Tag Archives: Africa

Nigerian migrant women as subjects: Sex work in fiction

Anti-trafficking campaigners often single out Nigerian women as the worst case of what they call sex trafficking. I first wrote about this years ago and note that, despite critiques and debunkings, the trend holds. In stories about Nigerian migrant women, ‘rituals’ are usually cited that are supposed to have bound them in a specially sinister way to smugglers. It’s straight-up racist colonialism, the inability and unwillingness to conceive of even the most superficial aspects of a non-western culture. Lurid conclusions are jumped to immediately according to which juju ceremonies are not comparable to Roman Catholic ones, for one example – though promises, petitions and talismans are found in both. As though one sort of prayer for help or success were inherently irrational and the other not.

That’s not to say that conditions are not pretty dire for many women and men in western Africa, politically, economically, on the gender front – which means people can be willing to take big risks and assume onerous debts when they travel to work abroad. Early in my studies I learned about how some migrants think about that in Lucciole neri – Le prostitute nigeriane si raccontano (Iyamu Kennedy and Pino Nicotri, editors, 1999), one of my sources of ethnographic research with migrants who sell sex in Europe, for what eventually became Sex at the Margins. These Nigerians were working in Italy. [NB: It’s never clear whether the label Nigerian actually means born in and identified with that country. In the world of migration national identities are shifty.]

On Black Sisters’ Street, by Chika Unigwe, came out in 2009. I was prompted to read it by This is Africa’s mention of it along with Sex at the Margins. It’s a novel telling the stories of four women’s migrations from Nigeria to Belgium where they work in windows in the red-light district. None of them has had an easy life and none of them sees herself as a victim, despite the presence of a powerful smuggler in Lagos and a controlling madam in Antwerp. They are, the author says, willing to play the trump card that God has wedged in between their legs. Unigwe has said:

If your parents can’t help you out and your government has failed you, these pimps and traffickers have at least given you a chance to leave and make a living. He’s your saviour. It takes someone outside the situation to see these pimps and traffickers as the bad guys.

At the end of the book we are told how three of the women fare in the future. After nine years in Antwerp, Efe became a madam herself.

It would take eighteen months to get her first of two girls whom she would indeed buy at an auction presided by a tall, good-looking Nigerian man in sunglasses and a beret. It would be in a house in Brussels, with lots to drink and soft music playing in the background. The women would enter the country with a musical band billed to perform at the Lokerenfeest. The man in the sunglasses was the manager of the band and as usual had, in addition to genuine members of the band, added the names of the women who had paid him to the list he submitted at the embassy in Abuja. The women would be called into the room one at a time for the buyers to see and admire. They would all have numbers, for names were not important. Their names would be chosen by whoever bought them. Names that would be easy for white clients to pronounce… Efe would buy numbers five and seven. Number five because she smiled easily. Number seven because she looked docile and eager to please, the sort of girl who was grateful for little. Like Madam, Efe would have some police officers on her payroll to ensure the security of her girls and of her business. She would do well in the business, buying more girls to add to her fleet. pp 278-9

Yes, this is an auction where employers bid on women who will sell sex, but beware glossing all nuances and calling it slave-trading. The women in question want to migrate and accept they’ll be selling sex and paying off a debt. Which doesn’t mean they know everything that may happen to them and how constrained life will be in another country. The Three-Headed Dog, my own recent novel, is about the same dynamics, with Latin Americans in Spain but also a strong Nigerian character – Promise.

I first published this post only slightly changed on 22 September 2011 and publish it again now as part of a series on sex work in fiction.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Cry with trafficked women: Colonial prurience and 3-star hotels

I’ve been ill a great deal this year and for the past month bowed down by a death, but the imminence of August cranked me up sufficiently to vent my now annual disgust at tours from the US that take well-paying travellers to gawk at and pity poorer people in Other Countries (who always smile in the photos taken, of course). If there is anything I hate it’s this. In 2011 I wrote Have fun, take a tour to meet victims of sex trafficking, learn to be a saviour, illustrating it with the egregious Kristof, who has not a jot of shame about looking like a Teddy Roosevelt Rough Rider. Given the sexual aspect, the word prurience came to mind: socially-sanctioned permission to be a voyeur, to go to bars abroad you wouldn’t set foot in at home as part of a do-gooding ‘social justice’ trip. To my mind, this is sex tourism.

This year’s tour to Thailand Delegation to End Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking is aimed at aspiring individuals. What might they mean by that? And why do they call this a delegation to end trafficking rather than, if not pure tourism, a first step towards understanding trafficking? The pretension is obviously meant to provide something to add to CVs, the way internships in impressive-sounding organisations do, though at least those last some months, whereas this tour takes a week (5 -12 August). Look at the rhetoric:

Global Exchange Reality Tours is facilitating this delegation to Thailand geared specifically to confronting the realities of the global trade in human beings. Participants will receive a comprehensive education in the mechanics of human trafficking, as well an understanding of its underlying causes. Participants will meet with those who have been freed from slavery and learn what it means to rebuild one’s life after having been a victim of trafficking, and will also engage directly with groups and individuals on the frontlines of the struggle to expose and ultimately end the trade in human lives.

This is B-movie-type public-relations prose: facilitating – delegation – geared – confronting – realities – global trade – human beings – comprehensive education – mechanics – human trafficking – participants – comprehensive education – mechanics – underlying causes – freed from slavery – rebuild one’s life – frontlines of the struggle – expose – end the trade – human lives. Nothing concrete, nothing real.

For those who aren’t clear as to why I call this colonialism, note the clear differentiation between Subject (tourist) and Object (exotic other). I believe this is the first time they claim tourists will talk with people who have been freed from slavery – an obvious pitch to the cheapest of sentiments. I am appalled that Global Exchange maintains any credibility. Last year I wrote the following in Summertime Imperialism: Meet sex-trafficking victims and other sad folk, because online sales of folkloric and supposedly authentic third-worldish objects is how GE started:

Gift-buying and helping projects wrapped together: One can see how the founders leapt to the idea of taking people on tours. Global Exchange says We are an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world. Easily said. A list of current tours includes Caring for Cuba’s Cats and New Journey of a Lifetime to India with Vandana Shiva. Sound harmless?

I had doubts back then and still do, but those in favour argue the tours are a way for folks who know something is wrong with what they read in the media to see the truth. That’s in theory; the question is how easy is it to provide the truth with anything called a tour? Who decides where to go, what the focus of tours will be and which natives will provide entertainment? Is the idea that all middle-class people have to do is arrive in a poor country and set their eyes upon poverty and suffering in order to experience enlightenment? It’s a short jump from that lack of politics to becoming an Expert who knows What To Do about other people’s lives. Imperialist projects to interfere follow quickly.

Although individual tourists may learn good things from conscientious tour guides, a tour is a holiday, a vacation, whether you set out to see the temples of Bangkok or the bargirls or the trafficking victims. You take a tour for your own benefit and pleasure, even if your pleasure consists in feeling angry and sorry and guilty about what your own government does to people in poorer countries. You go to look at exotic others, and you can’t help drawing conclusions about whole cultures based on what you see – just as tourists and business travellers do. If you happen to talk with someone not on the tour agenda – on a bus, in a bar – then you probably feel chuffed that you saw real people and experienced authentic culture. This is all relatively harmless unless you happen to add this experience to your CV, claiming temples, bar girls or sex trafficking are subjects you are expert in.

This year they provide an itinerary, which includes:

In the morning drive to Chiang Mai: Check into Guesthouse
Visit local project
At night visit nightclubs and bars to observe night activities

It’s been made clear to me that ordinary people in the US have no understanding of what colonialism means and how they themselves perpetuate it. That needs work. Perhaps having broken the spell of not writing I’ll begin again now, even if it is August.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

African women in Europe willing to play the trump card God has wedged between their legs – or sex trafficking, if you prefer

Sex trafficking campaigners often single out Nigerian women as the worst case of sex trafficking, because of debts that sound the largest and the sometime presence of so-called rituals that are supposed to have bound these migrants in a specially sinister way to their traffickers. It’s old-fashioned racist colonialism – an unwillingness to imagine even the most superficial aspects of a non-western culture, jumping to lurid conclusions instead, in which juju ceremonies are somehow not comparable to Roman Catholic ones, for example – though promises, talismen and emotion are found in both. As though one sort of prayer for help or success were inherently irrational and the other not.

That’s not to say that conditions are not pretty dire for many women and men in western Africa, politically and economically – which means people can be willing to take big risks and assume onerous debts when they travel to work abroad. I learned about how some migrants think about that in Lucciole neri – Le prostitute nigeriane si raccontano (Iyamu Kennedy and Pino Nicotri, editors, 1999), one of my sources of ethnographic research with migrants who sell sex in Europe, for what eventually became Sex at the Margins. These Nigerians were working in Italy.

On Black Sisters’ Street, by Chika Unigwe, came out in 2009, but I have only just read it (prompted by This is Africa’s mention of it along with my book recently). It’s a novel telling the stories of four women’s migrations from Nigeria to Belgium where they work in windows in the red-light district. None of them has had an easy life and none of them sees herself as a victim, despite the presence of a powerful smuggler in Lagos and a controlling madam in Antwerp. They are, the author says, willing to play the trump card that God has wedged in between their legs. Unigwe has said:

If your parents can’t help you out and your government has failed you, these pimps and traffickers have at least given you a chance to leave and make a living. He’s your saviour. It takes someone outside the situation to see these pimps and traffickers as the bad guys.

At the end of the book we are told how three of the women fare in the future. After nine years in Antwerp, Efe became a madam herself.

It would take eighteen months to get her first of two girls whom she would indeed buy at an auction presided by a tall, good-looking Nigerian man in sunglasses and a beret. It would be in a house in Brussels, with lots to drink and soft music playing in the background. The women would enter the country with a musical band billed to perform at the Lokerenfeest. The man in the sunglasses was the manager of the band and as usual had, in addition to genuine members of the band, added the names of the women who had paid him to the list he submitted at the embassy in Abuja. The women would be called into the room one at a time for the buyers to see and admire. They would all have numbers, for names were not important. Their names would be chosen by whoever bought them. Names that would be easy for white clients to pronounce… Efe would buy numbers five and seven. Number five because she smiled easily. Number seven because she looked docile and eager to please, the sort of girl who was grateful for little. Like Madam, Efe would have some police officers on her payroll to ensure the security of her girls and of her business. She would do well in the business, buying more girls to add to her fleet. pp 278-9

Yes, this is an auction where employers bid on women who will sell sex. It is not slave-trading, however.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Sex at the Margins in a Pleasantly Surprising African Europe

Sex At The Margins of Surprising Europe was the title given to an interesting piece mentioning my book from This is Africa last week. The occasion was a new episode of Al Jazeera‘s Surprising Europe series entitled Under Pressure, on the experiences of African migrants who sell drugs or sex in Europe.

I have to say I wish these money-making activities had not been separated off from others, reinforcing the stigma about them. In a different episode I watched from the series, a woman living in Holland without money to pay rent is told to go to the red-light district and work. She says she would rather die than do that – which fair enough – and so she had a different kind of very hard time. I could also have done without one typically moralistic condemnation of prostitution as not the way for Africans to get ahead – when the programme actually contradicts her from a practical standpoint – but in general I enjoyed and recommend Under Pressure.

I often say that the so-called illegality of sex jobs is a moot point when workers have no right to be where they are in the first place: you are already breaking the law so why not earn more money while you are at it? Sex At The Margins of Surprising Europe says

Imagine trying to survive without the permission to do any kind of work. You’ve got to eat, which isn’t free, and you’ve got to sleep somewhere, so you need money for this, too. What would you do? This is the problem faced by undocumented African immigrants in Europe. There are only so many cash-in-hand positions for cleaners, fruit-pickers and building-site workers, so many find themselves having to turn to the more ‘illegal’ professions, such as prostitution or selling drugs. Your existence in the country is already seen as ‘illegal’, so what difference does it make?

On the topic of Sex at the Margins (the book) and selling sex they say

The women also possess agency, the capacity to make their own choices, even if these choices undermine the picture of the world that others choose to hold. The remittances, however, can make a huge difference back home, not just for the immediate family but for an entire community.

In this photo, migrant Africans in Italy can be seen possessing agency with Don Benzi, who spent his life trying to convince them to leave prostitution but only succeeded with some. One reason has to do with those remittances. It’s rarely acknowledged, but sex work is undoubtedly responsible for a large proportion of money sent back home, given the fact that it pays so much better than other jobs available to migrants. Read Contributing to Development: Money Made Selling Sex.

Here is the trailer for Under Pressure. Enjoy how it focuses on life for undocumented Africans not from the point of view of horrified or angry white people but from Africans themselves.

See the whole episode and others at Al Jazeera’s Surprising Europe website.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Marriages called human trafficking whether women want them or not: Egypt and the Gulf

What is gained by using the one word, trafficking, to describe a wide variety of social phenomena? Campaigners will say that they want to show that everything they have decided is an improper way for women to live or get by must be named and shamed as violence (whether people went along with or initiatied the activities or not, as we know). So we have seen how surrogate motherhood, sex tourism by lgbt people and marriage broking are all glossed as trafficking, with relationships reduced to exploiter and victim. In the article I’m considering here, several kinds of instrumentally motivated marriages are all called trafficking, and I see no benefit in it at all.

When I hear about a phenomenon, I want the details of how it works: who does what and how those involved talk about what they are doing. If some so-called authority with an ngo and an agenda simply tells me here’s another bad thing to condemn and outlaw, give us more support so we can get rid of it I automatically wonder what else is going on. I am not sure the authority-figure is lying, no. But I see the moralising and the personal agenda and want to hear from others, too.

This article uses several terms without defining them (seasonal, transactional and temporary marriages) and also contradicts itself. It is instructive to go through the sequence of ideas; my comments are interspersed:

A summer industry: Egyptian brides for Gulf visitors (24 July 2011, Al-Masry Al-Youm)

As Egypt enters the peak of summer, there is a shadow economy that few dare to discuss: “Seasonal” or “transactional” marriages between Egyptian women and wealthy men from Arab Gulf countries.

Journalism 101 teaches that you need to define such key concepts right away. Do you imagine their meanings are obvious? On the contrary, transactional is associated with a sex-money exchange usually contrasted with marriage. Unless you are alluding to this Christian sort of idea about wives thinking they have to have sex with husbands as part of the contract. And what do you mean by seasonal? Do you just mean summertime?

These marriages, which often involve women below the legal age of 18, are temporary and illegal marriage contracts and one of the most common forms of human trafficking in Egypt. Transactional marriages are considered a form of human trafficking because women are recruited and sold for the purpose of sexual exploitation internally or across borders.

Okay. But

The practice may not necessarily be associated with force, fraud or coercion.

So then in those cases, trafficking isn’t the right word – correct? Continue reading