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urlOf all the characters destined to work selling sex in The Three-Headed Dog, Marina has the most experience. Now in Spain for the second time, Marina comes from a backwater of la República Dominicana. Sharing the island of La Española (Hispaniola) with Haití, Dominicana is a poor, weakly governed nation popular with tourists on tight budgets. Many of these are called sex tourists by critics, meaning a central purpose for their visit is to buy sex and romance with natives, in a typically tropical setting. Marina reflects on how she got started in her present career.

d5d43c2ca5485db793354630fd176c90… if nice trees and flowers were enough to live on she would never have left home. She would have made do with slaving away as shop assistant in her aunt’s colmado or as a maid to some pretentious lady in the city, either way for pennies. Instead she took a job as hostess in a beer-hall, and her mother sobbed like it was the end of the world. It was okay for a while, but Marina was always looking to better herself.

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http://www.hookstrapped.com/peter-brian-schafer-portfolios

She got taken on at an open-air nightclub in a larger town. It had twenty rickety tables, strings of coloured lights and loud music equipment. There was a platform made of two-by-fours where a single spot was turned on women dancing naked. It was close enough to beaches that tourists rode up on flimsy motoconchos, guys of all different nationalities, some who could barely stay on the bike. Motos with five Dominican kids would pass them roaring with laughter. Marina learned which men danced the best, which were most polite, and which gave the biggest tips.

scene_typique_ambatalok_nosy_tnThe craziest thing was the lines they spun! Come with me to Berlin, you’ll be a queen. There’s no one like you in my hometown. You’re a real woman, like we don’t have anymore. What a beautiful colour your skin is. Foreigners said island girls were sweet and willing to do anything they were asked. She fell for it only once, but the Romeo gave away his plan when he let slip how nice she would be able to make his apartment. If she wanted to be someone’s wife, she could have stayed home.

Marina wants to strike out on her own, not tied from the outset to anyone who believes he has the right to control her. She wants to go abroad like other women she has known; traditions to go to Europe are old in her country. She chooses to buy papers and services from small-time ‘travel agents’. On her second trip to Spain things go wrong, but not because of smugglers’ evil intentions against her; rather they are competing with each other for pieces of the smuggling pie.

Discussions of the fate of women like Marina generally talk over their heads. The wrongness of sex tourism and lack of options for females under patriarchy are the topic, while the pragmatic decisions women make in the here and now are sidelined. In The Three-Headed Dog, as in Sex at the Margins, their actions are the story.

hqdefaultMany times, their goal is to make enough money to build a simple house back home. Other times, they decide to try to stay abroad.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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600Being and being reviewed is a play on the English title of Kajsa Ekis Ekman’s book Varat och varan: Being and being bought. Hers is an ideological diatribe on the commodification of women who sell sex and surrogate mothers, full of sound and fury, as well as lies, including one or two about me. It makes women’s bodies and selves into transcendental things.

croppedLAhandsTo put a book out into the world is to say I did this, take it and like it. It’s a kind of commodification, whether you give it away or give it a price. Strict marxists might insist the book is the product of labour and that one is only commodifying that. But I think it’s ambiguous, and I’m not worried about commodifying myself or pieces of myself. I don’t think I’ll lose my humanity by opening private places up to strangers.

Screen Shot 2017-02-13 at 00.19.01Olly ‘gives away his degree’ via book commentary on his youtube channel Philosophy Tube. (I might say he commodifies himself.) In a recent broadcast he reviewed Sex at the Margins. Nine years after publication, there it is, being reviewed. And guess who is reviewed right after me? Hannah Arendt. (See how I muddled the boundary between the book and myself?) You can hear it at about minute 3.20.

Here’s the thing: Olly describes the book in a way that doesn’t perfectly match what I’d say myself. If I were in the room with him I’d argue. But it’s his reading, his experience, and he’s already done with it. The book is an object in the world, not mine to control. It’s a piece of me that others interpret through their own selves.

Screen Shot 2017-02-14 at 13.32.13Then my new book Three-Headed Dog was reviewed recently by Noah Berlatsky of The Hooded Utilitarian.  A Novel Without Borders is a good title and it’s a good review in more than one sense. Noah understands Eddy, for one thing:

Eddy isn’t the typical victim of sex trafficking narratives; he’s not a girl, for one thing, and he’s probably gay. He’s not the typical young person you see in novels, either—he’s neither precocious, nor chosen, nor ambitious. His goals are mostly short term; warmer clothes, a better haircut, a job. Short-sighted, without many connections, it’s likely he’ll be taken advantage of, in big ways or small—but then, being taken advantage of is the fate of most people.

tree-branch-shadows-on-snowThe novel-without-borders idea refers to the difficulty of fitting the book into contemporary genre-categories. Amazon and other book dealers make one choose them (and then they fudge the choices). Noah argues that noir needs ‘mistrust, deceit, dramatic betrayals’. For me, the first two are part of all fiction and the third forms an overt part of The Dog’s plot. Noir’s defining feature is moral ambiguity, and my choosing it as genre was easy and natural to me. I’d argue with him if we were having a drink in a bar. But my own conviction doesn’t trump any reader’s experience.

From Customer Reviews on the Amazon page:

Laura Agustin has created an intriguing character in Felix and I hope to encounter her again.

I loved reading the tale of Felix. Can’t wait for more.

Both these reviewers seem to know there is likely to be more: that is the nature of detective fiction. In some ways those are the most important reviews of all. If you read The Three-Headed Dog, leave a line or two of comment on the Amazon page. Doing that makes the algorithm at Amazon pick up and show it in searches for non-insiders looking for books about migration, trafficking, smuggling and above all borders. If you enjoy Goodreads review it there.

borderoceanAnd speaking of algorithms, the way to avoid them in terms of seeing posts on this blog is to subscribe by email or RSS. On facebook and twitter you’re at the mercy of time and the robots.

Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist

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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.

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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

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1257051160_850215_0000000000_sumario_normalI wrote The Three-Headed Dog to get away from the straitjacket of a debate where one side is always moralising and the other reacting with rational debunking. In terms of academic discourse I long ago proposed The Cultural Study of Commercial Sex, with the aim of expanding topics of interest from a narrow (but still vague) idea about prostitution, with its attendant moral baggage.

I don’t know how long improvements might take, either to the debates or academic production, but I stick by my assessment of many years back that In 200 years the situation has not improved for women who sell sex, but the social sector to help them has grown exponentially. I mention 200 years because that is when the contemporary idea of prostitutes as victims needing to be saved began (I did historical research for Sex at the Margins).

Most people never hear or see useful, complicated or interesting information about jobs in the sex industry. They don’t realise how common it is to work there; their friends that do don’t tell them. How can they learn anything new if all they see are ‘debates’ and screamy trafficking headlines? Reading fiction is one possible way.

In The Three-Headed Dog the search for a missing boy takes the detective-narrator into a number of sex-industry businesses.

1273511051_0* Bars with hostesses and beds available in back: Félix, the narrator, goes dancing with Carlos, who runs several hostess bars in Madrid. At the end of the night Félix persuades him to take her to one, despite his conviction that she is the wrong kind of woman to be there.

* Residential flats where a number of sex workers are available at the same time to clients who make appointments. Marina has worked in the past in flats in Torremolinos, but inexperienced managers have taken over, causing havoc.

Club_de_alterne_40064* Large sex clubs on highways where workers live for a few weeks at a time: Marina decides to go on this circuit in northwest Spain after several bad experiences in flats.

* Bars with dark rooms for sex and pick-ups: Eddy gets a job washing dishes in a gay bar in Madrid.

* Spas/massage parlours: Businesses of varying quality and style where sex is on the menu alongside health treatments. Félix investigates two in Madrid.

* Cruise ships: Marina considers taking a stewardess job.

DSC07713* Streets: Promise works with a few friends close to Málaga’s centro histórico. Eddy makes friends with a rent-boy who works in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol.

These are of course not all possible venues; I did a basic typology some years back of the sex industry in Spain.

SUCESOS-INMIGRACION-PROSTITUCIONNone of the characters talks about doing completely independent escorting. That’s not significant, just not part of this particular story. Most here are migrants who have gotten into debt paying smugglers and false-papers makers and who expect to work in businesses where managers organise a workplace and workers do shifts. We don’t know the details about anyone’s street-work.

22606957325_39f94c53cb_bThe sex industry is represented in other ways in the book. Félix’s friend Carlos has long experience employing chicas de alterne, but another migrant man wants to start a smuggling and pimping network. Eddy takes up with a ‘sex tourist’ (perhaps, it’s a pretty useless concept). There are sentimental clients and an outreach worker angry about disruption to provision of health services in flats caused by managers’ turf wars. There are various employees in the spas, and migrant maids considering going into sex work. A couple of men are seen arranging photos of women on a webpage in a cybercafé.

For readers steeped in reductionist media discourse to read a story where these are the characters and jobs might help understand better. For more on why I wrote a piece of noir on sexwork and migration, see
Sexwork and Migration Mystery and
Melodrama and Archetypes.

-Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist

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imageIt wasn’t always all called trafficking. Whether or not migrants were officially or sentimentally designated refugees, they were portrayed as taking action. Getting screwed – certainly – but that’s another thing. If your goal is to get over the border without official documents, then you make pay-offs.

Migration has long been included as part of normal, if unjust, social life, in many works of literature. In James Ellroy’s 1987 The Black Dahlia the Los Angeles cop-narrator heads south from Tijuana looking for his lost partner. The year is 1947.

Car traffic was scarce, with a steady trickle of pedestrians walking north: whole families lugging suitcases, looking scared and happy at the same time, like they didn’t know what their dash across the border would bring them, but it had to be better than sucking Mexican dirt and tourist chump change.

Approaching Ensenada at twilight, the trickle became a migration march. A single line of people hugged the northbound roadside, belongings wrapped in blankets and slung over their shoulders. Every fifth or sixth marcher carried a torch or a lantern, and all the small children were strapped papoose-style onto their mothers’ backs… The wetback line originated out in the scrubland, and only cut through Ensenada to reach the coast road–and to pay tribute to the Rurales for letting them through.

It was the most blatant shakedown I had ever seen. Rurales in brownshirts, jodhpurs and jackboots were walking from peasant to peasant, taking money and attaching tags to their shoulders with staple guns; plainsclothes cops sold parcels of beef jerky and dried fruit, putting the coins they received into changemakers strapped next to their sidearms. Other Rurales were stationed one man to a block to check the tags… (216-17)

immigrant_crossing_san_diego_03-18-2004This is Baja California just south of Tijuana and a border that used to be so easy to cross that this sign was widely visible to warn drivers on the US side. To get to that line required the permission of police along the way, achieved via bribes. I regard this migration as a close relation of that portrayed in The Three-Headed Dog.

The Black Dahlia herself sold sex out of bars in downtown LA. More about that another time.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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landscape-1482233776-rexfeatures-5608654aI wrote a novel, The Three-Headed Dogfor more than one reason. Here is the first of a series in which I tell why, not in any greatly structured way – more thinking aloud. Part 1 highlights how two sides of activism (sex worker rights versus anti-prostitutionism) generally argue their positions, with an eye on the ‘fictional’ methods of abolitionists.

Anti-prostitution campaigners favour melodrama for public hearings on law and policy, bringing women to testify to their victimhood and – this is important – survival. The harrowing tales of forced sex aim to provoke feelings of compassion for suffering that makes listeners worry how many others might tell the same story. Politicians, policy-makers and judges on the podium, as well as spectators, activists and others in the audience are presented with a melodramatic spectacle that churns their feelings, narrowing the distance between themselves and women they otherwise do not resemble.

If you’ve sat amongst the spectators at such events you’ve seen the nodding and other reactions that bubble around you to signal that This is the real story, the only one you need to know. At a recent hearing into Backpage’s possible trafficking-guilt, three parents talked about their lost daughters in a manner that did not prove anything but how upset they felt. Crusaders may also present less emotive testimony, but they never stay long on the fully rational plane. This is a campaign strategy. We are meant to feel lucky that a victim has survived to tell the tale and shiver at the probabiity that most victims do not.

Melodrama relies on the use of archetypes, basic character types that (maybe) ring the same bell in all human beings. The testifying survivor reflects two: the Fallen WomanArt_Shay_Fallen_woman_2044_67 and the Woman Rescued and Reformed. Empathy with the survivor testimony requires a vivid imagining of what she went through before escaping, when she was forced to sell sex, manipulated by bad men and brought so low in the social hierarchy that she’s shown wallowing in the gutter. I’ve written about the Fallen Woman archetype more than once.

awakeningconsciousThe Woman Rescued and Reformed is harder to portray. William Holman Hunt depicted her as The Awakening Conscience (1853), arising from her seducer’s lap upon seeing the light of virtue. It is currently not fashionable to imply that an ex-prostitute was ever at fault, collaborated in her degradation or enjoyed her woeful life. Nowadays anti-prostitution crusaders insist she was a pure victim from the moment she was first seduced. But the archetypes remain in our minds.

At the same public hearings, the appeals to instinctive archetypes and emotions are opposed by Reason: speakers who proceed logically, debunk sensational claims and forgo theatricality. The pro-sexwork-as-work side backs values like fairness and diversity, avoids making extreme claims and calls for policy backed by the evidence of academic research. This is by and large done in a non-emotional mode, appealing to scientific thinking and intelligence. No frisson of excitement ripples through the audience.

These two modes of argument have been in operation for a long time in this field, and neither side has budged from its convictions. On top of realising that that would never change, I became alienated by the paucity of questions addressed: Did the woman know she was going to sell sex? Would she sell sex if she had better options? And so on. I was bored by the impossibility of ever talking about the thousands of other details, ambiguities, jokes, practicalities and philosophies that have no place in conversations framed as ‘debate’ or hearings on law. Pieces written for academic journals are read by a tiny few insiders. And if the only evidence allowed is that turned up in highly constrained research projects then what I want to talk about doesn’t fit there either.

AN00164637_001_lI have every confidence that novels are a wonderful way to reveal unfamiliar worlds. There are, of course, truckloads of melodramatic anti-trafficking novels out now, as there are films. My own way would never be melodrama, but I understand that particular images resound with wide audiences. I am a lifelong appreciator of some kinds of crime novels, and this genre seemed right for me. Particularly right is noir, where it is usual to turn assumptions about criminality and victimhood on their heads. Images of the World Upside-Down hung beside me during the years I was writing Sex at the Margins. Disruption of stereotypes. The end of essentialisms. Strange bedfellows. Irony upon irony.

In The Three-Headed DogI begin to tell some of what has been stored for long in my head in order to say: This is what it looked like at the beginning of the 21st century. These are some stories that rarely got heard. They are stories one can read and still ‘disapprove’ of migration and sex work, but perhaps now capable of seeing the people involved as sentient beings colouring the landscape, moving through the bush, laughing in restaurant kitchens and buying fruit at the market.

Screen Shot 2017-01-16 at 09.54.56More soon.
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-Laura Agustín,
the Naked
Anthropologist

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