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informal economy

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fernandocoelhoGirlsYear beginning, low light and infantilising coverage of women combine to make me feel a bit lost for words but full of desire to publish pictures that resist the miserablism. Some of the women portrayed are probably offering sex for sale, but be careful about stereotyping when you imagine which ones they are. The exercise is to look not at whatever ‘patriarchal structures’ or economic problems push women into doing one thing or another but to see them as playing the cards they were dealt.

lesbianI avoid the language of choice, and the term agency is unfriendly but it’s what I mean. This is not about identities or job titles but existing in and moving through the world. It’s also not about love or family in any obvious sense or anyone’s nationality or what culture they were brought up in. Look elsewhere for downtrodden, caged, unhappy, passive, immobile victims with mouths bandaged so they cannot speak. I ran a bunch of photos a couple of times some years back – see Women Doing Things.

I suppose they are a peek into my subconscience, too. Anyway, happy 2014.

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–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Last month I spoke at the Dublin Anarchist Bookfair, held in Liberty Tower on the Liffey. There was some resistance to my insistence on sticking to the programme from a couple of audience members during the Q&A, but I was firm. I had been invited to talk about sex work as work for 30 minutes, which isn’t long, and it isn’t a definitive presentation. But in my experience these conversations rarely get further than the affirmation sex work is work, and I was glad to have the opportunity to begin to talk about practical issues of different sorts, not feminist or moralist issues and not trafficking! This video comes from the Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland) and includes the Q&A session at the end.

A few people have complained the sound is bad. This must be an unfortunate conflict of softwares combined with Internet connections, because most people can’t hear any problem. Sorry if you are unlucky.

Other videos of me talking are on my Youtube channel.

–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

 

Coda

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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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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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During the 20 years I’ve been consciously thinking about migration and prostitution, sex work and the sex industry, I have rarely seen such a bad portrayal of these deep and complex topics as in a New York Times piece on sex slaves I lambasted the other day. I lived a number of years in Spain, and it struck me early on that the endless discussion of prostitution failed to comprehend the variety of kinds of sex for sale within the industry, in all sorts of venues and situations that could be seen as good, bad or indifferent but that ought not to be reduced to any abstract, simplifying, uncontextualised term.

Here are researched descriptions of four types of places where different kinds of sexual services are for sale in Spain: large highway clubs, private flats, small houses associated with agriculture and the international coastal zone. After each description, I highlight the socially interrelated themes that arise from even such a brief glance, in order to point out how a cultural study of commercial sex – not prostitution – might proceed, on the assumption that knowing more about the specifics will help promote justice for more people.

Puticlubes (from puta, whore)

Streams of cars and trucks roar along multi-laned routes that connect Spain with France, Germany and other states east and with Portugal to the west. For long-distance truck drivers, the backbone of European commerce, long stints of solitary driving must be broken up with places offering rest and recreation. The buildings strung along these superhighways, as well as along smaller, provincial roads, are known informally in Spanish society as puticlubes (whoring clubs), but to those that work there they are hoteles de plaza, a term that refers to the employment system used, in which those offering sex for sale pay a daily rate for a place to live and work for three-week stretches. These businesses may house 50 workers or more, and in some areas, such as between Burgos and the Portuguese border, numerous clubs are located close together, forming a veritable erotic shopping area. With multiple floors, luxurious decorations, videos, live shows, jacuzzis and ‘exotic’ music—the latest rock from Moscow, for example—these clubs have come to represent luxurious sites of conspicuous consumption. Here customers pay as much as ten times the ordinary price for drinks, and it is the job of those working there to get them to buy as many as possible, since this is the owner’s major source of income. The array of nationalities living in the club at any one time is a phenomenon surely unique to sexual milieux: a German or Spanish truck driver or businessman may find himself surrounded by Rumanians, Nigerians, Colombians, Ukrainians, Brazilians and Moroccans. Imagine spaces filled with people speaking many languages, spaces where people from very different cultural backgrounds mix: the result may feel extravagantly cosmopolitan to some customers, who use these lavish venues to entertain and impress their own business clients. Other habitués include young men wanting a night out (and perhaps a sexual initiation) and lovelorn bachelors or widowers seeking company, all of whom may spend hours drinking, talking and watching. There is no requirement to purchase sex at all, and if it is, it occupies no more than twenty minutes (rules of the house, which wants workers back promoting drink as soon as possible). A large number of support personnel is needed to keep these high-overhead businesses going, and because they employ many migrants, good public relations are necessary with local police and immigration inspectors. Workers move on after their three-week stints, assuring that novelty will always be on offer.

To consider this venue as only ‘prostitution’ requires focussing exclusively on the 15-20 minutes when customers may retire to a private room with workers. Much feminist polemic has been written about concepts of exploitation, coercion and the lack of choice suffered by women in these jobs, as well as how they have reached this destination. Ignored are the work and lifestyles of long-distance truck drivers; cultures of entertainment among businessmen; multi-ethnic workplace cultures; the performance of masculinity and femininity and the reproduction of gender roles; homosociality (masculine bonding, competition, deal-making); financial advantages of owning such businesses and the extent to which lack of regulation makes it possible; relationships with local communities, employees and management and how sites may be used to accumulate social and cultural capital.

Private Flats

Where clubs specialise in splashiness and publicity, private flats offer discretion. They exist in most towns. Here the client rings up first to make an appointment in the kind of building that suggests tenants are ‘respectable’ middle-class families. The manager of the flat arranges for clients not to run into each other, and the flat itself displays few or no sexual signs; on the contrary, it may have floral-patterned covers and teddy bears on the beds, crucifixes and images of saints on the walls and the smell of home cooking wafting from the kitchen. A chain and cuffs hanging from a hook on one wall may indicate special services offered. If the customer has not requested a worker he already knows, he makes his selection and goes to a bedroom. Again, the mix of nationalities and ethnic groups is notable. These businesses rely on classified advertisements and mobile telephones, the two elements also making possible the boom in independent workers who run their own business from their own flat.

Again, most theory has focussed on the sexual acts that occur in flats and the extent to which women workers have chosen to perform them. Subjects that need researching include the cultural role of privacy and discretion; the possible meanings of domesticity as a sexual setting, including religious and family icons; communications technology’s contribution to the development of businesses.

The Agricultural World

In the southern province of Almería, a large proportion of the tomatoes and other vegetables Europeans eat are grown under plastic in vast plantations operated under semi-feudal conditions. Closeby, various kinds of sex businesses coexist, ranging from luxurious bars with private cubicles to rustic, poor housing where tenants open their doors to clients. The luxurious are located close to the plantations, even directly across from them, and those who enter and pay the prices are Spanish owners and other ‘whites’ from the managerial class, many of them men who were once agricultural labourers themselves. Women who work here come from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The rustic are located farther away, sometimes up inconvenient roads with few public services; here the clients are ‘non-white’, often undocumented, migrants. Here, Nigerian women offer offer sex and other domestic services in their houses (meals, drinks, washing and ironing, music, a place to stay the night). Occasionally tourists wander up from the beaches, seeking something different from the nightlife of the tourist coast.

While ‘prostitution’ is present here, this form of commercial sex attests to a traditional link with migrant sectors such as farming, mining and shipping. Useful research would look at the interrelation of commercial sex with other industries; the intersections of different informal-sector economies and forms of servitude; how the business segments by class, colour and ethnic group. Ethnographic work would consider what kind of relationships are developed among subaltern employees in different expatriate sectors.

The Cosmopolitan Frontier

This is the area of Spain where Spanishness fades and cosmopolitanism, tourism and hybridity reign. Businesses in Torrelinos, Marbella and smaller towns along the coast highway advertise in a brochure called Encuentros (meetings) which categorises its offerings under the terms Gay Bars, Swapping, Private Establishments and Contacts and Sex Shops. A plethora of clubs, bars, party rooms and flats advertise, mentioning as specialities piano-bars, saunas, jacuzzis, turkish baths, dark rooms, go-go shows, striptease, escort services, bilingual misses, private bars, dance floors, a variety of massages, private booths with 96 video channels, gifts for stag and hen parties, latex wear and aphrodisiacs. Apart from the sexual products and services available, other conditions are announced, such as air conditioning, valet or private parking, swimming pools, credit cards, select clientele, television and accessibility for the handicapped. Many adverts play down the commercial aspect by emphasising the ‘non-professionals’ present. Fitting the international environment, businesses are called Milady Palace, Play Boy, Melody d’Amour, Dolly’s, New Crazy, Glam Ur Palace Club and Titanic. Many are located in ordinary shopping strips.

Obviously, ‘prostitution’ occurs in these venues, but further areas for research include the influence of tourism and its correlation with questions of image and class in services; the positioning of gay culture and diverse sexual subcultures with commercial sex; the existence of subcultures within commercial sex; the role of entrepreneurism in the proliferation of sites. It would be interesting to know which kind of customer goes to which kind of place, how entrepreneurs decide what to offer in such a compact area chockful of sex businesses and how long businesses last. Are there sexual cultures here that extend into the rest of Spain or that tourists take home with them?

– Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Once, after I’d given a talk, an academic feminist geographer became very upset while trying to get me to admit that the poor of this world are victims objectively, by definition, because of ‘global structural inequalities’. I replied that I understood how she, coming from her position of middle-class person identifying as socialist, produced poorer people this way. I went on to say, ‘But if you move over to the poor person’s place and ask them how they see their situation, they may well not produce such an image of themselves.’ I thought the woman was going to go through the roof with outrage at my refusal to accept her point as objectively true.

This planet is rife with terrible differences between the poor and the rich, men mostly have more power and money than everyone else and things are getting worse. But given the injustice, I prefer to listen to how people describe their own realities rather than create static, general categories like Exploited Victims. It is also not smart to claim that poor people only leave their countries because they are forced to, with no possibility for their desires and abilities to think and weigh risks. Most poor people don’t leave their countries.

I published Forget Victimisation: Granting Agency to Migrants in 2003, but several people have written to me recently about how up-to-date and useful it is. In the mainstream media, two reductionist visions are common: one that blames migrants as grasping criminals, the other that sees them as sad victims. Unfortunately many people with leftist sympathies and visions fall into the trap of victimisation.  Click on the title to get the pdf or read the whole thing below. What I say applies to all migrants, whatever jobs they do, including sex work.

Forget Victimisation: Granting Agency to Migrants

Development, 46.3, 30-36 (2003)

Laura Agustín

There is a growing tendency to victimise poor people, weak people, uneducated people and migrant people. The trend, which began as a way of drawing attention to specific forms of violence committed against women, has now become a way of describing everyone on the lower rungs of power. Routinely, supporters position them as victims in order to claim rights for them, but this move also turns them into victims, and victims need help, need saving—which gives a primary role to supporters. Much rhetoric about migration has fallen into this pattern: migrants, it turns out, are not only vulnerable to exploitation, a patent truth, but they are ‘victims’.

The other choice, according to sensationalist media treatments, is criminal. Since news on migrants is reported only when disasters befall them, or when they are caught in something ‘illegal’, they can only be positioned in one of these two ways: as past victims of poverty or conflict in their home states and present victims of criminal bands, or as criminals who take advantage of such victims. The victims need to be saved, and the criminals to be punished. This reductionism encourages the idea that there is something inherently dangerous about being a migrant. Since migrants are usually seen as people from the third world, the positioning of so many of them as victims—of economic restructuring if not of criminal agents—harks back unsettlingly to the old category of the ‘native’. And since migrants nowadays are so often women, these natives are constituted as backward, developmentally less than first-world women. This is most overt, of course, in ‘trafficking’ discourses (for example, in Barry, 1979) but can now be heard in general talk about ‘illegal’ migrants.

Ratna Kapur shows how this victimising tendency began in the early 1990s with the project to reveal the widespread, routine nature of violence against women:

In the context of law and human rights, it is invariably the abject victim subject who seeks rights, primarily because she is the one who has had the worst happen to her. The victim subject has allowed women to speak out about abuses that have remained hidden or invisible in human rights discourse (Kapur, 2001: 5).

This strategy has led to many benefits for women. The problem is that the person designated a victim tends to take on an identity as victim that reduces her to being seen as a passive receptacle and ‘encourages some feminists in the international arena to propose strategies which are reminiscent of imperial interventions in the lives of the native subject’ (Kapur, 2001: 6).

The category ‘migrant’, awkward and ambiguous to begin with, becomes more so when it is victimised. In this article, I want to look at what we think we mean when we call someone a migrant, and then suggest that there are both class and postcolonial analyses to be made of this constructed identity and the passivity assigned to it. To do this, I will call on my own research with migrating people in various parts of the world. What I recount is widely known, but not often included in formal studies of migrations.

Conventional travellers

On the surface, there seem to be patently different kinds of travellers: tourists, people whose work involves travel, refugees and migrants. Tourists are generally defined as people with time and money to spend on leisure activities who take a trip somewhere to do it: they are ‘travelling for pleasure’. Tourism is defined by an absence (work), and tourists are believed to have left their jobs behind to indulge consciously in not working. In the literature, the tourist is someone from the North (the tourism of Southerners is invisible). Some people oppose a status of ‘traveller’ to that of tourist, saying their trips are unplanned, open-ended, longer and more appreciative of the ‘real culture’ of a place. ‘Interacting with the culture’ is the goal for many of these, and this interaction most likely comes about through getting a job. ‘Working’ does not exclude pleasure, then, for first-world subjects.

People who travel in the course of carrying out their jobs are at first glance also clearly identifiable. Whether sent on trips by companies or undertaking them on their own, business travellers are obliged to be on the road. Their trips may be long or short, involve familiarity with the culture visited and the local language or not and require sociability or not, but they have in common that this is not supposed to be ‘leisure time’. But is this true? Many businesspeople also engage in tourism during their trips, using their ‘expense accounts’ to entertain clients, much of this money going to sites where tourists also go (theatres, cabarets, sex or gambling clubs, restaurants, bars, boat trips, sports events). The trips taken to attend conferences, do field work or provide consultations by academics, ‘development’ and technical consultants, missionaries and social-sector personnel also feature tourism. Sports professionals, singers, musicians, actors, salespeople, sailors, soldiers, airline and train personnel, commercial fishermen, farm-workers, long-distance truck drivers and a variety of others travel as part of their professions. Modern explorers search for oil, minerals, endangered species of animals and plants and ‘lost’ archaeological artefacts. Many of these people spend a long time away from home, and their work life is punctuated by leisure and tourist activities. Some of these people have homes or ‘home bases’ in more than one place. Students who take years abroad or travel to do field work are combining tourism and work. The main goal of a voyage for religious pilgrims is not work, but they may work and engage in tourist activities on the way to and from the pilgrimage. And then there are nomads whose traditional way of gaining a livelihood includes mobility.

The dichotomy working traveller/work-free traveller is misleading, and many forms of travel have aspects of both. So what makes a ‘migrant’ different?

This other kind of traveller

Some people distinguish between all the above types and ‘migrants’, on the grounds that the latter ‘settle’. According to this distinction, migrants move from their home to make another one in someone else’s country. They are not positioned as travellers or tourists, since they are looking not only to spend money but earn it. The word migrant is nearly always used about the working class, not about middle-class professionals and not about people from the first-world, even if they also have left home and moved to another country. Instead, the word rings of a subaltern status. Read the rest of this entry »

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I found myself looking up an old quarrel at Slate, between Jack Shafer and Peter Landesman. Landesman had written a trafficking story for the New York Times Magazine, and Shafer had debunked it at Salon.com. During the back-and-forth about trafficking statistics, Landesman cites Kevin Bales (who founded Free the Slaves) as the source of numbers of ‘sex trafficking victims in the US’. The argument stretched from 2004 to 2005; probably those involved would give different numbers now; what I’m pointing out is the gall of anyone, much less a social scientist, presenting this technique for estimating victims as an algorithm.

a very complex algorithm

Bad enough that Bales begins with an estimate for which no methodology has ever been given, but then the social scientist uses media reports as evidence. Did the scientist check into the sources mentioned by the media reports themselves? Did he distinguish at all between media who just copy and paste each other’s news and those who do any actual research? Did he exercise any scientific judgement at all as to reliability of any given media source? Just how circular can a process get?

… The estimate of 30,000 to 50,000 people being held in forced labor in the United States for purposes of sexual exploitation was arrived at in this way: firstly, we used the State Department’s estimate of 18,000 to 20,000 people being trafficked into the US each year. (Admittedly, the State Department has not explained the methodology by which they arrived at this estimate, so we use it in the hope that they will soon make their research methods clear.) Secondly, we adjusted this estimate according to two surveys we have recently conducted. The first survey was of all media reports of trafficking cases in the US over the past four years. These reports covered 136 separate cases of forced labor, 109 of which noted the number trafficked totaling 5,455 individuals. As with most crimes, the number of known and reported cases is a fraction of the actual number of cases occurring. To the best of our understanding the proportion of known to actual cases for human trafficking is low. In this survey 44.2% of cases involved forced labor in prostitution and 5.4% involved the sexual abuse of children, totaling 49.6%. As this is a rough estimate I rounded this up to 50%. In a second survey of forty-nine service provider agencies in the United States that had worked with trafficked persons, we asked how long each trafficked person they had worked with had been held in forced labor. The minimum reported time was one month, the maximum was 30 years. The majority of cases clustered between three years and five years.

So, if 9,000 to 10,000 of the people trafficked into the US each year will be enslaved for sexual exploitation (50% of 18-20,000), and they are likely to remain in that situation for three to five years, then the number of people enslaved for sexual exploitation at any one time in the US could be between 27,000 and 50,000 people. Since a number of people working in the area of human trafficking have stated that they believe the State Department’s estimate is low, I chose to make our estimate based on the upper end of the State Department figure, thus giving an estimate of 30,000 to 50,000.

Why should Garbage in, garbage out characterise nearly all efforts to estimate the number of trafficking victims? There is no straightforward way to count workers in the informal sector and undocumented migrants, whether they are suffering terribly or not and whether sex is involved or not. Estimating them can be carried out in various ways laced with caveats, but wild guesses are not even estimates. Anyone interested in serious work in this field can check out, for example, a report from the Economic Roundtable, in Los Angeles, entitled Hopeful workers, marginal jobs. No, there are no mentions of sex trafficking victims or, indeed, victims in general. Instead you will find methods not braggingly called algorithms for estimating numbers working in informal jobs in LA. You can also read about this in Harder Times: Undocumented Workers and the U.S. Informal Economy.

The fact that garbage is so prevalent in trafficking rhetoric demonstrates how little actual information proponents have. No one responsible would resist the arguments if there were real substance to back them up! Wake up, oh ye of too much faith!

– Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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When we study things, we name them, but when we live things we usually don’t. I had a weird date the other night, I thought the girl was out to get something from me or We have a great relationship; I love to cook and he fixes my computer. Labels potentially applied include transactional sex, barter, survival sex, girlfriends, sugar daddies and sugar mommies, jaboya, something-for-something love, husband-wife relationships, free love, opportunistic sex, exploitation, enjo kosai – and a lot more, believe me. The other week I used a couple of tags myself whilst commenting on a poster exhorting fishermen not to exchange their fish for sex.

Some wrote to me to say Those women are not sex workers, they are fish traders, but they are poor and can’t pay the fisherman money so they offer him sex in exchange for fish. Well fine, but what’s the motivation for making this distinction? Is it to keep these women free of the whore stigma? Is the idea that to be properly commercial transactions must involve coins and bills? And that everything else is barter? And is barter somehow okay because it doesn’t involve filthy lucre? (note barter’s image in a white person’s context, where it’s called the no-cash economy).

Let’s look at this logically: If the fisherman gets money from these women, the transaction is considered okay. Now what happens if he takes candybars for his fish, is that not okay, because he’s supposed to be getting money? Or is fish for candybars okay but fish for, say, a shoulder massage not okay, again because he’s not getting money? Or is a shoulder massage all right, too, because it’s a service that helps him feel better, but fish for sex isn’t because presumably he doesn’t need sex to feel better? You see the problem? You might think that labels and names clarify different actions, but typical comments about transactional sex from cultures where it’s common refer to the blurry line dividing it from sex work or prostitution. On top of that, one commentator says ‘some women and men who have sex in return for gifts, money and the like would not classify themselves as sex workers although they might be’. So who is deciding which label applies and for what reason?

The main point I want to make is: To attempt to distinguish these human situations with labels contributes to the idea that there is something about sex-money exchanges that is utterly different (perhaps scary or terrible) and that women who do that are set apart from everyone else. That is a very old-fashioned and stigmatising view we should avoid. Unfortunately it’s also misleading to try to distinguish clearly between wholly involuntary, passive transactional women and wholly free, active sex workers. It’s all much more interesting and muddled than that.

Now about the fish transactions:

Recent studies in Botswana, Swaziland, Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania have shown associations between acute food insecurity and unprotected transactional sex among poor women. Fish for sex deals are also common in Kenya on the shores of Lake Victoria, where women fish traders meet incoming boats and sleep with fishermen for a favorable price. Healthdev.net

This could be interpreted to mean that fish traders do pay with coins and bills in part but supplement them with sex, in order to pay less out in money. Or it could mean that because they have sex with the fishermen they get more fish in exchange than if they hadn’t had sex with them.

A programme in Uganda calls this kind of transaction Something for Something Love, said to be a relationship where sex is given in exchange for favours, money or gifts. I suppose this name was invented to distance the topic from previous labels, but note that now money is explicitly mentioned – this isn’t just barter. The posters used in this campaign depict a young woman whose real love rejects her because she’s had something-for-something-love, a girl who saves her friend from getting into a car with a man holding out a mobile phone, a man whose wife leaves him because he’s bartered something for money with another female  and so on.

Young people are often pressured to do things that they would not normally do, like having unwanted or unprotected sex. These relationships usually cause problems for young people including unplanned pregnancy, dropping out of school, abortions, HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Violence is common in Something for Something Love, especially if the young person refuses sex or tries to end the relationship. For adults, Something for Something Love often results in broken marriages or violence if the wife or husband learns about it. Something for Something

Others – not surprisingly USAID amongst them – go to the extreme and label transactional sex exploitation

The first phase of the initiative is now underway and focuses on sexual exploitation, including transactional sex. Transactional sex refers to exploitative relationships where sex is given in exchange for favors, material objects or money. PEPFAR message

Health programmes that want to prevent the spread of hiv tend to link this something-for-something love with Young Empowerment and True Manhood. These are all well-intentioned efforts, but the moralistic messages end up excluding a lot of people who don’t experience all this as oppressive or exploitative.

There is also a confusion about whose point of view we are taking and whom we are trying to protect.

  • The original poster wants the fisherman to get money for his fish, not sex, the protection sub-text being that if he avoids sex he’s less likely to contract venereal diseases or hiv (and have more money to buy things he needs).
  • Others want the girls and women not to exchange sex for fish, for moral and the same health-protection reasons – sometimes assuming that the fishermen are coercing them.

If money is scarce, then people may barter. The fishermen ‘sell’ the fish for sex, and the women sell the fish for money in the marketplace – and it’s quite possible that some customers who want to buy fish from the women traders could offer *them* something other than money, some other object or service the traders want. Money can therefore be seen as the means to cut through the need to find exactly matching offers. It doesn’t have to become so symbolic that we hasten to say which people are *not* prostitutes. Could the subject get more complicated? You bet.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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