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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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Pictures like this can cause ranting about Sex Tourism solely because an older white man is seen walking with a younger less-white woman. Their physical characteristics are presumed to determine fixed identities, by which I mean we are supposed to know who they are, fundamentally, simply because of how they look. I have always been very uncomfortable with such blanket categorisation, which reminds me of systems of racial segregation. Or if race is not the crux then age would seem to be, since according to today’s romantic narratives, proper relationships only occur between people of the same age. Anti-sex tourism campaigners who claim only to be concerned about the tourists’ financial power fail to account for the special repulsion they exhibit at age and ethnic/racial differences in these couples, a prejudice that blocks any curiosity about the people involved as people.

Soi Cowboy Photo by Matt Greenfield

Some of the men under scrutiny are tourists, while others call themselves ex-pats, but they all stand accused of having travelled for the purpose of using their money to buy sexual relationships. I bring this fraught topic up because a number of Christian Rescue Industry groups have identified places of sex tourism as a target of their mission, hoping to rescue women who sell sex and stop men who buy it: a species of End Demand project. The testimony below comes from The World Race: This unique mission trip is a challenging adventure for young adults to abandon worldly possessions and a traditional lifestyle in exchange for an understanding that it’s not about you; it’s about the Kingdom. The following are excerpts from a single participant’s description of one experience.

Bill and his 300 women, Laura Meyers, 28 December 2010

. . . One of the most dreadful days of my life was in Pattaya, Thailand. . . I was there on the human trafficking exploratory trip and Michelle and I had spent the day interviewing men and families on why they were in Pattaya. . . Bill was sitting around the table with some other western men. . . Bill was originally from Canada but had moved to Thailand a few years back. . . for “SEX” . . . he had BOUGHT OVER 300 women! Although somewhere in my gut I knew that response was coming, I sat shocked and horrified. . . He had no shame or inkling that what he was doing was wrong. It had never crossed his mind that the women and children that he was buying for sex were being held captive. It had never crossed his mind that . . these girls were . . . being forced to perform for him by their “owner”.

After this beginning, familiar from other Rescue narratives, there is a change.

The more I talked with Bill I heard his heart. . . He told me story after story of how he continually felt rejected . . . from his family, rejected from his friends, rejected from his old way of life, so he came to the one place where “love” is “guaranteed.” The truth was, Bill was not being satisfied and after years of chasing love and looking in all the wrong places he was becoming restless. Bill was hurting. Bill was alone. Bill was searching. . . . that dreadful night in Pattaya, Thailand, although it was brief, I was able just to shed some light on Bill’s life and tell him that there was more to the life that he was living. I was able to share HOPE and extend GRACE. If for no other reason, I may have been in Pattaya, Thailand, the nastiest place I have ever been, for Bill. It’s easy for me to walk into situations like the one with Bill and my heart immediately goes into conviction mode. Where all I see is this sin in Bill’s life, where I see where he is hurting people over and over again and the righteous justice rises within me and I get angry. But more often than not these days, my heart rises for justice for Bill; he is hurting. Obviously, I want the exploitation and abuse to end for the women and children, that’s my heart. But my deepest desire is for Bill’s life to be restored so he can be the end to the exploitation of women and children. If we can get to his heart than there would be no need to have prevention plans and recovery centers for women and children. If we could get to his heart there would be no Red Light District in Pattaya, Thailand.

The idea that commercial sex could disappear through ending demand for it is terribly naive, especially where it is economically and socially significant, as in Pattaya, as I discussed in a review of Sex Trafficking by Siddharth Kara. This Christian narrative of salvation and reform does improve on the usual secular and purely punitive proposal to put all men who buy sex in prison or on sex-offender lists. Otherwise, these missions of naive young Americans to other countries to interfere on religious grounds is just more colonialism, related to Reality Tourism - excuses to travel the world convinced that one’s own culture is best, that one knows how everyone else should live, that one has the right to barge in, judge and then feel good about it.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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In December of 2010 I met Siddharth Kara at the BBC World Debate on Human Trafficking. In fact, he was there because I gave his name to the producer, who was under pressure to find people without knowing anything about the field. The BBC held the debate programme at a sort of anti-trafficking revival meeting organised by Mrs Mubarak (not yet an international pariah). Just beforehand, panellists met with Zeinab Badawi (the presenter) in a crowded hotel Green Room. When I walked in Kara was in full cry with an Elevator Pitch so out of place I giggled, which seemed to puzzle him. Thus I found out that being poster boy for a movement had protected him from self-awareness. When I accepted the request to review his book, I did not know how inane it would turn out to be.

Siddharth Kara. Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. xviii + 298 pp.  (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-13960-1;  (paper), ISBN 978-0-231-13961-8.

Reviewed by Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist

Published on H-LatAm 14 February 2012

A Man of Moral Sentiments

Siddharth Kara’s Sex Trafficking is not a scholarly book. Neither based on methodological research nor reflecting knowledge of literature that could give context to the author’s experience, this reads like the diary of a poverty tourist or the bildungsroman of an unsophisticated man of moral sentiments demonstrating his pain at unfathomable injustices. This places Kara in the tradition of colonial writers who believed that they were called to testify to the suffering of those not lucky enough to be born into comfortable Western society.

Scholarship is virtually absent from his works cited, whether on migration, trafficking, slavery, feminism, sexualities, criminology, gender, informal-sector labor, or the sex industry and prostitution. Apparently unaware of over ten years of difficult debates, hundreds of scholarly articles, and investigative journalism, Kara is an MBA on a mission, using statistical sleight of hand to solve the problem of slavery. Because the book is touted by campaigners as presenting hard data and incisive analysis, H-Net requested this review.

A travelogue in six chapters is bracketed by arguments both high-minded and businesslike. Kara mentions his moral awakening while volunteering at a refugee camp, his business career, and his sporadic travels since 2000, interviewing 150 “victims” (term unexplained) and a variety of other people located by what he calls “word of mouth.” Because many people did not trust him, he could not enter most businesses and found it easier to interview victims in shelters. Chapter headings are regional, but my guess is his stays in most regions were brief (scholars in the field will recognize his contacts as predictable), with India a possible exception. Kara does not acknowledge these inevitable biases given his lack of method.

On the one hand, his freedom sounds heavenly to those planning fieldwork who have grubbed for funding, written and rewritten interview questions, toadied to gatekeepers, pacified ethics committees, and dealt with supervisors who fail to understand what one is trying to do. On the other hand, Kara reads like a bull in a china shop, bumbling into brothels, stressing and sometimes endangering young women, pressing them to provide him with conversation, annoying goons, and throwing money around. For a scholarly review, the salient point is the absence of academic supervision to control his preconceptions about what he would find, critique his lack of methodology, or control the spin he puts on his experiences. At times, he simply claims that informants did not “appear” to be coerced.

For a man setting out to report on sex as business he is priggish. Bothered by old men who ogle young girls, he admits “I felt ashamed to be male” and opines “I also believe that the preponderance of males do not condone these vulgarities” (pp. 71, 33). After escaping violence he declaims: “For so many years I had stepped into the fire pit and emerged unscathed…. That night, I suffered violent food poisoning from mushrooms and vomited thirty-four times. Justice was swift. I accepted my punishment” (p. 58). Exalted sensibility and anachronistic rhetoric further link Kara to nineteenth-century moral crusaders like Josephine Butler, famous for saying if she were a prostitute she would be crying all day.

Kara knows little about present-day migration and mobility. Meeting a Lithuanian woman in Italy and a Nigerian woman in Bangkok cause him to suspect they were trafficked, as though obtaining travel documents and tickets were too difficult for women to manage alone. Not finding slaves in the United States, he concludes there must be less demand and therefore less slavery, but also that the United States is “too far away” (from what?), as though airplanes and multiple technologies had not rendered distance almost irrelevant. Even a cursory check of current migration literature would have saved him such gaffes.

But Kara is not interested in migration (whether voluntary, ambivalent, or coerced) or in smuggling. He also rejects “trafficking” as a core concept, preferring slave trading for the movement of people and slavery for the jobs they get. His pitch is that slavery is back in a big way, but his is a cartoon version of master and slave, free of any social complexity and the ambiguities of human interaction. If he can contemplate this industry coolly for the purposes of financial calculations, then he should be able to consider potential human gains also. Finally forced to recognize that slavery could actually sometimes represent “a better life” (p. 199), he is nonetheless blind to the possibility that people in bad situations may be able to exploit them and seems ignorant of slavery studies far evolved from abolitionist reductionism. Slave narratives, slave archaeology, ethnobiology, and historical research all have illuminated social systems in which slaves were not wholly passive nor owners unidimensionally crushing. Coping, resisting, manipulating, strategizing, and creating culture form part of slaves’ lives.[1] But Kara, intent on discovering tales of sexual exploitation, has no idea how his informants spend most of their time.

He claims that “sex slaves” are the best earners for masters because they are sold “literally thousands of times before they are replaced” (p. 24), conflating an owner’s sale of a slave with a slave’s sale of sexual services to customers. Would he do this if another service were involved, like hairdressing? If a salon owner buys a slave to be a hairdresser who then sees many customers and produces money for her owner, would Kara say the hairdresser is sold thousands of times? Or would he see that her labor is sold, albeit unfairly? Questions to be asked about both cases would include: Is money earned credited toward the payment of a debt? Is the worker able to leave the workplace? Does the worker accept the character of the work but want more autonomy, different working conditions, or a (bigger) percentage of money earned? In the case of sex businesses, workplaces may actually be more comfortable and cleaner than they are in other available jobs, workers may feel safer locked in than on the streets, and they may like wearing pretty clothes and being admired. By reducing the entire world of his informants to the minutes of sex, Kara misses the big picture, whether we call it political economy, culture, or simply everyday life.

Kara proposes abolition through making slave trading and slave owning too costly. The most simplistic version of this thinking is seen in the current End Demand campaign in which complex social interactions and market theories are reduced to a truism: remove demand for commercial sex and supply must disappear. This panacea could apply only if all demand of every kind were eradicated permanently and simultaneously, as demand moves and metamorphoses to find supply. Since the sex industry is large and variegated, and since the supply side (people who sell sex as well as managers and owners of businesses) constantly adapts to new market forces, resists laws, and innovates, the fantasy that supply is 100 percent determined by demand is foolish.

We do not need to read the whole book to know that something fishy is afoot. In the first chapter, extrapolating from only four conversations with customers in one Indian brothel, Kara contends that “demand for sexual services” is highly elastic (p. 35). No responsible economist, academic or not, would dare to make claims on the basis of so little data, easily ascribed to interviewer misunderstanding, informant misinformation, both, and/or random events. But it does not stop there; Kara goes on to suggest that demand must have increased because of the “increased use of slaves” (p. 37). The absence of proof is breathtaking.

At the end of the book he presents tables purporting to show “slavery economics” (apparently unaware that others have reckoned slavery values before).[2] Within a typology of sex businesses that fails even to benefit from a sober International Labour Organization study of the sex sector [3], each table posits general assumptions that must be accepted to believe what is inferred from them. For example, Massage Parlor Economics, Kathmandu, assumes four slaves per parlor, averages ten sex acts per day, one of ten customers buys a condom, one slave is re-trafficked every six months, and 50 percent “tip” per thirty sex acts, going on to give an average price per sale of sex (table B.3). We have no idea where these figures came from, but scholars in the field will doubt Kara has much to base them on–especially since he produces thirteen other such tables, all requiring data that can only be obtained through long, repetitive, methodological research, whether in Queens or Chiang Mai (to mention two of many locations he claims to know). Kara did not do such research.

That Kara uses terms like “exploitation value” and “return on investment” should not distract us from data at best anecdotal and at worst garbage. As a Rescue Industry story, his is emblematic. Struggling to accept that not every woman who sells sex is a slave, he tries to convince a woman in Los Angeles to let him help her but finally sees that “it was not up to me to decide that Sunee’s life was more important than her father’s” (p. 182). The reader heaves a sigh of relief that Sunee was spared. The real message is moral: “The world had indeed degraded into a plague of lust, greed, deceit and violence. Untamed desire ran amok, governing the descent of man” (p. 82). Perhaps Kara reveals his underlying dream when he says “I felt like I was watching myself on a movie screen” (p. 63). Graham Greene would have known how to write about him.

Notes

[1]. John Fair, “The Georgia Slave Narratives: A Historical Conundrum,” Journal of The Historical Society 10, no. 3 (2010): 235-281; Julius Sensat, “Exploitation,” Noûs 18, no. 1 (1984): 21-38; Theresa Singleton, “The Archaeology of Slavery in North America,” Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 119-140; and Jessica Bowes, “Provisioned, Produced, Procured: Slave Subsistence Strategies and Social Relations at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest,” Journal of Ethnobiology 31, no. 1 (2011): 89-109.

[2]. Jim Marketti, “Black Equity in the Slave Industry,” The Review of Black Political Economy 2, no. 2 (1972): 43-66; and Robert Browne, “The Economic Basis for Reparations to Black America,” The Review of Black Political Economy 21 (1993): 99-110.

[3]. Lin Lean Lim, ed., The Sex Sector: The Economic and Social Bases of Prostitution in Southeast Asia (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1998).

PS: My title for H-Net, A Man of Moral Sentiments, is a reference to Adam Smith’s 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments, which preceded his Wealth of Nations.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist, below with the friend who came as my entourage, since I told the BBC I didn’t want to go alone. Sitting close to the movie stars in the front row, she overheard one of them accuse me of resembling a holocaust denier and was the only person to applaud my comments, after which she was shunned.

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India mandated the rehabilitation of sex workers last year – in case they want to be rehabilitated. The story below tells how the concept has become a subject of dispute. Two activist authorities give reasons why vocational training is problematic:

In many cases, women get into prostitution after trying out other options like domestic work, as sex work is more remunerative.

Rehabilitation cannot be on moral grounds alone. Recommendations made by the court or the panel should have a long-term financial benefit as well as ways to involve the family and other members of the society to give prostitutes social security.

Someone else says some women have been glad to work at MacDonalds instead. This is of course considered morally superior to prostitution, but what about dancing?

Girls who danced in the bars of Mumbai . . . found a means of earning a livelihood that was more paying than sex work… But even this was banned on moral grounds whereas what was needed was to make these places more safe for women.

And Dignity for All

Saheli Mitra, 1 February 2012, The Telegraph (India)

In September 1999 a sex worker in Calcutta was murdered by a prospective client after she refused to have sex with him. When the case (Budhadev Karmaskar vs the State of West Bengal) went to the Supreme Court, the latter passed a landmark judgment, stressing that Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which guarantees the right to live with dignity, includes a prostitute’s right to lead a life of dignity as well. To ensure that right, last July the Supreme Court set up a five-member panel to work towards providing sex workers with alternative means of livelihood. It was supposed to come up with a list of impoverished sex workers who wished to be rehabilitated as the apex court did not wish to coerce them into changing their profession. Initially, the panel was supposed to concentrate on the four metros and was to involve the local NGOs in this effort.

However, since then little progress seems to have been made in this regard. So much so that last week a bench of Justices Altamas Kabir and Gyan Sudha Mishra of the Supreme Court asked senior advocate Pradeep Ghosh, who heads the panel, to submit another report on the work done so far. The bench said it would like to monitor the rehabilitation process by the Centre and the states so as to ensure that the exercise was not just an eyewash. “We routinely have conferences and seminars on these issues and the matter ends there. No concrete measures are taken to end the malaise. We want to make sure that something is done that satisfies our conscience. It should not be a mere eyewash,” the bench said. . .

The Centre has already paid Rs 10 lakh to the panel to kickstart the work. But though the state governments too have been directed to pay amounts ranging from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 10 lakh, depending on the number of sex workers in their states, very few have made the payment so far. In fact, reacting to the panel’s complaint that state governments were sitting on the money to be paid, the Supreme Court has directed all of them to pay up and submit a list of the number of prostitutes they want to rehabilitate.

But though the Supreme Court’s initiative is a noble one, many feel that it may finally come to nought as attempts to rehabilitate prostitutes through vocational training have failed in most cases.

As Mumbai-based lawyer and human rights activist Flavia Agnes points out, “It has been amply proved that vocational training has not solved the issue of sex work or trafficking. In fact, in many cases, women get into prostitution after trying out other options like domestic work as sex work is more remunerative. Would any of us work at a job which pays one tenth of our current earnings? Then how can we expect a sex worker to be happy with this choice,” she asks.

Women’s activist Saswati Ghosh believes the whole approach to the rehabilitation of sex workers is wrong-headed and paternalistic. “Rehabilitation cannot be on moral grounds alone. Recommendations made by the court or the panel should have a long-term financial benefit as well as ways to involve the family and other members of the society to give prostitutes social security,” she says.

Agnes gives the example of girls who danced in the bars of Mumbai. Many of them had found a means of earning a livelihood that was more paying than sex work. “This was a viable alternative that women had found for themselves. But even this was banned on moral grounds whereas what was needed was to make these places more safe for women.”

However, human rights lawyer Tapas Kumar Bhanja points out that the apex court judgment does take into account the need for giving sex workers a financially viable alternative livelihood. “It says governments should make arrangements to provide a market for the trade in which the women are trained. So the panel’s work will not be over with merely training the woman. It has to ensure that she earns enough to support herself and her family.” And there are instances where this approach has worked, he says. A recent survey revealed that prostitutes placed in MacDonalds, Dominos, food courts, etc. by Mumbai-based NGO Prerana have not returned to the flesh trade. “Some of them are in touch with Prerana and are doing well,” he says. . .

So one solution does not fit all, but the requirement that alternative jobs be financially viable is a bit vague. Wages and working conditions in fast-food outlets are not going to interest a great number of people, whatever their present jobs are. The failure to figure out what sex workers actually want is reflected in numerous stories of rejected Rescues.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Recently I wrote about how the term debt bondage is often used to imply there is something peculiarly primitive and unjust about migrants’ agreeing to pay off smugglers by doing jobs not of their choosing for which they receive little pay until debts are paid off. The example was Vietnamese nail salons. But in a non-migrant example, students often comment on the horrendous loans they are forced to take in order to get degrees; a report from late last year said about the US: Seniors who graduated last year carried an average of $24,000 in student loan debt. . . an approximately 6 percent rise in debt over the previous year. Many in the mainstream lament this debt without talking about it as demonic or enslaving.

Other discussions of debt bondage are typically illustrated with sadder pictures than this one of children at work as another way to demonise debt as an institution, as though a debt-free existence were the normal enlightened way to live. As though the parents that put their children into these jobs in order to make money were monsters – and so on.

So it is refreshing to read anthropologist David Graeber problematising conventional ideas about debt in an interview at The New Left Project, particularly the way some debts are seen as enslaving while others are not.

In America, for instance, pretty much everybody is in debt. The great social evil in antiquity, the thing that Sharia law and medieval canon law were trying to ensure never happened again, was the scenario in which a family gets so deep in debt that they are forced to sell themselves, or sell their children, into slavery. What do you have here today? You have a population all of whom are in debt, and who are essentially renting themselves to employers to do jobs that they almost certainly wouldn’t want to do otherwise, to be able to pay those debts. If Aristotle were magically transported to the U.S. he would conclude that most of the American population is enslaved, because for him the distinction between selling yourself and renting yourself is at best a legalism. This, again, is why I say that our definitions of freedom are bizarre – we’ve managed to take a situation which most people in the ancient world would have recognised as a form of slavery and turned it into the definition of freedom (your ability to contract debts, your ability to sell your labour on the market, and so on). In the process we have created the very thing that all that old legislation and all of those old political practices were designed to avoid.

Also created: a phantom, the Return of the Slave, conveniently found in far-away non-western nations and amongst indistinguishable masses of women and children. The point isn’t that debt is all good or all bad but that it exists everywhere, and its bondage is often seen as lamentable, yes, but as acceptable – something people are meant to struggle to pay off as part of normal life. Which is what most migrants think about the debts they incur to travel and work abroad.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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