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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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I spent one hour and 20 minutes in the queue at Stansted’s UK Border recently. There were probably 1000 people in the hall, divided into the usual EU passports versus Rest of World. Signs saying Tougher Controls Mean a Longer Wait are dotted around. In fact, tougher controls do not have to mean outrageously long waits, even if more questions are asked of each traveller. Some interrogations last several or more minutes, but if enough agents were allotted, waits could still be reasonable. If, however, management allot only two agents to the 200 people on the non-EU side and interviews take at least a minute – well, things get bad.

On top of this, however, some policy had particular groups of people jumping the queue automatically: not only a disabled person but the five people associated with her, not only the small child holding a flight attendant’s hand but the seven teenagers associated with him. Four such groups occupied one of the agents for half the hour and a half I waited, leaving only one agent to work the 200 in the queue. It was not the eve of a significant tourist event but a Friday evening when ordinary city-break tourists arrive for a London weekend.

The ‘transition’ Home Office website says functions of the UK Border Agency (abolished earlier this year) will be split in two.

On 1 April 2013 the UK Border Agency was split into two separate units within the Home Office: a visa and immigration service and an immigration law enforcement division. By creating two entities instead of one, we will be able to create distinct cultures. First, a high-volume service that makes high-quality decisions about who comes here, with a culture of customer satisfaction for business-people and visitors who want to come here legally. And second, an organisation that has law enforcement at its heart and gets tough on those who break our immigration laws.a high-volume service that makes high-quality decisions about who comes here, with a culture of customer satisfaction for business-people and visitors who want to come here legally.

The claim of distinct cultures sounds ridiculous to me, but on their own terms they failed miserably the other night. No one came out to apologise to the throng, which, if you want to be nationalistic about it, included several families where one partner had a British passport but the other did not, plus their small children. No one came to explain the delay, or offer cups of water or smiles to demonstrate that a ‘distinct culture’ exists to welcome the majority of travellers to the UK.

When one of the agents closed up and left, I sighed loudly and began talking to the woman next to me. Discussing the length of interviews I mentioned how an official wanted to know the nationality of my friends in Britain. The woman said I thought it was just Asians who were treated like that. The landing card gives the impression that crossing is a formality, but the oral questions make it clear that we in the queue are thought liable to be liars, cheats or worse. If this belief is really at the heart of UK border policy then I would like them to make such a closed, imperialist attitude overt on the landing card.

All who travel often can tell anecdotes about long waits and stupid questions at borders. The UK border is a bad one getting worse all the time but not unique. My object here is not to evoke a stream of crazy anecdotes about worse border-encounters. Instead, I am pointing out how my frequent long sessions at UK airport-borders add up to evidence of the field-work kind. It’s not just well-known journalists and their mates that get detained and delayed and ill-treated at airport borders; officials do not have to imagine you have interesting data on electronic devices to begin invasive questioning. The segregation into separate queues is not based on colour or ethnicity though that comes into play. No, it’s a separation by passports that grant different degrees of citizenship. If you don’t have the right kind you can be mistreated for hours with no way to complain or escape. You cannot go backwards or opt out; you are trapped. And given the situation, the longer you wait the more likely you are to be meek and mollifying when your turn arrives – which is a form of coercion.

These places are closed to reporters and photographers; I have no idea what protection one has, or rights. I do not know what happens if someone falls ill in the queue. Chinese visitors are targeted with an absurd and costly process to come as tourists, which can quite properly be called colonialist.

I believe the British government has an outdated view of Chinese visitors, perhaps rooted in colonial times. They wrongly fear many Chinese will overstay. We have to respect our borders, but such unfounded fears are harming the UK economy. – Chief Executive at London’s Hippodrome Casino

Some estimate the UK is already losing billions of tourist pounds. Why bother to apply if through the easy process of obtaining a Schengen visa you can visit lots of other European countries? Sure the UK has a popular brand, but for most of the world it is neither indispensable nor better than the same cliché-level brand of France or Italy.

Having arrived efficiently on a short flight from Copenhagen, I reached my central London destination three full hours after landing at Stansted. This is really outrageous. Usually I manage to maintain a curious attitude, like in Border Thinking. Sometimes I fail.

–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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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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I spend about half my time in London; this year I have flown in and out six or seven times. Although the geographical border is obviously not located at any airport, the state says travellers are not in until they pass the legal border – now clearly marked at airports. In the photo to the right, queues to talk to border officials appear straightforward and rational, but in fact ever more often they look like the next picture.

In the foreground is the unnecessarily large and glowering sign marking entrance to UK Border Controls; at that point the sheep and the goats are separated into two queues (EU citizens and everyone else). Far away to the left is the actual borderline. What looks like one huge crowd above is instead two crowds, in queues so long they use a hairpin system that collapses people into a small space.

The UK did not sign the Schengen Agreement allowing free passage across European national borders to EU citizens and legal residents, which is why other EU citizens have to go through a control to get into Britain. At other EU borders there is sometimes a symbolic checkpoint, but often there is nothing at all. This is what Schengen was about, and frequent travellers celebrate it. In the UK it is different.

It used to be that those in the EU queue sauntered pretty quickly through a benign and passive control post, holding up their passports to officials in a genial manner. But the UK has gone through several crises and an unending battle about how ‘tight’ border controls should be, with the current result that those in the EU queue also have to hand their passport to an official who scans it into the machine. The other day the wait between scannings in that queue varied between 8 and 18 seconds, which might sound fast but means, if a lot of people arrive at once, that the queue is usually moving but sometimes rather slowly.

I carried out this counting and other mind-games from my place in the queue for Others – Rest of World – Outsiders, where the wait the other day was nearly an hour. A couple of hundred people were before me in that queue at Gatwick, and the observed time for some of those border-conversations was many minutes. Not for all, some get through in under a minute, and I am certain, if racial and ethnic and national profiling were not illegal, that the Others queue would be separated into several, and then all those whose characteristics provoke knee-jerk, detailed questioning would be together in a pariah queue. As it is, we are all together. This queue does not move steadily or even slowly but in stops and starts.

One game I played was trying to guess which travellers border officials might suspect – or profile as – victims of trafficking. Numerous pamphlets and guidelines – most of them fantasies – have been produced on this subject; most are quite ridiculous. I gazed around me: Would police worry about the brown-skinned woman travelling with the lighter-skinned man? Both of them looked awfully relaxed to me. What about the three high-cheekboned women travelling together, would officials suspect the oldest of being a madam-trafficker? I doubted they would worry about the young men joking together – not as victims, anyway. Everyone looked extremely bored; most played with their phones or read a book.

If anyone had been coerced or duped into that queue, there was no obvious way to know it. The questions officials ask are very schematic and repetitive, presumably to catch liars out in a contradiction, but liars getting as far as these queues have generally got good-looking documents and smart advice about how to handle the interviews, maybe including rehearsals. I would like to know what proportion of these border talks lead to identifying smuggled and trafficked people.

I’ve been quieter lately here. More people now write critically about trafficking policy, though a lot of them – particularly those new to the field and indoctrinated by the rubbishy stuff produced by the US government’s TIP reports – do not question the idea of trafficking itself. The way it all began was about mobility: the completely ordinary phenomenon everywhere in which people hear about a job in a place they don’t live themselves and travel to get to it. Selling sex is one of the paid occupations available. Some people talked about migrant prostitutes, others about migrant sex workers. In the sex workers’ rights movement, one still hears this idea, and migration policy used to be at least nodded to in conversations about trafficking. But now even the word migration has – almost – been disappeared. I say that because I believe policymakers have done and do this deliberately.

My Border Thinking was first published on the Greek site Re-public in June 2008. There are things I have changed my thinking on since that year, but the necessity to adjust one’s thinking in border zones isn’t one of them. Trafficking is definitely a border concept – full of indefinables, confusions and ambiguities. That it should be spoken of now as if it were a known and countable object, like a stone, is all wrong.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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It’s June, formerly a month I had pleasant feelings about but now the time when the US government issues its imperialist TIP report card to Rest of World about their anti-trafficking behaviour (see Institutionalised Arrogance). You may remember that Empower recently released a research report on the state of the Thai entertainment industry in which they said Anti-trafficking rescues are our biggest problem. Now, in anticipation of the next TIP report, they have issued an open letter to the prime minister. I asked them for a little clarification of one term that might be unfamiliar to readers: green harvest – see after the letter for that. And for an unusually nice report about Empower see 25 years in Thailand’s sex industry.

Open Letter to The Prime Minister of the Royal Government of Thailand from Empower

On the occasion of 5th June 2012, National Anti-Human Trafficking Day, Empower alleges that successive Thai governments have sacrificed the rule of law, their international human rights obligations and the well-being of migrant sex workers and their families in an attempt to please the US government and satisfy the American anti-trafficking agenda.

We accuse the United States government of using the issue of human trafficking to coerce its allies into tightening border and immigration controls. The US agenda has also created a climate where women crossing borders are all seen as suspect ‘victims’ of trafficking. Recently on the 21st February 2012 Empower released an in-depth research report, Hit & Run, done by sex workers, which clearly identifies how the State is breaching rule of law and police procedure while arresting wrong people.

Even though Thai governments have tried hard to appease the USA, Thailand remains on a ‘Tier 2 watch list’ and risks being further downgraded in the annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP), due for release later this month. Empower sees the Trafficking in Persons Report issued by the US State Department as subjective and biased against the Thai Entertainment Industry in particular.

Furthermore Empower says the Thai government has so far failed to recognize the many improvements the Entertainment Industry has undergone in the last decade. The old days of the ‘green harvest’ and locked brothels are over. In the modern context, sex work is similar to other jobs. Exploitation in the industry is an issue of access to identity and work documents, labor rights and occupational health and safety. These are labor and human rights issues, not police or criminal issues.

Society is all too familiar with media images of uniformed police, fully armed, storming Entertainment Places and apprehending young unarmed women. Women desperately try to hide their faces; sometimes the women are naked and not even given time to cover themselves. The women and girls never fight back; most don’t even dare to think about trying to run away and not one woman or girl has ever been found carrying a weapon. These events were commonly shown in the media well before the new human trafficking hysteria. The image of a hero or rescuer has now been added to the scene. . . it’s all very exciting.

However society never sees or hears of what happens after the rescue. Society is not told that the women are put through a range of unnecessary medical tests regardless of consent or their human dignity. They don’t know that women have been detained against their will for over a year in government shelters. No one knows about the pain and suffering brought about by the separation from children and family. Who could imagine that the women, who are the main family providers, are not compensated in any way by the State, and given just 3,000 Baht, (about 200 Baht per month) from private anti trafficking fund when they are eventually forcibly and formally deported?

Under the law there are provisions for social assistance but in reality the focus is on punishment. Little wonder women escape from their rescuers when they can. Police enforcement of the law using raids encourages violence. We suggest that instead of continuing costly, and ultimately useless ‘raids and rescue’ missions, it is time Thailand resisted being bullied by foreign governments and instead worked to ensure migrant sex workers’ access to documentation and fair working conditions in entertainment places.

Today Empower Foundation is calling on the Prime Minister of The Royal Government of Thailand to:

  • Review the practices of the Anti-Trafficking Act in relation to the protection of human rights and the rule of law.
  • Stop using sex workers as scapegoats in foreign policy and other political games.
  • Stop police entrapment which contravenes police policy.
  • Stop raids on entertainment places which are violent actions usually reserved for apprehending dangerous criminals.
  • Stop arbitrary detention of sex workers.
  • Protect the human rights of women arrested or assisted under the Anti trafficking Act and ensure they receive the full entitlements according to the Act – e.g. translation, legal representation, compensation.
  • Work together to promote accurate information about the modern context of sex work in Thailand to all agencies involved in anti-trafficking.

The letter has been endorsed by:
Sex workers of Krabi, Sex workers of Phuket, Sex workers of Samut Sakon, Sex workers of Nontaburi, Sex workers of Chiang Mai, Sex workers of Mae Sai, Chiang Rai, Sex workers of Mae Sot, Tak, Sex workers of Mukdahan, Sex workers of Ubon Rachatani, Sex workers of Udon Thani, Sex workers of Pattaya, Chonburi, Sex workers of Soi Cowboy, Bangkok, Sex workers of Soi Nana,  Bangkok, Sex workers of Patpong, Bangkok.

Copies to:
National Human Rights Commission, Office of the Prime Minister, Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, Department of Special Investigations (AHTD), Office of the Attorney General – Public Prosecutor, Ministry of Justice, United Nations Interagency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP)

On green harvest in brief: After World War II the military (with US support) expanded into rural areas. Some corrupt military personnel began offering to take young girls and women to work in the cities, and families in desperate need accepted money in exchange. These debts carried to the workplace; if that was a brothel it would take about three years to pay back the loan at grossly inflated interest rates in conditions of forced labour (no pay and no freedom of movement.) This practice was the norm until about 1999, affecting especially mountain villages of ethnic minorities and later neighbouring Burma and Lao. The point Empower makes is green harvest is no longer the norm.

I would add that the non-recognition of change – cultural, social, economic – in countries the USA pretends to help constitutes imperialism. Keep the natives down by keeping them ‘primitive’.

A report from 2003 entitled Cultural, Economic and Legal factors Underlying Trafficking in Thailand and their impact on women and girls from Burma, by Christa Crawford, was republished in 2009 in Thailand Law Journal.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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The only objectionable thing in the story below, which describes one of prostitution’s classic traditions, is the editor’s addition of scare quotes around the word work to describe what the women are doing. He or she slipped in the last paragraph, though, and left the punctuation out. Since selling sex to miners in a position to pay well has always been a draw to mobile workers, there is really no ‘news’ in this story at all. I note that no one felt called to claim these women are being trafficked or enslaved.

I particularly appreciate the matter-of-fact statement from one woman, who finds the work filthy but puts up with it as part of a life plan to get ahead. Will someone say that she is trafficked in the sense of being forced by circumstance? If so, do you mean that no other job available to this woman pays enough for her to make such a plan? That is likely, but won’t it be great for her when she does get to do what she wants? I mean, aren’t you glad for her? If she doesn’t think she’s damaging herself by selling sex, why should you?

Prostitution big business in Suriname gold fields

Stabroek News, 31 January 2012

Paramaribo: The commercial sex industry is also benefiting from high gold prices. A field investigation by de Ware Tijd shows that this industry is attractive to both local and foreign women, whose main motivation is the huge amounts that can be earned in a relatively short time.

“No minors are coming, but the ages vary between 20 and even 45. Many Brazilians, Dominicans, Guyanese and French are coming to ‘work’ in the gold fields, as well as Surinamese women”, says one woman active in the gold fields near Brownsweg in the District of Brokopondo. One Guyanese woman says she is paid two grams of gold for twenty minutes and five for an entire evening, and she can sell one gram for SRD 150 in Paramaribo. In a good month, she can earn at least US$ 2,000.

Another woman says her ‘work’ in the gold fields is very lucrative, but adds immediately that she is not proud of what she does. “This work is filthy and I don’t intend to do this for the rest of my life. I want to buy my own equipment to get started in the gold business”.

The women say they are discreet in order to prevent their close relatives, particularly their children, from finding out about their work. There is growing concern about the social disruption in hinterland communities close to gold fields. Village heads in particular have often sounded the alarm, and the issue has even been discussed in Parliament many times. Especially young girls reportedly cannot resist the temptation of fast and easy money. “The women here are doing it for the money”, it is said.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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A few years ago I was feeling discouraged by the volume of public discourse representing migrant women and poorer women and prostitutes and sex workers and a lot of other women as overwhelmingly passive, exploited and prone to victimhood, especially sexually. In that post, I lamented the morbid interest in showing women and children as abused and helpless, leaving aside the abundance of images of powerful politician-women and celebrities since I’m talking about regular folk. I feel pretty much the same three years later, so here is an updated group of Women Doing Things to celebrate the end of the year. Drinking Woman comes first, given the season.

Maquiladora women

Rice paddy woman

Aircraft industry women

Seducing woman

Heavy equipment driving woman

Migrating woman

Protesting women

Doctoring woman

Street-trading women

Reading woman

Rock-splitting woman

Writing woman

Performing woman

Inspiring woman

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Although there are two protocols on migration attached to the UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime, trafficking is increasingly the word used to describe any undocumented migration. The reporter of this story from South America has no idea whether the migrants involved were being badly exploited or not (which would make them trafficked), since the only information available is that forged documents were detected – which may simply mean that the migrants paid to be transported to Suriname (which would make them smuggled).

Many don’t understand smuggling processes or the devious routes sometimes used. In another story involving Schiphol Airport, women defined as from Eastern Europe were arriving in Amsterdam possibly to sell sex. In a comments-discussion afterwards I pointed out that being legally attached to a country does not mean one is travelling from that place, whether one is a tourist or undocumented migrant, so the women in question could have been arriving from anywhere. They also might have been acting fully on their own, buying tickets online, or smugglers or traffickers could be involved – there was no evidence to illuminate this in that story, either. Since most smugglers are individuals belonging to small networks (as opposed to large mafia-type organisations), routes depend on contacts and opportunities known to smugglers at the moment and thus change all the time.

The route used in the story below began somewhere in China, passed through Tanzania and was supposed to navigate Amsterdam in order to arrive in Suriname. I suppose the Chinese leader had jobs lined up in Suriname and provided documents acceptable to Tanzanian border officials (if they checked transit passengers at all). Attempting to go through a hyper-aware European airport like Schiphol seems dim: Forged documents are more likely to be recognised in such a city, and transit passengers may also be scrutinised. The smuggler did a bad job, whether he was planning to exploit migrants or was a nice person or not.

Smuggled Chinese detained in Holland en route to Suriname

Stabroek News (Guyana) 30 November 2011

Paramaribo – The judicial authorities in Suriname have not been officially informed yet by the Netherlands about the detention of a group of Chinese who wanted to travel to Suriname with forged documents. This is said by coalition Parliamentarian Ricardo Panka, chairman of the committee for Foreign Affairs in Parliament. Last week, officials at Schiphol airport detained six Chinese in connection with human trafficking. They had arrived from Tanzania and were on their way to Suriname. One of them, a man from Hong Kong, was the leader of the other five. They were caught when their documents turned out to be forgeries. Dutch media reported this event last Friday. Panka says that the Surinamese government has not given an official reaction yet, because an official report from the Netherlands has not received yet. . .

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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It is striking that in the year 2001 women should so overwhelmingly be seen as pushed, obligated, coerced or forced when they leave home for the same reason as men: to get ahead through work.

Sex trafficking and human trafficking were not words on everyone’s lips when I wrote the above ten years ago. I was trying to figure out what was special and problematic about migrants who sell sex, believing that migrants are migrants, no matter what jobs they end up getting (including prostitution or sex work). Nowadays, a lot of the social conflict is about statistics: how many are trafficked, how many are illegal migrants. But even more it is about definitions, world views, ideas about sex and money, the insistence that a particular cultural view should be everyone’s.

Most conversations about migrants who sell sex present black-and-white versions of something that is almost entirely grey. For moral crusaders who would rush to legislation or attempt to prove that one sort of law is better than others, my vision is not satisfying. I say Stop, slow down. Until you comprehend the myriad elements present amongst people who leave home to go to another country and sell sex, you shouldn’t be passing laws about them. Of any kind. This is not useless postmodern dithering but the position that until you understand the minimum about how people experience their own lives you cannot responsibly take actions to help them. If you don’t care what they say themselves then don’t talk about helping and admit that control is what you want: the power to make people stop doing what you don’t approve of and start doing something else, whether they want to or not.

Leaving Home for Sex is the first piece I published that defined what my work would be for the next few years. At the time it was unusual not to use the term prostitute, but I also didn’t just substitute the term sex worker. Instead, I tried to describe how selling sex can be an occupation that works out all right for migrant women without their taking on a definite identity based on it. You will see ‘Challenging place’ in the original title because the piece was written for a special journal issue on women and place – the local and the global. I suggested that migrant workers didn’t fit into that framework but could sometimes be viewed as cosmopolitan subjects: that neither poverty nor bad jobs nor lack of complete ‘choice’ over your life prevents you from also becoming cosmopolitan. There are some footnotes not hyperlinked but listed at the end of the text in full reproduced here. Click on the title to get the pdf.

Leaving Home for Sex

Laura Mª Agustín, Development, 45.1, 110-117 (2002).

As soon as people migrate, there is a tendency to sentimentalise their home. Warm images are evoked of close families, simple household objects, rituals, songs, foods.[1] Many religious and national holidays, across cultures, reify such concepts of ‘home’ and ‘family’, usually through images of a folkoric past. In this context, migration is constructed as a last-ditch or desperate move and migrants as deprived of the place they ‘belong to’.Yet for millions of people all over the world, the birth and childhood place is not a feasible or desirable one in which to undertake more adult or ambitious projects, and moving to another place is a conventional—not traumatic—solution.

How does this decision to move take place? Earthquakes, armed conflict, disease, lack of food impel some people in situations that seem to involve little element of choice or any time to ‘process’ options: these people are sometimes called refugees. Single men’s decisions to travel are generally understood to evolve over time, the product of their ‘normal’ masculine ambition to get ahead through work: they are called migrants. Then there is the case of women who attempt to do the same.

Research in a marginal place: Geographies of exclusion

For some time I worked in educación popular in Latin America and the Caribbean and with latino migrants in North America and Europe, in programmes dedicated to literacy, AIDS prevention and health promotion, preparation for migration and concientización (whose exact translation does not exist in English but combines something about consciousness-raising with something about ‘empowerment’). My concern about the vast difference between what first-world social agents (governmental, NGO workers, activists) say about women migrants and what women migrants say about themselves led me to study and testify on these questions. I have deliberately located myself on the border of both groups: the migrants and the social, in Europe, where the only jobs generally available to migrant women are in the domestic, ‘caring’ and sex industries. My work examines both the social and the migrants, so I spend time in brothels, bars, houses, offices, ‘outreach’ vehicles and ‘the street’, in its many versions. Data on what migrant women say come from my own research and others’ in many countries of the European Union; women have also been interviewed before or after migrating in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Data on what social agents say come from my own research with those who work on prostitution issues in those countries, including as evaluator of projects for the International Labour Office and the European Commission.

Although researchers and NGO personnel have been working with migrant prostitutes for nearly twenty years in Europe, publication of their findings remains outside mainstream press and journals. Most of the people who have met and talked with many migrant prostitutes are neither academics nor writers. ‘Outreach’ is conceptualised as distinct from ‘research’ and generally funded as HIV/AIDS prevention. This means that the published products of outreach research are generally limited to information on sexual health and practices; the other many kinds of information collected remain unpublished. Some of those who work in these projects have the chance to meet and exchange such information, but most do not. Recently, a new kind of researcher has entered the field, usually young academic women studying sociology or anthropology and working on migrations. These researchers want to do justice to the reality around them, which they recognise as consisting of as many migrant prostitutes as migrant domestic/‘caring’ workers. Most of these researchers do oral histories and some have begun to publish but it will be some time before such findings are recognised. Stigma works in all kinds of ways, among them the silencing of results that do not fit hegemonic discourses.[2] The mainstream complaint says ‘the data is not systematised’ or ‘there is no data.’ In my research, I seek out such ‘marginalised’ results.

Discourses of leaving home

It is striking that in the year 2001 women should so overwhelmingly be seen as pushed, obligated, coerced or forced when they leave home for the same reason as men: to get ahead through work. Read the rest of this entry »

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