Tag Archives: informal economy

Ellroy’s Black Dahlia as a B-girl: Sex work in fiction

elliott-convention-girlA typical paperback cover from the heyday of pulp fiction makes convention girls look carefree and glamorous. Some might have been and still be, but picking clients up at bars where convention-attendees hang out may be the sex work of everyday women, sometimes opportunist and unplanned.

It seems that Elizabeth Short was such a woman, looking to get ahead in postwar Hollywood. James Ellroy memorialised her in his novel The Black Dahlia (1987), which draws on the actual police investigation as well as the author’s feelings about his own mother’s murder. In Ellroy’s snappy 1940s cop-lingo, women under scrutiny are described:

Together, we questioned fifty-odd people, mostly men, about their association with Elizabeth Short. We heard predictable stories of them meeting Betty in bars and buying her drinks and dinner, listening to her fantasies of being the bride or widow of war heros, bedding or not bedding her. A number of the men did not even know the notorious Dahlia–they were “friends of friends,” their names passed on out of pussy hound camaraderie.

Of our parcel of names, sixteen of the guys were what Fritzie labeled “Certified Dahlia Fuckers.” They were mostly lower-echelon movie minions: agents, talent scouts and casting directors who hung out at Schwab’s Drugstore chasing gullible would-be starlets, empty promises on their lips, Trojan “value packs” in their pockets. They told proud or shamefaced casting couch stories every bit as sad as Betty’s tales of bliss with studs in uniform. Finally, the men in Elizabeth Short’s little black book had two things in common–they got their names in the LA dailies and they coughed up alibis that eliminated them as suspects. And word filtered back to the squadroom that the publicity eliminated more than a few of them as husbands.

The women–just pals–girl talk acquaintances, fellow cocktail lounge cadgers and aspiring actresses heading nowhere. A dozen or so were hookers and semi-pro B-girls, instant soulmates that Betty met in bars. They gave us leads that petered out on follow-up investigation–basically, the word that Betty sold herself freelance to conventioneers at several lower-class downtown hotels. They hedged that Betty rarely peddled it, and could not identify any of her tricks by name; Fritzie’s canvassing of the hotels got him an angry zero.– The Black Dahlia

highPussy-hounds: marvellous. B-girls are bar girls, if you didn’t know. But hanging out waiting for an opportunity leads to terms like semi-pro. What if you have sex with someone who might give you a part in a film, apart from buying you dinner tonight? Did the crime against Betty the Dahlia occur because she was having sex or because she was an opportunist or because it was LA or because there was a sadistic killer at large? To blame it on prostitution is — limiting.

Ellroy includes Mexican migration in The Black Dahlia too.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Trafficking: The globalisation of weak thinking and dumb language

hopeforjusticeukWhat isn’t on this list of signs of human trafficking? Has there ever been a vaguer term than abuse of vulnerability? It could describe being a parent or teacher easily. If informants are supposed to make a telephone call based on any of these signs – which is what this says – then heaven help the switchboards. No wonder Rescue-Industry groups have to ask for so much funding.

Lists of the so-called signs of being a victim of trafficking are now common, even placed in airports in hopes that victims may experience revelation and realise they need rescue. Such techniques demonstrate how the Rescue Industry institutionalises, submitting to funding guidelines written by government bureaucrats. The particular group that produced the list you see here have expanded from the US to the UK. It’s a sort of globalisation of weak thinking.

There are young people now who have grown up surrounded by campaigning against trafficking, unaware there is conflict about how to define the term. Some want to dedicate energy to combating what is figured as a modern social evil. Some compare themselves with 19th-century anti-slavery advocates and feel outraged that anyone would question what they are doing.

The field gets critiqued regularly, and I don’t always contribute when asked for comment. I regularly send a link to Dear Students of Sex Work and Trafficking (students can be taken as a general term for those who wish to inform themselves). I don’t want to repeat the same ideas over and over when it’s all easily findable on a website, and I don’t like reducing complexity to bullet points. I also think everything has been said, and claims that insights are new are untrue. Online Editors routinely splash every banal keyword into headlines, sometimes without reference to what the item actually contains. Exaggeration has taken over.

Recent inquiries roused me to sketch out a few basic ideas that take in the history.

mobilityThe Convention on Transnational Organised Crime was published in Palermo in 2000 by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Two protocols on human mobility were appended, one on trafficking, the other on smuggling. The process of defining these was long and conflictual and has been documented publicly. It was all supposed to pertain to undocumented migrants, a topic nearly always omitted from current commentary. I’ve written about these protocols more than once, particularly their genderedness and how sex is pointed to when the mobile people are women but not when they are men. The cover to my book Sex at the Margins used the image of mobility and human agency seen here.

After the Convention was published, the idea of trafficking began its ascent, and soon we who were interested in migration, sex work and labour policy realised it was useless for gaining equity or rights. The framework of the Convention is Crime – there is no fixing that. The assumption is this human mobility to work is fomented by criminals who use force and coercion against their victims – notions impossible to pin down because they vary infinitely amongst individuals according to momentary conditions. If you look at the footnotes opposing sides published on the language of the protocols you see how they argued about these keywords. Later some wag used the term sex trafficking, moving towards reductionism that is typical to the campaigning of moral entrepreneurs.

Behind this over-simplification and over-focus on sex lie real social inequalities and oppressions: migration policies that favour middle- and upper-class jobs, out-of-date notions of the formal economy and productive labour, young people who want to get away from home, job-seekers willing to take risks to make more money, laws that make commercial sex illegal, laws that make sweatshops illegal and there is more. To lump all this under a single term simply disappears the array of different situations, encourages reductionism and feeds into a moralistic agenda of Good and Evil. The term trafficking is an invention incapable of describing so many realities, and it does not help to reduce them all to two possibilities – the Free vs the Enslaved, the Autonomous vs the Coerced. In the case of those who sell sex it does not help to reduce them to Sex Workers vs Victims of Trafficking.

I am asked what better language would be, but the issue is not language, as though everything might be fixed by changing the words. The framework setting out the problems is good for nothing but policing. I suggest addressing specific injustices on their own terms. For example

-If the subject is runaway teenagers who don’t want to live with their parents or go to school and don’t have money or job-skills, then talk about that.

-If the subject is people who took a job that didn’t turn out the way they expected but they need the money so don’t leave it, then talk about that.

-If the subject is migrants who crossed borders with false papers so they are not legal to work at any job, then talk about that.

And so on. Get down to specifics, deal with real situations, stop arguing about ridiculous abstractions. Social policies do not have to be so dumb.

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–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Women doing things again, on their own

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

Video of Sex Work as Work: some ideas on labour policy and organising

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

Good-time girls and other non-professionals taking money for sex

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