Tag Archives: laura agustín

Thinking about sex work as work: Dublin Anarchist Book Fair

WSMbookfairtalkI gave a talk called Thinking about sex work as work on 6 April 2013 at the Dublin Anarchist Book Fair. Local abolitionists and anti-prostitution folks were attacking my being there, which is reflected in my introductory remarks. I wrote about wanting the opportunity to talk about sex work without -isms (theory, ideology, rules of thought).

Later I found out the sound deteriorated in the recording I uploaded to my little Youtube channel, and I don’t have a handyperson to fix things like that. Then the other day, while searching for something quite different, I found a clear recording and the person who made it: Aubrey Robinson‏ (@andyazi on twitter). He kindly sent it to me and I’ve uploaded it to the channel.

I haven’t listened to it again and make no claim to be definitive. This is maybe a good case of the personal being political. More rigorously I wrote Sex as Work and Sex Work for The Commoner.

Photo Ahmad Nimer

When I sent this recently to a facebook-man who seemed curious his reply was No, wrong, you can’t talk about sex work without addressing the stigma. I said he should consider before launching into mansplaining in a place where sex workers themselves exchange ideas. He said Fuck that (subject-status doesn’t give knowledge priority, and so on). I said I understand. I don’t think he grasped the nuance – that he had confirmed the mansplaining. Point is, in 30 minutes the plate is full just trying to talk about sex work as work, without the reams of Other Prostitution Issues including stigma, moralising, poverty, agency and everything else on the planet.

I uploaded this video only a while ago and boom, the first comment asks Where are their parents? What do they think? See last line, previous paragraph. Jeez.

There are four other videos on my channel.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Is Sex at the Margins (going to be) a classic?

Herdlicka Berlin2010I nearly didn’t bother to publish Sex at the Margins. In 1998 Zed Books wanted to publish a thesis I’d written for a Master’s degree in Education, but I refused because after two years’ formal study and field research I believed I still didn’t know enough to make a Book. When I was persuaded to do a further degree and the Open University accepted my proposal, Zed signed me to publish the doctoral thesis that might result. I got the degree in early 2004 but neglected to send anything to Zed. I felt finished with it all, I suppose, and couldn’t imagine other people being interested. The manuscript languished until I wrote them rather diffidently two years later. Since I had failed to fulfill my contract on schedule they were under no obligation to me but offered to take a look.

When they said they would publish if I cut the 120 000 words to 90 000, I thought that would be too boring but then decided it would be a pleasure to remove the sogginess required by academic style with its pointless reiteration and endless hedging. Refusing to cut the two long reference lists I began to slash text ruthlessly. When I reached 75 000 words I knew I could make a haiku of the ideas if I wanted but stopped instead.

The outside reader for Zed, a specialist in migration studies, predicted it would become a cult classic. Classics are meant to be enduring, not rendered irrelevant by changing events, tastes or styles. The modifier cult implies an underground quality. The text is now more than ten years old, but the recent review below suggests the book will be read 100 years from now. Could it be?

Review of: Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry on Amazon.com

5 out of 5 stars A modern classic about human trafficking: must read!
6 January 2015 by Thaddeus G. Blanchette (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)zedcoverbrighter

In terms of academic heft, there may be better books that tackle the mess that is modern abolitionism, its take-over of the global anti-trafficking movement and the transformation of the human-rights struggle into a new, convoluted form of anti-immigrant prejudice. There is no better book than this, however, for a general overview and introduction. Agustín’s work has become a classic in the fields of sex work and immigration studies. It is safe to say that no book has irritated or inspired more people in the anti-trafficking field than this one. What do I mean by a classic?

  • When someone comes up to me and says “I am interested in learning about trafficking. Where should I start reading?” this book is the first thing that springs to mind.
  • It goes against the grain of the received wisdom of the times and yet hits its subject matter square on, in such a way that you’ll never be able to hear someone say “trafficking” again without thinking of it, whether or not you agree with Agustín.
  • Because so much of the subject matter is absolutely contaminated by moral panic and bullshit in other books — even well-meaning academic books — but is not contaminated HERE, people are still going to be reading this a century from now and saying “Yes!” when 99.9% of what is now written about so-called trafficking will read the way Victorian screeds against masturbation do today.

The best comparison I can make is with Emma Goldman’s classic (I do not use this term lightly or ironically) The Traffic in Women, a 1910 dissection of that generation’s anti-trafficking panic. You can read Goldman today and nod your head, while most of what passed for highly wise and popular portrayals of “trafficking” at that time will strike you as moralistic and hypocritical blather. Like Goldman, Agustín is not well received by the powers-that-be of her times. Like Goldman, she is often unpopular, not the least among people who should consider her to be their ally. Like Goldman, she speaks truth to power, backed up by a rapier-sharp wit and a deep intersectional analysis. This is why the book is called a “cult classic” today.

That will be shortened to simply “classic” in, oh, say, ten-twenty years. I’m just getting in on the ground floor.

For those who don’t have the slightest clue of what I’m talking about but are worried about the “scourge of human trafficking”, read this and have your mind blown!

Mind-blowing, inspiring, irritating: grand compliments, I think. Many other reviews, both academic and general-media, are available. My favourite online review from 2014 was Molly Crabapple’s

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Sex at the Margins sells steadily without getting any real promotion, is on many university reading lists and is unlikely to be found on bookshop shelves (but can always be ordered from them). It is easily available to buy online in different formats including:

LarrainValparaiso1957

When I signed the contract with Zed I stipulated I must approve the cover, and those who follow my work know I favour images of people walking – the best portrayal of agency I know.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Meanings of sex work

1927-edward-hopper-automatI’ve been doing some renovation here on the website. No new look, but some structural features Google is said to like. When I first set the site up in 2008 (thanks to Texas Golden Girl for all the Las Vegas coffee dates) there were not 800 000 websites blathering on about sex trafficking, so when I wrote about migration and sex work my material actually came up high in ordinary searches. That ceased long ago, with hundreds (or maybe thousands?) of institutional and governmental websites devoting pages to anti-trafficking campaigns. Minority voices do manage to get through, however, whether they win in Google searches or not. People find this website, by trying or by happenstance. The word spreads, despite the wishes of so many that it would Go Away.

I’ve published nearly 600 blog posts since beginning, and the renovation required me to skim back through them. There are now eight categories on the site: Sex Work, TraffickingMigrationColonialismFeminismsLawsSexualities, Rescue Industry.

BrassaiThe most-used category is Sex Work, since the very fact that people sell sex provokes so many reactions and counter-reactions. This category appears on the main menu at the top of the website, and the page explaining it says

Most rights activists – but not all – prefer the term sex worker as non-stigmatising, placing emphasis on the labour rather than the moral status of what they do. Anti-prostitution campaigners, who insist that all women who sell sex are victims no matter what they themselves say, use terms like prostituted woman and oppose the term sex worker. Some who sell sex proudly call themselves prostitutes, while others hate the term. I try to use whatever term people use about themselves. If you tell me you experience exchanging sex for money (or benefits) to be a job, I accept what you say. If you tell me you experience it as rape or abuse, I accept that. When I’m talking about a business I name it: peep show, brothel, phone sex. When I’m talking about the person working in that business I try to be specific: stripper, cam girl, rent boy.

The list of categories appears in the right-hand column. Topics ranging from more specific to general are found in the tag cloud in the right-hand column. There’s lots of overlap, because people search and read in different ways. This is no great exercise in hierarchical classification, but maybe a little organising will help newcomers navigate these compelling, complex fields.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

My Texas talk on anti-trafficking and the denial of women’s consent

ladywithaguncYou can now watch sessions from the University of Texas at Austin November 22-24 conference on Sexual Citizenship and Human Rights: What Can the US Learn from the EU and European Law? The panel called Sex Work, Migration and Trafficking was held on the 23rd, where my original talk was called ‘Contentious and contradictory: Prostitution-law campaigns in Europe‘.

But when I saw that the other two speakers on the panel were speaking on trafficking, one of them from a Rescue-Industry standpoint and the other juridical, I threw out that talk and gave another, hoping to give a humanist context to the other presentations. I called the new talk Denial of Consent, because consent had been mentioned frequently at this event in regard to adolescents’ right to have sex, which was even claimed to be a human-rights concept. I was struck that no one mentioned the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines everyone under 18 as a child and is constantly used by anti-prostitution campaigners to claim that adolescents who sell sex cannot consent. One might think consent is easily granted to boys and not to girls.

It’s a mistake, in a three-day conference dedicated to the subtleties of sexual citizenship, to dump three deep topics – Sex Work, Migration and Trafficking- into a single panel. Each of those deserves a panel of its own, or alternatively a panel could be devoted to just one of those, making sure all the speakers address it. I ended up doing double work, and it was not easy to limit my introduction to only 30 minutes. A lot is omitted in what you hear below, so I hope it all makes sense. The event was held in a Law School, which explains the rather dramatic courtroom setting, with me a witness in the box.

The session is introduced at 01:30 in the below video by Gloria González López of the Center for Mexican American Studies. My talk begins a minute later and ends at 35:58. The third speaker (Janet Halley) was present via Skype, so you cannot see but perhaps you can hear her. Should the videos fail, you can watch on youtube.

Other conference sessions can be viewed here.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Sex at the Margins: holiday gift or way to escape the celebrations

zedcoversharpandbrightSex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry was published by Zed Books in London in 2007 and is distributed in the US through Palgrave Macmillan. I blog often about issues covered in the book, and many of my published articles are available on this website, but to get the full picture, to see how the different topics join up, you need to read the book. As I said in Dear Students of Sex Work and Trafficking, my ideas can’t easily be boiled down to bullet points or a FAQ.

This book is not out of date. Listening to recent arguments against allowing women to sell sex in France it struck me I would be making the same analysis as the one I made ten years ago if I were doing the research now in Europe. Abolitionists and other Rescue Industry folks fail to comprehend what motivates migrants just as hard-headedly as they did 20 years ago, when my attention was first caught by them. It would seem that middle-class Rescuers are blind to the lack of options available to so many migrants and refuse to believe they have learned about life through experience, instead projecting their own feelings without even a pretense of listening to them.

What study after study has found all over the world is that migrants often prefer to take up riskier, better-paying jobs when the alternatives also offer low prestige and much less money. In the course of my wanderings to try to understand, before it could be called research, I learned that many women not migrating look at the world and their places in it in the same way, and that has not changed either. The margins in this book are occupied not only by migrants but lots of people who haven’t travelled anywhere.

Although Sex at the Margins sells steadily without getting any real promotion and is on many university reading lists, you are unlikely to find it in bookstores. But it is easily available to buy online in several formats:

Happy reading or listening!

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist