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11473117_icon-realty-picks-up-elizabeth-street-tenement_b40882c2_mLawrence Block is a successful mainstream writer whose plotlines often include sex workers, in a normalising way (call girls, mostly). Matthew Scudder, the detective protagonist in one of Block’s series, has a long-term, friendly, sex-for-favours relationship with a call girl that eventually turns into marriage. The woman invests her money in property, allowing her to retire gracefully. Block doesn’t avoid portraying the dangers and problems inherent in the lives of women who sell sex, but he gives other sides of the picture, too, particularly refreshing given the usual police view of vice and prostitutes.

In Eight Million Ways to Die (1982) one New York call girl explains her lifestyle.

This is something different, she said. The johns who come here, they don’t think they’re johns. They think they’re friends of mine. They think I’m this spacey Village chick, which I am, and that they’re my friends, which they are. I mean, they come here to get laid, let’s face it, but they could get laid quicker and easier in a massage parlor, no muss no fuss no bother – dig? But they can come up here and take off their shoes and smoke a joint, and it’s a sort of a raunchy Village pad, I mean you have to climb three flights of stairs and then you roll around in a waterbed. I mean, I’m not a hooker. I’m a girlfriend. I don’t get paid. They give me money because I’ve got rent to pay and, you know, I’m a poor little Village chick who wants to make it as an actress and she’s never going to. Which I’m not, and I don’t care much, but I still take dancing lessons a couple mornings a week and I have an acting class every Thursday night, and I was in a showcase last May for three weekends. We did Ibsen, and do you believe that three of my johns came? (p 145)

4e52506f1b4d8702331483d23e7a2bb6I was living in New York the year this was published, and my friend Mona lived the same way Block’s character does. Mona also didn’t call herself a prostitute or anything else. Using a casual feminist analysis of the time, we thought she was doing what a lot of wives do, in a careful, selective way and without ceremony. In a context in which rents were sky-high and lots of people were trying to make it in demanding professions, Mona’s choice was sensible. She got to take her lessons and audition for parts, and, in the rare case that she got one, she was free to accept it. I don’t know whether she would have advertised GFE as a service had the term or the Internet been available, but that’s what she was offering.

Mona’s lifestyle illustrates how sex-for-money occurs in casual ways that are part of normal life in informal economies. If you recall the obsessive quality of hustling culture that John Rechy conveyed so well, this Village chick sounds serene (or spacey). But her way of looking at things is also common. In order to bring out more of these situations, I proposed a field called the cultural study of commercial sex. Scholarship without moralising. In my view, in fact, if you are moralising you are not a scholar.

Part of a series on sex work in fiction: scroll back a few days, then again, then again. [First published 19 January 2009]

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Bayou-Burger-Sports-Bar-features-balcony-dining-Bourbon-Street-New-Orleans-LAIn today’s shrill anti-trafficking culture any differences in forms of facilitating prostitution/ sex work are practically erased. I’m not talking about whether anything is fair or gender-equal or exploitative here but about the many ways humankind has evolved for making money through commercial sex. In James Lee Burke’s Cadillac Jukebox (1996) one swindle involving sex work in New Orleans is described: the Murphy scam.

Vice had identified the hooker as Brandy Grissum, a black twenty-five-year-old heroin addict who had done a one-bit in the St John the Baptist jail for sale and possession.

She worked with three or four pimps and Murphy artists out of the Quarter. The pimps were there for the long-term regular trade. The Murphy artists took down the tourists, particularly those who were drunk, married, respectable, in town on conventions, scared of cops and their employers.

It was an easy scam. Brandy would walk into a bar, well dressed, perhaps wearing a suit, sit at the end of the counter, or by herself in a booth, glance once into the john’s face, her eyes shy, her hands folded demurely in front of her, then wait quietly while her partner cut the deal.

This is the shuck: ‘My lady over there ain’t a reg’lar, know what I’m sayin’? Kind of like a schoolgirl just out on the town.’ Here he smiles. ‘She need somebody take her ’round the world, know what I’m saying’? I need sixty dollars to cover the room, we’ll all walk down to it, I ain’t goin’ nowhere on you. Then you want to give her a present or something, that’s between y’all.’ — p 24, Cadillac Jukebox

320px-Grits_Bar_Interior_New_Orleans_2The Murphy scam is robbery by a couple who lure a client to a room to have sex (in exchange for seemingly reasonable, non-professional fees). After client and woman are in bed the other partner rushes in posing as a jealous husband (or whatever). The client leaves in a hurry and the Murphy artists collect his belongings and money.

In Burke’s description Brandy works with several pimps as well as with Murphy artists, so even though she’s an addict she is not anyone’s slave. We aren’t told what proportion of the takings she gets, so we don’t know how bad a deal she has. The scam is interesting in offering a kind of commercial sex palatable to clients who cannot see themselves as clients and thus lend themselves to being scammed. A different kind of ‘demand’ – that now over-used, less-meaningful-than-ever term. A man who can be ‘lured’ – not much of a monster. More on different kinds of pimping in Nesbø’s Blood on Snow and in my own The Three-Headed Dog.

This is part of a series of posts about sex work in fiction. The other day it was Doris Lessing’s turn.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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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

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imageIt wasn’t always all called trafficking. Whether or not migrants were officially or sentimentally designated refugees, they were portrayed as taking action. Getting screwed – certainly – but that’s another thing. If your goal is to get over the border without official documents, then you make pay-offs.

Migration has long been included as part of normal, if unjust, social life, in many works of literature. In James Ellroy’s 1987 The Black Dahlia the Los Angeles cop-narrator heads south from Tijuana looking for his lost partner. The year is 1947.

Car traffic was scarce, with a steady trickle of pedestrians walking north: whole families lugging suitcases, looking scared and happy at the same time, like they didn’t know what their dash across the border would bring them, but it had to be better than sucking Mexican dirt and tourist chump change.

Approaching Ensenada at twilight, the trickle became a migration march. A single line of people hugged the northbound roadside, belongings wrapped in blankets and slung over their shoulders. Every fifth or sixth marcher carried a torch or a lantern, and all the small children were strapped papoose-style onto their mothers’ backs… The wetback line originated out in the scrubland, and only cut through Ensenada to reach the coast road–and to pay tribute to the Rurales for letting them through.

It was the most blatant shakedown I had ever seen. Rurales in brownshirts, jodhpurs and jackboots were walking from peasant to peasant, taking money and attaching tags to their shoulders with staple guns; plainsclothes cops sold parcels of beef jerky and dried fruit, putting the coins they received into changemakers strapped next to their sidearms. Other Rurales were stationed one man to a block to check the tags… (216-17)

immigrant_crossing_san_diego_03-18-2004This is Baja California just south of Tijuana and a border that used to be so easy to cross that this sign was widely visible to warn drivers on the US side. To get to that line required the permission of police along the way, achieved via bribes. I regard this migration as a close relation of that portrayed in The Three-Headed Dog.

The Black Dahlia herself sold sex out of bars in downtown LA. More about that another time.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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vance11e-1-webIn the last couple of weeks, on twitter, I tore into a piece of research funded by the US National Institute of Justice entitled Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities. During that time every media outlet in the world reproduced the claimed findings as if they were facts, despite how ridiculous most of them are. I made a few punchy points in an interview:

Q+A: Why Pimps Can’t Be Trusted to Talk About Sex Economics

Lauretta Charlton, Complex City Guide, 17 March 2014

Last week, the Urban Institute released a landmark study called Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities. Its abstract states that “the underground commercial sex economy (UCSE) generates millions of dollars annually, yet investigation and data collection remain under resourced.”

The Institute’s research was focused on gathering information about the sex economy based on evidence in eight major cities across the US. The research relied heavily on interviews with pimps, traffickers, sex workers, child pornographers, and police. According to a quick recap of the study on the Urban Institute’s website, the major findings include:

  • Pimps claimed inaccuracy in media portrayals.
  • Pimps manipulate women into sex work.
  • Women, family, and friends facilitate entry into sex work.
  • Unexpected parties benefit from the commercial sex economy.
  • The Internet is changing the limitations of the trade.
  • Child pornography is escalating.
  • The underground sex economy is perceived as low risk. 

But critics say that the study is misleading and intentionally biased. It’s an oversimplification of what researchers like Laura Agustín, also known as the Naked Anthropologist, argue is a very complicated system. City Guide asked Agustín a few questions via email hoping to get a clearer picture.

In your words, how has this study misrepresented sex workers in America?

LA: It’s not a study about sex workers at all but rather an attempt to view particular sex economies through the highly limited lens offered by of convicted ‘pimps’. The study was designed in a way that assured bias from the start. Women who sell sex are seen as objects manipulated by Bad Men. There’s next to no information about sex workers.

The interview subjects were mostly black/minorities. How is this reflection of continued racism in America?

LA: Again, the bias was guaranteed when researchers chose to centre pimps, but the only pimps they could conveniently interview are incarcerated. Black men predominate in prisons and predominate in the kind of pimping researchers know about, so the study reproduces the usual racist idea that black men pimp white women. This then is made to seem to be the most important aspect of the sex industry, which is laughable.

How have reports of the study misconstrued the real issues at hand?

LA: Media reports uncritically accept and focus on the numbers provided in this study: which city has the biggest sex or drugs economy, how much money pimps earn. I haven’t seen any reporter ask why researchers accepted prisoners’ stories as fact. All interview research has to factor in the possibility that subjects lie; in this case that factor is very big indeed as prisoners can be expected to brag about their exploits.

Do you believe the issues of race and sex work are mutually exclusive?

LA: I’m not sure what you mean. People the world over take up sex work for thousands of reasons and are pulled into or attracted to it by their positions vis-à-vis class, race, ethnicity, gender. No single condition decrees how a sex worker will fare; to understand any individual you need to listen to their story.

Analyze this quote from the study, “They have a saying in the pimp game, ‘If it ain’t white, it ain’t right. If it ain’t snowing, I ain’t going.”

LA: Analyse? I’d say that’s a typical cocky man’s comment aimed at showing how in-control he is. Perhaps a black man said it to a white woman? In which case he was ‘snowing’ her.

***

Next Huffington Post Live did a brief show with four panelists using Google Hangout. The technology allows participants to interact verbally, but there’s no eye contact, which limits things. This was called Understanding The Modern Sex Work Industry

Most of the critical commentary after this event centred on Dennis Hof’s screwy comments about unregulated sex workers’ having AIDS and being sex-trafficked, as he single-mindedly promotes the model of commercial sex he understands – his own Nevada brothels. More to the point, the show was meant to be about the Urban Institute study, but I doubt Hof ever even looked at it. This meant the already brief show lost focus. Still, because of twitter this small critique took place, which is a good thing.

Someone would have to pay me to write up a real critique of the Urban Institute study. The bottom line is researchers were funded by a crime-oriented agency to confirm everything the US government already does. Even sell-out researchers could not find the kind of horrible connexions between sex-drugs-weapons they wanted, but they admitted the possibility that things could be much worse than study shows (the Weapons of Mass Destruction ploy). I can imagine the study’s results leading to proposal for national-US antiprostitution law – ‘to facilitate policing’. Here’s a selection of tweets from 12-20 March 2014 (from @LauraAgustin). More like raw data, in no special order, hashtags removed.

“Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in 8 Major US Cities” Ludicrously banal
Urban Institute report on US sex economy is obsessed with pimps. In fact the report is about pimping, not the sex industry, not sexwork
This will become the Bible for End Demand. pimps are their sole interest.
Today news items worldwide shout about a badly biased US govt-funded study of pimping. Bad Men- what everyone loves
Headlines include “US pimps can pull in $33 000 a week” & “Street Gangs Deeply Involved In Commercial Sex Trade”. No sexworkers visible.
“Commercial sex trade widely segmented, the report found” Really? They call this study a first but it’s the last to say the most basic stuff.
“The focus is through the lens of imprisoned pimps & traffickers & those who put them behind bars” Barefaced bias that should be dismissed. Read the rest of this entry »

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Formalised money-sex exchanges get the attention and conflict: debates about exploitation and violence. Lots of other exchanges are ignored, a line is drawn between commercial and non-commercial sex. But that line is imaginary. Many people who expect to be compensated for their company will never call themselves sex workers or escorts, on the basis that they never ask for money. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s (the book, not the romanticised film), Holly Golightly distinguishes between professionals and others:

He asked me how I’d like to cheer up a lonely old man, at the same time pick up a hundred a week. I told him look, darling, you’ve got the wrong Miss Golightly, I’m not a nurse that does tricks on the side. I wasn’t impressed by the honorarium either; you can do as well as that on trips to the powder room: any gent with the slightest chic will give you fifty for the girl’s john, and I always ask for cab fare too, that’s another fifty.

Good-time girl (or guy) is only one of the names less professional people have been called. A few years ago I quoted a character in a  Lawrence Block book who described herself as a girlfriend taking money from friends. Another time I ran excerpts from a 1950s investigation that describes B-girls (B for bar) who are said to have drifted into prostitution after the easy promiscuity of bars. The police are perplexed because the girls look clean-cut.

Here’s another example, from The Sins of Our Fathers (1976), also by Lawrence Block. A young woman has been murdered, and there’s ambiguity about whether or not she was a prostitute. The investigator asks someone who had been her roommate a while back and then left the flat:

“What did she do, pass on one of her dates to you?”

Her eyes flared. She closed them briefly, drew on her cigarette. “It was almost like that,” she said. “Not quite, but that’s pretty close. She told me a friend of hers had a business associate in from out of town and asked if I’d like to date the guy, to double with her and her friend. I said I didn’t think so, and she talked about how we would see a good show and have a good dinner and everything. And then she said, ‘Be sensible, Marcia. You’ll have a good time, and you’ll make a few dollars out of it.’ . . . Well, I wasn’t shocked. So I must have suspected all along that she was getting money. I asked her what she meant, which was a pretty stupid question at that point, and she said that the men she dated all had plenty of money, and they realized it was tough for a young woman to earn a decent living, and at the end of the evening they would generally give you something. I said something about wasn’t that prostitution, and she said she never asked men for money, nothing like that, but they always gave her something. I wanted to ask how much but I didn’t and then she told me anyway. She said they always gave at least twenty dollars and sometimes a man would give her as much as a hundred. The man she was going to be seeing always gave her fifty dollars, she said, so if I went along it would mean that his friend would be almost certain to give me fifty dollars, and she asked if I didn’t think that was a good return on an evening that involved nothing but eating a great dinner and seeing a good show and then spending a half hour or so in bed with a nice, dignified gentleman. That was her phrase. A nice, dignified gentleman. . . I was earning eighty dollars a week. Nobody was taking me to great dinners or Broadway shows. And I hadn’t even met anyone I wanted to sleep with.”

“Did you enjoy the evening?”

“No. All I could think about was that I was going to have to sleep with this man. And he was old. . . Fifty-five, sixty. I’m never good at guessing how old people are. He was too old for me, that’s all I knew.”

“But you went along with it.”

“Yes. I had agreed to go, and I didn’t want to spoil the party. Dinner was good, and my date was charming enough. I didn’t pay much attention to the show. I couldn’t. I was too anxious about the rest of the evening.” She paused, focused her eyes over my shoulder. “Yes, I slept with him. And yes, he gave me fifty dollars. And yes, I took it. . . Aren’t you going to ask me why I took the money? . . . I wanted the damned money. And I wanted to know how it felt. Being a whore.”

“Did you feel that you were a whore?”

“Well, that’s what I was, isn’t it? I let a man fuck me, and I took money for it.”

I didn’t say anything. After a few moments she said, “Oh, the hell with it. I took a few more dates. Maybe one a week on the average. I don’t know why. It wasn’t the money. Not exactly. It was, I don’t know. Call it an experiment. I wanted to know how I felt about it. I wanted to… learn certain things about myself. . . That I’m a little squarer than I thought. That I didn’t care for the things I kept finding hiding in corners of my mind. That I wanted, oh, a cleaner life. That I wanted to fall in love with somebody. Get married, make babies, that whole trip. It turned out to be what I wanted. When I realized that, I knew I had to move out on my own. I couldn’t go on rooming with Wendy.”

This woman finds out about herself through an informal sex-money exchange some people call prostitution while others don’t. Another roommate might have been more enthusiastic about Wendy’s offer to share her lifestyle. Modest amounts of money are involved, but Wendy is spared taking a dull, ill-paid full-time job. Not much like more lucrative sugar-daddy arrangements? Or the same on a different scale? And does it matter?

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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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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beach boys sex touristsBeach boys and women sex tourists: every journalist’s dream topic. A Swiss television reporter interviewed me about a documentary he was making, incorporating footage from Cowboys in Paradise, a film about Kuta Beach in Bali. I happened to be in Basel, nearly missing Catherine MacKinnon when the reporter contacted me, so he came into the room where I was giving a talk and interviewed me afterwards. Some bits of those are cut into this 11-minute television clip, and although most of the English and Indonesian are overlaid with German, the pictures are good and you can follow the narrative easily. Note especially the testimonies of two women: one is the young wife of a beach boy who feels okay about how he makes his money and the other is a young Swede who asks why she shouldn’t have whatever sex she wants.

Reporters want to know if the boys are ‘really’ prostitutes and why the girls are paying; they have trouble figuring out who is exploiting whom. It’s a bias, of course, to insist someone has to be exploiting since money and sex are involved, rather than seeing these as ordinary relationships, the kind that travelling people have been having since human life began. Some want to believe that women are morally better than men and therefore won’t pay for sex just because they have the money and freedom to allow them to fly to places like Bali and do it. I don’t think women have any moral traits as a class, and the fact that some like these breezy holiday situations the same way men do doesn’t surprise me. (That’s why I end up laughing during interviews like this – because to me what I am saying is just common sense not requiring any professorial analysis.) There’s a theory that women are more keen to be romanced than men, which I consider pretty silly since plenty of male tourists have stars in their eyes and are wound around the little fingers of those poorer women they are said to be exploiting.

Then some want to see these largely white-skinned women as racist, an interpretation I also don’t share, for the same reason: travellers like to meet others who seem interesting and different; they like to talk, drink, eat, dance, tour and have sex with them. That’s banal. In such situations, travellers often can and are willing to pay for their fun, and since I don’t see having sex as different from those other activities I’d have to condemn travel itself if I am going to condemn the sex. Unless people are wanting a condemnation of global economic inequalities that mean the beach boys don’t have lots of other great ways to make money: well, fine, I condemn that. But please note that the boys interviewed here find pleasuring tourists a lot easier and more fun than other jobs. And that they don’t see themselves as sex workers or as prostitutes; no professional identity need attach to ambiguous relationships. Is this all the erotic side of imperialism? I guess so. But we are all caught up in it; there is no perfectly clean place to stand; telling people to stay home is no solution, whether they are tourists or migrants.

Other stories about sex tourism here.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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By Gloria! Look Who’s Here to Protect Victims with Money and Might reads the giddy headline. It seems that Warren Buffet’s son cannot bear to be left off today’s showiest philanthropy bandwagon: Rescuing women from prostitution. And neither does Ruchira Gupta intend to be left off today’s biggest social-work gravytrain: Funding for sex trafficking victims. And what better way to get attention for the cause than to bring Gloria Steinem in to pose for pictures?

So here’s how to make sex trafficking into your own project, laid out clearly in an article from The Telegraph of Calcutta (a paper Gupta once worked for). Note that it is important to pretend you are the first to take on trafficking, to go look at poor prostitutes in their habitat and to talk with women who hated the life. It’s definitely Reality Tourism. What’s really ridiculous here is bringing in an outsider when India has a long history, both intellectual and activist, in thinking creatively about sex work (consider DMSC’s many initiatives), and consider the comment at India Today: Do we really need Steinem to tell us that prostitution is about ‘an unequal distribution of power’ or that we face an ‘epidemic’ of sex trafficking?

The epidemic is rather of tourists from the US claiming expertise without reading up even a little of the complex literature before they start posing for photo opportunities. Steinem embarrasses herself further by claiming some lifelong connection to Calcutta when she cannot even remember where she stayed 50-some years ago.

Most serious however is to hear Ruchira Gupta calling for a stop to AIDS funding that provides sex workers with condoms; she wants them to get out of prostitution instead. At her and Steinem’s event in Hyderabad the other day, sex workers like these in the photo to the left were ignored. In the story below about Calcutta it is claimed Gupta and Steinem talked with some, but no report on how that went.

The story is full of silly words. Everyone has to be an icon nowadays. But do icons camp in town? Steinem ideates for thought leaders. Gupta pretentiously claims a connection to Gandhi for Apne Aap, a traditional Rescue project that calls all prostitution rape. Classic colonialism all around, with outsiders needed to protect with money and might.

A-team to tackle sex-ploitation
Mohua Das, 9 April 2012, The Telegraph

The day screen icon Shah Rukh Khan and his KKR XI were struggling to make an impact at the Eden Gardens, an 11-member team led by feminist icon Gloria Steinem and including philanthropy icons Peter and Jennifer Buffett, was quietly camping in town to make a difference where it really matters: putting in their money and their might to battle sex trafficking.

A “learning tour” ideated by Steinem, funded by the NoVo Foundation run by the son and daughter-in-law of Warren Buffett, and steered by Ruchira Gupta, founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, had brought together 11 thought leaders in a city where hardly anyone of global significance spends any time any more.

The high-profile champions of humanitarian causes from the US and Canada (see chart) arrived hush-hush on Wednesday, spent two days observing the red-light district of Sonagachhi, visiting the Victoria Memorial and interacting with members of Apne Aap.

At a dinner hosted by Harsh and Madhu Neotia on Thursday evening, 78-year-old Steinem, who had briefly lived in Calcutta five decades ago, told Metro: “I came to know of Ruchira’s work and I wanted to support her and be helpful. We wanted other people to see and meet the women of Apne Aap and so I thought if we got a group to come here and understand what’s happening, they too would become attached and become supporters.” The ‘they’ in question included Peter Buffett and his wife Jennifer whose NoVo Foundation, a philanthropic organisation to promote the rights of girls and women worldwide, took the lead in organising the learning tour.

“We got together this group of people interested in learning more about how to end sexual exploitation and to specifically learn from the model of Apne Aap,” said Pamela Shifman, director of initiatives for girls and women at the NoVo Foundation and the first person who Ruchira connected with in the group. Ruchira founded Apne Aap Women Worldwide with 22 women from the red-light districts in Mumbai in 2002 before expanding its offices in Delhi, Calcutta, Bihar and New York.

“It’s a learning tour for the group to understand the Apne Aap approach. We have been travelling around India but we are particularly concerned about the situation in Calcutta because of Sonagachhi and the legitimisation of sexual exploitation there. This group is here to see this problem in Sonagachhi and also to see the solution that Apne Aap has created,” said Ruchira.

A former journalist with The Telegraph, her 1996 documentary The Selling of Innocents had exposed the trafficking of women from Nepal to India and won her an Emmy Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism. In Calcutta, Apne Aap operates in areas like Kidderpore, Munshigunge and Watgunge. Steinem, who lives in New York, is a chair on the advisory board for Apne Aap.

The six-day India tour started on April 2 with a visit to Gandhi Smriti in Delhi, as Apne Aap is modelled on Gandhi’s social justice framework, Ahimsa (non-violence) and Antodaya (power to the last wo/man) being the cornerstones. After a meeting with Apne Aap girls and a speech by Steinem at JNU to mark the 10th anniversary of Apne Aap, the group arrived in Calcutta on Wednesday before leaving for Bihar on Friday.

Day One in Calcutta was spent in a visit to Sonagachhi. “This red-light area is becoming a magnet for traffickers and Murshidabad, the Sunderbans and New Jalpaiguri are becoming high-risk areas. It’s a shame that Calcutta allows Sonagachhi to exist,” said Ruchira.

On Day Two, the group attended a panel discussion with survivors of prostitution followed by interactions with people who want to legalise prostitution and believe sex should be called ‘work’, and meetings with Apne Aap women’s groups.

For Steinem, it was her third visit to India on an Apne Aap project. “India’s been a part of my life since I was 22. First of all, I was a student in India on fellowship, in the Fifties. I came for a year and stayed on for two years. That’s when I also lived in Calcutta for a while but it was so long ago, either in 1957 or 58. I was staying with a friend but I just can’t remember where…. I think somewhere near the Calcutta University,” said the pioneer of the women’s lib movement in the 1960s and ’70s. Steinem even recounted writing a guidebook on India, “trying to persuade people to stay longer in the country”.

Now, for Steinem and Ruchira, sex trafficking is an invisible black hole, and its victims the last frontier of humanity. Apne Aap, while firmly opposing “people trying to glorify prostitution but actually legitimising repeated rape in Sonagachhi”, has been organising women and girls in groups of 10 inside slums and red-light districts to resist traffickers and pimps in Delhi, Bihar and Calcutta.

“There’s something lopsided about the AIDS lobby around the world that tries to protect male buyers from disease rather than protecting the women from them. We need to bring attention to this, that this kind of funding has to stop and investing in funds that give these women more choices other than prostitution has to start,” explained Ruchira.

“That’s when Gloria suggested that we create a group of people and organise an alternative sex tour where they can come and see what is going on in these red-light districts and also understand the Apne Aap approach.” So what would Steinem prescribe to combat trafficking in this part of the country? “I don’t want to arrive for a few days and dictate…. In America too, they tend to arrest the prostituted women and not the traffickers, pimps or brothel owners. We should arrest the criminals and support the victims.”

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

 

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I’ll be speaking briefly at the AWID International Forum on Women’s Rights and Development in Istanbul later this month. This very large conference is held every few years by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development. The website says attendees include people interested in women’s rights, international development and social justice, particularly from the Global South, young women and groups that historically have had difficulty getting their agendas heard.

This year’s theme is Transforming economic power… are you up to the challenge? In other words, ideas about money and power. The APNSW group I am part of will have a pre-meeting to strategise having sex worker voices in all streams of the conference and therefore the wider women’s movement. Our session is going to have short presentations and lots of discussion, so please come and participate.

Day 3 – April 21, 11:30 – 13:00 Kasimpasa 1 & 2

Don’t Talk to Us About Sewing Machines–Talk to Us About Workers’ Rights (20957 E,F,T)

Sex work is work. Trafficking is as an issue of poverty that causes many women to willingly/unwillingly enter into agreements with traffickers because they seek to escape / explore better livelihoods. This session will reflect on the evidence base and the experiences of sex worker rights organisations in this area.

Speakers: Meena Seshu-SANGRAM, Sachumi Mayeo-Empower, Laura Agustín

–Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist

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