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The Naked Anthropologist · sexualities | The Naked Anthropologist

sexualities

people enjoy and experiment with sex acts and their own sexualities in lots of different ways, some involving money

Christmas in the Brothel is from 1905. There’s a tree, a woman with little black book and pencil, a man reading, figures in the background and empty space. To me it shows ordinariness, everyday life. The word brothel is in the title, but it could be any bar. If you like Christmas you may like that they celebrate it in the brothel, too. Or if you feel unhappy at Christmas you may like to know there was a place to go and be alone with other people.

Munch painted other pictures that don’t have such a keyword in their names but represent brothel scenes.

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Viewers may read anything they like into these depictions: Whether the characters are happy or sad, whether they drink too much, whether the venues are nice or nasty. Munch frequented them, that much is clear.

Laura Agustín – The Naked Anthropologist

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KNXV prostution billboard in Phoenix_1440736368256_23312196_ver1.0_640_480

It has all the earmarks of a tearjerker. The billboard erected in Phoenix, Arizona, by anti-prostitutionists looks like artwork for a 1940s paperback cover or poster for a low-budget movie. I wish I knew what specs were given the artist. I wonder if End-Demanders in the Cease network (Cease – get it?) consciously evoke out-of-date style in hopes that viewers will associate the message with Ye Olde Nuclear-Family Values.

liptearsExamples of the classic posture can be found in two seconds of searching, because Sad Women abound, including with hand to forehead. Like pearl-clutching, forehead-clutching is a classic. But with a man as subject? Not so easy, no siree. Men look solemn, fierce, outraged. The only readily-available male face looking this sad (minus the B-movie forehead business) is in Brokeback Mountain publicity, where the theme was Have Sex – Lose Everything, rather than buy sex. It seems that only sex can make men feel truly sad – or is it only men who have sex with men?

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We do not know whether Lose-Everything man is sad because he has to lose all the sex he would have bought, if he had been permitted to, or because of all the sex he might have had with his wife and will now never have. Because obviously the wedding ring is going to go.

But besides the hilarious picture we have notworthit.org for those curious to know more. Could any domain-name be sillier? I feel someone may be attacking End Demand from within. A few years ago we saw a roving billboard in London that does not have the making of a B movie. The message was Buy Sex – Pay the Price, but the male figure portrayed looked more like a Cainesque Bad Boy than sad.
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Sure, moralists who wish everyone would keep their sexual tastes under wraps are easy to mock. But the Phoenix billboard moves into the realm of self-parody, providing an object that will maybe strike ordinary people as too wacky to even think about. That’s a good thing.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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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

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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.

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–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Brothel, Turkey, circa 1950s

Everyone thinks they know what prostitution is, but conversations quickly break down over what gets included and what doesn’t. Is it prostitution if you only do hand jobs? Phone sex? Webcam performances? Peep-shows, stripping, lap-dancing? Some people include everything, others are very specific. To me, all the hullaballoo about which prostitution law is best is bizarre, given how many different kinds of commercial sex exist. Some of these appear in photos on this page: consider which you think should be called prostitution if you like, or note when you start placing conditions such as ‘If so-and-so exists, then thus-and-such, but if it’s only this-and-that, then…’

Pinks Theater, Times Square, G Alessandrini, 1995

In 2008 I published an academic article that tears into the ground on which prostitution laws are written: Sex and the Limits of Enlightenment The Irrationality of Legal Regimes to Control Prostitution, in Vol 5, No 4 of Sexuality Research & Social Policy. Its language is academic, though I always tried to avoid the worst, most pretentious and opaque language. The references cited are, I see, quite extensive and not the usual stuff in this odd field – and nothing from law journals, which I generally find unhelpful and self-serving, by which I mean they refer only to themselves and pieces of existing law, rarely with any insight into why the laws exist in the first place.

Barbershop, China

Abstract: To assess the reasonableness of projects to improve the governance of commercial sex, the author explores how rationality in its current hegemonic Western sense is a cultural construction, perceived differently across time and space within Europe. The author examines some aspects of how varying conclusions are reached about which legal prostitution regime to impose, taking into account the role of cultures, worldviews, and interpretation. The author avoids the conventional classification of policy by country that results in unsubtle and overdetermined nationalistic explanations. Current projects to govern prostitution show how the traditional Western idea of rationality fails to lead to social betterment. Worldwide, social policy on prostitution tends to follow Western cues, in seeming acceptance that West is the best, with the most progressive, most enlightened approach. The rational project is, therefore, not limited to European geography.

Key words: rationality; licensing; trafficking; evidence; interpretation

Massage parlour, Kathmandu

It begins: In this article, I examine concepts of rationality and social progress (in their hegemonic Western sense) as cultural constructions so as to assess the reasonableness of projects to improve the governance of commercial sex. Such projects take the form of legal regimes to control prostitution. The word prostitutionis neither a precise job description nor the designation of unequivocal or definite acts but rather an idea loaded with ambiguities and moral judgments. Social and feminist debates on this idea repeat themselves fruitlessly because there is no agreement on a single definition of prostitution; in fact, profoundly opposed worldviews come into play, with the result that participants talk at cross-purposes. The situation is even less viable when debates pretend to arrive at a system to govern prostitution.

I reveal how rationality is perceived differently across time and space by examining a few different European sites and cultural contexts. To look at some aspects of how varying and conflicting conclusions are reached regarding what to do about prostitution, I focus particularly on two concepts, trafficking and sex, taking into account the role of culture, worldviews, and interpretation in explaining varying perceptions.

I avoid the conventional approach that treats countries as wholly separable entities—an approach that results in unsubtle, overdetermined nationalistic explanations. I discuss the fact that many of those to be regulated avoid participating in regulatory projects (if they even know about them), rather prioritizing their personal convenience, goals, and financial advantage (apparently preferring to be marginalized, pitied, vilified, and criminalized). Finally, I reflect on how current projects to rationalize the governance of prostitution show the ways that rationality fails to lead to social betterment.

Local European phenomena provide the case study here, but these so-called systems are debated, and in theory applied, all over the world. The fact that the projects do not work in European contexts is suggestive. A strong panEuropean tradition holds that enlightenment rules social policymaking and that, once the right policy is identified, problems will be solved, at least for all supposedly reasonable members of society. Continue reading here.

Free sex after the 9th wash

As it happens, I did not know this article, difficult for ordinary mortals to even know about, has been hanging on a Columbia Law School website since 2009. It is very odd to think of people discussing my work who knows where, without my knowing about it. I’ve proposed other ways to think about things under the concept of The Cultural Study of Commercial Sex. More ambiguous pictures there and by following links.

Anyway, please share and cite the original article – there’s little like it out there, that’s for sure.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Formalised money-sex exchanges get the attention and conflict: debates about exploitation and violence. Lots of other exchanges are ignored, a line is drawn between commercial and non-commercial sex. But that line is imaginary. Many people who expect to be compensated for their company will never call themselves sex workers or escorts, on the basis that they never ask for money. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s (the book, not the romanticised film), Holly Golightly distinguishes between professionals and others:

He asked me how I’d like to cheer up a lonely old man, at the same time pick up a hundred a week. I told him look, darling, you’ve got the wrong Miss Golightly, I’m not a nurse that does tricks on the side. I wasn’t impressed by the honorarium either; you can do as well as that on trips to the powder room: any gent with the slightest chic will give you fifty for the girl’s john, and I always ask for cab fare too, that’s another fifty.

Good-time girl (or guy) is only one of the names less professional people have been called. A few years ago I quoted a character in a  Lawrence Block book who described herself as a girlfriend taking money from friends. Another time I ran excerpts from a 1950s investigation that describes B-girls (B for bar) who are said to have drifted into prostitution after the easy promiscuity of bars. The police are perplexed because the girls look clean-cut.

Here’s another example, from The Sins of Our Fathers (1976), also by Lawrence Block. A young woman has been murdered, and there’s ambiguity about whether or not she was a prostitute. The investigator asks someone who had been her roommate a while back and then left the flat:

“What did she do, pass on one of her dates to you?”

Her eyes flared. She closed them briefly, drew on her cigarette. “It was almost like that,” she said. “Not quite, but that’s pretty close. She told me a friend of hers had a business associate in from out of town and asked if I’d like to date the guy, to double with her and her friend. I said I didn’t think so, and she talked about how we would see a good show and have a good dinner and everything. And then she said, ‘Be sensible, Marcia. You’ll have a good time, and you’ll make a few dollars out of it.’ . . . Well, I wasn’t shocked. So I must have suspected all along that she was getting money. I asked her what she meant, which was a pretty stupid question at that point, and she said that the men she dated all had plenty of money, and they realized it was tough for a young woman to earn a decent living, and at the end of the evening they would generally give you something. I said something about wasn’t that prostitution, and she said she never asked men for money, nothing like that, but they always gave her something. I wanted to ask how much but I didn’t and then she told me anyway. She said they always gave at least twenty dollars and sometimes a man would give her as much as a hundred. The man she was going to be seeing always gave her fifty dollars, she said, so if I went along it would mean that his friend would be almost certain to give me fifty dollars, and she asked if I didn’t think that was a good return on an evening that involved nothing but eating a great dinner and seeing a good show and then spending a half hour or so in bed with a nice, dignified gentleman. That was her phrase. A nice, dignified gentleman. . . I was earning eighty dollars a week. Nobody was taking me to great dinners or Broadway shows. And I hadn’t even met anyone I wanted to sleep with.”

“Did you enjoy the evening?”

“No. All I could think about was that I was going to have to sleep with this man. And he was old. . . Fifty-five, sixty. I’m never good at guessing how old people are. He was too old for me, that’s all I knew.”

“But you went along with it.”

“Yes. I had agreed to go, and I didn’t want to spoil the party. Dinner was good, and my date was charming enough. I didn’t pay much attention to the show. I couldn’t. I was too anxious about the rest of the evening.” She paused, focused her eyes over my shoulder. “Yes, I slept with him. And yes, he gave me fifty dollars. And yes, I took it. . . Aren’t you going to ask me why I took the money? . . . I wanted the damned money. And I wanted to know how it felt. Being a whore.”

“Did you feel that you were a whore?”

“Well, that’s what I was, isn’t it? I let a man fuck me, and I took money for it.”

I didn’t say anything. After a few moments she said, “Oh, the hell with it. I took a few more dates. Maybe one a week on the average. I don’t know why. It wasn’t the money. Not exactly. It was, I don’t know. Call it an experiment. I wanted to know how I felt about it. I wanted to… learn certain things about myself. . . That I’m a little squarer than I thought. That I didn’t care for the things I kept finding hiding in corners of my mind. That I wanted, oh, a cleaner life. That I wanted to fall in love with somebody. Get married, make babies, that whole trip. It turned out to be what I wanted. When I realized that, I knew I had to move out on my own. I couldn’t go on rooming with Wendy.”

This woman finds out about herself through an informal sex-money exchange some people call prostitution while others don’t. Another roommate might have been more enthusiastic about Wendy’s offer to share her lifestyle. Modest amounts of money are involved, but Wendy is spared taking a dull, ill-paid full-time job. Not much like more lucrative sugar-daddy arrangements? Or the same on a different scale? And does it matter?

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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When I first began reading about people who sell sex and people who want them to stop, in the late 1990s, I was struck by the repetitive nature of the majority of books and articles, both academic and non-academic. When research was done, it produced the same knowledge over and over, generally about women who sell sex in streets – which was odd since many were already pointing out the diminution and even dying out of most street prostitution. The Internet is the New Street, it was said – and that was 15 years ago.

When what I read was ideological, it centred on an abstract term, prostitution, but it soon became obvious that this term has no stable meaning, signifying a raft of different things to different people of different social classes and cultures. A great deal of academic research did exactly what had been done before but now in a new city – or country – or part of town! Identities tended to be essentialised, particularly regarding race, drug use and low income.

In 2005 I proposed that researchers use a broader framework to take in all exchanges of sex for money, presents or other benefits, anywhere and anytime (historical research included, in other words). I followed this up in 2007 when invited to edit a special journal issue for Sexualities that contained eight articles using the cultural framework. Given that so much research – not to mention campaigning for better laws and policies – relies on scanty knowledge of what is actually going on, this is more relevant than ever. Otherwise, you get collateral damage, penalising people and activities unintentionally (I am assuming most people do not approve of collateral damage, but some actually claim it is ‘necessary’ for the Greater Good).

The Cultural Study of Commercial Sex- Sexualities, 8, 5, 618-631 (2005). Click the title to get the pdf.

The article begins like this:
Why create this framework

Societies’ twin reactions to commercial sex – moral revulsion and resigned tolerance – have paradoxically permitted its uncontrolled development in the underground economy and impeded cultural research on the phenomena involved. Affirmations that the global sex industry is growing and its forms proliferating are conventional in government and non-governmental fora, in the communications media and in scholarly writing. Commercial sex businesses and trafficking for sexual exploitation are blamed for massive violations of human rights, but the supporting information is unreliable, given the lack of agreement on basic definitions, the difficulty of counting clandestine objects and the fact that much of this stigmatized activity forms part of conventional social life.

Little work exists in a sex-industry framework, but if we agree that it refers to all commercial goods and services of an erotic and sexual kind, then a rich field of human activities is involved. And every one of these activities operates in a complex socio-cultural context in which the meaning of buying and selling sex is not always the same. The cultural study of commercial sex would use a cultural-studies, interdisciplinary approach to fill gaps in knowledge about commercial sex and relate the findings to other social and cultural concepts. Recent work has demonstrated how people who sell sex are excluded from studies of migration, of service work and of informal economies, and are instead examined only in terms of ‘prostitution’, a concept that focuses on transactions between individuals, especially their personal motivations. With the academic, media and ‘helping’ gaze fixed almost exclusively on women who sell sex, the great majority of phenomena that make up the sex industry are ignored, and this in itself contributes to the intransigent stigmatization of these women. While the sexual cultures of lesbian/gay/ bisexual/ transgender people are being slowly integrated into general concepts of culture, commercial sex is usually disqualified and treated only as a moral issue. This means that a wide range of ways of study are excluded. A cultural-studies approach, on the contrary, would look at commercial sex in its widest sense, examining its intersections with art, ethics, consumption, family life, entertainment, sport, economics, urban space, sexuality, tourism and criminality, not omitting issues of race, class, gender, identity and citizenship. An approach that considers commercial sex as culture would look for the everyday practices involved and try to reveal how our societies distinguish between activities considered normatively ‘social’ and activities denounced as morally wrong. This means examining a range of activities that take in both commerce and sex.

The purpose of this article is to point out the scarcity of research in these areas and reveal the kinds of issue that are up for study. Although public debate and academic theory on commercial sex abound, few participants are familiar with the wide variety of forms and sites involved; most are dealing with stereotypes and interested solely in street prostitution. This is an area where more information and images need to be disseminated, a project for which I make a small beginning here with some descriptive material from Spanish sex venues.

Since this is the beginning of what I hope will become a new field, I do not here offer any solutions to what is too often characterized as a ‘social problem’. Rather, I hope to interest others in taking up the call to study not ‘prostitution’ but the sex industry in new ways and to gather much more information on the object of governance before offering blanket solutions. This does not mean that important moral and ethical issues are not at stake nor that there is not widespread injustice in the industry. On the contrary, my proposal takes these injustices very seriously, laments the absence of workable solutions up to now and hopes that with better research these may be found.

Further headings are How study has proceeded so far, Definitions of the sex industry in general, Local particulars: examples from Spain, Elements of culture and researcher positionality and a raft of good References.

More examples of writing on sex-industry cultures outside the well-worn paths:

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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The increase in coverage of anti-trafficking operations and Rescue Industry rhetoric is such that I only blog about a tiny fraction of it. I post much much more on facebook, short commentary on media articles, and sometimes interesting conversations ensue. You can subscribe to my facebook posts (I don’t accept many friend requests now). You can also follow me on twitter.

As part of my thinking about how the sex industry fits within everyday cultures, here are photos showing how striptease and taxi dancing were traditionally wedged into the Times Square landscape. Some venues survived the clean-up of the 1990s, especially on upper floors, but few are left now. Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York records losses such as these. Both he and I are perfectly aware that developers as well as a lot of middle-class folks consider these places to be sleazy, the adjective usually invoked for such small sex-businesses run on shoe-strings and charging little to the clientele, crunched into small spaces on streets that get less public sweeping than they need. Some see beauty in them or just appreciate the individuality of the facades, so unlike the shopping-mall homogeneity now dominant in Times Square, often called Disneyfication.

We don’t have to be overly sentimental or ignore sexism and other injustices perpetrated inside these little businesses to appreciate that they look like individual places – workplaces for some, entertainment places for others. It’s appealing, too, that dance venues are sandwiched between lighting shops and delis – note Parisian dancing above Whelan’s Drugs.

Taxi-dancing, which some of these palaces offered, involves a lot of waiting around for the dancers, who must try not to look too bored. It’s a break in the emotional labour of flirting while at the same time keeping distance.

Images of taxi-dance girls as immoral seductresses abounded not so long ago.

Although it sounds charmingly antique, taxi-dancing lives on in other parts of New York. And here are some non-taxi dance pictures from an earlier Sunday: erotic, exotic, artistic, talented). Below, taxi-dancing far from Times Square, in the state of Montana.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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A couple of years ago I was asked to write for a special edition of The Commoner on Care Work and the Commons (Silvia Federici and Camille Barbagallo, editors). Atypically for people considering caring and reproductive labour, they wanted to include sex work. They asked me a series of questions, some of which did not feel natural for me to answer. Their language was a certain kind of marxian, which I don’t speak fluently, and I had to keep asking for clarifications. Finally their special edition came out earlier this year, with my Sex as Work and Sex Work in it.

Now it has appeared in Jacobin. It starts with a joke, and I see I published another different joke about the idea of sex as work a while back: that one involves a Polish woman, her husband and a leaky faucet.

Sex as Work and Sex Work

Laura Agustín, 16 May 2012

An army colonel is about to start the morning briefing to his staff. While waiting for the coffee to be prepared, the colonel says he didn’t sleep much the night before because his wife had been a bit frisky. He asks everyone: How much of sex is ‘work’ and how much is ‘pleasure’? A Major votes 75-25% in favor of work. A Captain says 50-50%. A lieutenant responds with 25-75% in favor of pleasure, depending on how much he’s had to drink. There being no consensus, the colonel turns to the enlisted man in charge of making the coffee. What does he think? With no hesitation, the young soldier replies, ‘Sir, it has to be 100% pleasure.’ The surprised colonel asks why. ‘Well, sir, if there was any work involved, the officers would have me doing it for them.’

Perhaps because he is the youngest, the soldier considers only the pleasure that sex represents, while the older men know a lot more is going on. They may have a better grasp of the fact that sex is the work that puts in motion the machine of human reproduction. Biology and medical texts present the mechanical facts without any mention of possible ineffable experiences or feelings (pleasure, in other words), as sex is reduced to wiggly sperm fighting their way towards waiting eggs. The divide between the feelings and sensations involved and the cold facts is vast.

The officers probably also have in mind the work involved in keeping a marriage going, apart from questions of lust and satisfaction. They might say that sex between people who are in love is special (maybe even sacred), but they also know sex is part of the partnership of getting through life together and has to be considered pragmatically as well. Even people in love do not have identical physical and emotional needs, with the result that sex takes different forms and means more or less on different occasions.

This little story shows a few of the ways that sex can be considered work. When we saysex work nowadays the focus is immediately on commercial exchanges, but in this article I mean more than that and question our ability to distinguish clearly when sex involves work (as well as other things) and sex work (which involves all sorts of things). Most of the moral uproar surrounding prostitution and other forms of commercial sex asserts that the difference between good or virtuous sex and bad or harmful sex is obvious. Efforts to repress, condemn, punish and rescue women who sell sex rest on the claim that they occupy a place outside the norm and the community, can be clearly identified and therefore acted on by people who Know Better how they should live. To show this claim to be false discredits this neocolonialist project.

Loving, with and without sex

We live in a time when relationships based on romantic, sexual love occupy the pinnacle of a hierarchy of emotional values, in which it is supposed that romantic love is the best possible experience and that the sex people in love have is the best sex, in more ways than one. Romantic passion is considered meaningful, a way for two people to ‘become one’, an experience some believe heightened if they conceive a child. Other sexual traditions also strive to transcend ordinariness in sex (the mechanical, the frictional), for example Tantra, which distinguishes three separate purposes for sex: procreation, pleasure and liberation, the last culminating in losing the sense of self in cosmic consciousness. In the western romantic tradition, passion is conceived as involving a strong positive emotion toward a particular person that goes beyond the physical and is contrasted to lust, which is only physical.

It is, however, impossible to say exactly how we know which is which, and the young enlisted man in the opening story might well not understand the difference. Sex driven by surging or excess testosterone and sex as adolescent rebellion against repressive family values cannot be reduced to a mechanical activity bereft of emotion or meaning; rather, those kinds of sex often feel like ways of finding out and expressing who we are. And even when sex is used to show off in front of others, or to affirm one’s attractiveness and power to pull, ‘meaningless’ would seem to be the last thing it should be called. Here it is true that one person may not only lack passion but totally neglect another’s feelings and desires, but just as often this other person is engaged in the same pursuit. The point is that reductions like lust and love don’t go very far towards telling us what is going on when people have sex together. Moreover, while real passion is meant to be based on knowing someone long and intimately, a parallel story glorifies love at first sight, in which passion is instantly awakened – and this can occur as easily at a rave or pub as at the Taj Mahal.

Part of the mythology of love promises that loving couples will always want and enjoy sex together, unproblematically, freely and loyally. But most people know that couples are multi-faceted partnerships, sex together being only one facet, and that those involved very often tire of sex with each other. Although skeptics say today’s high divorce rate shows the love-myth is a lie, others say the problem is that lovers aren’t able or willing to do the worknecessary to stay together and survive personal, economic and professional changes. Some of this work may well be sexual. In some partnerships where the spark has gone, partners grant each other the freedom to have sex with others, or pay others to spice up their own sex lives (as a couple or separately). This can take the form of a polyamorous project, with open contracts; as swinging, where couples play with others together; as polygamy or temporary marriage; as cheating or betrayal; or as paying for sex.

The sex contract

Even when love is involved, people may use sex in the hope of getting something in return. They may or may not be fully conscious of such motives as:

  • I will have sex with you because I love you even if I am not in the mood myself
  • I will have sex with you hoping you will feel well disposed toward me afterwards and give me something I want
  • I will have sex with you because if I don’t you are liable to be unpleasant to me, our children, or my friends, or withhold something we want

In these situations, sex is felt to be and accepted as part of the relationship, backed up in classic marriage law by the concept of conjugal relations, spouses’ rights to them and the consequences of not providing them: abandonment, adultery, annulment, divorce. This can work the opposite way as well, as when a partner doesn’t want sex:

  • I will not have sex with you, so you will have to do without or get it somewhere else

The partner wanting sex and not getting it at home now has to choose: do without and feel frustrated? call an old friend? ring for an escort? go to a pick-up bar? drive to a hooker stroll? visit a public toilet? buy an inflatable doll? fly to a third-world beach?

People of any gender identity can find themselves in this situation, where money may help resolve the situation, at least temporarily, and where more than one option may have to be tried. Tiring of partners is a universal experience, and research on women who pay local guides and beach boys on holidays suggests there is nothing inherently male about exchanging money for sex. That said, our societies are still patriarchal, women still take more responsibility for maintaining homes and children than men and men still have more disposable cash than women, making the overtly commercial options more viable for men than for others.

We don’t know how many people do what, but we know that many clients of sex workers say they are married (some happily, some not, the research is all about male clients). In testimonies about their motivations for paying for sex, men often cite a desire for variety or a way to cope with not getting enough sex or the kind of sex they want at home.

  • I want to have sex with you but I also want it with someone else

This is the point in the sex contract many have trouble with, the question being Why?Why should someone with sex available at home (even good sex) also want it somewhere else? The assumption is, of course, that we all ought to want only one partner, because we all ought to want the kind of love that is loyal, passionate and monogamous. To say I love my wife and also I would like to have sex with othersis to seem perverse, or greedy, and a lot of energy is spent railing against such people. However, there is nothing intrinsically better about monogamy than any other attitude to sex.

If saving marriages isa value, then more than one sex worker believes her role helps prevent break-ups, or at least allows spouses to blow off steam from difficult relationships. Workers mean not only the overtly sexual side of paid activities but also the emotional labor performed in listening to clients’ stories, bolstering their egos, teaching them sexual techniques, providing emotional advice. Rarely do sex workers position clients’ spouses as enemies or say they want to steal clients away from them; on the contrary, many see the triangular relationship – wife, husband, sex worker – as mutually sustaining. In this way sex workers believe they help reproduce the marital home and even improve it.

Sex as reproductive labor

In support of the idea that sex reproduces social life, one can say that people fortunate enough to experience satisfying sex feel fundamentally affirmed and renewed by it. In that sense, a worker providing sexual services does reproductive work. Paid sex work is a caring service when workers provide friend-like or therapist-like company and when they give a back rub – whether the caring is a performance or not. The person providing the caring services uses brain, emotions and body to make another person feel good:

  • Leaning over to comfort a baby
  • Leaning over to massage aching shoulders
  • Leaning over to kiss a neck or forehead or chest
  • Leaning over to suck a penis or breast

If the recipient perceives the contact as positive, a sense of well-being is produced that the brain registers, and the individual’s separateness is momentarily erased. These effects are not different simply because the so-called erogenous zones are involved rather than other parts of the body. In this sense, sex work, whether paid or not, reproduces fundamental social life.

The argument against sex work as reproductive labor is that sexual experiences, while sometimes temporarily rejuvenating, are neither always felt as positive nor essential to the individual’s continued functioning. Humans have to eat and keep our bodies and environments clean but we don’t have to have sex to survive: the well-being produced by sex is a luxury or extra. Sex feels as essential as food to a lot of people, and they may be very unhappy without it, but they can go on living.

Sex as a job

The variability of sexual experience makes it difficult to pin down which sex should properly be thought of as sex work. My own policy is to accept what individuals say. If someone tells me they experience selling sex as a job, I take their word for it. If, on the contrary, they say that it doesn’tfeel like a job but something else, then I accept that.

What does it mean to say it feels like a job? There are several possibilities:

  • I organise myself to offer particular services for money that I define
  • I take a job in someone else’s business where I control some aspects of what I do but not others
  • I place myself in situations where others tell me what they are looking for and I adapt, negotiate, manipulate and perform – but it’s a job because I get money

There are other permutations, too, of course. All service jobs involve customer relations, which are eternally unpredictable. Some clients are able to specify exactly what services they want and make sure they are satisfied, but some cannot and may end up getting what the worker wants to provide. To imagine that the worker is always powerless because the client pays for time makes no sense, since all workers jockey for control in their jobs – of what happens when and how long it takes. This is a simple definition of human agency. And it’s important to remember that a very large proportion of sex work is spent on selling: the seduction and flirtation necessary to turn atmosphere, potentiality and possibility into an exchange of money for sex.

Furthermore, although we like to think about the two roles, salesperson and customer, as separate, in the sexual relation roles can be blurred. Theorists want to think about the worker doing something for the client or the client commandingthe worker to act. But carrying out a command does not exclude doing it one’s own way, nor, for that matter, enjoyment, feelings of connectivity and the reproduction of self.

Non-partner sex in the home

Many would like to believe that non-commercial (or ‘real’) sex takes place in homes, while commercial sex lurks in seedy other places. However, sex outside the partnership easily takes place while one of the partners is not there. This can be sex that is ordered in and paid for or adulterous, promiscuous, play or non-monogamous sex. Sometimes the non-partner is consideredalmost one of the family’ – a live-in maid or nanny. Other times the non-partner is someone who’s come to perform some other paid job – the proverbial milkman or plumber. There’s also sex in the home online, via webcam, or over the telephone, as well as images or objects that enhance a sexual experience in which no partner is necessary at all. The sex industry penetrates family residences in many ways and cannot be, by definition, the family’s Other.

Most commentary on how the sex industry is changing focuses on the Internet, where apart from more conventional business sites, sexual communities form and reform continuously. Social networking sites like facebookprovide spaces where the commercial, the aesthetic and the activist intersect and overlap, also complicating the traditional divide between selling and buying. Chat and instant messaging provide opportunities for people to experiment with sexual identities including commercial ones. Much of all this is unmeasurable, taking place on sites where all participants are mixed together, not sorted into categories of buyers and sellers. Statistics on the value of pornography sold on the Internet focus on sites with catalogues of products for sale, but the sphere of webcams, like peep shows of old, blurs the wobbly line between porn and prostitution.

Although some (like Elizabeth Bernstein 2007) claim that sex workers offering girlfriend-like experiences are a manifestation of post-industrial life, I am not convinced. Sex worker testimonies from many periods reveal the complexity always waiting to happen when brief encounters are repeated, when clients seek again someone with whom they felt a bond as well as a sexual attraction. Nor am I convinced that the experiences of upper-class clients patronising courtesans, geishas or mistresses are inherently different from the socialising of working-class men and women in ‘treating’ cultures. Instead, it is clear that the lines between commercial and non-commercial sex have always been blurry, and that middle-class marriage is itself an example.

Scholars of sexual cultures won’t get far if they follow dogma that considers marriage to be separate and outside the realm of investigations of commercial sex. In societies where matchmaking and different sorts of arranged marriages and dowries are conventional, the link between payment and sex has been overt and normalised, while campaigners against both sex tourism and foreign-bride agencies are offended precisely because they see a money-exchange entering into what they believe should be ‘pure’ relationships. We have too much information now about non-family forms of love and commitment, non-committed forms of sex and non-sexual forms of love to hold on to these arbitrary, mythic divisions, which further oppressive ideas about sexually good and bad women. We know now that monogamy is not necessarily better, that paid sex can be affectionate, that loving couples can do without sex, that married love involves money and that sex involves work.

I see no postmodern crisis here. Some believe that the developed West was moving in a good direction after the Second World War, towards happier families and juster societies, and that neoliberalism is destroying that. But historical research shows that before the bourgeoisie’s advancement to the centre of European societies, with the concomitant focus on nuclear families and a particular version of moral respectability, loose, flexible arrangements vis-à-vis sex, family and sexuality were common in both upper- and working-class cultures (Agustín 2004) . In the long run it may turn out that 200 years of bourgeois ‘family values’ were a blip on the screen in human history.

Sex, equality and money

Understanding professional sex work has not been made easier by making ‘equality’ the standard for gender relations. We can only really know whether sexual experiences are equal if everyone looks and acts the same, which is not only impossible but repressive of diversity. In sexual relations, equality projects run into the problem of dissimilar bodies, different ways of exhibiting arousal and experiencing satisfaction, not to mention differences in cultural background and social status. Those who complain about other people’s perversity and deviance are accused in return of being boring adherents of repressive sex.

In terms of the work of sex, we run into a further difficulty vis-à-vis equality, the cliché that sees participants taking either an active or a passive role and identity. But many people, not just professional sex workers, know that the work of sex can mean allowing the other to take an active role and assuming a passive one as well astaking the active role or switching back and forth. Sometimes people do what they already know they like, and sometimes they experiment. Sometimes people don’t know what they want, or want to be surprised, or to lose control.

For some critics, the possession of money by clients gives them absolute power over workers and therefore means that equality is impossible. This attitude toward money is odd, given that we live in times when it is acceptable to pay for child and elderly care, for rape, alcohol and suicide counselling and for many other forms of consolation and caring. Those services are considered compatible with money but when it is exchanged for sex money is treated as a totally negative, contaminating force –thiscommodification uniquely terrible. Money is a fetish here despite the obvious fact that no body part is actually sold off in the commercial sex exchange.

Sex work and migrancy

In many places, migrant women and young men do most of the paid sex work, because:

there are enormous structural inequalities in the world, because there are people everywhere willing to take the risk of travelling to work in other countries and because social networks, high technology and transportation make it widely feasible (Agustín 2002). Migrants take jobs that are available, accept lower pay and tolerate having fewer rights than first-class citizens because those are less important than simply getting ahead. Even those with qualifications for other jobs, whether as hairdressers or university professors, are glad to get jobs considered unprestigious by non-migrants. While many view migrants in low-prestige jobs as absolute victims too constrained by forces around them to have real agency, social gain or enjoyment, there are other ways to understand them (Agustín 2003).

Critics hold that migrants who work in private homes reproduce the social life of their all-powerful employers but accomplish little on their own behalf. This is strange, because low-prestige workers who are notmigrants are acknowledged to gain a connection to society, knowledge of being a useful economic actor and more options because of having money.

We look at migration as neither a degradation nor improvement . . . in women’s position, but as a restructuring of gender relations. This restructuring need not necessarily be expressed through a satisfactory professional life. It may take place through the assertion of autonomy in social life, through relations with family of origin, or through participating in networks and formal associations. The differential between earnings in the country of origin and the country of immigration may in itself create such an autonomy, even if the job in the receiving country is one of a live-in maid or prostitute. (Hefti 1997)

One of the great contradictions of capitalism is that even unfair, unwritten, ambiguous contracts can produce active subjects.

Ways forward

I have proposed the cultural study of commercial sex (Agustín 2005), in which scholars are free of the constraints of the traditional study of prostitution, where ideology and moralising about power, gender and money have long held primacy. Cultural study does not assume that we already knowwhat any given sex-money exchange means but that meaning changes according to specific cultural context. This means we cannot assume there is a fundamental difference between commercial and non-commercial sex. Anthropologists studying non-western societies consistently reveal that money and sex exchanges exist on a continuum where feelings are also present, and historians reveal the same about the past (for example, Tabet 1987 and Peiss 1986).

Sex and work cannot be completely disentangled, as the officers knew and the enlisted man would some day find out.

References

Agustín, Laura. 2005. The Cultural Study of Commercial Sex. Sexualities, Vol 8, No 5, pp 618-631.

____________ 2004. ‘At Home in the Street: Questioning the Desire to Help and Save.’ In Regulating Sex: The Politics of Intimacy and Identity. E. Bernstein and L. Shaffner, eds., 67-82. New York: Routledge Perspectives on Gender.

____________ 2003.‘Sex, Gender and Migrations: Facing Up to Ambiguous RealitiesSoundings, 23, 84-98.

____________ 2002. Challenging Place: Leaving Home for SexDevelopment, Society for International Development, Rome, Vol. 45.1, March, 110-16.

Bernstein, Elizabeth. 2007. Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity and the Commerce of Sex.Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hefti, Anny Misa. 1997. ‘Globalisation and Migration.’ Paper presented at European Solidarity Conference on the Philippines, Zurich, 19-21 September.

Peiss, Kathy. 1986. Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Tabet, Paola. 1987. ‘Du don au tarif. Les relations sexuelles impliquant compensation’.Les Temps Modernes, n° 490, 1-53.

 

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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beach boys sex touristsBeach boys and women sex tourists: every journalist’s dream topic. A Swiss television reporter interviewed me about a documentary he was making, incorporating footage from Cowboys in Paradise, a film about Kuta Beach in Bali. I happened to be in Basel, nearly missing Catherine MacKinnon when the reporter contacted me, so he came into the room where I was giving a talk and interviewed me afterwards. Some bits of those are cut into this 11-minute television clip, and although most of the English and Indonesian are overlaid with German, the pictures are good and you can follow the narrative easily. Note especially the testimonies of two women: one is the young wife of a beach boy who feels okay about how he makes his money and the other is a young Swede who asks why she shouldn’t have whatever sex she wants.

Reporters want to know if the boys are ‘really’ prostitutes and why the girls are paying; they have trouble figuring out who is exploiting whom. It’s a bias, of course, to insist someone has to be exploiting since money and sex are involved, rather than seeing these as ordinary relationships, the kind that travelling people have been having since human life began. Some want to believe that women are morally better than men and therefore won’t pay for sex just because they have the money and freedom to allow them to fly to places like Bali and do it. I don’t think women have any moral traits as a class, and the fact that some like these breezy holiday situations the same way men do doesn’t surprise me. (That’s why I end up laughing during interviews like this – because to me what I am saying is just common sense not requiring any professorial analysis.) There’s a theory that women are more keen to be romanced than men, which I consider pretty silly since plenty of male tourists have stars in their eyes and are wound around the little fingers of those poorer women they are said to be exploiting.

Then some want to see these largely white-skinned women as racist, an interpretation I also don’t share, for the same reason: travellers like to meet others who seem interesting and different; they like to talk, drink, eat, dance, tour and have sex with them. That’s banal. In such situations, travellers often can and are willing to pay for their fun, and since I don’t see having sex as different from those other activities I’d have to condemn travel itself if I am going to condemn the sex. Unless people are wanting a condemnation of global economic inequalities that mean the beach boys don’t have lots of other great ways to make money: well, fine, I condemn that. But please note that the boys interviewed here find pleasuring tourists a lot easier and more fun than other jobs. And that they don’t see themselves as sex workers or as prostitutes; no professional identity need attach to ambiguous relationships. Is this all the erotic side of imperialism? I guess so. But we are all caught up in it; there is no perfectly clean place to stand; telling people to stay home is no solution, whether they are tourists or migrants.

Other stories about sex tourism here.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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