Category Archives: colonialism

colonialism describes how outsiders who consider themselves superior rule a majority they have invaded, physically and metaphorically

Nigerian migrant women as subjects: Sex work in fiction

Anti-trafficking campaigners often single out Nigerian women as the worst case of what they call sex trafficking. I first wrote about this years ago and note that, despite critiques and debunkings, the trend holds. In stories about Nigerian migrant women, ‘rituals’ are usually cited that are supposed to have bound them in a specially sinister way to smugglers. It’s straight-up racist colonialism, the inability and unwillingness to conceive of even the most superficial aspects of a non-western culture. Lurid conclusions are jumped to immediately according to which juju ceremonies are not comparable to Roman Catholic ones, for one example – though promises, petitions and talismans are found in both. As though one sort of prayer for help or success were inherently irrational and the other not.

That’s not to say that conditions are not pretty dire for many women and men in western Africa, politically, economically, on the gender front – which means people can be willing to take big risks and assume onerous debts when they travel to work abroad. Early in my studies I learned about how some migrants think about that in Lucciole neri – Le prostitute nigeriane si raccontano (Iyamu Kennedy and Pino Nicotri, editors, 1999), one of my sources of ethnographic research with migrants who sell sex in Europe, for what eventually became Sex at the Margins. These Nigerians were working in Italy. [NB: It’s never clear whether the label Nigerian actually means born in and identified with that country. In the world of migration national identities are shifty.]

On Black Sisters’ Street, by Chika Unigwe, came out in 2009. I was prompted to read it by This is Africa’s mention of it along with Sex at the Margins. It’s a novel telling the stories of four women’s migrations from Nigeria to Belgium where they work in windows in the red-light district. None of them has had an easy life and none of them sees herself as a victim, despite the presence of a powerful smuggler in Lagos and a controlling madam in Antwerp. They are, the author says, willing to play the trump card that God has wedged in between their legs. Unigwe has said:

If your parents can’t help you out and your government has failed you, these pimps and traffickers have at least given you a chance to leave and make a living. He’s your saviour. It takes someone outside the situation to see these pimps and traffickers as the bad guys.

At the end of the book we are told how three of the women fare in the future. After nine years in Antwerp, Efe became a madam herself.

It would take eighteen months to get her first of two girls whom she would indeed buy at an auction presided by a tall, good-looking Nigerian man in sunglasses and a beret. It would be in a house in Brussels, with lots to drink and soft music playing in the background. The women would enter the country with a musical band billed to perform at the Lokerenfeest. The man in the sunglasses was the manager of the band and as usual had, in addition to genuine members of the band, added the names of the women who had paid him to the list he submitted at the embassy in Abuja. The women would be called into the room one at a time for the buyers to see and admire. They would all have numbers, for names were not important. Their names would be chosen by whoever bought them. Names that would be easy for white clients to pronounce… Efe would buy numbers five and seven. Number five because she smiled easily. Number seven because she looked docile and eager to please, the sort of girl who was grateful for little. Like Madam, Efe would have some police officers on her payroll to ensure the security of her girls and of her business. She would do well in the business, buying more girls to add to her fleet. pp 278-9

Yes, this is an auction where employers bid on women who will sell sex, but beware glossing all nuances and calling it slave-trading. The women in question want to migrate and accept they’ll be selling sex and paying off a debt. Which doesn’t mean they know everything that may happen to them and how constrained life will be in another country. The Three-Headed Dog, my own recent novel, is about the same dynamics, with Latin Americans in Spain but also a strong Nigerian character – Promise.

I first published this post only slightly changed on 22 September 2011 and publish it again now as part of a series on sex work in fiction.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Sexwork and migration fiction, part 3: Location and nation

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.

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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

Fantasies that matter: Images of sex work in media and art

ansicht_3933I am looking forward to being in Hamburg, Germany, in August, for this unusually interesting event. My own talk is called Disqualified: Why sex workers suffer social death and will focus on how representation of women who sell sex as damaged victims disqualifies them from rights and justifies a whole Rescue Industry devoted to pushing them around. Some of this was covered in Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores.

The whole event will take place in English, so if you are near Hamburg, consider a visit. Venue: Kampnagel, Jarrestraße 20, D-22303 Hamburg. Write to tickets [at] kampnagel.de to reserve a place. Or you may show up at the box office and hope tickets are available on the day(s).

INTERNATIONALES SOMMERFESTIVAL: KONFERENZ: FANTASIES THAT MATTER. IMAGES OF SEXWORK IN MEDIA AND ART

Alice Schwarzers Aufruf zum Verbot von Prostitution hat in den deutschen Medien eine rege Diskussion entfacht. Jenseits der moralischen und politischen Frage, wie mit Sexarbeit umzugehen sei, ist dabei auch deutlich geworden, dass die Debatte von Projektionen, Fantasien und Mythen dominiert wird. Verlässliche Informationen zur Sexarbeit gibt es auch deshalb nicht, weil dieses Berufsfeld immer noch stark stigmatisiert ist und Sexarbeiterinnen und Sexarbeiter selbst kaum an der öffentlichen Repräsentation ihres Berufs teilhaben. Gemeinsam mit dem Missy Magazine veranstaltet das Internationale Sommerfestival eine Konferenz auf der Bildwissenschaftlerinnen, Sexarbeiterinnen, Künstlerinnen und Medienmacherinnen in Vorträgen, Diskussionen und Performances die Bilder von Sexarbeit untersuchen, die – nicht nur die aktuelle – Diskussion dominieren. Was erzählt das Bild, das sich die Gesellschaft von Sexarbeit macht, über ihr Verhältnis zu Frauenarbeit, Sexualität und Sexualmoral, Gender, Migration und Armut?

DAS PROGRAMM:

[Fr] 08.08.

18:00 ERÖFFNUNG und BOSOM BALLET (Annie Sprinkle) /// p1

Nach einer kurzen Eröffnung der beiden Konferenz-Gastgeber Margarita Tsomou (Kulturwissenschaftlerin/Missy Magazine) und Eike Wittrock (Theaterwissenschaftler/Internationales Sommerfestival) zeigt Annie Sprinkle zur festlichen Eröffnung der Konferenz das BOSOM BALLET (Brüste-Ballett) – eine ihrer legendären Performances.

18:15 IMAGE_WHORE_IMAGE. THE POLITICS OF LOOKING AND LOOKING BACK Vortrag von Antke Engel (D) /// p1

Antke Engel, Leiterin des Instituts für Queer Theory (Hamburg/Berlin), eröffnet die Konferenz mit einem Vortrag zu künstlerischen Bildern von Sexarbeit und betrachtet die Politik der Repräsentation im Spannungsfeld von Fremd- und Selbstbild. Engel ist freie Wissenschaftlerin im Bereich feministischer und queerer Theorie und hat seit den 1990ern maßgeblich das Feld queerer Geschlechter- und Sexualitätenforschung im deutschsprachigen Kontext wie auch auf internationaler Ebene geprägt.

19:30 BAISE MOI Gespräch mit Filmausschnitten mit Coralie Trinh Thi, Drehbuchautorin, und Stefanie Lohaus, Missy Magazine Herausgeberin /// p1

BAISE MOI (Fick Mich!) schockte 2000 das Kinopublikum mit einer schonungslosen Darstellung von Sexualität und Gewalt, formuliert aus weiblicher Perspektive und vor dem Hintergrund »realer« Erfahrungen mit Sexarbeit. Coralie Trinh Thi, Drehbuchautorin des Films, wird gemeinsam mit Missy Magazin-Herausgeberin Stefanie Lohaus Ausschnitte aus dieser kontroversen filmischen Darstellung von Sexarbeiterinnen kommentieren und diskutieren.

22:00 MACHO DANCER Performance von Eisa Jocson (PHL/B) /// p1

Für ihr Solo MACHO DANCER hat sich die bildende Künstlerin und Choreografin Eisa Jocson eine Form des erotischen Tanzens, die vornehmlich in philippinischen Schwulenbars praktiziert wird, angeeignet. Zu Powerballaden und Soft Rock bewegen sich junge Männer in einer hyperstilisierten Form von Männlichkeit, lassen langsam ihre Hüften kreisen und präsentieren ihre Muskeln. In der Übertragung auf ihren (weiblichen) Körper verschwimmen dabei Geschlechterbilder, und die Mechanik dieser ökonomischen Körper-Performance wird sichtbar.

[Sa] 09.08.

11:00 PROSTITUTION PRISM REFLECTIONS: FROM FACT TO FANTASY Vortrag von Gail Pheterson (F) /// p1

Gail Pheterson hat mit ihrem Buch »Huren-Stigma«, das im Original bereits 1986 erschien und das als internationales Standardwerk gilt, einen wesentlichen Beitrag zur feministischen Debatte um Sexarbeiterinnen geleistet. Die Autoren des Klassikers zum Stigma ist seitdem für ihre Publikationen zu Prostitution international bekannt – sie ist Dozentin und Forscherin am Centre de recherches sociologiques et politiques, Paris CRESPPA-UMR 7217, CNRS und der Université Paris 8 und wird über die Thesen ihres letzten Buches Le prisme de la prostitution (Paris, L’Harmattan, 2001) vortragen.

12:00 BREAD AND ROSES: RETHINKING SEXUAL AND ECONOMIC JUSTICE Vortrag von Nikita Dhawan und María do Mar Castro Varela (D), anschließend Gespräch mit Luzenir Caixeta (AUT) /// p1

Nikita Dhawan ist Juniorprofessorin für Politikwissenschaft mit Schwerpunkt Gender/Postkoloniale Studien an der Goethe Universität Hamburg, im Rahmen des Exzellenzclusters »Die Herausbildung normativer Ordnungen«. Maria do Mar Castro Varela ist Professorin an der Alice Salomon Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften, Berlin. Sie beide gehören zu den innovativsten Denkerinnen der intersektionellen Verschränkung von Migration und Feminismus im deutschsprachigen Raum. Zusammen werden sie über die Frage der Repräsentation migrantischer Sexarbeit referieren. Anschließend findet ein Gespräch mit Dr. Luzenir Caixeta, Mitbegründerin und Koordinatorin des Forschungsbereichs von maiz (Autonomes Zentrum von und für Migrantinnen, Österreich) statt, das für seine Arbeit mit migrantischen Sexarbeiterinnen über Österreich hinaus relevant ist.

14:30 DISQUALIFIED: WHY SEX WORKERS SUFFER SOCIAL DEATH Vortrag von Laura María Agustín, anschließend Gespräch mit Camille Barbagallo (GB) /// p1

Laura María Agustín ist Soziologin, arbeitet zu undokumentierter Migration, Menschenhandel und der Sexindustrie und hat mit ihrem einflußreichen Buch »Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry« (Zed Books 2007) neue Thesen zur Rolle von NGOs und Hilfsorganisationen in der Sexarbeit in die internationale Debatte gebracht. Nach ihrem Vortrag wird sie mit Camille Barbagallo, Forscherin an der Goldsmiths Universität London, diskutieren warum die Stimme bzw. die Versuche von Selbstrepräsentation seitens der Sexarbeiter_innen in der Öffentlichkeit entweder nicht gehört oder disqualifiziert werden.

16:00 ZOOM IN: PROSTITUTION/POLITICS HAMBURG Gespräch mit Ulrike Lembke (HH), Undine de Rivière (HH) und Gerhard Schlagheck (HH) /// p1

Das Panel wird sich mit der konkreten Situation in Hamburg – der »Stadt der Huren« – beschäftigen sowie die Debatte um das deutsche Prostitutionsgesetz aufnehmen. Ulrike Lembke ist Juniorprofessorin für Öffentliches Recht und Legal Gender Studies an der Rechtswissenschaft der Universität Hamburg – sie soll unter anderem auch der Frage nachgehen wie geltendes Recht gesellschaftliche Verhältnisse widerspiegelt, d.h. warum etwas als rechtmäßig gilt oder nicht. Undine de Rivière ist Sexarbeiterin in Hamburg, Sprecherin des Berufsverbandes für erotische und sexuelle Dienstleistungen und wegweisendes Mitglied des »Ratschlags Prostitution Hamburg«. Gerhard Schlagheck leitet das »Basis-Projekt«, die einzige Anlaufstelle für männliche Stricher in Hamburg. Sie beide sollen konkret über ihre Auseinandersetzungen mit der rechtlichen Situation in Hamburg sprechen.

18:00 WATCH ME WORK Performance von Liad Hussein Kantorowicz /// k4

Liad Hussein Kantoworicz ist Performerin (UDK Masterstudiengang SODA), Sexarbeiterin, Autorin, Queer-Aktivistin und Gründerin der ersten Gewerkschaft für Sexarbeiterinnen im Mittleren Osten. Darüber hinaus arbeitet sie für eine israelische Erotik-Chat-Webseite, bei der die Kunden für intime Gespräche und persönliche Live-Performances pro Minute zahlen.

In der Performance WATCH ME WORK ermöglicht sie einen Echtzeit-Einblick in diese Cyber-Sexarbeit und lässt sich aus verschiedenen Perspektiven bei ihrer gleichsam intimen wie höchst theatralen Performance beobachten.

20:30 MY LIFE AS A METAMORPHOSEXUAL SEX WORKER. ALWAYS RECREATING MY SEX WORKER SELF Performance von Annie Sprinkle (USA), mit Beth Stephens und Gästen /// p1

Die legendäre Pornodarstellerin, Künstlerin und Sexarbeitsaktivistin der ersten Stunde, Annie Sprinkle, kehrt für eine ihrer Lecture Performances nach Hamburg zurück. Sprinkle ist eine der bekanntesten Vertreterinnen des sexpositivem Feminismus und eine Ikone der sexuellen Aufklärung in den USA und darüber hinaus. Sie hat Sexualität praktisch und theoretisch erforscht, vom Heiligen bis zum Profanen. Ihre Arbeit an der gemeinsamen Emanzipation von Frauen und Sexarbeiterinnen ist international wie historisch von großer Relevanz. Ihre Performance »Post Porn Modernist« tourte durch mehr als 19 Länder und wurde zu einer wichtigen Intervention im Sex-War innerhalb der feministischen Bewegung der 80er Jahre in den USA:

Auf dem Sommerfestival wird sie anhand von Videos, Fotografien, Mini-Performances und einem Ritual der heiligen Eco-Hure aus ihrem ereignisreichen Leben und von ihren politischen Aktivitäten berichten, die sich derzeit auf Liebe, Beziehung, Brustkrebs, Altern und den Schnittpunkt von Ökologie und Sexualität – Sexecology – konzentrieren.

[So] 10.08.

12:00 COLLATERAL DAMAGE Mithu Sanyal im Gespräch mit Carol Leigh AKA Scarlot Harlot

Carol Leigh AKA Scarlot Harlot ist nicht nur, weil sie den Begriff Sexarbeit erfunden hat, eine der international wichtigsten Figuren der Sexarbeiter_innen Bewegung. Sie gilt als einer der »Muttern« der Sexarbeiter_innen-Bewegung, sie ist Autorin, Sexeducator, Produzentin, Filmemacherin, hat mehrere Veröffentlichungen, mehrere Festivals gegründet und leitet nun das San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Video Festival.

Während der Konferenz werden durchgehend Auszüge als Preview ihres neues Dokumentarfilms COLLATERAL DAMAGE: SEX WORKERS AND THE ANTI-TRAFFICKING CAMPAIGNS als Installation gezeigt.

Über die Arbeit an dem Film spricht sie mit Mithu Sanyal, der preisgekrönten Journalistin und Autorin des mehrfach übersetzten Buchs über die Kulturgeschichte des weiblichen Genitals »Vulva – Die Enthüllung des unsichtbaren Geschlechts« (Wagenbach Verlag, 2013).

12:30 SELFREPRESENTATION: SEX WORK AND ART WORK Abschlussdiskussion mit Liad Hussein Kantorowicz, Coralie Trinh Thi, Eisa Jocson, Annie Sprinkle und Carol Leigh AKA Scarlot Harlot /// p1

Das Abschlusspanel der Konferenz bringt die Medienmacherinnen und Künstlerinnen der Konferenz zusammen, um über die eigenen Strategien von Selbstrepräsentation im Spannungsfeld zwischen Selbst-und Fremdbild zu reflektieren.

PERFORMANCES IM RAHMEN DER KONFERENZ:

Eisa Jocson: MACHO DANCER (08.08. / 22:00)

Liad Hussein Kantorowicz: WATCH ME WORK (09.08. / 18:00)

Annie Sprinkle: MY LIFE AS A METAMORPHOSEXUAL SEX WORKER. ALWAYS RECREATING MY SEX WORKER SELF (09.08. / 20:30)

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KONZEPTION Margarita Tsomou, Eike Wittrock.

Die Konferenz ist eine Zusammenarbeit mit der Körber-Stiftung und dem Missy Magazine.

Information: mail [at] kampnagel.de

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Somaly Mam, Nick Kristof and the Cult of Personality

CultMany wrote to me during the brouhaha about Somaly Mam and Nicholas Kristof as though I were not paying enough attention to it. There are lots of events in the fields of anti-trafficking, the sex industry and now even the Rescue Industry that I glance at and don’t find remarkable enough to comment: after 20 years of observing I find it difficult to be really surprised by anything. While I appreciate how infuriating bogus experts are, I published the following to remind everyone that individual personalities are only superficially important in the now highly institutionalised scheme of things.

Somaly Mam, Nick Kristof and the Cult of Personality, 16 June 2014, Jacobin

By Laura Agustín

A Cambodian activist against sex slavery, Somaly Mam, recently resigned from her foundation after an outside investigation confirmed she had lied to attract donors and supporters. The revelations of Mam’s fraudulence are old news, however — Simon Marks’s reports have been appearing in the Cambodian Daily since 2012, and many other debunkings and doubts circulated much earlier among institutions, researchers, and activists trying to reverse unfounded sensationalism about sex trafficking.

Newsweek published some of Marks’s work on May 21, provoking outrage in the New York media establishment — less towards Mam than one of her greatest fans, self-styled slave rescuer Nicholas Kristof. He is accused of hoodwinking liberal-identifying readers and letting down the cause of journalism. Both accusations miss the point.

An editor from this media in-group asked if I would write for them about Somaly Mam’s resignation, having seen tweets indicating I don’t consider it significant. She suggested I write about problems of “accountability” with institutions like Mam’s, along with the “history and failures of the organization and others like it.”

I asked if she was acquainted with my work, mentioning my research on projects to help and save women who sell sex, documented in Sex at the Margins, which originatedthe concept of a “rescue industry.” Since my analysis rarely gets into the mainstream, the focus of anything I do for such outlets would have to explain the basics about that industry. The editor replied that she was not interested in anything so broad. I said if she wanted someone who has studied Mam’s annual reports and the workings of her rescue centers, I have not. I got no reply.

To focus on accountability implies that one accepts that there is a verifiable phenomenon to be accountable about, to espouse the fundamental propositions about human trafficking promoted by government, moral entrepreneurs, and the media which cry that trafficking, especially the kind where women sell sex, is the great scourge of our time. To focus on accountability assumes that the dominant narrative is based on reality, and all we have to do is quibble about individual ethics and demand high standards. This is all wrong.

There are flagrant injustices that need to be addressed regarding undocumented travel and labor, including selling sex. Exploitation of all kinds is rampant, and libertarian claims to bodily autonomy, the adult right to trade sex for money, and “no borders” are not enough. As I’ve been saying for many years, new migration and labor policies can begin to address the problems — not criminalization, policing, the infantilization of women, or raising “rescuer” to a saintly profession. The trafficking hoo-hah is not “myth,” but a terrible misnomer and misframing  — the glossing of complex social phenomena into a simplistic idea that fails over and over, even on its own terms.

In the wide field I call the rescue industry (all missions to “help” women who sell sex, or save them from it), one personality like Mam more or less is unimportant. She became a figurehead through a cult of personality, the phenomenon by which people uninformed about a subject look up to an individual as an inspiring symbol, endowing them with expertise and special knowledge, imagining they are leaders. Cults of personality rely on an unquestioning belief that the hero worshipped has the right fine feelings about an issue, perhaps gained through personal experience.

Human trafficking as a cause began to catch on with the general public in part when film stars attached themselves to it, adding patronage of exciting causes to their portfolios. Various UN agencies named actors as “Goodwill Ambassadors,” lending needed color to the endless parade of men in suits (bureaucrats), men in uniform (police), and frowning women that held sway. Such celebrities presumably inform themselves by reading what comes up easily in online searches, which means media reports parroting uncorroborated statistics and sensationalist horror stories.

To make their knowledge seem real, however, and to be able to project their feelings of caring, celebrities make field-visits to rescue centers in poorer countries. A long list of Hollywood and other celebrities have used such visits to demonstrate their empathy — many specifically visiting Mam venues: Mira Sorvino, Ashton Kutcher, Susan Sarandon, Meg Ryan, Demi Moore, Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, Emma Thompson, and many more. I have written many times about visits like these as an expression of colonialism.

In the world of NGOs, visits by a raft of different characters are viewed as an unfortunate but necessary part of survival. Whole days are dedicated to showing outsiders tidbits of projects in the hope that flattering reports will reach donors’ eyes. Those receiving visits carefully orchestrate them to be entertaining and rewarding for visitors, including by arranging photo opportunities. It is totally conventional for the same objects of pity to be wheeled out every time: They have learned their lines and how to behave appropriately, they know how to hug visitors and smile for the camera. It would be too time-consuming to set up a new scenario for every visit.

The repetition of stories by the same inmates is well known, as is the phenomenon by which victims learn to embellish their stories to provoke more sympathy in listeners (including researchers and program evaluators). That these narrations are often exaggerated in performance or fabricated out of whole cloth is so well known in NGO circles as to be banal. Everyone does it, one old hand wrote me.

Those not familiar with this world are upset to discover that Mam made theater for visitors, because they seem to assume that NGOs must be squeaky-clean ethical. But NGOs (even if their tax-status is called nonprofit) are organizations with employees who want careers, security, and decent salaries so they can buy houses, cars, and everything else employees of profit-making businesses want.

NGOs operate in a precarious world of capricious funding in which they are forced to write proposals for projects in vogue with donors, even projects that contradict their own beliefs. NGO workers cultivate an attitude of benevolently caring more about their social causes than others do, but this is identity-formation, not fact — the building of a satisfying self-image to project to the world. These are conventionally career-seeking people, not self-sacrificing saints.

Of course, fabricating stories to get more followers and money is unethical, and Mam seems to have done a lot of it. Inventing a few false victims for public consumption does not, however, prove there are no real victims or that Mam’s activities never helped anyone. This is why the SMF foundation had her resign — so that activities can continue and damage can be limited.

Will any donors lose significant confidence and withdraw funding because of revelations that her story and two others were falsified? I doubt it. Donors do not like to admit they were duped. But if some do stop funding SMF, they will simply shift support to other similar institutions engaged in the same cause, since the money was already earmarked for it. And some new figure with the ability to stir feelings will eventually emerge from the hundreds of groups now dedicated to sex trafficking and sex slavery.

Figureheads and personalities are of little significance, anyway. The anti-trafficking movement is now structurally mainstreamed in overlapping national and international initiatives — bigger, like the US Trafficking in Persons Office and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and smaller, like the Swedish Institute. Multinational projects like the Global Slavery Index provide official-looking data on trafficking that rest on the wobbliest of sources.

The machinery is now well-oiled. Personalities are beloved by the general public, but dry technocrats and calculating consultants are in charge, with the regular intervention of opportunist politicians.

Then there are the journalists. A few years ago, a veteran New York literary agent said she could not consider my book proposal because she believed Nicholas Kristof. If he was right, I could not be. Kristof’s flying photo-shoots to the jungle were worth more than my twenty years of research. For members of the liberal mainstream that expect the New York Times to be responsible and unbiased, his protagonism in the sex-trafficking craze has been a moral seal of approval, and those liberals feel betrayed by him.

Never expecting institutions like the Times or the Guardian to be unbiased, I paid little attention to Kristof until late 2011, when he live-tweeted a brothel raid in Cambodia alongside Somaly Mam. When I expressed revulsion at this on my blog, I received hate mail. One was not permitted to question Great White Hunter reporters. I was a nobody — how dare I write on this topic? I responded with The Soft Side of Imperialism: Kristof and the Rescue Industry.

Despite many takedowns, Kristof has maintained his popularity, in another cult of personality that simply refuses to ask critical questions. After Mam’s exposure in Newsweek, Kristof first said mildly that it is difficult to pin down facts in Cambodia, excusing himself by faulting a backward nation. After being upbraided loudly by other journalistshe disavowed Mam in a move even more repulsive than his original adulation. But to complain about his misplaced faith is merely an attempt to shift the blame from his followers’ own original flawed act: allowing a sanctimonious Braggadocchio to define the facts in a complex and contradictory field.

One can understand how people swallow grand claims at the outset of a craze, but not years later, after repeated public failures to find large numbers of self-identified victims, the obvious re-branding of old categories like pimping as “trafficking” in order to inflate numbers of villains, and the steady debunking of myths like the sky-rocketing of sex trafficking at sports events.

Why do supporters whine that Kristof deceived them when they have no one to blame but themselves for refusing to face the truth for so many years? They complain that journalists should be accountable, but Kristof writes on sex trafficking in his columnist identity, on editorial pages where his is not the only mediocrity. He is part of a mainstream media machine that supports the status quo and ignores ideas not originated by old-boy networks.

Sad personal stories constitute the most convincing evidence of suffering presented by figureheads like Mam and Kristof. But even if all these were verifiable, they cannot justify the enormous outlay in time, money, and spirit assigned to this cause over time. And sad stories are much less common than the not-so-sad, less sensational stories told to many dozens of field researchers who have interviewed women who sell sex, many of them undocumented migrants (even leaving aside self-identified professional sex workers). Yet these more complicated stories are disqualified by anti-trafficking adherents who dismiss anything that throws doubt on their crusade.

The current fuss about Kristof and Mam reproduces the cult of personality that caused trouble in the first place. To focus on individuals is to avoid addressing structures. A couple of self-promoting showoffs pale beside proliferating government machinery that now churns out salaries and prestige for thousands worldwide caught up in a movement based on fraud.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Segregation, colonialism and unfreedom at the border

I spent one hour and 20 minutes in the queue at Stansted’s UK Border recently. There were probably 1000 people in the hall, divided into the usual EU passports versus Rest of World. Signs saying Tougher Controls Mean a Longer Wait are dotted around. In fact, tougher controls do not have to mean outrageously long waits, even if more questions are asked of each traveller. Some interrogations last several or more minutes, but if enough agents were allotted, waits could still be reasonable. If, however, management allot only two agents to the 200 people on the non-EU side and interviews take at least a minute – well, things get bad.

On top of this, however, some policy had particular groups of people jumping the queue automatically: not only a disabled person but the five people associated with her, not only the small child holding a flight attendant’s hand but the seven teenagers associated with him. Four such groups occupied one of the agents for half the hour and a half I waited, leaving only one agent to work the 200 in the queue. It was not the eve of a significant tourist event but a Friday evening when ordinary city-break tourists arrive for a London weekend.

The ‘transition’ Home Office website says functions of the UK Border Agency (abolished earlier this year) will be split in two.

On 1 April 2013 the UK Border Agency was split into two separate units within the Home Office: a visa and immigration service and an immigration law enforcement division. By creating two entities instead of one, we will be able to create distinct cultures. First, a high-volume service that makes high-quality decisions about who comes here, with a culture of customer satisfaction for business-people and visitors who want to come here legally. And second, an organisation that has law enforcement at its heart and gets tough on those who break our immigration laws.a high-volume service that makes high-quality decisions about who comes here, with a culture of customer satisfaction for business-people and visitors who want to come here legally.

The claim of distinct cultures sounds ridiculous to me, but on their own terms they failed miserably the other night. No one came out to apologise to the throng, which, if you want to be nationalistic about it, included several families where one partner had a British passport but the other did not, plus their small children. No one came to explain the delay, or offer cups of water or smiles to demonstrate that a ‘distinct culture’ exists to welcome the majority of travellers to the UK.

When one of the agents closed up and left, I sighed loudly and began talking to the woman next to me. Discussing the length of interviews I mentioned how an official wanted to know the nationality of my friends in Britain. The woman said I thought it was just Asians who were treated like that. The landing card gives the impression that crossing is a formality, but the oral questions make it clear that we in the queue are thought liable to be liars, cheats or worse. If this belief is really at the heart of UK border policy then I would like them to make such a closed, imperialist attitude overt on the landing card.

All who travel often can tell anecdotes about long waits and stupid questions at borders. The UK border is a bad one getting worse all the time but not unique. My object here is not to evoke a stream of crazy anecdotes about worse border-encounters. Instead, I am pointing out how my frequent long sessions at UK airport-borders add up to evidence of the field-work kind. It’s not just well-known journalists and their mates that get detained and delayed and ill-treated at airport borders; officials do not have to imagine you have interesting data on electronic devices to begin invasive questioning. The segregation into separate queues is not based on colour or ethnicity though that comes into play. No, it’s a separation by passports that grant different degrees of citizenship. If you don’t have the right kind you can be mistreated for hours with no way to complain or escape. You cannot go backwards or opt out; you are trapped. And given the situation, the longer you wait the more likely you are to be meek and mollifying when your turn arrives – which is a form of coercion.

These places are closed to reporters and photographers; I have no idea what protection one has, or rights. I do not know what happens if someone falls ill in the queue. Chinese visitors are targeted with an absurd and costly process to come as tourists, which can quite properly be called colonialist.

I believe the British government has an outdated view of Chinese visitors, perhaps rooted in colonial times. They wrongly fear many Chinese will overstay. We have to respect our borders, but such unfounded fears are harming the UK economy. – Chief Executive at London’s Hippodrome Casino

Some estimate the UK is already losing billions of tourist pounds. Why bother to apply if through the easy process of obtaining a Schengen visa you can visit lots of other European countries? Sure the UK has a popular brand, but for most of the world it is neither indispensable nor better than the same cliché-level brand of France or Italy.

Having arrived efficiently on a short flight from Copenhagen, I reached my central London destination three full hours after landing at Stansted. This is really outrageous. Usually I manage to maintain a curious attitude, like in Border Thinking. Sometimes I fail.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist