy and the authority of the speaker, the person with governmental power, no matter how banal her ideas are. Those in charge act completely unable to deal with the protest, send for security officers and wait passively until they arrive. To me this seems emblematic of how members of the Rescue Industry shamefully rely on the police to enforce their values.

The same norms of politeness say that disruptive protest is destructive to democratic debate, but in a situation where no debate is possible and authority figures continually disappear and dismiss the opinions of the people actually being talked about, disruption makes a different sort of point.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Men at the higher end of the evolutionary scale: That is how one man has described men who want to save sex slaves, seeking to differentiate themselves from less civilised, bad men – the ones that buy sex. In this idea, being a Good Man is achieved not by concern for world peace, equal opportunity, racism, the end of poverty or war but rather by concern for sex slaves.

Recently I published a sober academic review of a book that is not academic at all, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. Afterwards, I republished the review in Counterpunch, with a snappy introduction for the occasion:

FEBRUARY 27, 2012

Not Inside the Business of Modern Slavery
Sex Trafficking


It is good luck for Good Men that sex slavery has been identified as a terrible new phenomenon requiring extraordinary actions. In the chivalric tradition, to rescue a damsel in distress ranked high as a way knights errant could prove themselves, along with slaying dragons and giants. Nowadays, Nicholas Kristof is only one of a growing number of men seeking attention and praise through the rescue of a new kind of distressed damsel – poorer women called sex slaves. In this noble quest, women who prefer to sell sex to their other limited options are not consulted but must be saved, and human rights are the new grail. The association with Christianity is not casual. Siddharth Kara, another man seeking saintliness, uses lite economics – another trendy way to get noticed these days.

The original review follows. The publisher of Counterpunch, Alexander Cockburn, has forwarded me a letter from the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation objecting to the piece, calling me a journalist, which I am not. He also doesn’t seem to have read past that introductory paragraph to the review of the book, where he might have found real issues to think about.

In Laura Agustin’s cynical worldview, men who hold the opinion that prostituting women is wrong and endeavor to do something about it are, in fact, misguided crusaders in the tradition of Don Quixote lost in chivalric fantasy on a mortal quest to feed their own egos by saving damsels in distress. In her article, Not Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, Sex Trafficking, Agustin specifically targets two men amongst what she portrays as a growing parade of attention-seeking phony heroes (cue the paparazzi) – Nicholas Kristof and Siddharth Kara.

Unsettling as it is for Agustin to accept the presence of men at the higher end of the evolutionary scale, Kristof and Kara are helping to shed light on a culture of gender exploitation that has survived only because of spin and lies. Where the rest of us see two men of intelligence and compassion, Agustin sees ulterior motive. In my experience, ones own ill intent makes one suspicious of ill intent in others. What is Agustin’s motive in attacking those working hard to end the exploitation of women? More spin and lies I suspect.

Robert J. Benz
Founder & Executive Vice President
Frederick Douglass Family Foundation

A culture of gender exploitation has only survived because of spin and lies? What? No interest in poverty or cultures of gender inequality from this crusader! Cynicism is in the eye of the beholder, of course. Note that Benz clearly places his kind of man on the high end of evolution, in that overtly colonialistic move in which white men save brown women from brown men. I don’t even understand the last sentence: how can a motive be spin? The guy should have looked me up first and come up with a better attack. And got a copyeditor.

But there is something else interesting here: the notion that Kara has been insulted by being placed in the chivalric tradition, which is generally assumed to represent something noble. Benz’s reference to Don Quixote shows he probably never studied chivalry himself. On the contrary, I imagine both Kara and Kristof would be chuffed to be associated with it. To critique knights in shining armour, as I do, you need to be not only interested in solving social problems but also interested in ending patriarchy, and knighthood is an elitist, male, hierarchical tradition in which white European men proved themselves to other men through treating women as objects, and women were supposed to be grateful, because they couldn’t possibly have gotten themselves out of their predicament unassisted, or figured out how to deal with life themselves in the first place. Note also my reference to human rights as the new grail.

In the contemporary example, men proving themselves through virtuous acts are using police and paternalism to rescue damsels – acts more than legitimate to criticise.

If you got this far and you tweet or post anywhere else, I’d appreciate this getting around. Maybe even Benz will see it!

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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People have different opinions about tourism by richer people to look at how poor people live. You can argue that it is better that they see some piece of reality themselves rather than swallow whole what is shown in the media (and optimistically hope they know they are being misled by them). Or be glad they prefer an educational trip to a hedonistic beach holiday, or that they are curious about the world outside their own comfy patch. And obviously the individuals who sign up for these things are all different and many must be well-meaning (awful word) and genuinely eager to learn.

Or you may, like me, view this as Rescue Industry prurience rooted in racism and colonialism (an aspect of helpers’ own identity formation). You may wish to tear your hair out simply at the thought of a tour catalogue displaying different kinds of social problems to feel horrified about and different human beings to feel pity for. But that is what Global Exchange offers in the form of Reality Tours - and human trafficking is a staple item. This tourism is veiled in language that makes tourists advocates. Here’s the description from last year’s week-long trip; new trips are listed for Perú, Uganda, Cambodia. I’ve added boldface as an emotional expression not only about the ideas but the trite language!

Thailand : Not For Sale Advocacy Delegation on Human Trafficking

Accurate statistics are difficult to compile, but it is believed that between 600,00 and 800,000 human beings are trafficked across international borders each year- 80% of them women and children. [blah blah, the usual] . . .The numbers are staggering, and actually confronting them and the shattered lives they represent can be an overwhelming prospect. Yet we are not powerless in the face of this monstrous industry, and the first step towards bringing it to a halt is education. In partnership with the Not for Sale Campaign against human trafficking, Global Exchange Reality Tours is facilitating this delegation to Thailand geared specifically to confronting the realities of the global trade in human beings.

Participants will receive a comprehensive education in the mechanics of human trafficking, as well as an understanding of its underlying causes. Participants will meet with those who have been freed from slavery and learn what it means to rebuild one’s life after having been a victim of trafficking. They, will also engage directly with groups and individuals on the frontlines of the struggle . . . We will visit vulnerable communities targeted by traffickers, learn effective strategies for undermining slave rings, and experience first hand how emancipated slaves rebuild their lives. Upon return, Global Exchange and Not for Sale will integrate the insights of the trip directly into an understanding of the nature of human trafficking in the United States and the meaning of working globally on backyard abolitionist activities.

Cost: $1,000 Includes:
All accommodations in 3-star and above hotels. Price is for shared double room- we can usually pair you up with a roommate.
All in-country transportation
Two meals per day
Tour leaders and guides
All program activities and translation
All entrance fees
Preparatory reading materials
Global Exchange membership
Donation to NFS

Plus airfare, of course. I wonder how large these groups get?

Picture of Nicholas Kristof, who does his own kind of reality tourism, from aidlolz.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Earlier this month Calabrians and itinerant African farm workers came to blows. One politician said ‘We have to go to the root of the problem: mafia, exploitation, xenophobia and racism, which are too many roots. Also it is implied that migrants are found in southern Italy only because trafficking rings and mafiosi have forced them to be there. There are indeed controlling gangs in Calabria: There’s no doubt but that men from the ‘Ndrangheta shot at the immigrants, just to remind everyone that they control the territory: Alberto Cisterna of the National Anti-Mafia Squad. But another interpretation of the conflict was For all these years clandestine immigration has been tolerated, which feeds crime: Interior Minister Roberto Maroni. Crime – always a politician’s safe fall-back position.

Unaddressed is a typical contemporary dysfunctional migration policy that doesn’t want these migrants at the same time that native farmers need them. These farm workers, like their more famous counterparts from Mexico in the US, move from one area to another as harvests are ready: tomatoes in Campania, grapes in Sicily, olives in Puglia and Calabria for oranges.

It is also unclear what ‘evacuation’ meant in this case, whether the workers might be deported or what their status will be.

Below this story follows some background from Médecins Sans Frontières.

Migrants evacuated from southern Italian town 

9 January 2010, BBC

Italian authorities have evacuated hundreds of migrants from a southern town and brought in extra police after violent protests broke out. Some 320 African migrants, many of whom work as fruit-pickers in Calabria, were taken by bus to an emergency centre.

Extra police were deployed after two days of riots, during which 37 people were injured and cars were set alight. The violence broke out after two migrants were shot at with pellet guns by a group of local youths. Italy’s Interior Minister Roberto Maroni prompted a storm of criticism from the leftist opposition by suggesting that the violence was the result of not addressing the issue of illegal workers in the country. “There’s a difficult situation in Rosarno, like in other places, because for years illegal immigration - which feeds criminal activities – has been tolerated and nothing effective has ever been done about it,” he said according to Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper.

Opposition leader Pierluigi Bersani said: “Maroni is passing the buck … We have to go to the root of the problem: mafia, exploitation, xenophobia and racism.”

Some 320 African migrants – mainly from Ghana and Nigeria – were taken by bus from the southern town of Rosarno to a reception centre at Crotone, some 170km (105 miles) away. Local residents applauded as the eight buses carrying the migrant workers left the town, AFP reports.

Police said reinforcements had been called in at intersections and squares in the town to keep order on Saturday. Many of the migrants, most of whom work as fruit-pickers in the region’s citrus farms, live in difficult conditions – camped in abandoned factories and buildings with no running water or electricity, and were paid as little as 20 euros per day.

Italy: MSF Assists Migrant Workers Living in Appalling Conditions

29 September 2009, Médecins Sans Frontières 

For the sixth consecutive year, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is providing health care to undocumented seasonal migrant workers in southern Italy. Once again, poor living and working conditions pose a serious threat to their mental and physical health.

Since mid-August, thousands of migrants have been flocking to the southern Italian region of Puglia for the annual tomato-picking season. The majority are from sub-Saharan Africa, living in Italy undocumented and in appalling sanitary conditions in abandoned houses and cardboard shacks without electricity or gas. Since last year, following MSF’s requests, regional authorities have taken some measures to improve living conditions for migrants, such as providing water tanks and latrines,” said Antonio Virgilio, MSF’s head of mission in Italy. “However, this is still far from enough to meet their basic needs.”

Issa, 20, from Ivory Coast, has been in Italy for two months and works in the tomato farms in Puglia. “If all goes well I will earn 30 euros (US$44) per day here, but I don’t have work every day. I live in a shack and I sleep on a mattress on the floor. I didn’t think I would have such a bad life in Italy.”

Limited access to health care, inadequate shelter and exploitation at work are some of the difficulties faced by the seasonal migrants. The consequences are seen during MSF medical consultations. Gastrointestinal complaints and general body pain are common. “These migrants are getting sick as a consequence of the conditions they are subjected to,” said Alvise Benelli, an MSF doctor in Puglia. The MSF team in Puglia provides free medical and psychological care to the undocumented migrant workers. They also facilitate access to public health facilities.


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In conversations about legal models for dealing with the sex industry, New Zealand’s Prostitution Reform Act of 2003 is often held up as the best. The law’s main thrust regulates how brothels may operate, by the way also making it legal for one to four people to work alone or together without having to participate in regulation (registering, getting permissions or being subject to inspections). This is obviously positive for more independent workers, unless they prefer to work from the street, in which case there is no benefit.

Many rights activists who back this legal model are not aware of a protectionist clause enshrined in the legislation: only New Zealand citizens and some, not all, migrants with permanent residency may work in its sex industry. This means no work permits are available for people who might want to go to New Zealand to work in a brothel or other sex business, or independently. Spokespeople for the law claim this clause prevents sex trafficking.

For those interested in sex work rights and theory, this is not coherent. New Zealand’s law can be called both decriminalisation, a policy that says sex work is socially acceptable, and regulation, which says sex work can be made safe and rational. Therefore, if jobs are available, it is logical to allow people from outside to come do them. If the jobs have not been made subject to quotas because there are not enough openings to satisfy all the ‘natives’ that want them, but ‘foreigners’ are still prohibited, something odd is going on.

I talked with several scholars and the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective about how this contradictory combination of liberalisation and protectionism came about. All agree that the clause limiting workers coming from outside New Zealand was inserted at a late stage, without meaningful analysis or discussion, because of one parliamentarian’s insistent noise about trafficking. From the New Zealand First party, he agreed to vote for the decriminalisation bill in exchange for a clause that would limit immigration. His position reflected anxiety, racism and xenophobia in New Zealand about increased immigration from Asia, the Middle East and the Pacific, as well as refugees from Africa.

The disallowal of migrants helps keep the industry racially and culturally homogeneous. It is true that New Zealand’s population includes indigenous Maori as well as a large number of Pacific Islanders and is becoming multicultural. But the PRA focusses on brothel employment rather than on street-based prostitution where Maoris and Pacific Islanders have traditionally worked.

The PRA also favours middle-class cultural norms, promoting discreet prostitution contained inside brothels conceived to be as inoffensive as possible. There seems to have been a fear that New Zealand’s sex industry might change as a result of the law: get bigger and bolder, possibly promote practices the Act eventually outlawed, such as selling of sex without condoms (as if to say no New Zealander had ever done this).

Some observers interpret the law’s failure to address street workers as seeking to push them into brothels, where they may benefit from the Act’s provisions – and where, by the way, they must be available for state inspections. Thus the New Zealand legislation has the effect of reducing diversity amongst sex workers and sex businesses.

This more complicated history and analysis needs to emerge in discussions of the New Zealand law. Would the situation change in New Zealand if the clause prohibiting foreigners were to go away? Or, put differently, if another country attempted to use the New Zealand model but not add the prohibition, would it work, in a worldwide context of migration and sexworking?

The Act also says nothing about other kinds of commercial sex and sex businesses. Workers there, like those on the street, receive no benefit from this legislation.

Thanks to Jo Richdale, Amanda McVitty, Lynzi Armstrong, Dan Healey and the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective for helping me think this through and providing links.

New Zealand Prostitutes Collective summary of the PRA

Frequently Asked Questions about the PRA

A 2008 review of the PRA that includes a literature review from 2005


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There seems to be some confusion about another book of mine, which was published in Spain at the end of 2004 by Gakoa, in the Basque Country. Its translated title is Working in the Sex Industry, and other clichés about migration and consists of a series of essays plus a report written for Colectivo Ioé in 2000. I did the Ioé field work in Pamplona, talking with migrants, sex workers, social workers, police and other government officials. Sex at the Margins is not a translation of the first book. Below I tell a bit about how the first one came to be. If you are interested in buying the first one write to hiruga01@sarenet.es.

Trabajar en la industria del sexo, y otros tópicos migratorios. Publicado en el Pais Vasco, España, en 2004 por Gakoa. Pedidos: hiruga01@sarenet.es

Gakoa es la editorial que publica la revista Mugak. Peio Aierbe se puso en contacto conmigo cuando querían sacar una edición sobre migrantes que trabajan en la industria del sexo, que salió en 2003.

El sitio de Gakoa dice sobre Mugak que ‘está concebida como una herramienta al servicio de los movimientos de solidaridad frente al racismo y la xenofobia. El camino recorrido desde su aparición, en 1997, nos permite afirmar que es una herramienta consolidada. Hemos podido comprobar que existe una amplia franja de personas que se acercan a estas cuestiones desde una postura solidaria. Sea desde la práctica militante o desde la inquietud intelectual, o incluso, desde quienes tienen que prestar un servicio en el ámbito de la Administración, la sintonía que hemos encontrado con todas nos hace ser optimistas de cara al futuro.

Esta sintonía es la que convierte a la revista Mugak en un actor de primer orden en la labor de construir redes por las que transite el debate, la solidaridad, el contraste, las propuestas y, en definitiva, parte del caudal solidario que existe en nuestra sociedad. Las oportunidades y los retos que plantean las migraciones afectan, de manera transversal, al conjunto de ámbitos en los que se desarrolla nuestra vida diaria. Esta complejidad exige una mirada detenida sobre cada uno de ellos y recurrir a muchos puntos de vista. Ése es el ámbito de trabajo de Mugak.’

Puedes leer sobre El Centro de Estudios y Documentación sobre Inmigración, Racismo y Xenofobia Mugak y sus ideas en euskara.


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