I receive ever more messages from students doing advanced degrees. Almost invariably they request that I answer their personal questions – usually fundamental, 101-level questions I have written about many times and that one could probably find the answer to by googling (including my name if the question is what would I say). The messages sent me also tell where writers have been on my website before arriving at the contact form, and most often they haven’t been anywhere at all.
I used to reply by pointing them to the various kinds of resources on my website:
- Publications (different sorts, many with bibliographies)
- Interviews (where a lot of the basic questions are posed and answered)
- Reviews of Sex at the Margins (a lot can be learned from some reviews)
- Tag cloud (with up-to-date tags for 50 specific topics covered in the blog)
- List of all blog posts with descriptive titles
But I have grown tired of sending such obvious messages; this website is clear and easy to navigate. Someone suggested I write a FAQ, and I was once asked for a list of bullet points summarising my knowledge. I will never provide either of those. Not on principle, no, but because pretty much the whole thrust of what I do is refuse to reduce complex questions to easy summaries or snappy slogans. What would bullet points say, anyway?
- The average age of entry into prostitution is not 13.
- There are not 30 million slaves in the world.
- Some people like selling sex, some dislike it and some don’t mind much.
- Poorer people are also capable of deciding what to do with their own lives.
You see? Ridiculous. I’ve heard numerous theories about what this need for spoon-feeding means: the Internet makes it too easy to write and ask, these are elitist kids with a huge sense of entitlement, people think it’s part of an academic’s job to help all students, reading is dead, helicopter-parenting teaches students to expect continual mentoring, people think women are born to serve, kids are just arrogant or impolite, it’s a type of intellectual exploitation or plagiarism, they think answering questions is part of every activist’s job. Since I’m not an academic and work freelance, I’m specially bothered when it’s assumed I should take time to do unpaid work on their behalf (for example, and I’m not kidding, act as their supervisor during their phd).
Suggestions of how to handle these queries include delete instantly, send a standard reply, give a price for the consultation. Here is the delightful form-letter author Robert Heinlein sent out 35 years ago. Like Heinlein, I do engage with people who show they have been reading me, who express gratitude and who offer an interesting insight – even one in question-form. In an attempt to fend off the usual ‘Talk with me about trafficking’ messages, I recently placed this notice on the form for contacting me on this website:
Laura Agustín regrets that she cannot help students with papers or theses or act as a sounding-board for ideas and doubts, no matter how interesting they may be. If your enquiry relates to migration, labour markets, trafficking or sex work then use this website and you’ll find answers.
That was before I went to bed; when I awoke and opened my mail the next day alas, there was a fresh message someone had just written directly underneath the disclaimer.
l am a graduate student at… I am studying trafficking and the sex industry. I realize you are busy, but would you answer my questions about sex work? I could really use some help in making sense of it.
Conclusion? Some people don’t read. This would be banal except that they are supposed to be reading for a living, as (post)graduate students, teaching assistants, would-be professors. I suppose a lot of them have no sense of vocation but hope doing a degree will facilitate getting a good job (. . . ). The contradiction here is that if I do send an answer they have to read it. Perhaps they are more willing to if they have been spoon-fed.
Anyway I’ve decided: I won’t worry about and will now delete questions of this kind. Thanks to all others, including students, who write to me with interesting tit-bits, suggestions, encouragement and even the occasional job. I love getting mail.
–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist