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The Naked Anthropologist · sex work | The Naked Anthropologist

sex work

sex work refers to a wide range of activities involving sex in exchange for money or benefits. to call it sex work is to acknowledge it can be experienced as a job, livelihood, occupation

Screen Shot 2017-03-12 at 23.48.44In February I was interviewed by RadioAva (DIY sexworker radio, a project of x:talk). When I arrived at the pub in mid-afternoon a fight was blowing up in the back room, glass splintering and chairs crashing to the floor. Soon the place was full of cops and two clutches of drunken young white men were being moved out the door while shouting out epithets: Knackers! Travellers! The perfect setting for an interview.

barroombrawl1In this interview I talk about creativity and pleasure, about my own likes and dislikes. The interviewer describes her feelings about the characters, surprising me by saying she found sexworker Marina ‘too perfect’. Here I confess to identifying not only with the detective narrator, Félix, but also with a villain of the story called Sarac. What are they supposed to do? I say, referring to men reared in tribal and national wars who now may turn to people-smuggling. I talk about cultural relativism as a way of understanding lives unlike our own.

I hear my self in this interview. I hear myself saying more than once I wanted to put it out there, referring to a sense of urgency, that stories of migrants who sell sex are so rarely heard that The Three-Headed Dog can exist as an historical document to be discovered by future historians – like this interview, which is located on the wonderfully-named mixcloud.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 00.54.34Listen to it while doing some chore. Note the bar-clinking in the background. On the same show: Pandora Blake and the ECP. Good company. Thank you, all.

Note: there are musical interludes interspersed with segments of me and Carmen talking. They are all migration-inspired and most were provided by me. They aren’t identified on the podcast, so I’ll do a separate piece about them soon.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Photo Jublio Haku

In the popular imaginary a pimp is a mean man engaged in pushing a few prostitutes around and taking their money. Usually portrayed as black or foreign, he is made out to thrive on dressing up and showing off. Pimping is sometimes placed as part of gang business and competition, again with racist and xenophobic overtones. In these stereotypes street prostitution is usually assumed, though that is changing.

In anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking crusades and policy the word pimp is used to cover every case of a man benefiting from prostitution, whether by taking a percentage of sex workers’ earnings for work done (as a driver, or web-page tech, for example) or for living with sex workers, giving advice, providing back-up.

HandDrawingHandSome want to distinguish clearly between those genuine helpers and the bad things ‘real pimps’ do, but I have learned over decades that trying to draw that line is a futile exercise. Sometimes sex workers love the men who push them around. Sometimes women pay men back in ways not visible to outsiders bent on seeing only one thing. Often the relationship is temporarily convenient and may be fluid, drifting back and forth between desired and consensual and not.

Rarely do we get a sense of pimping as a job in an organisation, the sort of ‘organised crime’ that anti-trafficking police forces and the UN go on about. As with so many aspects of the sex industry most people know absolutely nothing about how it can work. When I suggested a field called the Cultural Study of Commercial Sex I said policy (prostitution law, sex-venue licensing, red-light districting, employment rules) would benefit from knowing more instead of staying on the ignorant outskirts. Moralising is very often a form of ignorance. This applies to the world of mediators, facilitators, agents, smugglers, madams and pimps.

The narrator of Jo Nesbø’s Blood on Snow is explaining how he came to be a fixer (hit-man) for a villain. There were various jobs available, and he tried several: driving get-away cars, robbery, drugs-dealing and pimping. In the following story he was on a low rung in the pimping business where Hoffmann is the top boss and Pine his second man. The place is Oslo.

oslo-kjF--621x414@LiveMintProstitution. I don’t have a problem with women earning money whatever way they like, and the idea that a bloke – me, for instance – should get a third of the money for sorting things out so the women can concentrate on the actual work. A good pimp is worth every krone they pay him, I’ve always thought that. The problem is that I fall in love so quickly, and then I stop seeing it in terms of business. And I can’t handle shaking, hitting or threatening the women, whether or not I’m in love with them. Something to do with my mother, maybe, what do I know? That’s probably why I can’t stand seeing other people beating up women either. Something just snaps. Take Maria, for instance. Deaf and dumb, with a limp. I don’t know what those two things have got to do with each other – nothing probably – but it’s a bit like once you get started getting bad cards, they just keep coming. Which is probably why Maria ended up with an idiot junkie boyfriend as well. He had a fancy French name, Myriel, but owed Hoffman thirteen thousand for drugs. The first time I saw her was when Pine, Hoffmann’s head pimp, pointed out a girl in a home-made coat and with her hair up in a bun, looking like she’d just left church. She was sitting on the steps in front of Ridderhallen, crying, and Pine told me she was going to have to pay back her boyfriend’s drug debt in kind. I thought it best to give her a gentle start, just hand-jobs. But she jumped out of the first car she got into after barely ten seconds. She stood there in floods of tears while Pine yelled at her. Maybe he thought she’d hear him if he shouted loud enough. Maybe that was what did it. The yelling. And my mum. Either way, something snapped, and even if I could see what Pine was trying to get into her head I ended up decking him, my own boss. Then I took Maria to a flat I knew was empty, then went to tell Hoffmann that I was no use as a pimp either. Blood on Snow, pp 6-7, Jo Nesbø

In my own The Three-Headed Dog, a strongman working for an organisation is looking for a new job. Sarac’s career has included soldiering as a very young man and a range of jobs lumped together as Security, in different parts of Europe and in the Caribbean. He is told his next job will be in West Africa, but he doesn’t want to go, feels comfortable on the Costa del Sol and is now looking for a way to stay. He is approached by a man with a job offer.

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In this photo at least a man’s head and body are cut off, not only a woman’s (the usual practice).

‘You have to specialise according to what work the people travelling are going to do. You have to use contacts specific to the sector. For instance, it might sound strange, but I have no good contacts in construction on the coast, or in property development. Those are competitive areas it would be stupid to try to get into. But I do know someone with long experience in the flats. Apartments where women work. You understand. And that’s just here. In the region we can call home I have a few powerful names. The operation would be high-quality, and there are different directions to take. A wide range of businesses, no need to deal with the low end.’ He paused. Sarac betrayed no reaction. Tarts, he thought. Bloody pimp-ing. The very last thing he was looking for. The Three-Headed Dog, Laura Agustín

If you’re interested in fiction’s genre labels: Nesbø’s book is placed as Nordic Noir; the Dog as Mediterranean Noir. Noir is about moral ambiguity, as when a pimp can’t stand abusing women so becomes a hard-boiled killer instead. Sarac is looking for something else to do, and has to get there using strong arms. What else does he have, after all? When police and moral entrepreneurs rant about putting criminal men in prison I often think: What jobs do they imagine to be available for men and boys cut out of the mainstream, with no access to anything but the lowest-class, worst-paid work, no expectation of social mobility or respect? Perhaps those thinking about ‘root-causes’ of prostitution and trafficking might consider that, rather than figuring them all as evildoers to be imprisoned for long terms, in prisons that only teach them better techniques for crime.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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

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

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

Photo Ahmad Nimer

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

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

There are four other videos on my channel.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Cruise ships: Marina considers taking a stewardess job.

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

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

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

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

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

-Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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animeteamRecently Amnesty International voted to pursue a policy advocating the decriminalisation of sex work (sort of). If you were judging the issues by what Big Media told you, the debate was a clear pro-rights position versus an anti-prostitution position. The clash sometimes looked like Who gets to speak for women who sell sex? ignoring the men and transpeople and ignoring the considerable variation in experience amongst those who work in the sex industry. And, by the way, amongst those who used to work and now don’t.

Understanding the symbolic importance of the moment I kept quiet about aspects of Amnesty International’s proposal that are not good, and I know others who did the same. But behind the scenes, amongst rights activists, there was criticism of Amnesty’s draft. There were differences of opinion, some harsh words and some misunderstandings. As far as I know, there is never total agreement about what specific words should appear in any document attempting to define good law and policy that will support people who sell sex. If the outside world could see those differences of opinion perhaps fewer would believe anti-prostitutionist sloganeering about happy hookers and the pimp lobby.

But the differences always exist within a basic framework that understands selling sex can be experienced as work (nothing to do with personal happiness or what labels folks give themselves). The reductionist line about survivors versus a sexworker elite is daft. But on an occasion like the Amnesty vote, when 140-character tweets reign, most everyone unites in solidarity and sticks to a clear argument, in this case that decriminalisation makes sex workers safer.

One flurry of disagreement on an activist email list arose from an item published by a few academic researchers in Canada in support of Amnesty’s proposal. Some activists found the item to be victimising and disempowering for sex workers. Others did not. One statement got my attention, so I asked the author, Will Pritchard, if I could publish it here.

Research is not Activism

Will Pritchard August 2015

anime2Some researchers have gained the media spotlight claiming they have evidence showing that in places where sex work is a crime, sex workers are powerless victims, forced to work in isolation with no ability to negotiate safe sex, access medical services or organize collectively.

In response, some sex work activists are voicing dismay, arguing that sex workers organize themselves, promote safe sex and join the struggle for their freedom precisely in those places where they face criminal sanctions because sex work is illegal. 

The harm-reduction framework was built under the rubric of human rights. Having watched it develop in Canada in the late 1980s in response to criminalization of drug use and then spreading to other issues including sex work, I have decided that it actually erodes grassroots activists’ efficacy and role. This erosion is due in part to the fact that harm-reduction policies rely on ‘evidence’, and to get that we require research.

Some researchers conscript service agencies, advocates or individual workers to consult in the creation of research projects but often solely to provide legitimacy and address the ethical concerns in institutional review-board processes. Those consulted are rarely experts in research, and though I recognize the important part they play, if they are unaware of the history of the global struggle for sex worker freedoms, or lack a sex work analysis, their contributions become token. They may have limited or no capacity to provide strategic direction to the researcher.

Sadly, those sex workers who are subject to research often set their own personal interests aside and volunteer, under the mistaken belief that participation is for the greater good, or worse, that it is a form of activism. But research is not activism.

anime_heroes_promo_by_ryutokun-d4cmyy2Many grassroots activists and organizers are exasperated that they must now face the challenge of discovering the interests of those publishing research on sex workers. Who is funding the research and to what end? What is the researcher’s professional background and record for incorporating sex worker voices? This frustrating distraction hijacks activists’ bandwidth and is an example of the unintended consequences of research.

Researchers would do well to consider the reflexivity inherent in the harm-reduction framework, whereby evidence-based policy-making begets policy-based evidence-making – a meta-bias if you will. Based on the interests of the researcher, not the researched.

I believe that academics and other allies may have the best of intentions. But perhaps their interests do not actually align with the struggle for sex worker freedoms? They deserve to be questioned, challenged and criticized, since unintended consequences arising from the results of their research could well undermine sex worker freedoms in future, particularly in the domains of public health, justice and social science.

Sex worker activists speak from experience when it comes to unintended consequences. For example, the foundation sex worker activists built was never intended as a stepping-off point for academics to shift the focus of the struggle for freedoms to their own work in the form of ‘evidence’.

Research involving sex work is a job. Sex workers should supervise. And when sex workers say, Sit down, shut up and get back to work, researchers should listen.

Research is not activism.

In solidarity,

Will Pritchard

will-cowboyWilliam Pritchard has been an activist for sex worker rights for 25 years. As a young escort, he helped build a new kind of peer outreach program in Toronto and co-founded the Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver. Will is a partner at Walnet Institute, an online arts and activism resource. He volunteers as a director for the Triple-X Workers’ Solidarity Association of British Columbia and is a member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. He works as a city planner in Vancouver, Canada.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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