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The Naked Anthropologist · Dr Laura Agustín on Migration, Sex work, Trafficking and the Rescue Industry
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




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The idea of a government outlawing activities accomplishes only one thing clearly: It tells citizens that government has decided something is Wrong and now outlaws doing it. Sending A Message is the principle act behind the Swedish state’s promotion of its law against buying sex, and it is the principle act behind all the other politicians and would-be policymakers who want the law for their countries. Everyone wants to be seen to be Taking a Stand against immoral behaviour. Try bringing evidence into the conversation and you will quickly learn how irrelevant it is; you can find Swedish promoters themselves saying things like We know it doesn’t work but we want to be in the forefront of Gender Justice. This is about standing up for how you think society should be and doing it publicly, and trying to save people from their own immoral selves by outlawing bad things that attract them.

Any other claim about what prohibitionist laws achieve when they outlaw social activities like sex, drinking and drugs is not supported by evidence. That’s because, after the law is passed and the message is sent, individuals deal with prohibition deviously. That is, social pressure is strong to go along with the moral stand taken, but on the private level folks don’t intend or aren’t able to stop taking their own pleasures. So buyers and sellers of drugs, alcohol and sex become creative, some of them maintaining a disapproving stance in public at the same time.

The main claim made by prohibitionism is its deterrent effect, which holds that people will be put off breaking the law a) simply because it is illegal; b) because they are afraid of being put in prison; c) because they do not want to be publicly shamed and lose social status, whether they go to prison or not. In Foucauldian terms a punishment has to be threatened that can rob the crime of all attraction, so the potential perpetrator stops. Shaming is thus proposed by those who would prohibit buying sex (names and photos published on a website, for instance). Heart-rending pictures of victims are distributed to add to the shame at wanting to participate. When those don’t seem to work, or when perpetrators go ahead and pay fines when they are caught instead of resisting charges, prohibitionists propose the ante be upped to obligatory jail sentences.

I wrote about deterrence early on in Sex Workers and Violence Against Women: Utopic Visions or Battle of the Sexes? The theory of deterrence sounds as though it might work to put people off getting punished, but people are not very logical or sensible when it comes to their bodily pleasures – eating, smoking, drinking, drug-taking, sex. I hope someone is documenting the techniques being used as part of a criminology project somewhere – let me know if you are! [Other uses of deterrence are more complicated, see Deterrence in Criminal Justice.] I do wish Foucault were here to talk with me about this.

The prohibition of alcohol in the USA provides insights, though we shouldn’t generalise about everything and everywhere on the basis of them. I only bring it up because Slate just published these elegant cards patrons could carry and show at the door of drinking clubs in midtown New York between 1920 and 1933, the years when making and selling alcohol was prohibited. Calling it a club didn’t make drinking there legal, but if drinkers belonged to insider networks they would get a card, and doormen felt safer letting them inside the venues (the theory being that police and their informants wouldn’t manage to get a card).

Slate says

These cards represent clubs both famous and obscure. The card on the upper right would have admitted a partygoer to the glamorous Stork Club in its second home, which it moved into after it had been “raided out” of its first on West 58th Street. . . All of these cards are for establishments located on roughly the same latitude in midtown Manhattan. In the Prohibition years, according to Irving L. Allen, the blocks between 40th and 60th streets in Manhattan were rife with speakeasies.

The cards show how deviance develops when a market exists for an outlawed activity. Buyers and sellers find each other, including in upper social registers where patrons obviously must include some of the very people who have Taken a Stand and voted in a prohibitionist law. The cards also show how little deterred alcohol-drinkers were.

Then, of course, and far more convincing: all kinds of buying and selling sex are prohibited by criminal law all over the US, except in those few rural counties of Nevada where brothels are allowed. How in the world anyone could propose prohibiting the buying of sex as a deterrent is beyond me.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry was published by Zed Books in London in 2007 and is distributed in the US through Palgrave Macmillan. I blog often about issues covered in the book, and many of my published articles are available on this website, but to get the full picture, to see how the different topics join up, you need to read the book. As I said recently in Dear Students of Sex Work and Trafficking, my ideas can’t easily be boiled down to bullet points or a FAQ.

Although the book sells steadily despite getting no real promotion and is on many university reading lists, you are unlikely to find it in bookstores. But it is easily available to buy online in several formats:

  • Sex at the Margins as a hardback and paperback on Amazon.
  • Sex at the Margins at Audible.com, where you can listen to a sample. The whole book occupies 6 hours and 45 minutes.
  • Sex at the Margins on the Kindle.
  • Sex at the Margins on the Nook.
  • Sex at the Margins on the Kobo.

Audible Editor-at-Large Susie Bright entitled her announcement

The Rescue Industry is Built on Migrant Sex Workers’ Backs:
Laura Agustín’s Rip Roaring Exposé – by Susie Bright

Laura Agustín has almost singlehandedly changed the international debate about the definition and exploitation of the “sex trafficking” world as it is manipulated and exploited by NGOs, the Rescue Industry and major political players.

The corruption and dissembling that is going in the name of “saving victims” is truly shocking, and that’s why Sex at the Margins has been on every feminist, public policy, and migrant rights desk since its first appearance.

“This groundbreaking book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work; that migrants who sell sex are passive victims; and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest.”

The fact that Agustín is an international multi-lingual genius [ Susie a bit over the top here], who can appear in Sweden or Italy or Nairobi at a moment’s notice to speak truth to power, has turned the world on its ear when the usual liars come out to press their sanctimonious case on “fallen women.” She will not suffer fools gladly and she WILL demand evidence.  (Check out her debate with Mira Sorvino at the UN!)

Whatever Laura does next, Margins will remain as the classic that started the fireworks. As far as I’m concerned, this book is the vanguard of feminism and the bleeding edge of migration consciousness.

You can of course also order it in any bookstore.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Since I’ll be talking about sex work as a labour issue at the Anarchist Bookfair, I thought I would re-run an early academic publication of mine, A Migrant World of Services. In my quest to understand why so many people disqualify selling sex as a potential job, I looked critically at traditional economic concepts such as the distinctions between productive and unproductive labour and between formal and informal employment sectors. I discovered these concepts are entirely arbitrary and out-dated and produce oppression for no good reason. For example, the majority of women’s work inside homes is labelled unproductive, and probably the majority of women’s jobs outside the home are also disqualified as real and productive by relegating them to the informal sector of the economy. I couldn’t see, and still cannot, how an economic sector  named Services, which takes in a raft of jobs, could exclude so many women’s jobs, so I also investigated ideas about emotional and caring work. Not only migrants are ripped off by these disqualifications – all are, and when men do these jobs they are as well.

A Migrant World of Services (pdf)

Social Politics, 10, 3, 377-96 (2003)

Laura Maria Agustín

Abstract: There is a strong demand for women’s domestic, caring and sexual labour in Europe which promotes migrations from many parts of the world. This paper examines the history of concepts that marginalise these as unproductive services (and not really ‘work’) and questions why the west accepts the semi-feudal conditions and lack of regulations pertaining to this sector. The moral panic on ‘trafficking’ and the limited feminist debate on ‘prostitution’ contribute to a climate that ignores the social problems of the majority of women migrants.

In a variety of scenarios in different parts of Europe, non-Europeans are arriving with the intention to work; these are largely migrant women and transgender people from the ‘third world’ or from Central and Eastern Europe and countries of the former Soviet Union. The jobs available to these women in the labour market are overwhelmingly limited to three basic types: domestic work (cleaning, cooking and general housekeeping), ‘caring’ for people in their homes (children, the elderly, the sick and disabled) and providing sexual experiences in a wide range of venues known as the sex industry. All these jobs are generally said to be services.

In the majority of press accounts, migrant women are presented as selling sex in the street, while in public forums and academic writing, they are constructed as ‘victims of trafficking.’ The obsession with ‘trafficking’ obliterates not only all the human agency necessary to undertake migrations but the experiences of migrants who do not engage in sex work. Many thousands of women who more or less chose to sell sex as well as all women working in domestic or caring service are ‘disappeared’ when moralistic and often sensationalistic topics are the only ones discussed. One of the many erased subjects concerns the labour market—the demand—for the services of all these women. The context to which migrants arrive is not less important than the context from which they leave, often carelessly described as ‘poverty’ or ‘violence.’ This article addresses the European context for women migrants’ employment in these occupations. Though domestic and caring work are usually treated as two separate jobs, very often workers do both, and these jobs also often require sexual labour, though this is seldom recognised. All this confusion and ambiguity occurs within a frame that so far has escaped definition.

For the rest, get the pdf.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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The Anarchist Bookfair is next Saturday 6 April, and I am looking forward to talking specifically about ideas related to sex work as a job or occupation or livelihood or profession - without giving centre-stage to feminist arguments, or any other -isms for that matter. That does not mean I think feminisms are irrelevant, but the focus on them has impeded dealing with labour policy on commercial sex for donkey’s years. All my ideas are infused with concepts of social justice whether they come from anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anarchist, socialist or feminist traditions. I’ve been a second-wave and third-wave feminist in my own way and plan to belong to future waves, as well – but consider arguing about which specific ideas are ideologically correct a waste of my time.

At University College Dublin on the 4th I’ll talk about Sex at the Margins, the full monty.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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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:

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


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I remember where I first heard the word empowerment. It was a poor, not very attractive place, the kind celebrities visit to have feel-good photos taken of themselves hugging children who appear to adore them. The girls at Somaly Mam’s over-visited home for ex-victims of trafficking are regularly required to perform the emotional work of gazing happily at rich visitors from abroad (as in this shot the US State Department has the nerve to call ‘diplomacy’).

Celebrity Rescuers like Shay Mitchell imagine they are experiencing Love:

My friends and I went to [a Mam] center, and we literally got out of the truck and the younger girls were running to me and my friends. They hadn’t met us before, they had no idea who we were. They didn’t care. It was just the fact we’d come to visit — that was enough for them to come up and give us a hug. They were saying, “Sister, sister.” That was unconditional love like I’ve never felt in my entire life.

That’s a lot of naiveté, even for a missionary. Do these folks actually not know that oft-visited residents learn how they are meant to greet fat-cat visitors? And there’s a jolly neoliberal proposition:

Somaly has heart-and-hand necklaces . . . They’re survivor-made products and when you purchase them, you’re helping a survivor become financially self-sufficient.

Self-sufficient – Is she kidding? Mam’s website is characterised by statements like We help victims of sex slavery to become survivors, and empower survivors as part of the solution. Thirteen years ago I wrote the following piece daring to doubt the idea of empowerment, and I haven’t changed my mind today. (More repellent feel-good photos here, if you can stomach them. Below, I do believe some of the faces from another Mam photo shoot are the same as above)

The Em- of Empowerment: Injecting pride in unwilling subjects?

Laura Agustín, Research for Sex Work, 3, 15-16 (2000).

The verb is transitive: someone gives power to another, or encourages them to take power or find power in themselves. It’s used among those who want to help others identified as oppressed. In Latin America, in educación popular, one of the great cradles of this kind of concept, the word itself didn’t exist until it was translated back from English. To many people, if they know it at all, the word empoderamiento sounds strange. It’s an NGO word, used by either volunteer or paid educators who view themselves as helpers of others or fighters for social justice, and is understood to represent the current politically correct way of thinking about ‘third world’, subaltern or marginalised people. But it remains a transitive verb, which places emphasis on the helper and her vision of her capacity to help, encourage and show the way. These good intentions, held also by 19th-century European missionaries, we know from experience do not ensure non-exploitation.

In the current version of these good intentions, ‘first-world’ people and entities use their funds to help or empower those less privileged. They spend money to set up offices and pay salaries, many to people who remain in offices, often engaged in writing proposals that will allow them to stay in business. These organisations have hierarchies, and those engaged in education or organisation at the grassroots level often are the last to influence how funds will be used. Those closer to the top, who attend conferences, live in Europe or have career interests in the organisation, know how proposals must be written to compete in the crowded funding world. This condition of structural power should not be overlooked by those concerned with empowerment, who more often view themselves as embattled, as non-government, as crusaders situated against conservative policies. Yet, when a concept like empowerment comes from above in this way, we needn’t be surprised at the kind of contradictions that result—literacy programmes that don’t keep people interested in reading, AIDS education that doesn’t stop people from refusing to use condoms.

To empower me as a sex worker you assume the role of acting on me and you assume that I see myself as an individual engaged in sex work. If I don’t see myself this way, then I am disqualified from the empowerment project, despite your best intentions. The identity issue here is crucial; funders and activists alike are currently interested in valorising cultural and individual difference. While it is a great advance to recognise and ‘give voice to’ human subjects who were before marginalised or disappeared, the problem remains that if you want to inject pride in me that I am a worker and supporter of my family and I don’t recognise or want to think of myself that way, the advance won’t occur, in my case.

But, you say, those are the real conditions, we live in a world of funders and partial successes. We’re doing the best we can, and we acknowledge that these empowerment projects often fail. Since it’s to no one’s benefit that successes be quite so partial, let’s consider whether there is any way which this empowerment concept might be conceived differently, forgetting for the moment the funder and his funds.

In educación popular, in programmes sometimes called capacitación [capacity-building], people get together to talk, sometimes with the encouragement of a person from ‘outside’. This person might be called an animadora or an educator, her job to facilitate conditions where subjects might realise they have a problem in common which, if they acted together, they might be able to move toward solving. I’m describing a very fundamental, ‘pure’ version, perhaps, now complicated in many places in many ways by different histories, international contacts, hybrid forms. Still, it’s worth considering what the most basic idea always has been.

Here, the most the outsider does is provide the suggestion of a time and place, with perhaps a very basic reason for getting together, perhaps just ‘meeting neighbours’. Who finds out about this meeting? Everyone who lives there, if it’s a village or small barrio and people talk to each other fairly freely. Letting people know can be an important task of the outsider. Sometimes, in larger places, an ‘identity’ is targeted, but it can be a very general identity, such as everyone concerned to improve conditions in the community.

The educator/animator might suggest the group talk about a topic such as how to get running water, bus service or rubbish collection—topics of concern to everyone, including sex workers. Or she might present a question—such as why everyone is talking about migrating to work somewhere else—and hope people will respond. But if they don’t, and if nothing seems to happen, her job is to resist the temptation to push the conversation. The hope is rather that if people feel free to talk, they will, eventually, if only to see if others share their feelings. This process can be extremely slow and even invisible, and no money or materials from outside are required. The profound assumption is rather that people themselves already know a lot—what they want, what they need. If they agree after some time that a technical fact or help is needed that none of them possess, then they might feel ‘empowered’ to search for that fact on the outside.

Does the ‘outsider’actually need to be there during this process? The answer depends on the person, on how quietly encouraging she is, on how patient and undisappointed if the group doesn’t take off, agree on anything or if it agrees to a programme the opposite of what the funders want.

Can this vision be applied when funders seem concerned solely with the sex organs of people assumed to ‘identify’ themselves as sex workers? If educators must ‘target’ prostitutes as those who come to a meeting? Perhaps, if the same kind of mostly undirected sharing of experiences is encouraged. Many times sex workers will then be heard to discuss not sex, clients and condoms—the topics always brought up by funders—but all the other aspects of their lives, which are not peculiar to them as sex workers. They might talk about a new song, a new dress, a new club—or a new idea for getting together to protect and help each other.

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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Academic publishing is dysfunctional. Even I, who spend a good bit of time online, never received notice of a review of Sex at the Margins published five years ago in a major journal. Had I known about this one I would have responded to its complaints. The short reply is that the book is based on research I did for a phd. It never set out to be a definitive study of every possible situation, and it was started before I had even heard the word trafficking. By the time I approached the end, I knew I was publishing testimonies that other people would classify and analyse differently, but my object was to account for migrants’ own descriptions of their lives – including women living in the kind of situations depicted in this photo. Yes, I talked to folks like her and others pictured on this page, in Europe and before they had left their own countries. More of my reply after the review itself.

Gender & Development Vol 16, No 1, March 2008

Agustin, Laura Maria, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry
London: Zed Books, 2007

This book should be recommended to everyone who works for any type of ‘rescue industry’, and especially to organisations helping migrants and prostitutes. It should also be interesting for all who read media stories about victims of trafficking, stories that are all similar, which all include information about police rescue actions, and accounts of sexual exploitation and violence; stories that we all know. Usually the  stories do not mention that such actions do not have happy endings, that the ‘rescued women’ are sent back home into the very same situation they were trying to escape, and their lives there are now made more difficult by the new stigma of being a prostitute. Their traffickers are rarely punished.

The book is written by a person who herself has carried out ‘participatory research’, that is, she has worked with migrant prostitutes or ‘victims of trafficking’, as they are referred to in most cases. [LA: Not by me, by other commentators.] It is written from the perspective of a person who knows the situation from the inside, who has followed the flow of migration from Latin America to Spain, who understands the complexity of motivations and circumstances leading to the decisions to migrate. The author looks at women’s strategies to settle in a new country, to find a job there, to engage in one of the caring professions in the so-called ‘informal economy’, or in prostitution. The book is the result of Agustin’s attempts to match her own experience and knowledge gained during her work in migrant communities, with the political responses to the ‘issue of migration’ which are offered by international organisations, governments, and civil-society organisations. She observes the problems of migrant women working in prostitution, as well as the problems in the development of policy responses, the types of social support available to women, and the media accounts of their ‘exploitation’. As she writes: The migration discourse relies on numerous questionable dichotomies: work and leisure, travel and settling, legal and illegal. The label migrant goes to poorer people who are conceived as workers with no other desires and projects, but when migrants are women who sell sex they lose workers’ status and become ‘victims of trafficking’. The obsessive gaze on poverty and forced sex disqualifies working people’s participation in global flows, flexible labour, diaspora and transnationalism. Women are victimised more but the migrant label is disempowering for men too.

The book questions the politicised approach to women’s migration that results not only in too simplistic an interpretation of the new global trends, but as a consequence results also in developing inadequate responses to those trends. While writing about the situation of migrants, the author is showing how the use of the term ‘migration’ is reducing the complex meaning of the movement of people through the borders, especially those who are poor, and from the margins of the world. Migration as opposed to travel; migrants as opposed to travellers or tourists; the need for employment as opposed to the need to seek new horizons and to explore the world. In real life, argues the author, such oppositions rarely exist.

Agustin is describing some of the irrational actions and reactions to the migration of women, by presenting a discursive picture of the ‘migrant prostitute’, a picture that bears a heavy load of suspicion and stereotypes. The figure of a ‘victim of trafficking’ (helpless, abused, in need of support, not able to make sensible decisions and protect herself) is an extreme example of politicisation of the migration discourse. Even more extreme is the practical result of such a narrative, a model of assistance developed to assist victims.

‘Trafficking’ is, to some extent, a modern duplication of the ‘white slave’ discourse from the nineteenth and [early] twentieth centuries. Back then, the term ‘white slaves’ was designed to prevent women’s migration by spreading stories about what happened to women migrating from Europe to the Americas. Today, while the rhetoric is the same, the protection of innocent victims from sexual abuse, the term ‘trafficking’ is used to describe the global migration of women and, once again, the aim is to protect them from sex crimes. I share the conviction of the author that the view of a female migrant as a woman with no agency, no clearly defined migration project, helpless and in need of protection, has given rise to a very conservative, old-fashioned model of charity work.

However, after agreeing with the author on these points, I have to ask, what about the victims of trafficking? While challenging the definition of trafficking, and presenting the complex web of consequences that the contextualisation of migrant women as victims of trafficking has for their rights and their lives, Agustin does not mention the fact that some of the migrant women working in prostitution are indeed victims of trafficking and need support.

While it is very important to reject the charitable approach as flawed, what should replace it? I am not a big fan of any particular approach to prostitution adopted by policy makers to date. All of them seem to me inadequate, and fail to reflect the complexity of the issues covered by this term; and, even more, the complexity of real-life situations and biographies of the people involved. These are people who somehow, stubbornly, do not want to fit into our models. However, working for many years in eastern and central Europe, I have to acknowledge that the situation of many prostitutes cannot be described by any terms other than abuse, force, and exploitation. They are ‘owned’ by the pimps, have their earnings confiscated, and are not free to choose the conditions of their work, among other issues. We cannot use the language of consent, and insist that prostitution is a chosen profession to describe situations of cruel exploitation, deprivation of freedom of movement, and total dependence on the bar or brothel owners. In the same way in which violence against women in the family cannot be called ‘family life’, the violence against migrant women working in prostitution cannot be called ‘sex work’. The difference is that in the case of theorising family life, nobody, for political reasons, is trying to say that all marriages should be perceived as violent, and all married women should be treated as victims, just because violence against women in the family exists.

I am disappointed that Agustin stopped short of looking at the real violence against migrant women, especially those working in the sex industry. She does describe how the term ‘trafficking in women’ is misused, but does not look at the need to re-establish its proper meaning.

I wonder how it was possible that the term ‘trafficking’ was hijacked by the international organisations and state agencies, and that suddenly all women working in sex industry became ‘victims of trafficking’, not only migrants. In eastern Europe, the term is used also to describe ‘internal trafficking’. I would be even more interested to learn how it is possible that the very same actions of the state agencies that were the trigger for NGOs taking action to protect abused migrant prostitutes are now described as ‘anti-trafficking measures’. I do understand the mistrust of Agustin towards such actions, but I wonder whether the decision simply to refuse to look at abused migrant prostitutes as victims of trafficking will stop the violence against them.

Barbara Limanowska, UNDP

I can understand Limanowska’s disappointment: almost every book I read disappoints me in some way. However, it isn’t true that I simply ‘refused to look at abused migrant prostitutes’ or didn’t mention that some victims want support. Conversations I had with escapees from bad situations are included in the book; one vignette in the fieldwork chapter describes a shelter for escapees from trafficking in Madrid. Incidents migrants narrated to me that describe abuse are included as well. What I did that hadn’t been done before was listen to everything else they said, including complications like their compliancy in getting false papers, their willingness to get into debt, the priority they gave to earning money, their desire not to be rescued in the manner often imposed on them and their insistent rejection of a victim identity. Limanowska suggests, even back in 2008, that there are two clearly separable groups – migrants and trafficked people, which leads her to complain that I only wrote about one of the groups and neglected the other. What I actually did was analyse what hundreds of people said to me, trying to shed light on their bigger stories rather than classify them. I found no evidence for the existence of two discrete groups requiring different treatment (or policy). No one that I spoke with, even in shelters for trafficking victims, described themselves as belonging to a group separable from migrants in general.

Sex at the Margins is an edited version of my doctoral thesis. For two years after getting the phd I didn’t even bother to send it to Zed Books, the publisher I had a contract with. I simply never imagined it could be interesting or relevant to many people. That it was good enough for reviewers like Limanowska to forget it was a student’s work, not a big policy-oriented study, is actually a big compliment.

More of the many reviews of the book can be read here.

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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