Category Archives: feminisms

there is no single body of beliefs to be called feminism. rather, feminism comes in different schools and tones

Paying for sex in Graham Greeneland: Sex work in fiction

womanblurLeiterThe other day I lightly said It’s a blokey thing to a young person who replied That’s a sexist thing to say! The next day another young person heard me use the word masculine and cried You’re a feminist! I take it ideas about sexism and feminism have extended their contradictory ways into small corners of ordinary life and think it funny I got accused of opposing sins on back-to-back days. Some of us don’t fit neatly into identity-categories, eh?

Couple-saying-goodbye-outside-the-Tube-station-entranceMost of the discourse about buying and selling sex focuses on the abstract question Is it Bad or Good? in one way or another. More interesting is anything that shows how diverse transactions are, how wide the field, how contradictory the possibilities, how unlikely the goal of an ethical bottom line. In the following vignette from Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951) a commercial transaction is deeply embedded in context: World War II London, Clapham, the narrator’s love for a married woman, his obsessive jealousy. They have an argument and he walks out. It is May 1940.

That evening I was still full of my hatred and distrust when I reached Piccadilly. More than anything in the world I wanted to hurt Sarah. I wanted to take a woman back with me and lie with her upon the same bed in which I made love to Sarah; it was as though I knew that the only way to hurt her was to hurt myself. It was dark and quiet by this time in the streets, though up in the moonless sky moved the blobs and beams of the searchlights. You couldn’t see faces where the women stood in doorways and at the entrances of the unused shelters. They had to signal with their torches like glow-worms. All the way up Sackville Street the little lights went on and off. I found myself wondering what Sarah was doing now. Had she gone home or was she waiting on the chance of my return?


A woman flashed on her light and said, ‘Like to come home with me, dear?’ I shook my head and walked on. Further up the street a girl was talking to a man: as she lit up her face for him, I got a glimpse of something young, dark and happy and not yet spoiled: an animal that didn’t yet recognise her captivity. I passed and then came back up the road towards them; as I approached the man left her and I spoke. ‘Like a drink?’ I said.
‘Coming home with me afterwards?’
‘I’ll be glad of a quick one.’
We went into the pub at the top of the street and I ordered two whiskies, but as she drank I couldn’t see her face for Sarah’s. She was younger than Sarah, she couldn’t have been more than nineteen, more beautiful, one might even have said less spoiled, but only because there was so much less to spoil: I found I no more wanted her than I wanted the company of a dog or a cat. She was telling me that she had a nice flat on the top floor only a few houses down; she told me what rent she had to pay and what her age was and where she was born and how she had worked for a year in a café. She told me she didn’t go home with anybody who spoke to her, but she could see at once I was a gentleman. She said she had a canary called Jones named after the gentleman who had given it her. She began to talk of the difficulty of getting groundsel in London. I thought: if Sarah is still in my room I can ring up. . .
Looking at her over my whisky I thought how odd it was that I felt no desire for her at all. It was as if quite suddenly after all the promiscuous years I had grown up. My passion for Sarah had killed simple lust for ever. Never again would I be able to enjoy a woman without love.
And yet surely it was not love that had brought me into this pub; I had told myself all the way from the Common that it was hate, as I tell myself still, writing this account of her, trying to get her out of my system for ever, for I have always told myself that if she died, I could forget her.
I went out of the pub, leaving the girl with her whisky to finish and a pound-note as a salve to her pride, and walked up New Burlington Street as far as a telephone-box. I had no torch with me and was forced to strike match after match before I could complete the dialling of my number. Then I heard the ringing tone and I could imagine the telephone where it stood on my desk and I knew exactly how many steps Sarah would have to take to reach it if she were sitting in a chair or lying on the bed. And yet I let it go on ringing in the empty room for half a minute. — The End of the Affair, pp 57-59

Now try to reduce the narrator’s interaction with a woman he picks up on the street to the question Is it Good or Bad?

This post is part of a series on sex work in fiction. Scroll backwards to May 2017 and see the Related Items appearing below this post. I’ve contributed to this production with The Three-Headed Dog, a noir novel about Latin American migrants in Spain.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


Social-Problem novels and The Three-Headed Dog

StokeNewingtonFeb2017I was interviewed in an old pub in Stoke Newington next to a photo-plaque memorialising Writers and Reformers.* I suppose it was by chance, but maybe not.

Campaigners for equal rights and other freedoms don’t talk about reform anymore, but if it’s not revolution they want then technically it is reform. According to this western worldview, we are moving in a stream of time called Progress towards – something if not Utopia then always fairer, healtheir and wealthier all the time.

In the 19th century in northern Europe and North America, there was a movement of writers to expose social injustices through novels, with the goal of reform. They thought that if more people knew about injustices wrought upon the poor, women and children, then readers might add to pressure on government elites to reform laws. It was consciousness-raising about the suffering of others: the books were aimed at middle-class readers.

2940012004093_p0_v1_s260x420Protest novel, social novel thesis novel, propaganda novel, industrial novel, working-class/proletarian novel, condition-of-England novel: all describe the works of writers including Mary Gaskell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Charles Dickens and, in the 20th century, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Nadine Gordimer and many more.

Critics argue about whether their social visions portrayed the truth and whether the authors really blamed structural problems or were more interested in individual character. On the literary front, too much protest can work against story-telling and other aesthetic qualities, leading to criticism about the novels being insufficiently literary. Other distinctions include

The value of Condition-of-England novels lies primarily not in their fictional plots, social analyses, and recommended solutions but primarily in first-hand detailed observations of industrialism, urbanism, class, and gender conflicts. – The Victorian Web

I’m not a fan of drawing lines to distinguish between Real Art and everything else; I think you can have activist purpose and write beautifully at the same time, just as you can write nicely and have nothing much to say. The observations you make may feel significant to readers or not. Trends of the moment play a part: at the particular time in which I’m writing this, critics may introduce the idea of Cultural Appropriation, which suggests that outsiders should not write about social injustices they have not themselves lived.

sinclair - jungle bindingTo protest it may be enough to produce a portrait of how bad things are. To believe that reform is possible you need to be clear about what would constitute improvement. A novel about children forced to work in satanic mills might call for better working conditions for them or, alternatively, claim their right not to work at all but rather be allowed to enjoy ‘childhood’. To qualify as a reform-novel you may need to propose concrete solutions that can be formed into laws.

Agustin-TheThreeHeadedDog-14001-250x400The Three-Headed Dog portrays life in underground economies amongst undocumented migrants, smugglers and sex workers, in a particular time and place: Spain in the early 21st century. After observing events surrounding undocumented migration and prostitution law for so many years, I got tired of being annoyed by the pontificating on policy and morals from people who seemed not to know many realities. To participate in mainstream debates one is pretty well forced to accept the framework of whoever’s funding the event or publication. The frameworks are never what I would choose myself.

Writing stories is a way to show how things are without being caught up in these alien frames. It is also a way to portray some of my own life, what I look at and care about. But not with avid activist purpose: in my case it’s about allowing ideas to float up from the depths and shape themselves into readable stories. Without calculating if they will be saleable, not taking advice about how to spin the ideas so they’re more palatable to policymakers or listening to the many well-meaning intermediaries who have counseled me to change things.

In the early years after Sex at the Margins came out I tried to talk about how labour policy might be linked to migration policy here and now (in the European Union and everywhere else). Seldom did interviewers follow this up, asking instead for me to rate competing prostitution laws (oversimplified into decriminalisation, ‘legalisation’ and penalisation of buying sex). Since then, policies on undocumented migration and what’s called trafficking have worsened.

But I resist. Resistance is still an option, the refusal to accept alien framings, perhaps the concept of debate itself. I wouldn’t call The Three-Headed Dog a Social-Problems Novel, but not because it’s written inside a crime or noir genre. I’d say rather because I don’t propose policies that might improve the wretched mess. At this moment I want more of the realities to come out – in a fuller form, with space for anthropological observation and literary emotion. So that a few readers somewhere may see into lives they otherwise never get to hear about. [This leads to ideas about what Education is, but enough for now.]

* In the pub plaque: Samuel Rogers, Anne Laetitia Barbauld, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Howard, Edgar Allen Poe and Dr Isaac Watts (none a known social-problem novelist)

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


Thinking about sex work as work: Dublin Anarchist Book Fair

WSMbookfairtalkI gave a talk called Thinking about sex work as work on 6 April 2013 at the Dublin Anarchist Book Fair. Local abolitionists and anti-prostitution folks were attacking my being there, which is reflected in my introductory remarks. I wrote about wanting the opportunity to talk about sex work without -isms (theory, ideology, rules of thought).

Later I found out the sound deteriorated in the recording I uploaded to my little Youtube channel, and I don’t have a handyperson to fix things like that. Then the other day, while searching for something quite different, I found a clear recording and the person who made it: Aubrey Robinson‏ (@andyazi on twitter). He kindly sent it to me and I’ve uploaded it to the channel.

I haven’t listened to it again and make no claim to be definitive. This is maybe a good case of the personal being political. More rigorously I wrote Sex as Work and Sex Work for The Commoner.

Photo Ahmad Nimer

When I sent this recently to a facebook-man who seemed curious his reply was No, wrong, you can’t talk about sex work without addressing the stigma. I said he should consider before launching into mansplaining in a place where sex workers themselves exchange ideas. He said Fuck that (subject-status doesn’t give knowledge priority, and so on). I said I understand. I don’t think he grasped the nuance – that he had confirmed the mansplaining. Point is, in 30 minutes the plate is full just trying to talk about sex work as work, without the reams of Other Prostitution Issues including stigma, moralising, poverty, agency and everything else on the planet.

I uploaded this video only a while ago and boom, the first comment asks Where are their parents? What do they think? See last line, previous paragraph. Jeez.

There are four other videos on my channel.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


Sweden and prostitution law: the conditions of possibility

redup2The idea of criminalising the purchase of sex continues to be promoted round the world, usually as part of some politician’s campaign against immoral sex and the exploitation of children, with a subtext aimed at keeping women at home and migrants out. Sweden’s law is thrown out as the model, along with claims that prostitution is practically absent and trafficking nearly non-existent there. Neither of these has been proven. To explore this sort of claim, see tags to the right of this post (sweden, nordic model, laws, gender equality, for example.)

The banning-sex-purchase proposal has been made in countries as far away from Sweden as Brazil and India. Presented abstractly it sounds clear, simple and righteous. But local context and history make a big difference in how a proposed law can come to pass and operate on the ground (as opposed to in starry rhetoric). The Swedish context is unusual in the world, the conditions making this law (sexköpslagen) possible difficult to imagine outside the Nordic region. Nothing slapdash nor sudden was involved but rather deep history in a particular culture. This is not true of other countries that jump on the bandwagon because some politicians see their chance to make names based on simplistic moralising.

The following is an excerpt from a longer article I published a few months ago on the dysfunction of prostitution laws, the idea of whore stigma and the disqualification and actual murder of sex workers. For those who ask Where did the Swedish model come from? How could feminism have led to it? this provides a short version of what might be called an épistème – the epistemological field forming the conditions of possibility for knowledge in a given time and place.

Sweden and prostitution (from Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores, Jacobin, 15 August 2013)

The population of only nine and a half million is scattered over a large area, and even the biggest city is small. In Sweden’s history, social inequality (class differences) was early targeted for obliteration; nowadays most people look and act middle-class. The mainstream is very wide, while social margins are narrow, most everyone being employed and/or supported by various government programmes. Although the Swedish utopia of Folkhemmet – the People’s Home – was never achieved, it survives as a powerful symbol and dream of consensus and peace. Most people believe the Swedish state is neutral if not actually benevolent, even if they recognize its imperfections.

After the demise of most class distinctions, inequality based on gender was targeted (racial/ethnic differences were a minor issue until recent migration increases). Prostitution became a topic of research and government publications from the 1970s onwards. By the 1990s, eradicating prostitution came to be seen as a necessary condition for the achievement of male-female equality and feasible in a small homogeneous society. The solution envisioned was to prohibit the purchase of sex, conceptualized as a male crime, while allowing the sale of sex (because women, as victims, must not be penalized). The main vehicle was not to consist of arrests and incarcerations but a simple message: In Sweden we don’t want prostitution. If you are involved in buying or selling sex, abandon this harmful behavior and come join us in an equitable society.

Since the idea that prostitution is harmful has infused political life for decades, to refuse to accept such an invitation can appear misguided and perverse. To end prostitution is not seen as a fiat of feminist dictators but, like the goal to end rape, an obvious necessity. To many, prostitution also seems incomprehensibly unnecessary in a state where poverty is so little known.

These are the everyday attitudes that social workers coming into contact with Eva-Maree probably shared. We do not know the details of the custody battle she had been locked in for several years with her ex-partner. We do not know how competent either was as a parent. She recounted that social workers told her she did not understand she was harming herself by selling sex. There are no written guidelines decreeing that prostitutes may not have custody of their children, but all parents undergo evaluations, and the whore stigma could not fail to affect their judgements. For the social workers, Eva-Maree’s identity was spoiled; she was discredited as a mother on psycho-social grounds. She had persisted in trying to gain mother’s rights and made headway with the authorities, but her ex-partner was enraged that an escort could gain any rights and did all he could to impede her seeing them. The drawn-out custody process broke down on the day she died, since standard procedures do not allow disputing parents to meet during supervised visits with children.

In a 2010 report evaluating the law criminalizing sex-purchase, stigma is mentioned in reference to feedback they received from some sex workers:

The people who are exploited in prostitution report that criminalization has reinforced the stigma of selling sex. They explain that they have chosen to prostitute themselves and feel they are not being involuntarily exposed to anything. Although it is not illegal to sell sex they perceive themselves to be hunted by the police. They perceive themselves to be disempowered in that their actions are tolerated but their will and choice are not respected.

The report concludes that these negative effects “must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution.” To those haunted by the death of Eva-Maree, the words sound cruel, but they were written for a document attempting to evaluate the law’s effects. Evaluators had been unable to produce reliable evidence of any kind of effect; an increase in stigma was at least a consequence.

Has this stigma discouraged some women from selling sex who might have wanted to and some men from buying? Maybe, but it is a result no evaluation could demonstrate. The report, in its original Swedish 295 pages, is instead composed of historical background, repetitious descriptions of the project and administrative detail. Claims made later that trafficking has diminished under the law are also impossible to prove, since there are no pre-law baseline statistics to compare to.

The lesson is not that Sweden’s law caused a murder or that any other law would have prevented it. Whore stigma exists everywhere under all prostitution laws. But Sweden’s law can be said to have given whore stigma a new rationality for social workers and judges, the stamp of government approval for age-old prejudice. The ex-partner’s fury at her becoming an escort may derive in part from his Ugandan background, but Sweden did not encourage him to view Eva-Maree more respectfully.

Some say her murder is simply another clear act of male violence and entitlement by a man who wanted her to be disqualified from seeing their children. According to that view, the law is deemed progressive because it combats male hegemony and promotes Gender Equality. This is what most infuriates advocates of sex workers’ rights: that the “Swedish model” is held up as virtuous solution to all of the old problems of prostitution, in the absence of any evidence. But for those who embrace anti-prostitution ideology, the presence or absence of evidence is unimportant.


Some of the immediate questions you might have, for instance on Gender Equality and State Feminism, are addressed in the full essay Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores. This kind of background is, of course, not interesting to everyone, and most of what I see on the topic talks about the law as Bad or Good. Discussions typical in parliamentary committees like the Irish are silly because they opt to accept banal lists of supposed successes in Sweden without acknowledging the difficulties of knowing effects at all. Activists on both sides tend to over-state their cases – practically the definition of much activism in social movements. For anyone interested in history, though, the background is crucial, and it can be seen as good news that it’s not so easy to simply transfer the logic of a law from one country to another: that kind of homogenised culture is not here yet.

Proof of the law’s effects are mostly unknowable so far. The state’s evaluation of the law in 2010 admitted ignorance of how to investigate commercial sex online and gave numbers only for street prostitution. This was a tiny number to begin with describing an activity that is diminishing. Claims that sex trafficking have decreased are meaningless since no baseline statistics were kept on this before the law was passed. The claims of eradicating either phenomenon are public-relations trivia. That politicians in other countries reproduce these claims in supposedly serious hearings demonstrates mediocrity and lack of interest in the subject. As I said above, the principle effect we can be sure of is

Sweden’s law can be said to have given whore stigma a new rationality for social workers and judges, the stamp of government approval for age-old prejudice.

Increases in stigma, social death and excuses to disqualify women who sell sex as autonomous beings are dire effects to a piece of legislation that emerged from a goal to achieve Gender Equality. Utopian visions can backfire, and this one has.

For another of my views of Sweden’s present State Feminists see Extremist Feminism in Swedish government: Something Dark

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


Women doing things again, on their own

fernandocoelhoGirlsYear beginning, low light and infantilising coverage of women combine to make me feel a bit lost for words but full of desire to publish pictures that resist the miserablism. Some of the women portrayed are probably offering sex for sale, but be careful about stereotyping when you imagine which ones they are. The exercise is to look not at whatever ‘patriarchal structures’ or economic problems push women into doing one thing or another but to see them as playing the cards they were dealt.

lesbianI avoid the language of choice, and the term agency is unfriendly but it’s what I mean. This is not about identities or job titles but existing in and moving through the world. It’s also not about love or family in any obvious sense or anyone’s nationality or what culture they were brought up in. Look elsewhere for downtrodden, caged, unhappy, passive, immobile victims with mouths bandaged so they cannot speak. I ran a bunch of photos a couple of times some years back – see Women Doing Things.

I suppose they are a peek into my subconscience, too. Anyway, happy 2014.







old women on bench






–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist