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

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 27 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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As everyone knows, I don’t play around with isms. I thought in the 60s that feminism might work but by the early 70s had already realised there were multiple versions – feminisms – which perhaps negates the whole point of an ism, which is a doctrine, theory or philosophy that Explains Things. It turned out that feminism(s), while useful and fascinating, could not provide a whole thought-system to explain how all women feel – or What Women Want, as Freud complained.

I didn’t even think about feminism and prostitution as a ‘problem’ until decades later, when I went back to school. And after reading dozens of books and hundreds of articles and essays on the subject, I realised that this ‘problem’ would never be solved. Many people find it endlessly interesting to hammer at each other about the meaning of prostitution and/or sex work, with the goal of winning, but I don’t. So I began trying to avoid talking about feminisms just to keep things interesting for me, but it is very hard, as some kind of tidal force relentlessly pulls conversations back to that argument. None of which means I don’t think of myself as a feminist – I obviously am one.

I did write Sex as Work and Sex Work in a marxian way for The Commoner, whose editors requested I depart from a post-argument position – as though we’d already accepted that sex can be work, paid or unpaid. It’s been republished several times, by Jacobin and libcom.org, which both can encompass both marxist and anarchist ideas, at least sometimes (and also by Arts & Opinion). I used the term marxian rather than marxist for my own contribution precisely because it doesn’t address all the key factors in marxism.  There’s no such thing as marxianism.

Now, I’m doing two talks in Dublin a few days apart in April. At the first, at University College Dublin I’ll take an hour and describe how migration, trafficking, sex work and the Rescue Industry are related. This is the time needed to join these ideas up so that people aren’t confused and frustrated when I stop talking. Then we’ll have a half hour for questions – not for statements of protest and ideology. Then we’ll have respondents – abolitionists and sex workers among them.

At the Anarchist Bookfair I’ve got 30 minutes to talk, followed by 30 minutes of discussion, so I won’t be talking about all that. I was asked to talk about Feminism and Sex Work, so I’m going to talk about how feminism(s) are interesting but perhaps not essential to a discussion of sex work, or at least don’t have to be granted determining status of outcomes. I’ll expect questions afterwards not  to try to pull the topic back to the classic, closed-circle debate. I know – Good luck with that. I also won’t be modelling a perfectly coherent view according to marxism, anarchism or any other ism. Ha! someone on the facebook page for the Bookfair has accused me of liberalism, after reading approximately 25 words of my work.

All I ask for is a moderator – and if there isn’t one, I’ll get tough.

6 April 2013, 1220-1320

Thinking about Sex Work as Work with Laura Agustín

at the 8th Anarchist Dublin Bookfair

Doors open at 10am and first meetings start at 1130. The venue is Liberty Hall, Eden Quay, next to the River Liffey, shown here on a map. Enter on the ground floor and go up one flight for the talk. The bookfair itself – the books – are underground!

Other events in the Bookfair include an evening in The Pint pub, Eden Quay, on Saturday and a walking tour on Sunday at 1400 focussing on the Irish Banking industry (catalysers of economic collapse). These events are organised by Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland).

For those who cannot conceive of a sex-work conversation without nattering endlessly about feminisms, try Sex as Work and Sex Work. It can be done.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

 

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I’ll be doing two talks in Dublin the first week of April, one at University College Dublin and another at the Anarchist Bookfair. Since Ireland is currently the scene of a lamentable government investigation into prostitution for the purpose of making a new law, I’m glad to be part of two events that will resist the general victimising of women who sell sex, particularly since I had to formally object to a report the Justice Department produced last year that lifted many of my statements without attributing them. After time-consuming backs and forths with them, the report was re-released with attributions in place. And then when they held an event last October they pointedly excluded me.

4 April 2013, 1600-1830

Sex at the Margins: A talk by Dr Laura Agustín on Migration, Trafficking and the Rescue Industry

After my talk, questions and a break there will be a panel of 5-6 respondents, including sex workers. There has been bitterness about government hearings that have refused to allow any active sex workers to testify – while they have listened to some self-identified victims.

The event will take place at the John Hume Institute for Global Irish Studies Centre, in the Clinton Auditorium, pictured above and on this map. This is near Stillorgan Road in Belfield, Dublin 4.

The Clinton Auditorium is located near the main entrance to the campus, five minutes from a bus stop used by several buses. The 39a bus actually terminates within the Belfield campus at a stop near the Auditorium and can be boarded in the City Centre from Bachelor’s Walk or College Street. The bus runs every 10-15 minutes. Bachelor’s Walk is on the North Quays, facing the River Liffey, just to the right of the top of O’Connell Street if facing the river. College Street is to the right of the main entrance to Trinity College if facing the main entrance. For more details see the campus website. Questions may be addressed to Anne Mulhall (anne.mulhall[a]ucd.ie).

then

6 April 2013, 1220-1320

Thinking about Sex Work as Work with Laura Agustín

at the 8th Anarchist Dublin Bookfair

Doors open at 10am and first meetings start at 1130. The venue is Liberty Hall, Eden Quay, next to the River Liffey, shown here on a map. Enter on the ground floor and go up one flight for the talk. The bookfair itself – the books – are underground!

Other events in the Bookfair include an evening in The Pint pub, Eden Quay, on Saturday and a walking tour on Sunday at 1400 focussing on the Irish Banking industry (catalysers of economic collapse). These events are organised by Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland).

For those who cannot conceive of a sex-work conversation without nattering endlessly about feminisms, try Sex as Work and Sex Work. It can be done.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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In Are Evangelicals Monopolizing, Misleading US Anti-Trafficking Efforts? Yvonne Zimmerman, author of Other Dreams of Freedom: Religion, Sex, and Human Trafficking, is asked if US anti-trafficking crusades could be called colonialist. She replies, ‘It’s an argument waiting to be made’. Since I’ve been making it for ten years, I had to write to her. It’s certainly true that the critique of colonialism is not often heard, despite the term Rescue Industry‘s spread.

Evangelical bloggers did not like hearing the word. John Mark Reynolds reacted scathingly in Surprise! Evangelical Efforts Against Sex-Trafficking are ‘Colonialist’! followed by Derek Rishmawy in Sex-Trafficking, Evangelical ‘Colonialism’ and the Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. He gets prize for the most ignorant sarcastic crack: If that’s ‘colonialism’, then it’s the holy colonialism of God at work through his people. Welcome to the White Man’s Burden, shamelessly justified all over again, where the idea of colonialism is treated like a joke – or ‘joke’.

To make things worse, Reynolds used a flagrantly racist image to bias his own piece, showing a dark-skinned and/or dirty man handling an innocent white child. The shot is one of several someone created for campaigning purposes – whether they understood the inherent racism I don’t know.

I asked Yvonne to tell me what Other Dreams of Freedom is about and why she wrote it.

It is very popular for American Christians to be involved in anti-trafficking activism. Although some American Christians are interested in a broad understanding of trafficking that includes exploitative labor, usually they mean sex trafficking. And usually by sex trafficking they mean commercial sex – any exchange of sex or sexual services for money. They think that if people no longer sell sexual services they will be free from trafficking, so they favor programs that ‘fight trafficking’ by trying to get people to leave the sex industry. Means to this end vary from educational scholarships to job-training programs to brothel raids. In terms of law and policy, many American Christians support the abolitionist agenda to criminalize all sex-money exchanges.

I am a scholar of religious studies and ethics. I wrote Other Dreams of Freedom to examine why this anti-trafficking perspective feels so appealing and ‘right’ to many American Christians. When I was doing the research between 2005 and 2008, George W. Bush was president and his administration was constructing an international anti-trafficking agenda, often referring to God, God’s intent for human life and Good and Evil. I focused on anti-trafficking legislation (TVPA), the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, public policy statements and press releases. These were not trying to be religious, but I saw how they expressed a very particular religious and moral sensibility.

But Other Dreams of Freedom is about more than Bush. The understanding of human trafficking that his administration endorsed is wildly popular in the US; Americans who identify with a wide variety of other religious traditions defend this view. My book shows how Christian theology rooted in Reformed Protestantism infuses and shapes much American culture and moral sensibility, including the connections between sex, freedom and morality. My analysis of the theological sources clarifies why Americans are so quick to see commercial sex to be inherently degrading and immoral. The book discusses the unintended consequences of using a single religious perspective to build foreign policy in a multi-religious world.

Morgan Guyton at Mercy not Sacrifice also wrote about the original interview, and Yvonne left a comment that mentioned me, so I left something, too. Guyton replied:

What I have carried with me from my first job at a little NGO in DC called the Nicaragua Network is that any kind of real support we offer to people in disadvantaged situations anywhere must always have its terms dictated to us by the people we’re supposedly helping. We called it the solidarity model. In Christianese, I would call it ‘servanthood’ rather than ‘service’. It’ s great that young evangelicals are interested in social justice, but it seems like the way it’s often packaged makes it more like a form of tourism than anything else. I’m interested in reading more.

Yvonne Zimmerman is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

Note that Christian Evangelism exists outside the US and behaves similarly when it comes to trafficking: here is a recent note about CARE in the UK.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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