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The Naked Anthropologist · migration | The Naked Anthropologist

migration

migrations are travels with intent to live and work; mobility describes human movement of all kinds

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.

Schafer_Whores&Madonnas_05

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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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
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agustin-thethreeheadeddog-1400Despite how it might look to those who’ve known me only since Sex at the Margins, I’m not making a sudden switch to fiction. It’s one of the things I used to write before the Internet, before doing postgraduate degrees, before social media. I began this story, in my head and scribbled notes, not long after starting those degrees in the late 90s. This I now understand to show how quickly I grasped the limitations of academic work. There’s nothing left of that first version but the concept: a searcher for missing migrants in economic and social undergrounds, multicultural and hybrid settings, job markets that routinely include sex. In general such stories are not published unless the migrants are portrayed as passive victims needing rescue by much straighter and more comfortable characters.

michaelrougierThe Three-Headed Dog is about undocumented migrants in Spain and their smugglers. A lot of them work in different segments of the sex industry. The incidents portrayed would be labelled trafficking and the migrants victims by anti-prostitution and anti-migration campaigners. I don’t see things that way. Just as I strove to show in Sex at the Margins that many migrants don’t perceive themselves as inert objects of cruel fate and evil men, here a few of them act out their stories, trying to find ways to get ahead and stay out of trouble.

Fiction is not the opposite of fact; truth is glimpsed in different ways. The characters here are neither real nor unreal but created themselves in my imagination out of my long experience of travelling on my own and talking with people. I’ve seen everything that happens in this book. I’ve known people who thought and acted these ways. But all migrants don’t experience things the same way, and they may change how they feel over time. The fact they share is not having legal status to be and work where they are living (under constraints and duress). Falsehoods are fundamental. My intention is not to romanticise but pay attention to lives nearly always shoved out of sight.

10422545_10153240525334511_900316605402882336_nAbout genre labels 

To publish is to choose categories for databases. The Three-Headed Dog is a mystery, a crime story, a (hardboiled) detective novel short on gore and violence. A noir. Noir signifies a dark, morally complicated mood (the opposite of a clear struggle between good and evil). That doesn’t make it amoral (an accusation often thrown at me). The detective’s moral compass shifts as a result of introspection. Good is often tinged with bad, and attempts to do right go wrong. Exploitative characters can be sympathetic. It’s shadowy in noir; the lighting is low. But in low light you see things you don’t see in the bright.

The style is terse: that’s really me. Pithiness works to suggest meanings rather than lay them out. Mine is a rather anti-Enlightenment endeavour. You get glimpses of truths and they contradict each other.

402202_10150584228439511_1629372089_nSee what you make of The Three-Headed Dog. I published it on Amazon Kindle, but you don’t have to own a kindle device to read it. Links to free apps are right there. If you leave a few lines of review when you finish you make it likelier Amazon’s search machine will find and show the book to new readers.

I will be musing more about why and how I wrote this book. Leave questions here and I’ll try to answer them.

If you want to read more, subscribe to email notifications at the bottom of the right-hand column. If you were already subscribed, I’m sorry to say the earlier software broke and your address was lost, so take a few seconds to subscribe anew. The RSS feed is still A-okay.

-Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist

 

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hopeforjusticeukWhat isn’t on this list of signs of human trafficking? Has there ever been a vaguer term than abuse of vulnerability? It could describe being a parent or teacher easily. If informants are supposed to make a telephone call based on any of these signs – which is what this says – then heaven help the switchboards. No wonder Rescue-Industry groups have to ask for so much funding.

Lists of the so-called signs of being a victim of trafficking are now common, even placed in airports in hopes that victims may experience revelation and realise they need rescue. Such techniques demonstrate how the Rescue Industry institutionalises, submitting to funding guidelines written by government bureaucrats. The particular group that produced the list you see here have expanded from the US to the UK. It’s a sort of globalisation of weak thinking.

There are young people now who have grown up surrounded by campaigning against trafficking, unaware there is conflict about how to define the term. Some want to dedicate energy to combating what is figured as a modern social evil. Some compare themselves with 19th-century anti-slavery advocates and feel outraged that anyone would question what they are doing.

The field gets critiqued regularly, and I don’t always contribute when asked for comment. I regularly send a link to Dear Students of Sex Work and Trafficking (students can be taken as a general term for those who wish to inform themselves). I don’t want to repeat the same ideas over and over when it’s all easily findable on a website, and I don’t like reducing complexity to bullet points. I also think everything has been said, and claims that insights are new are untrue. Online Editors routinely splash every banal keyword into headlines, sometimes without reference to what the item actually contains. Exaggeration has taken over.

Recent inquiries roused me to sketch out a few basic ideas that take in the history.

mobilityThe Convention on Transnational Organised Crime was published in Palermo in 2000 by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Two protocols on human mobility were appended, one on trafficking, the other on smuggling. The process of defining these was long and conflictual and has been documented publicly. It was all supposed to pertain to undocumented migrants, a topic nearly always omitted from current commentary. I’ve written about these protocols more than once, particularly their genderedness and how sex is pointed to when the mobile people are women but not when they are men. The cover to my book Sex at the Margins used the image of mobility and human agency seen here.

After the Convention was published, the idea of trafficking began its ascent, and soon we who were interested in migration, sex work and labour policy realised it was useless for gaining equity or rights. The framework of the Convention is Crime – there is no fixing that. The assumption is this human mobility to work is fomented by criminals who use force and coercion against their victims – notions impossible to pin down because they vary infinitely amongst individuals according to momentary conditions. If you look at the footnotes opposing sides published on the language of the protocols you see how they argued about these keywords. Later some wag used the term sex trafficking, moving towards reductionism that is typical to the campaigning of moral entrepreneurs.

Behind this over-simplification and over-focus on sex lie real social inequalities and oppressions: migration policies that favour middle- and upper-class jobs, out-of-date notions of the formal economy and productive labour, young people who want to get away from home, job-seekers willing to take risks to make more money, laws that make commercial sex illegal, laws that make sweatshops illegal and there is more. To lump all this under a single term simply disappears the array of different situations, encourages reductionism and feeds into a moralistic agenda of Good and Evil. The term trafficking is an invention incapable of describing so many realities, and it does not help to reduce them all to two possibilities – the Free vs the Enslaved, the Autonomous vs the Coerced. In the case of those who sell sex it does not help to reduce them to Sex Workers vs Victims of Trafficking.

I am asked what better language would be, but the issue is not language, as though everything might be fixed by changing the words. The framework setting out the problems is good for nothing but policing. I suggest addressing specific injustices on their own terms. For example

-If the subject is runaway teenagers who don’t want to live with their parents or go to school and don’t have money or job-skills, then talk about that.

-If the subject is people who took a job that didn’t turn out the way they expected but they need the money so don’t leave it, then talk about that.

-If the subject is migrants who crossed borders with false papers so they are not legal to work at any job, then talk about that.

And so on. Get down to specifics, deal with real situations, stop arguing about ridiculous abstractions. Social policies do not have to be so dumb.

alice_cram

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Herdlicka Berlin2010I nearly didn’t bother to publish Sex at the Margins. In 1998 Zed Books wanted to publish a thesis I’d written for a Master’s degree in Education, but I refused because after two years’ formal study and field research I believed I still didn’t know enough to make a Book. When I was persuaded to do a further degree and the Open University accepted my proposal, Zed signed me to publish the doctoral thesis that might result. I got the degree in early 2004 but neglected to send anything to Zed. I felt finished with it all, I suppose, and couldn’t imagine other people being interested. The manuscript languished until I wrote them rather diffidently two years later. Since I had failed to fulfill my contract on schedule they were under no obligation to me but offered to take a look.

When they said they would publish if I cut the 120 000 words to 90 000, I thought that would be too boring but then decided it would be a pleasure to remove the sogginess required by academic style with its pointless reiteration and endless hedging. Refusing to cut the two long reference lists I began to slash text ruthlessly. When I reached 75 000 words I knew I could make a haiku of the ideas if I wanted but stopped instead.

The outside reader for Zed, a specialist in migration studies, predicted it would become a cult classic. Classics are meant to be enduring, not rendered irrelevant by changing events, tastes or styles. The modifier cult implies an underground quality. The text is now more than ten years old, but the recent review below suggests the book will be read 100 years from now. Could it be?

Review of: Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry on Amazon.com

5 out of 5 stars A modern classic about human trafficking: must read!  
6 January 2015 by Thaddeus G. Blanchette (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)zedcoverbrighter

In terms of academic heft, there may be better books that tackle the mess that is modern abolitionism, its take-over of the global anti-trafficking movement and the transformation of the human-rights struggle into a new, convoluted form of anti-immigrant prejudice. There is no better book than this, however, for a general overview and introduction. Agustín’s work has become a classic in the fields of sex work and immigration studies. It is safe to say that no book has irritated or inspired more people in the anti-trafficking field than this one. What do I mean by a classic?

  • When someone comes up to me and says “I am interested in learning about trafficking. Where should I start reading?” this book is the first thing that springs to mind.
  • It goes against the grain of the received wisdom of the times and yet hits its subject matter square on, in such a way that you’ll never be able to hear someone say “trafficking” again without thinking of it, whether or not you agree with Agustín.
  • Because so much of the subject matter is absolutely contaminated by moral panic and bullshit in other books — even well-meaning academic books — but is not contaminated HERE, people are still going to be reading this a century from now and saying “Yes!” when 99.9% of what is now written about so-called trafficking will read the way Victorian screeds against masturbation do today.

The best comparison I can make is with Emma Goldman’s classic (I do not use this term lightly or ironically) The Traffic in Women, a 1910 dissection of that generation’s anti-trafficking panic. You can read Goldman today and nod your head, while most of what passed for highly wise and popular portrayals of “trafficking” at that time will strike you as moralistic and hypocritical blather. Like Goldman, Agustín is not well received by the powers-that-be of her times. Like Goldman, she is often unpopular, not the least among people who should consider her to be their ally. Like Goldman, she speaks truth to power, backed up by a rapier-sharp wit and a deep intersectional analysis. This is why the book is called a “cult classic” today.

That will be shortened to simply “classic” in, oh, say, ten-twenty years. I’m just getting in on the ground floor.

For those who don’t have the slightest clue of what I’m talking about but are worried about the “scourge of human trafficking”, read this and have your mind blown!

Mind-blowing, inspiring, irritating: grand compliments, I think. Many other reviews, both academic and general-media, are available. My favourite online review from 2014 was Molly Crabapple’s

mollyc

Sex at the Margins sells steadily without getting any real promotion, is on many university reading lists and is unlikely to be found on bookshop shelves (but can always be ordered from them). It is easily available to buy online in different formats including:

When I signed the contract with Zed I stipulated I must approve the cover, and those who follow my work know I favour images of people walking – the best portrayal of agency I know.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Sex-Work-Is-Not-Trafficking-300x292Anti-prostitution advocates routinely use absurd over-simplications to make their crusade crystal-clear easy to understand. Campaigning works better when arguments are black and white and slogans are catchy, obviously, so I realise why some sexworkers’ rights supporters are now using a slogan that also reduces complexity to two opposed states: Sex Work is Not (Sex) Trafficking (sometimes ‘sex’ is omitted). The purpose is to clarify the volition of sex workers who demand labour rights, but for those who struggle against the framing of undocumented migration and people-smuggling as ‘organised crime’, with the only two roles possible perpetrator and victim, the concept is morally bankrupt.

sanjoseCRSex Work is Not Sex Trafficking arose (first) from the common refusal by abolitionists to recognise that anyone sells sex voluntarily and (second) because they early on began fiddling any distinction between prostitution and trafficking. Claims like No woman would ever choose to prostitute herself and the cries of unhappy ex-victims that their experiences are true for everyone led naturally to an opposing insistence that many do opt to sell sex – some loving their jobs and others just preferring it to their other options.

thaiBut to say Sex Work is not Sex Trafficking is to reify the current trafficking narrative, accepting that it refers to something real and bad that must be fought against. The slogan tries to make a sexworker identity clear by distinguishing it from a trafficking-victim identity – the Free versus the Unfree. Saying Some of us are willing to sell sex draws attention to those who are not willing - a distancing mechanism characteristic of identity politics. To maintain I don’t need your help or pity means you accept that other people do need it – those who are really trafficked.

This is to accept the repressive policing, infantilisation of women, colonialism, anti-immigration policy and a range of Rescue Industry offerings: just not for real sex workers. It says You win to anti-trafficking campaigners, even if you don’t mean it to. It throws under the bus all migrants, documented or not, who don’t much like selling sex and don’t call themselves sex workers but don’t want to be saved or deported. It Others the many who have limited control over their lives, feel pressure to earn money however they can or want to get the hell out and go somewhere else and will do whatever it takes to get there. This includes teenagers who leave homes they hate and end up on the street or avoiding the street by trading sex for a place to live.

nocturnoThe entire range of complexity and diversity nowadays thrown into the term trafficked is denied. Years of attempts to bring justice and nuance to a bad criminal framework are ignored. The myriad different ways to feel forced, obliged or coerced into leaving home or having sex for money or giving some of your money to someone else are disappeared. And yes, I understand that Rescue-Industry victimisation makes folks feel anxious to provide something graspable to wider audiences. But the catch-phrase Sex Work is Not Sex Trafficking only contributes to the reductionism pushed by anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking campaigners.

It’s deplorable. Avoid it.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

 

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ladywithaguncYou can now watch sessions from the University of Texas at Austin November 22-24 conference on Sexual Citizenship and Human Rights: What Can the US Learn from the EU and European Law? The panel called Sex Work, Migration and Trafficking was held on the 23rd, where my original talk was called ‘Contentious and contradictory: Prostitution-law campaigns in Europe‘.

But when I saw that the other two speakers on the panel were speaking on trafficking, one of them from a Rescue-Industry standpoint and the other juridical, I threw out that talk and gave another, hoping to give a humanist context to the other presentations. I called the new talk Denial of Consent, because consent had been mentioned frequently at this event in regard to adolescents’ right to have sex, which was even claimed to be a human-rights concept. I was struck that no one mentioned the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines everyone under 18 as a child and is constantly used by anti-prostitution campaigners to claim that adolescents who sell sex cannot consent. One might think consent is easily granted to boys and not to girls.

It’s a mistake, in a three-day conference dedicated to the subtleties of sexual citizenship, to dump three deep topics – Sex Work, Migration and Trafficking- into a single panel. Each of those deserves a panel of its own, or alternatively a panel could be devoted to just one of those, making sure all the speakers address it. I ended up doing double work, and it was not easy to limit my introduction to only 30 minutes. A lot is omitted in what you hear below, so I hope it all makes sense. The event was held in a Law School, which explains the rather dramatic courtroom setting, with me a witness in the box.

The session is introduced at 01:30 in the below video by Gloria González López of the Center for Mexican American Studies. My talk begins a minute later and ends at 35:58. The third speaker (Janet Halley) was present via Skype, so you cannot see but perhaps you can hear her. Should the videos fail, you can watch on youtube.

Other conference sessions can be viewed here.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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