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The Naked Anthropologist · laura agustín

laura agustín

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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

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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

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Sex 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

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Award to Laura Agustín, Photo by Charlotte Cooper

In the evening’s opening act a woman emerges from a plastic Chinese bag – those big plaid ones, but still, not easy to fold oneself into. With her head only showing she expels a ping-pong ball from her mouth, a sex-tourism joke that gets a huge laugh. Fully emerged, she holds up a series of signs indicating she is Lilly from Thailand, looking for a husband, wanting a British passport. The audience love it.

What a pleasure, that these jokes could be the cheery opening to the night’s events, unaccompanied by politically correct disclaimers like Remember there is a lot of misery and oppression in this horrible patriarchal world of capitalism. Just hijinks from Lilly, who keeps grinning and bowing. Instead, the audience is assumed capable of appreciating ironies. The event was the Erotic Awards taking place at the Night of the Senses, the 26th year of a kinky charity ball held to benefit Outsiders, which raises awareness about sex and disability.

I have never once thought of myself as a campaigner: mostly I just talk and write about ideas that are considered shocking by a lot of people who are campaigning for something: tighter migration controls, the abolition of prostitution, criminal penalties for people who engage in sex-money transactions. Campaigns have a clearly stated goal, like the slogans in this photo, whereas my work can be described as encouraging critical thinking about sex, money and migration and public policies affecting them. I require people to think for themselves rather than swallow a neatly digestible slogan. Campaigns are assumed to be energetic, focussed and goal-oriented, whereas I’m more meditative and reflexive.

Nonetheless, as I watch Lilly onstage I do feel I’ve contributed to the possibility that her act could be appreciated in this place at this time. I understand my win of the 2013 Erotic Award for Campaigner as the win of a point of view: that anti-trafficking rhetoric and policymaking have strayed too far from what most ordinary people know about their own friends, neighbours and communities, wherever they live in the world. Marriages of convenience, sex shows with ping-pong balls, exchanging sex for benefits, ‘help’ needed to get visas and passports are now widely understood to be part of ordinary and undemonic everyday life – not narratives of horror or slavery.

If you don’t know why I might have won as Campaigner, here are a few links:
My book Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry
Other publications of mine
Videos of some of my talks

–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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Last week at Gatwick airport, after asking me several apparently random questions presumably intended to trip me up, the official wagged my passport at me frustratedly. I knew what he wanted to ask but couldn’t: Damn it, who are you? These poor foot-soldiers in the war of the borders are required, whilst maintaining a calm and polite facade, to bully border-crossers in the hope of finding someone with nefarious purposes. I’m so accustomed to it that I scarcely notice, at the same time I’m aware that, if they want, they can keep me out, so it is always a moment of heightened attention lived in a zone of border thinking.

My Purpose was given as visiting friends, so he’d asked What nationality are your friends? Lots of different nationalities, I said. Oh, so you’re visiting more than one friend? You see why I call these questions random, and they also border on ethnic profiling, but never mind. They are probably sent lists of Annoying Questions of the Week. They hadn’t gotten him anywhere in his quest, anyway, which is why he flapped the passport at me and asked What do you do, anyway? I write, I replied. Now we were back on a more well-trodden track but still with stumbling-points. Have I read anything you’ve written? he challenged. I said I had no idea and and doubted it, but of course while he is having a hard go of figuring out who I am I haven’t a clue about him. Maybe he’s a No-Borders activist in his time off. Finally he gave up and waved me through.

Yesterday I was interviewed by a London politician on my views and proposals relating to trafficking. At one point I was explaining how underground economies mostly tootle along without disturbing anyone, replete with opportunism and abuse but flexible and tending to solve problems internally. To illustrate, I mentioned an incident during my own five years of illegal status (not in the UK). Who are you? I could almost hear him think. At another point I referred to my own experience of being oppressed by the work-permit system, where leaving a job one has a permit for means instant expiration of one’s legal status in the country. He has been told about the live-in maids who cannot leave because their passports are stamped for that single specific employment, even if they are being abused. To find out that supposedly ‘highly-skilled’ permits are just the same and that a researcher might feel abused and want to quit the job but stay and find another had never occurred to him. These are the nuts-and-bolts workings of a dysfunctional migration system, and they are rarely addressed in the abstract debating that goes on about migrants.

At one point, attempting to pin me down, he said, Philosophically you could be called a libertarian -and I cut him off right there. No, I said, I am not a libertarian, I rarely talk about rights and freedoms. I also am not a neoliberal proponent of the happiness of making money in a free marketplace. What I am is a believer in human agency. I believe that disadvantaged persons with limited options of how to proceed in life have, until they are actually put in chains, some space to move, negotiate, prefer one option to another. This position hardly seems philosophical to me, and I am not going to get credit for inventing a new theory with it. Yet time and again it turns conversations upside down.

Similarly, I handle the endlessly tedious conversation about whether selling sex can ever ‘be work’ like this: If one person tells me they experience it as rape and exploitation, I believe them. If another person tells me they experience it as a profession, I believe them. The other day sex workers in Santo Domingo, faced with a government proposing to criminalise their clients, reminded the state attorney that muchas de ellas mantienen a sus familias de este trabajo – many of them maintain their families with this work. (You’d think that would be punto final, wouldn’t you, especially in a poor country where any jobs at all are scarce – but it never is). Why this difference of perception and emotion should lead to such a hullaballoo is really beyond explanation.

Maybe these views make me a philosopher of the cracker barrel, doling out obvious common sense. But the politician explained his grimaces of embarrassed delight: You say things that occur to me in the back of my mind but I tell myself I must not allow them. Because they are taboo? I replied. Or, what do you think, because they are outside the box, revolutionary or downright criminal? Which lines are being crossed, exactly, with this naked talk?

–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 i