I am not Michael O’Leary, and other meditations on public performance

Photo of Laura Agustín by Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland)

Doing public gigs exposes one to all sorts of comment, some nice and some not so nice. At University College Dublin I sketched out the ideas in Sex at the Margins – a book that began in the early 90s with me listening to Dominican villagers, ten years later became a doctorate on the Rescue Industry and three years after a published book. At the Anarchist Bookfair I talked about Sex Work as Work (a video of the talk will be online soon).

This talk was only 30 minutes long so I had warned I didn’t intend to get bogged down in arguments about the meaning of prostitution. Nevertheless, the first person called on after my talk began to lay out an argument that prostitution is oppression of women and so on, so after not long I interrupted her from the stage to ask Do you have a question? No, she said, she wanted to debate. I said, This time is for questions about my talk. She quickly framed one, which was

Will you condemn the sex industry as patriarchy?

I said no, because that question is too broad and general to have meaning for me. It’s a bottom-line question, and by saying no without explaining all the ins and outs of my thinking I will have sounded like an anti-feminist to some. But if I travel so far to speak without pay I really do want to hear audience reaction to what I do say, not to what I don’t say.

All other questions asked were interesting, but at the end there was

How can we move toward a society in which sex is not commodified?

Photo by Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland)

Anarchism takes in a wide variety of ways of thinking. I accept that talking about revolution and how things would be afterwards is really interesting and important to many, but my talk had been about feet-on-the-ground ways to better the lives of people who sell sex through employment policy and organising. So I replied

I don’t know. Everything else is commodified, why should sex be different?

This provoked a tweeter to say

Michael O’Leary, the million or billionaire owner of Ryanair, is widely hated in Ireland. I can’t find a single significant thing he and I have in common. When I have more time to talk about commodification I discuss the odd point that even mother love is accepted by most of the same objectors as being ok to buy and sell in the form of nannying and caring for children and older and sick people. The same tweeter said

Although an interest in revolution and utopia are only one of many possible topics subsumed by feminism or anarchism or any other ism, those wanting to discuss them always assume the moral high ground. Practical, pragmatic arguments about the here and now would seem to occupy a lower place in the hierarchy according to some. But not according to me, and I also dislike being challenged to show I am a good or righteous person publicly, merely as an exercise to label me – really to show I’ve failed some ethical test.

People ask me how I deal with being disliked or vilified. I accept that appearing in public exposes me, and I don’t always express myself perfectly. I don’t read prepared papers and I avoid standing behind protective podiums. I’m not a trained performer. But beyond those reasons, in order to talk about the formal-informal sector divide in government accounting and how it affects employment policy, the ILO’s conclusions in its report The Sex Sector and what the term ‘sex industry’ comprises, in 30 minutes, one has to omit the disclaimers. I could begin every point by condemning inequality, sexism, racism, imperialism, the oppression of women and poor people, but then I would lose a big chunk of the time I’ve got for the talk, and I’m not willing to do that. So I regret when I am misinterpreted badly, but I accept that it comes with the territory.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Coda

7 thoughts on “I am not Michael O’Leary, and other meditations on public performance

  1. Furry Girl

    I like your response about sex being commodified. I’ve been more inclined in the last year or two to shut down lines of questioning that go no where, and “commodification” is definitely one of those go-nowhere topics because ultimately, the only possible solution is to live in a utopian non-transactional society where everyone magically gets just as much sex and love as they want. I refuse to waste my time with people who think that such airy nonsense is what we should be “working” on, as though there’s even anything *to* work on to create such a utopia. It’s as though we’re discussing the issue of traffic congestion in cities, and what they’re offering that if we all simply had carbon-neutral purple flying unicorns to ride to and from our destinations, then everything would be fine. I don’t have time to debate with “revolutionaries” who angrily (and proudly!) refuse to settle for anything less than completely impossible, dream-like perfection, yet who ironically don’t even know how to make tiny incremental changes. They’re the laziest people out there, because they always have the political/philosophical “out” of not needing to do any real work because it’s not “correct” enough.

    Reply
    1. Laura Agustín

      Since I had announced my intention to not fall into isms way beforehand and more than once I felt fine about replying shortly to the first ideological question. Which someone characterised later as me having ‘silenced’ someone who was said to be ‘a lovely woman’. It can’t be helped. This might be the first time I took it in how the utopia questioners assume moral superiority, though – I mean I always knew that my interest in the practical and pragmatic was considered ‘amoral’ or worse, but this was the occasion where I heard some of how that happens. Since anarchism is so heterodox it stood out for me. I like the flying unicorn ideas but surely even they would present ethical dilemmas about how to feed and care for them and what to do when they fight. I can’t get anywhere at all with utopianism.

      Reply
    2. Sheldon

      In my experience, folks who are utopians on the sex industry tend NOT to be utopian on any other issue – they are selectively utopian. That is because it is a ruse designed to put a respectable veneer on their puritanism.

      By the way, I am organizing a number of panels on these issues for the Left Forum this yeat at Pace University in New York City. The Forum is an annual gathering of Left scholars and activists, held this year from June 7 – 9.

      Reply
  2. Daniel Mang

    Hi

    Maybe this point is worth being made explicit: It is possible to take what I would call a non-reformist political stance oriented towards achieving a non-capitalist society and broadly sympathise with your work. A lot of anti-capitalist feminists I know find your work inspiring, and so do I…

    I think your answer “I don’t know. Everything else is commodified, why should sex be different?” says it all.

    As you point out, “anarchism takes in a wide variety of ways of thinking”, and if you add other, varieties of anti-authoritarian radicalism, it gets even more complicated.

    There is no agreement on what non-reformist, radical or revolutionary politics means. Many versions of non-reformism in no way deny the usefulness of making concrete demands and working within institutions, including state institutions – as long as the long-term goal orients what you are doing, and as long as not too much energy, which could better be used to organise actual social movement, is put into institutions, parties etc.

    In my opinion too many anarchists believe we can just jump from where we are now to utopia directly – people seem to think we can start building the new society right now, by an act of will, no intermediate steps required. Too many marxists, libertarian marxists included, believe working on small-scale changes now, including personal and lifestyle changes, is a waste of time and everything will be changed only the moment the system is overthrown and the basic logic of society transformed.

    I feel that the fact that today radical politics is unsexy and unpopular for the vast majority of people in most places in the world, in contrast to the sixties and seventies, is at least in part the effect of a few decades of the hegemony of the political right. A hegemony that has made many concepts unthinkable, certain words unsayable. That’s why I think it’s a very good idea to talk and think about “revolution and how things would be afterwards”.

    But I also think it would be very useful if people kept utopian, transitional, strategic, tactical… levels more conceptually separate in their thinking and writing.

    In my view many “radical” debates around the commodification of sex and the patriarchal structuring of sex work suffer not only from naïve utopianism and sloppy argumentation, but also from inadequately developed theory. What do people actually mean by capitalism? By patriarchy?

    In my view a desirable non-capitalist society would be one without the social institutions of money and the commodity. That’s not the same as a society without exchange. Also, not all types of non-capitalist society are necessarily desirable. There were non-capitalist societies with money, commodity exchange, social class etc etc. The abolition of capitalism does not necessarily entail the abolition of patriarchal gender relations etc etc etc. There are many kinds of exchange and the question of how fair an exchange is goes beyond the question of capitalism and commodification. I think that in a better society there should be less exchange than there is in ours, and I enjoy imagining a society that would actually encourage the principle of giving freely in the knowledge that at some point in the future you will also receive, instead of undermining and twisting this principle, as our society does (pushing everyone to pursue their advantage mercilessly, while at the same time telling women to be selfless givers, or else…) But I don’t think it is desirable to abolish all notion of (material, affective, sexual…) exchange. So the question of what is a fair exchange and what conditions need to be met for people to be free and able to meaningfully consent to an exchange remains.

    Commodification is not the same as reification, that is, the action of transforming a person or a relationship into a thing. Maybe commodification is a subset of reification. In any case, women’s bodies were commodities (objects for monetary exchange) long before capitalism. And there is evidence that in many societies that did not use money, women were often objects of exchange between groups politically dominated by men.

    So getting rid of commodification is not the same as getting rid of the objectification or reification of women.

    Which points to the fact that the interaction between patriarchal, capitalist and other relations of domination is not simple. They do not simply always reinforce each other, nor does capitalism always undermine patriarchal social relations, as has also been claimed. Both mutual stabilisation and destabilisation are possible.

    If people admit this complexity, they should be more willing to see the reality of situations where the expansion of capitalist social relations has destabilised certain traditional structures of authority, giving more autonomy to women in some situations than they had before, while at the same time subsuming them more thoroughly into capitalist relations of domination. On the whole, if you look at the situation of poor, peasant and working class women the world over, the triumph of capitalism has been a disaster for women. On the other hand the capitalist destruction of traditional forms of authority could be seen as positive, as a potential. It all depends on how it will all pan out, whether there will be radical social change and a new society or not.

    I think radical theory about sex and sex work should acknowledge this complexity.
    I find your work, and that of Paola Tabet for example, very useful in trying to think about these questions, trying not to take easy theoretical shortcuts.

    Regards

    Daniel

    Reply
    1. Laura Agustín

      Thank you, Daniel, for the thoughtful response. Personally I avoid talking about capitalism for the reason you mention, that the term is too broad and general, and we can’t assume we all mean the same thing by it. Likewise I avoid commodification, objectificaion, sexualisation – just for myself, I mean, for what I’m doing – for Naked Anthropology. I’m glad you find my thinking useful – that’s what I care about, not getting some line of theory perfect.

      By the way I was active in the 60s and 70s also without being interested personally in utopias or theories, really. I mean I read and listened and acted, but my own interests and usefulness lay elsewhere.

      Reply
  3. Edward Waffle

    It sounds as if the initial questioner, the final questioner and the pearl clutching tweeter suffer from the same delusion, that if discussion of a topic doesn’t reflect what they believe or think they know then that discussion is misguided at best but more likely evil. This shows the deficiency of their arguments and the lack of moral rigor in their thinking.

    Reply
    1. Laura Agustín

      There are a few topics that get constantly pulled back towards a bottom-line symbolic debate: the meaning of prostitution is one, the conflict in israel-palestine is another. By refusing to be pulled I annoyed some people, but I had expressed my intention to avoid the classic debate well in advance and more than once. So from my point of view at least the first qustioner was being deliberately annoying.

      Reply

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