Tag Archives: Europe

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

Paying for sex in Graham Greeneland: Sex work in fiction

womanblurLeiterThe other day I lightly said It’s a blokey thing to a young person who replied That’s a sexist thing to say! The next day another young person heard me use the word masculine and cried You’re a feminist! I take it ideas about sexism and feminism have extended their contradictory ways into small corners of ordinary life and think it funny I got accused of opposing sins on back-to-back days. Some of us don’t fit neatly into identity-categories, eh?

Couple-saying-goodbye-outside-the-Tube-station-entranceMost of the discourse about buying and selling sex focuses on the abstract question Is it Bad or Good? in one way or another. More interesting is anything that shows how diverse transactions are, how wide the field, how contradictory the possibilities, how unlikely the goal of an ethical bottom line. In the following vignette from Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951) a commercial transaction is deeply embedded in context: World War II London, Clapham, the narrator’s love for a married woman, his obsessive jealousy. They have an argument and he walks out. It is May 1940.

That evening I was still full of my hatred and distrust when I reached Piccadilly. More than anything in the world I wanted to hurt Sarah. I wanted to take a woman back with me and lie with her upon the same bed in which I made love to Sarah; it was as though I knew that the only way to hurt her was to hurt myself. It was dark and quiet by this time in the streets, though up in the moonless sky moved the blobs and beams of the searchlights. You couldn’t see faces where the women stood in doorways and at the entrances of the unused shelters. They had to signal with their torches like glow-worms. All the way up Sackville Street the little lights went on and off. I found myself wondering what Sarah was doing now. Had she gone home or was she waiting on the chance of my return?

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A woman flashed on her light and said, ‘Like to come home with me, dear?’ I shook my head and walked on. Further up the street a girl was talking to a man: as she lit up her face for him, I got a glimpse of something young, dark and happy and not yet spoiled: an animal that didn’t yet recognise her captivity. I passed and then came back up the road towards them; as I approached the man left her and I spoke. ‘Like a drink?’ I said.
‘Coming home with me afterwards?’
‘Yes.’
‘I’ll be glad of a quick one.’
We went into the pub at the top of the street and I ordered two whiskies, but as she drank I couldn’t see her face for Sarah’s. She was younger than Sarah, she couldn’t have been more than nineteen, more beautiful, one might even have said less spoiled, but only because there was so much less to spoil: I found I no more wanted her than I wanted the company of a dog or a cat. She was telling me that she had a nice flat on the top floor only a few houses down; she told me what rent she had to pay and what her age was and where she was born and how she had worked for a year in a café. She told me she didn’t go home with anybody who spoke to her, but she could see at once I was a gentleman. She said she had a canary called Jones named after the gentleman who had given it her. She began to talk of the difficulty of getting groundsel in London. I thought: if Sarah is still in my room I can ring up. . .
Looking at her over my whisky I thought how odd it was that I felt no desire for her at all. It was as if quite suddenly after all the promiscuous years I had grown up. My passion for Sarah had killed simple lust for ever. Never again would I be able to enjoy a woman without love.
And yet surely it was not love that had brought me into this pub; I had told myself all the way from the Common that it was hate, as I tell myself still, writing this account of her, trying to get her out of my system for ever, for I have always told myself that if she died, I could forget her.
I went out of the pub, leaving the girl with her whisky to finish and a pound-note as a salve to her pride, and walked up New Burlington Street as far as a telephone-box. I had no torch with me and was forced to strike match after match before I could complete the dialling of my number. Then I heard the ringing tone and I could imagine the telephone where it stood on my desk and I knew exactly how many steps Sarah would have to take to reach it if she were sitting in a chair or lying on the bed. And yet I let it go on ringing in the empty room for half a minute. — The End of the Affair, pp 57-59

Now try to reduce the narrator’s interaction with a woman he picks up on the street to the question Is it Good or Bad?

This post is part of a series on sex work in fiction. Scroll backwards to May 2017 and see the Related Items appearing below this post. I’ve contributed to this production with The Three-Headed Dog, a noir novel about Latin American migrants in Spain.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Wearing slammerkins and dreaming: Sex work in fiction

64be395da850ff563440fc4da91994b8In Slammerkin, Mary is a street prostitute in mid-18th-century London. Thrown out of her dismal basement home by a mother absolute in condemnation of Mary’s pregnancy at 14, she meets a friendly whore, Doll, who initiates her into street trading. Mary is in love with nice clothing and comes to see there is no hard line between the Good Woman and the Bad.

2505937ea8c9c8e6aebb554012fa4295[Her mother] Susan Digot wouldn’t likely recognise her child-as-was, all gussied up in a flowered jacket-bodice and a worn silk skirt buoyed out by a pair of improvers. Mary looked like a woman of the town, these days. She smelled different, even, with the mouth-watering lemony reek of Hungary water.

What a fool Susan Digot had been, to think everyone in gold braid her better, and the wider the skirt, the higher the breeding! Mary had seen commoners walk as queens on the stage in Drury Lane. Doll was opening Mary’s eyes to all life’s shortcuts, back alleys, gaps in the walls. In these uncertain times, Mary was learning, a duchess was sometimes just a stroller who’d picked the right honourable cully.

Kitty Fisher by Joshua Reynolds

Kitty Fisher by Joshua Reynolds

In a four-story house in Golden Square lived a lady who’d once been known in the trade as Angel Arse. On the corner of Hyde Park was a new mansion the Duke of Kingston was building for Miss Chudleigh, who’d been his mistress for a dozen years already and he still hadn’t tired of her. The famous Kitty Fisher was said to be about to swap all her lordly lovers for a rich husband from the Lower House. A bit of loveliness, a bit of luck; that’s all a girl needed.

Richardson_pamela_1741On long bright evenings, Mary sat on the grass in Lamb’s Conduit Fields behind Holborn and watched the courting couples meander by. The air was full of the sounds of leisure: the archers’ arrows hitting the target, the click of balls on the bowling green, or the distant roars of a dogfight or wrestling match. She was reading again for the first time since school. She bought crack-backed romances and memorised all the long words, in case she’d ever need them. The History of Pamela Andrews was her favourite. The crafty wench, to fend off her master all those times, then squeeze a proposal of marriage out of him in the end! She’d swapped her maid’s apron for bridal satins and ended up as good a lady as any other, hadn’t she? It all went to show, Mary thought. If a girl had her wits about her, nowadays, she could rise as high as she wanted, as sure as cream through the milk. Anything was possible. – Slammerkin p247 (Emma Donoghue 2002)

About Mary’s interpretation of Pamela – well! Astute doesn’t begin to describe it. No wonder social blowhards began to condemn the reading of novels by gels.

The word for the loose gown, a slammerkin, came to be used for the women who wore them. On the word slammerkin, from one etymological dictionary:

There is a group of North Sea Germanic words in sl- that mean “sloppy,” and also “slovenly woman” and, less often, “slovenly man,” and that tend to evolve toward “woman of loose morals.” Compare slattern, also English dialectal slummock “a dirty, untidy, or slovenly person” (1861), variant of slammacks “slatternly woman,” said to be from slam “ill-shaped, shambling fellow.” Also slammakin (from 1756 as a type of loose gown; 1785 as “slovenly female,” 1727 as a character name in Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera”), with variants slamkin, slammerkin. Also possibly related are Middle Dutch slore “a sluttish woman,” Dutch slomp, German schlampe “a slattern.”

This knowledge came to me during regular posts/tweets entitled Today’s word for a Bad Woman. There are way way way too many of them, and almost any negative meaning deteriorates sooner or later into promiscuity and prostitution – beginning with sl- or not.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Worker declines rescue in Magdalen Nabb: Sex work in fiction

michaelrougierEfforts to save migrants and sex workers also appear in ordinary fiction (by which I mean not melodramas produced by moral crusaders) and some authors have a fine-tuned sense of irony. In Magdalen Nabb’s Some Bitter Taste (2002), Marshal Guarnaccia, a policeman in Florence, helps an Albanian woman escape from her pimp, who is sent to jail. The woman goes to live with a nice man, Mario, but after a time she visits Guarnaccia in his office to tell him his effort to help her has failed.

You’re the only person who’s ever been nice to me… so I wanted to tell you because if I don’t somebody else will. You’re bound to find out. I’m going back on the game.

– What? You’re what? And Mario?

– Oh, Mario… Jesus… I mean, he trotted off every morning at a quarter to eight and I was supposed to clean up his crumbs and wipe the floor over and then he’d come trotting back again and I was supposed to have the water boiling for his pasta and then it was one long whinge – there are no clean shirts, have you seen the fluff under this bed? Where’s the other sock to this? You’ve forgotten to get milk again… No, no, I couldn’t stand the boredom. So I upped and offed.

– Back to Ilir?

– Why not? He’s out now and he wants me back. Nobody ever earned him as much as me and he kept me in style. We ate in a restaurant every night. I like a good time and I get clients who give me a good time, you know what I mean? I like champagne and a few presents. I’m not spending the rest of my young life washing the floor of some poky little kitchen for a boring spotty clerk who thinks he’s earned the right to have his socks washed for a lifetime because he’s been good enough to save me from the streets.

– But what about when you’re not young anymore?

– Well, it’s all over then, isn’t it? Get it while you can, I say. I just… I wanted to tell you myself. It’s not that I’m not grateful to you. I know you meant well. Are you pissed off with me? You are, aren’t you?

-No, no…

– You’ve every right to be. I’d better go. I’m sorry. Because of you, I mean, not that little prick Mario, only because of you. I know you did your best.

Carve it on my tombstone, thought the marshal, watching her leave through a skein of cigarette smoke.- p 309

It’s good commentary on the institution of couplehood: the marriage model in which woman has a domestic capacity. Some would say all would change if they were to have children, but, after all, she still wouldn’t be able to eat in restaurants every night. And the presumed debt to saviours sounds awful: a side-effect of Rescue rarely addressed.

Funny how she comes to thank the policeman but calls the husband-man a little prick.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

The postwar London of Doris Lessing: Sex work in fiction

b9a907e1e2523f49ac6e82860572f05eThe Four-Gated City was published in 1969 by Doris Lessing. The passage quoted below describes a single young woman walking west on the Bayswater Road in 1950. The woman is Martha Quest, recently arrived in London from southern Africa, a migrant from colonies considered peripheral observing life in the presumed cosmopolitan centre. Her route takes her from a middle-class dinner held east of Marble Arch to a poor squat in Notting Hill. The photo above shows another part of London at the same period; the photo below the young Lessing.

29lessing-master675-1Note the absence of moral comment and that the job of the police is to make sure the marketplace functions peacefully.

Now she slowed, almost stopped in surprise at a cool hard getaway look from a young woman who stood with her back to a hedge. Of course, she had passed another invisible boundary. From here until Queensway, the pavements were lined with prostitutes, standing singly or in pairs, dozens of them, along the pavements. But Martha was freer here than she had been in that other territory she had only just left, whose boundary was simply a bisecting street. She was protected precisely by the line of girls for sale, who knew she wasn’t one of their trade union and because their hostile warning faces that said go away, you shouldn’t be here, kept her safe from being accosted. Three kinds of animal here. The women, standing with their backs to the hedges, on sale. The ordinary traffic of the pavement – but a slight traffic, mostly couples hurrying past the marketplace, keeping close under the lights, looking embarrassed, as if they were here by mistake, yet glancing furtively at the buying and bargaining.

NYC39209The customers, men of all ages, walking slowly past the women, or standing under the trees smoking, making choices. And across the street, policemen, spaced out with twenty or thirty yards between each couple, not looking directly at the haggling and dealing, but observing it sideways to make sure that it went on without incident. Martha walked more slowly than she had had to walk in the part of the street she had left. All the way down the street, by lit airy trees, they stood. Although it lightly drizzled, they wore summer dresses, bare necked, bare shouldered; and high thick sandals with bared insteps; and sometimes they held a jaunty umbrella. But there was no elegance here either. They weren’t well-dressed. They shared the national disposition towards gracelessness.

82867b7fe426e102857aaf9970f08b72There has been a war on. Suppose one of these men who was making up for the starvation of the war… approached one of the girls saying: I’d like you to wear … whatever was his fantasy, would she snap back: There’s been a war on, you know? Yes, very probably … Martha found herself imagining rooms where furniture, curtains, objects had charm, had flair, and a girl with charm, flair, undressed slowly to show off wittily charming underclothes – a man’s fantasy? Perhaps in all this city it was only these girls’ rooms where there was anything attractive, gay, rightly made? Well, not from the way they were dressed as they stood on the pavement.

–Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist