Tag Archives: migration

Nigerian migrant women as subjects: Sex work in fiction

Anti-trafficking campaigners often single out Nigerian women as the worst case of what they call sex trafficking. I first wrote about this years ago and note that, despite critiques and debunkings, the trend holds. In stories about Nigerian migrant women, ‘rituals’ are usually cited that are supposed to have bound them in a specially sinister way to smugglers. It’s straight-up racist colonialism, the inability and unwillingness to conceive of even the most superficial aspects of a non-western culture. Lurid conclusions are jumped to immediately according to which juju ceremonies are not comparable to Roman Catholic ones, for one example – though promises, petitions and talismans are found in both. As though one sort of prayer for help or success were inherently irrational and the other not.

That’s not to say that conditions are not pretty dire for many women and men in western Africa, politically, economically, on the gender front – which means people can be willing to take big risks and assume onerous debts when they travel to work abroad. Early in my studies I learned about how some migrants think about that in Lucciole neri – Le prostitute nigeriane si raccontano (Iyamu Kennedy and Pino Nicotri, editors, 1999), one of my sources of ethnographic research with migrants who sell sex in Europe, for what eventually became Sex at the Margins. These Nigerians were working in Italy. [NB: It’s never clear whether the label Nigerian actually means born in and identified with that country. In the world of migration national identities are shifty.]

On Black Sisters’ Street, by Chika Unigwe, came out in 2009. I was prompted to read it by This is Africa’s mention of it along with Sex at the Margins. It’s a novel telling the stories of four women’s migrations from Nigeria to Belgium where they work in windows in the red-light district. None of them has had an easy life and none of them sees herself as a victim, despite the presence of a powerful smuggler in Lagos and a controlling madam in Antwerp. They are, the author says, willing to play the trump card that God has wedged in between their legs. Unigwe has said:

If your parents can’t help you out and your government has failed you, these pimps and traffickers have at least given you a chance to leave and make a living. He’s your saviour. It takes someone outside the situation to see these pimps and traffickers as the bad guys.

At the end of the book we are told how three of the women fare in the future. After nine years in Antwerp, Efe became a madam herself.

It would take eighteen months to get her first of two girls whom she would indeed buy at an auction presided by a tall, good-looking Nigerian man in sunglasses and a beret. It would be in a house in Brussels, with lots to drink and soft music playing in the background. The women would enter the country with a musical band billed to perform at the Lokerenfeest. The man in the sunglasses was the manager of the band and as usual had, in addition to genuine members of the band, added the names of the women who had paid him to the list he submitted at the embassy in Abuja. The women would be called into the room one at a time for the buyers to see and admire. They would all have numbers, for names were not important. Their names would be chosen by whoever bought them. Names that would be easy for white clients to pronounce… Efe would buy numbers five and seven. Number five because she smiled easily. Number seven because she looked docile and eager to please, the sort of girl who was grateful for little. Like Madam, Efe would have some police officers on her payroll to ensure the security of her girls and of her business. She would do well in the business, buying more girls to add to her fleet. pp 278-9

Yes, this is an auction where employers bid on women who will sell sex, but beware glossing all nuances and calling it slave-trading. The women in question want to migrate and accept they’ll be selling sex and paying off a debt. Which doesn’t mean they know everything that may happen to them and how constrained life will be in another country. The Three-Headed Dog, my own recent novel, is about the same dynamics, with Latin Americans in Spain but also a strong Nigerian character – Promise.

I first published this post only slightly changed on 22 September 2011 and publish it again now as part of a series on sex work in fiction.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Social-Problem novels and The Three-Headed Dog

StokeNewingtonFeb2017I was interviewed in an old pub in Stoke Newington next to a photo-plaque memorialising Writers and Reformers.* I suppose it was by chance, but maybe not.

Campaigners for equal rights and other freedoms don’t talk about reform anymore, but if it’s not revolution they want then technically it is reform. According to this western worldview, we are moving in a stream of time called Progress towards – something if not Utopia then always fairer, healtheir and wealthier all the time.

In the 19th century in northern Europe and North America, there was a movement of writers to expose social injustices through novels, with the goal of reform. They thought that if more people knew about injustices wrought upon the poor, women and children, then readers might add to pressure on government elites to reform laws. It was consciousness-raising about the suffering of others: The books were aimed at middle-class readers.

2940012004093_p0_v1_s260x420Protest novel, social novel thesis novel, propaganda novel, industrial novel, working-class/proletarian novel, condition-of-England novel: all describe the works of writers including Mary Gaskell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Charles Dickens and, in the 20th century, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Nadine Gordimer and many more.

Critics argue about whether their social visions portrayed the truth and whether the authors really blamed structural problems or were more interested in individual character. On the literary front, too much protest can work against story-telling and other aesthetic qualities, leading to criticism about the novels being insufficiently literary. Other distinctions include

The value of Condition-of-England novels lies primarily not in their fictional plots, social analyses, and recommended solutions but primarily in first-hand detailed observations of industrialism, urbanism, class, and gender conflicts. – The Victorian Web

I’m not a fan of drawing lines to distinguish between Real Art and everything else; I think you can have activist purpose and write beautifully at the same time, just as you can write nicely and have nothing much to say. The observations you make may feel significant to readers or not. Trends of the moment play a part: at the particular time in which I’m writing this, critics may introduce the idea of Cultural Appropriation, which suggests that outsiders should not write about social injustices they have not themselves lived.

sinclair - jungle bindingTo protest it may be enough to produce a portrait of how bad things are. To believe that reform is possible you need to be clear about what would constitute improvement. A novel about children forced to work in satanic mills might call for better working conditions for them or, alternatively, claim their right not to work at all but rather be allowed to enjoy ‘childhood’. To qualify as a reform-novel you may need to propose concrete solutions that can be formed into laws.

Agustin-TheThreeHeadedDog-14001-250x400The Three-Headed Dog portrays life in underground economies amongst undocumented migrants, smugglers and sex workers, in a particular time and place: Spain in the early 21st century. After observing events surrounding undocumented migration and prostitution law for so many years, I got tired of being annoyed by the pontificating on policy and morals from people who seemed not to know many realities. To participate in mainstream debates one is pretty well forced to accept the framework of whoever’s funding the event or publication. The frameworks are never what I would choose myself.

Writing stories is a way to show how things are without being caught up in these alien frames. It is also a way to portray some of my own life, what I look at and care about. But not with avid activist purpose: in my case it’s about allowing ideas to float up from the depths and shape themselves into readable stories. Without calculating if they will be saleable, not taking advice about how to spin the ideas so they’re more palatable to policymakers or listening to the many well-meaning intermediaries who have counseled me to change things.

In the early years after Sex at the Margins came out I tried to talk about how labour policy might be linked to migration policy here and now (in the European Union and everywhere else). Seldom did interviewers follow this up, asking instead for me to rate competing prostitution laws (oversimplified into decriminalisation, ‘legalisation’ and penalisation of buying sex). Since then, policies on undocumented migration and what’s called trafficking have worsened.

But I resist. Resistance is still an option, the refusal to accept alien framings, perhaps the concept of debate itself. I wouldn’t call The Three-Headed Dog a Social-Problems Novel, but not because it’s written inside a crime or noir genre. I’d say rather because I don’t propose policies that might improve the wretched mess. At this moment I want more of the realities to come out – in a fuller form, with space for anthropological observation and literary emotion. So that a few readers somewhere may see into lives they otherwise never get to hear about. [This leads to ideas about what Education is, but enough for now.]

* In the pub plaque: Samuel Rogers, Anne Laetitia Barbauld, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Howard, Edgar Allen Poe and Dr Isaac Watts (none a known social-problem novelist)

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Interviews by Johnny Lemuria and Maggie McNeill

Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 20.38.09Two bloggers have interviewed me on the occasion of publishing a new book. First I’ll show you Maggie McNeill’s, because it’s written; after that I’ll give the link to Johnny Lemuria’s listenable podcast interview.The Honest Courtesan has kindly given permission for me to reproduce the full conversation here.

Dr. Laura Agustín, author of the blog The Naked Anthropologist and the book Sex at the Margins, the seminal work on “sex trafficking” hysteria (in which she coined the term “rescue industry”), has written The Three-Headed Dog, a novel dramatizing the problems faced by migrants. It’s another way of introducing readers to the issues the “sex trafficking” paradigm attempts to paper over, which Dr. Agustín has studied for over 20 years and understands in a way very few others do. I recently read the novel, and Dr. Agustín graciously agreed to answer some questions about it.

MM: Sex at the Margins has been and continues to be a work of major importance to the sex workers’ rights movement; I know it really helped me to shake off the dualistic thinking about “willing” vs “coerced” sex work, and it’s invaluable in getting people to look at their preconceptions around why people (especially women) leave their original home countries to work. So why did you decide to write fiction instead of a 10th-anniversary edition?

LA: The essence of Sex at the Margins doesn’t need updating, by which I mean women’s migration to work as maids or to sell sex, the use of smugglers, the rise of the Rescue Industry. Someone else can document the growth and proliferation of that last, if they can stomach it, but the core ideas haven’t changed. I wanted to write stories to reach people who don’t read books like Sex at the Margins and who only hear about the issues from mainstream media reports. The Three-Headed Dog provides a way to learn about social realities and be gripped by stories at the same time.

MM: I write fiction myself, so that makes sense to me. But what made you choose the crime genre? Why not do a “straight” novel?

LA: Crime seemed like the right frame, because everyone thinks smuggling and undocumented migration are at least technically crimes – leaving the idea of trafficking out of it. I am a fan of some kinds of mystery writing, and the formula of a detective who searches for missing migrants provides infinite opportunities for all sorts of stories and characters.

MM: I think you just started to answer one of my questions! At the end of the book several questions are unresolved, and I would have liked to know more about Félix, the detective. Is this the first of a series?

LA: I’ve got too many stories to tell for one book. The Dog was getting long and complicated, so I decided to make it the first in a series. In the detective genre it’s common for some questions to remain dangling, and readers know they can learn more in the next installment. If I’d been writing 150 years ago I might have done weekly installments in a magazine, as Dickens did with The Pickwick Papers. In the next book, which I’ve started, Félix’s search takes her to Calais and London.

MM: I was very intrigued by Félix, and it seems to me that she might be based on you. Would I be correct? And are any other characters based on people you know?

LA: The characters created themselves in my mind out of the many thousands of migrant friends and acquaintances I’ve had in my life. Including myself. But they sprang forth and told me who they were. I identify with much of Félix’s character, but I identify with much of the smuggler Sarac’s character, too.

MM: I like that Félix has some history of sex work, and that she still seems to be comfortable taking gigs that dip into the edges of sex work.

LA: She certainly was a sex worker during the European tour she did when younger with her friend Leila, who now lives in Tangier. I think she still takes sexwork gigs when it suits her. I expect she’ll tell us more about that in the future.

MM: Not many novels have well-developed and nuanced sex workers as major characters, and when we appear as minor characters we’re mostly there to be rescued or murdered. But these characters, even the minor ones, are much more developed than that. There was one character, Marina, who was clearly intending to do sex work, but what about the others? I couldn’t be sure.

LA: This is Marina’s second time sexworking in Spain. Félix looks for two other characters in spas (massage joints) in Madrid, and one of those is adamant about not intending to be a maid. They’re Latin Americans who belong to a long tradition of working in indoor businesses like bars and flats, or sometimes in the street. They arrive with contacts and some prior knowledge of what they’re getting into, so it’s a serious problem when the smuggler makes them de-plane in Madrid instead of Málaga. Of the other characters, Promise, the Nigerian, planned to sexwork in the street, and Eddy, the boy who goes missing, doesn’t intend anything but is moving in that direction.

MM: It seemed to me that their ending up in Madrid was a very big issue, even beyond the lack of connections. Is Madrid so very different from Málaga?

LA: Yes, Madrid is a harder place, a capital city and centre of echt-Spanish culture. Málaga is on the Costa del Sol, crossroads for many kinds of migration, smuggling, tourism and crime. It’s a long stretch of coast that ends in a point only 32 kilometres from Africa across the Mediterranean Sea. Nowadays many non-Spanish Europeans from colder climates have homes there in quasi-closed communities. The coast is by no means a piece of cake, but it’s not a cold, self-important northern city. Personally I feel a great sense of history there and lived in Granada during the years I worked on Sex at the Margins.

MM: So it’s a good place to find jobs that aren’t strictly legal?

LA: This is about informal economies that exist in parallel to formal ones (which means they’re included in government accounting). Informal economies are even larger than the formal in some developing countries. In Spain it is not illegal to sell sex, but undocumented migrants have no right to be in the country at all, much less work there. The same is true when they get jobs in restaurant kitchens, on construction sites, picking fruit and working as maids and cleaners. The informal economy rolls along, the jobs are available and migrants are more or less glad to get them despite the clandestinity.

MM: And as you discussed in Sex at the Margins, it’s this informal economy that’s depicted as “trafficking” nowadays, even when there’s no coercion involved per se.

LA: The group that arrives by plane at the beginning are undocumented migrants. They’ve got papers to show at the border: passports and tourist visas. Fakery was involved, and these young people are planning to get paid work, so they’re going to misuse the visas. A guy who’s part of the smuggling travels with them. The project is based on the migrants getting jobs and income so they can pay back debts they or their families took on when they bought travel-agency-type services (known in crime-circles as smuggling). Technically they’re all committing crimes, but to the migrants they feel like minor crimes, given the well-known availability of jobs when they arrive. Everyone knows people who’ve done it and sent money home. Do smugglers sometimes resort to nefarious practices? Of course; it’s an unregulated economy. But if smugglers want to stay in the business they guard their reputation. Word spreads.

MM: I’m sure the rescue industry folks would find fault with the fact that the book isn’t about people “rescuing” these migrants from their smugglers.

LA: I wrote this book out of love, not as polemic. I’d have to get paid very well to devote myself for long to analysing moral entrepreneurship; I don’t find crusader-figures interesting. I don’t see the world in black-and-white, I like ambiguity and shifting ground. In Félix’s interior life, questions of helping and saving play a part, but she refuses the rescuer-role.

MM: And really, even the villains aren’t the mustache-twirling cardboard characters so beloved by those who promote the “sex trafficking” narrative. I’m thinking about Sarac, the smuggler, and Carlos, the sex club owner.

LA: The smugglers are squabbling amongst themselves and not very appealing, but they aren’t monsters or driving anyone into bondage. They charge for their services. Sarac worked as a soldier/mercenary, now does “security” and is involved in people-smuggling. He wants to do something new, but not pimping. Carlos operates hostess clubs in Madrid. Those are not illegal, but he may employ illegal migrants. He’s part of an established tradition, and he makes good money on the women’s work.

MM: I think American readers have some very confused ideas about the sex industry and migration in Europe. Do you think The Three-Headed Dog will appeal to them and help clear up some of those misconceptions?

LA: Undocumented migration and working in underground economies are worldwide phenomena no matter what local culture or national laws prevail. Ways to earn money by selling sex vary in the details, but sex workers recognise each other across national borders and talk about the same problems and solutions everywhere. Sometimes places where laws are uglier provide more opportunities. Since the migrants are working illegally in Spain they have a lot in common with all sex workers in the USA, right?

MM: True; all of us are illegal here, whether we were born here or not. Is there anything else you’d like to tell the readers that I haven’t thought of?

LA: Yes, I want to point out that even if you don’t own a Kindle, you can still buy the Kindle version of The Three-Headed Dog and download a free reading app right there. And you can read more about sex industry jobs here at the Naked Anthropologist.

Next: The Lemurian Hour podcast conducted via Skype audio.

Screen Shot 2017-05-02 at 13.33.00This is a project of author and artist John L Robinson, aka Johnny Lemuria, whose introduction says This is a decadent podcast; if you can’t handle that you should go elsewhere. Actually I didn’t say anything decadent, though some abolitionists think I’m one of Satan’s handmaidens.

Or listen here:

Thank you, Johnny and Maggie. Anyone else interested in an interview? Contact me on the form to your right.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Who is the Three-Headed Dog? Surveillance and migration

patinir07745cc7-7700-4981-99f6-4117beda5bccCharon Crossing the River Styx was painted by Joachim Patinir between 1515 and 1524. A reproduction hangs on the wall of a bar in Málaga’s centro histórico where the detective protagonist of The Three-Headed Dog is often found. The original hangs in the Prado, which also plays a part in the book. The soul in the boat is shown in mid-voyage, at the point where a choice must be made between going to paradise (the hard route) or to Hell (the easy one).

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 16.12.48In Greek mythology the dog Cerberus guards the gates of Hell for his master Hades, god of the underworld. One might expect the dog to trouble only souls trying to escape, but there is ambiguity in some sources about what he does to those trying to get in. Once you have a border you have to patrol it in both directions. Cerberus is Surveillance.

surveillancecameraCerberus has three heads. Some contemporary surveillance mechanisms don’t look so different. In the present day he is fences, walls, CCTV, infrared sensors, helicopters, planes and speedboats. Guards with binoculars and machine guns, checkpoints with Interpol databases, detention centres and sometimes, yes, sniffer dogs.

wall-nogales-mexico-nogales-arizona-

Surveillance against strangers must be one of the oldest human activities, when borders might indicate the territory of a family clan. Nowadays most controls don’t summarily shoot down intruders on sight, but the camps they get put into are sometimes a kind of living death.

downloadGetting around Cerberus is the most urgent task of undocumented migrants. In The Three-Headed Dog a group of youngsters from the Caribbean have to get through border control with faked papers at Madrid’s Barajas Airport. The smuggler advises them how to finesse questions posed by border agents. Once past that point a long series of challenges begin as the migrants start trying to insert themselves into local life without drawing the notice of interior guard dogs. The border is never permanently crossed.

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Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist

Interview with Radio Ava, sexworker radio in London

Screen Shot 2017-03-12 at 23.48.44In February I was interviewed by RadioAva (DIY sexworker radio, a project of x:talk) about The Three-Headed Dog. When I arrived at the pub in mid-afternoon a fight was blowing up in the back room, glass splintering and chairs crashing to the floor. Soon the place was full of cops and two clutches of drunken young white men were being moved out the door while shouting out epithets: Knackers! Travellers! The perfect setting for an interview.

barroombrawl1In this interview I talk about creativity and pleasure, about my own likes and dislikes. The interviewer describes her feelings about the characters, surprising me by saying she found sexworker Marina ‘too perfect’. Here I confess to identifying not only with the detective narrator, Félix, but also with a villain of the story called Sarac. What are they supposed to do? I say, referring to men reared in tribal and national wars who now may turn to people-smuggling. I talk about cultural relativism as a way of understanding lives unlike our own.

I hear my self in this interview. I hear myself saying more than once I wanted to put it out there, referring to a sense of urgency, that stories of migrants who sell sex are so rarely heard that The Three-Headed Dog can exist as an historical document to be discovered by future historians – like this interview, which is located on the wonderfully-named mixcloud.

Screen Shot 2017-03-13 at 00.54.34Listen to it while doing some chore. Note the bar-clinking in the background. On the same show: Pandora Blake and the ECP. Good company. Thank you, all.

Note: there are musical interludes interspersed with segments of me and Carmen talking. They are all migration-inspired and most were provided by me. They aren’t identified on the podcast, so I’ll do a separate piece about them soon.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist