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

Who cares about the law against buying sex? City, a free newspaper like Metro, ran a page recently on sex laws in Sweden.

17 steps to a softer vision of sex
A lot has happened on the sex front in the past 100 years.
Follow City’s timeline to see how the vision of sex has changed.

The choice of landmarks to put on this timeline is interesting; obviously not all legal events concerning sex in Sweden in the past 100 years were included. Those chosen reflect familiar forms of liberalisation most people are now comfortable with: contraception, abortion, homosexuality, discrimination, partnerships.

The law criminalising the purchase of sex, sexköpslagen, is absent, as are other laws that contradict the headline that says everything’s become ‘softer’ (more permissive/less strict; soft and softer aren’t Swedish words). One friend said editors would omit the sex-buying law as insignificant to 90% of the readers – just one of those odd laws ordinary people don’t understand and have no opinion about. City is an unpretentious, popular paper commuters pick up outside train stations.

If you only look at news sources that consider themselves to be Important, keeping the record of what national government figures say and do, you get a different impression – that laws like sexköpslagen are symbols of Swedish policy on equality. Some people think this hegemonic news is more important. Some think it’s significant that only one MP actively opposes the law, but my guess is the others just want to avoid trouble from aggressive state feminists. Then there’s the fact that most people just don’t know there are normal sex workers in their lives, because everyone keeps quiet about it. That’s what stigma accomplishes, and it’s the opposite of normalisation.

Anti-prostitutionists exaggerate effects of the law constantly, and claim that a single survey on ‘attitudes’ about it proves its popularity amongst Swedes (Kuosmanen 2010). But the author himself cautioned against believing his results, given that ‘of the 2500 questionnaires that were distributed, 1134 were returned, providing a response rate of 45.4% and a missing rate of 54.6% from the entire sample.’ It turns out a large proportion of males receiving the survey failed to respond, meaning, Kuosmanen warned, ‘the results should be interpreted with a degree of caution, particularly as regards questions that concern experiences of the purchase and sale of sex, where there is, in addition, a degree of internally missing data.’

I doubt most people who received the survey knew much or had ever thought about the law. What does it matter, then, how they answered the questions? I don’t understand the significance of an attitude survey, as though the population were a marketing focus group asked to indicate whether a new flavour of yogurt has a future amongst consumers.

It would be interesting to see a parallel timeline of ‘harder’ or less permissive visions of sex during the same period: laws widening the definition of rape and women’s sexual vulnerability (which sexköpslagen is grounded in). The presence of both tendencies at the same time shows how society tries to ‘progress’ vis-a-vis sex, deciding which forms of sexual liberation and control to promote, which kinds of sex are good and bad. Politicians make hay of this stuff, while everyone else gets on with doing what they want, mostly – as discussed the other day under the rubric Prohibition.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Last week at Gatwick airport, after asking me several apparently random questions presumably intended to trip me up, the official wagged my passport at me frustratedly. I knew what he wanted to ask but couldn’t: Damn it, who are you? These poor foot-soldiers in the war of the borders are required, whilst maintaining a calm and polite facade, to bully border-crossers in the hope of finding someone with nefarious purposes. I’m so accustomed to it that I scarcely notice, at the same time I’m aware that, if they want, they can keep me out, so it is always a moment of heightened attention lived in a zone of border thinking.

My Purpose was given as visiting friends, so he’d asked What nationality are your friends? Lots of different nationalities, I said. Oh, so you’re visiting more than one friend? You see why I call these questions random, and they also border on ethnic profiling, but never mind. They are probably sent lists of Annoying Questions of the Week. They hadn’t gotten him anywhere in his quest, anyway, which is why he flapped the passport at me and asked What do you do, anyway? I write, I replied. Now we were back on a more well-trodden track but still with stumbling-points. Have I read anything you’ve written? he challenged. I said I had no idea and and doubted it, but of course while he is having a hard go of figuring out who I am I haven’t a clue about him. Maybe he’s a No-Borders activist in his time off. Finally he gave up and waved me through.

Yesterday I was interviewed by a London politician on my views and proposals relating to trafficking. At one point I was explaining how underground economies mostly tootle along without disturbing anyone, replete with opportunism and abuse but flexible and tending to solve problems internally. To illustrate, I mentioned an incident during my own five years of illegal status (not in the UK). Who are you? I could almost hear him think. At another point I referred to my own experience of being oppressed by the work-permit system, where leaving a job one has a permit for means instant expiration of one’s legal status in the country. He has been told about the live-in maids who cannot leave because their passports are stamped for that single specific employment, even if they are being abused. To find out that supposedly ‘highly-skilled’ permits are just the same and that a researcher might feel abused and want to quit the job but stay and find another had never occurred to him. These are the nuts-and-bolts workings of a dysfunctional migration system, and they are rarely addressed in the abstract debating that goes on about migrants.

At one point, attempting to pin me down, he said, Philosophically you could be called a libertarian -and I cut him off right there. No, I said, I am not a libertarian, I rarely talk about rights and freedoms. I also am not a neoliberal proponent of the happiness of making money in a free marketplace. What I am is a believer in human agency. I believe that disadvantaged persons with limited options of how to proceed in life have, until they are actually put in chains, some space to move, negotiate, prefer one option to another. This position hardly seems philosophical to me, and I am not going to get credit for inventing a new theory with it. Yet time and again it turns conversations upside down.

Similarly, I handle the endlessly tedious conversation about whether selling sex can ever ‘be work’ like this: If one person tells me they experience it as rape and exploitation, I believe them. If another person tells me they experience it as a profession, I believe them. The other day sex workers in Santo Domingo, faced with a government proposing to criminalise their clients, reminded the state attorney that muchas de ellas mantienen a sus familias de este trabajo – many of them maintain their families with this work. (You’d think that would be punto final, wouldn’t you, especially in a poor country where any jobs at all are scarce – but it never is). Why this difference of perception and emotion should lead to such a hullaballoo is really beyond explanation.

Maybe these views make me a philosopher of the cracker barrel, doling out obvious common sense. But the politician explained his grimaces of embarrassed delight: You say things that occur to me in the back of my mind but I tell myself I must not allow them. Because they are taboo? I replied. Or, what do you think, because they are outside the box, revolutionary or downright criminal? Which lines are being crossed, exactly, with this naked talk?

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you enjoy the evening?”

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

“But you went along with it.”

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

“Did you feel that you were a whore?”

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

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

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

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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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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