web analytics
The Naked Anthropologist · naked anthropologist

naked anthropologist

You are currently browsing articles tagged naked anthropologist.

Last month I spoke at the Dublin Anarchist Bookfair, held in Liberty Tower on the Liffey. There was some resistance to my insistence on sticking to the programme from a couple of audience members during the Q&A, but I was firm. I had been invited to talk about sex work as work for 30 minutes, which isn’t long, and it isn’t a definitive presentation. But in my experience these conversations rarely get further than the affirmation sex work is work, and I was glad to have the opportunity to begin to talk about practical issues of different sorts, not feminist or moralist issues and not trafficking! This video comes from the Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland) and includes the Q&A session at the end.

A few people have complained the sound is bad. This must be an unfortunate conflict of softwares combined with Internet connections, because most people can’t hear any problem. Sorry if you are unlucky.

Other videos of me talking are on my Youtube channel.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


Tags: , , , , ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


Tags: , , , , ,

Photo of Laura Agustín by Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland)

Doing public gigs exposes one to all sorts of comment, some nice and some not so nice. At University College Dublin I sketched out the ideas in Sex at the Margins – a book that began in the early 90s with me listening to Dominican villagers, ten years later became a doctorate on the Rescue Industry and three years after a published book. At the Anarchist Bookfair I talked about Sex Work as Work (a video of the talk will be online soon).

This talk was only 30 minutes long so I had warned I didn’t intend to get bogged down in arguments about the meaning of prostitution. Nevertheless, the first person called on after my talk began to lay out an argument that prostitution is oppression of women and so on, so after not long I interrupted her from the stage to ask Do you have a question? No, she said, she wanted to debate. I said, This time is for questions about my talk. She quickly framed one, which was

Will you condemn the sex industry as patriarchy?

I said no, because that question is too broad and general to have meaning for me. It’s a bottom-line question, and by saying no without explaining all the ins and outs of my thinking I will have sounded like an anti-feminist to some. But if I travel so far to speak without pay I really do want to hear audience reaction to what I do say, not to what I don’t say.

All other questions asked were interesting, but at the end there was

How can we move toward a society in which sex is not commodified?

Photo by Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland)

Anarchism takes in a wide variety of ways of thinking. I accept that talking about revolution and how things would be afterwards is really interesting and important to many, but my talk had been about feet-on-the-ground ways to better the lives of people who sell sex through employment policy and organising. So I replied

I don’t know. Everything else is commodified, why should sex be different?

This provoked a tweeter to say

Michael O’Leary, the million or billionaire owner of Ryanair, is widely hated in Ireland. I can’t find a single significant thing he and I have in common. When I have more time to talk about commodification I discuss the odd point that even mother love is accepted by most of the same objectors as being ok to buy and sell in the form of nannying and caring for children and older and sick people. The same tweeter said

Although an interest in revolution and utopia are only one of many possible topics subsumed by feminism or anarchism or any other ism, those wanting to discuss them always assume the moral high ground. Practical, pragmatic arguments about the here and now would seem to occupy a lower place in the hierarchy according to some. But not according to me, and I also dislike being challenged to show I am a good or righteous person publicly, merely as an exercise to label me – really to show I’ve failed some ethical test.

People ask me how I deal with being disliked or vilified. I accept that appearing in public exposes me, and I don’t always express myself perfectly. I don’t read prepared papers and I avoid standing behind protective podiums. I’m not a trained performer. But beyond those reasons, in order to talk about the formal-informal sector divide in government accounting and how it affects employment policy, the ILO’s conclusions in its report The Sex Sector and what the term ‘sex industry’ comprises, in 30 minutes, one has to omit the disclaimers. I could begin every point by condemning inequality, sexism, racism, imperialism, the oppression of women and poor people, but then I would lose a big chunk of the time I’ve got for the talk, and I’m not willing to do that. So I regret when I am misinterpreted badly, but I accept that it comes with the territory.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist




Tags: , , , ,

Nordic Network for Social and Health Organisations, Sex Workers and Researchers Working in the Field of Prostitution is the full name of a group that holds annual meetings where social workers – and some sex workers – meet. Members come from Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Finland. This year’s meeting is in Oslo, and I am invited to talk about the Rescue Industry. I am always glad when social workers want to hear about and discuss (or dispute!) this topic.

If you are interested in attending, details follow the programme.

31 May-1 June 2012

Organised by Prosentret (Tollbugata 24, 0157 Oslo)

Meeting held at Røde Kors Konferansesenter, Hausmannsgate 7, Oslo

Thursday 31 May - Social Work from Many Angles

1000-1045  May-Len Skilbrei, Researcher, FAFO
How can we understand the relationship between the criminal justice approach and social work?

1045-1100 Break

1100-1130 Jeanett Bjønness, Anthropologist
Between emotional politics and biased practices in Denmark: Prostitution policies, social work and women selling sexual services

1130-1150 Break

1150-1210 Sarah Warpe, Criminologist
There is no such thing as a support service: Experiences from Norwegian women involved with drugs and prostitution

1210-1230 Pye Jakobsson, Rose Alliance and Project Manager of HIV-Sweden
Exit – from what, why and how?

1230-1330 Lunch

1330-1400 Mogens Holm Sørensen, Socialstyrelsen København
Leaving Prostitution

1400-1430 Laura Agustín,  The Naked Anthropologist
Why do I call it the Rescue Industry?

1430-1445 Break

1445-1600 Plenary discussion

1700-2000 Boat trip

Friday 1 June - Manyfold Work

0900-0945 Olav Lægdene, Manager Nadheim
Advantages and disadvantages with the law prohibiting the purchase of sexual services

0945-1000 Break

1000-1045 Astrid Renland, Administrator PION and Susanne Møller, SIO Danmark
Possibilities and limitations in organizing of sex workers

1045-1100 Break

1100-1400 Workshops with lunch (1200-1245)

A Multicultural Health Work for Sex Workers: Nurses Ann Kirstine Kirk and Radostina Angelova, Pro Sentret
B Empowerment: How to shape and share a Shelter for the Future
Knut Isachsen and Dagfrid Fosen, Natthjemmet
C Outreach on the Internet:
Nurse Camilla Johannessen, Pro Sentret
Social worker Morten Sortodden, PION: Male Sex Workers
Social worker Lena Hanssen, Nadheim: Female Sex Workers
D The Connection between Trafficking and Migration? Director Bjørg Norli, Pro Sentret
E Workshop in Thai for Thai

1400-1500 Responses from the workshops

The conference fee is 1000 NOK (or 500 NOK for one day) including lunch. For more information: contact Liv Jessen or Arne Randers-Pehrson at Pro Sentret. The conference language will be English.


–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


Tags: , , ,

It is rare for critical commentary on the anti-trafficking movement to get real media coverage, so this story from Vancouver seems significant. I don’t like the title, because it narrows a broader argument, but titles are written by editors with other priorities.

Naked Anthropologist Laura Agustín claims antislavery movement harms sex workers

Charlie Smith, The Georgia Straight, 24 November 2011

An author and scholar who likes to refer to herself as the Naked Anthropologist has compared the current climate against human trafficking to the panic over white slavery in the late 19th century. Laura Agustín, author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry (Zed Books, 2007), told the Georgia Straight by phone that in the earlier case, there was an uproar over whether Caucasian and Jewish women moving to New York or Buenos Aires, Argentina, were being traded as slaves.

While she won’t use the word “panic” to describe the current situation (“I try to avoid these labels,” she said), Agustín suggested that there is a widespread “rescue movement”, led by governments and the United Nations, which is trying to characterize a range of issues—migrant sex workers, child labourers overseas, and people who pay huge fees to immigrate—as “slavery”. Using this terminology gives a growing “antislavery” movement, largely based in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, the moral justification to launch interdiction programs as part of an international justice movement.

“I don’t think anyone cares about the women or about sex,” Agustín claimed from a hotel room in Toronto. “This is some kind of enormously funded thing about organized crime…men in government, feeling threatened by other men who aren’t participating and are having parallel societies. It’s up in the cultural stratosphere with terrorism.”

Agustín, an advocate for sex workers’ rights based in Sweden, has a PhD from The Open University in the United Kingdom. She said that the words “human trafficking” started entering the lexicon in a serious way around 2003 and 2004. Now, she maintained that the language is shifting to emphasize slavery. She bluntly described this movement as a colonial initiative.

“The protagonists to end slavery are the same Anglo-Saxon people that were in the 19th century, so you get the trafficking ambassador for the U.S. government invoking [British antislavery crusader] William Wilberforce and arguing that the U.S. and the U.K. have a special mission to go out to other people’s countries and save people,” Agustín said.

Most people don’t have an issue with this. Agustín, on the other hand, said the problem with the rescue industry, which involves many nongovernmental organizations, is that it doesn’t pay nearly enough attention to the choices that people are making to improve their lives. While researching migration in the 1990s, she spent time on a Caribbean island where there was a tradition of large numbers of women moving to Europe, where they would work in one of two jobs: as a maid or selling sex.

“People tried to decide which they wanted to do, and they weighed their options,” she said.

Later in Madrid, Agustín spent time studying people who helped these migrants and who felt sorry for them. She said these rescuers didn’t weigh the downside for women who are forced out of prostitution against their will. “I asked the question: why is selling sex not considered a service?”

The answer, which arose out of her anthropological research, was that there was no rescue industry until the rise of the European bourgeoisie. “They positioned themselves as the ones who knew best about how to live and designated a number of people to be victims,” she said. “And prostitutes were high on the list. They had not been considered victims before that.”

Agustín accused Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times of indulging in a similar attitude by cheering the closure of brothels in the developing world without asking what happens to these workers. “He’s an egregious example of a white person who assumes that he’s doing good, who assumes that he knows how other people should live,” she alleged.

Laura Agustin will speak at 7 p.m. on Sunday (November 27) at the Vancouver Public Library central branch. Admission is by donation.


Tags: , ,

Mira Sorvino was not wearing her Mighty Aphrodite clothes when she attacked me at the BBC World Debate programme on Human Trafficking. Her dress was a demure tartan instead, though with high transparent platform heels.

The programme has become accessible online in the UK, which it was not originally, so if you couldn’t see it before try again – it may now be watchable wherever you are. I wrote about the background to this show before I was flown to Luxor for it and afterwards when it went online in January.

Editors cut and re-arranged the debate from its original sequence, softening Mira Sorvino’s personal attack on me by placing it quite late, when in reality she freaked out only a few minutes after we began – after I had answered a question only twice, I think. She was backed by an audience composed of non-critical anti-trafficking campaigners brought in by the UN and Mrs Mubarak, now fallen from prestige but acting like a queen at the time (December 2010). There’s more about the Sorvino experience at the Huffington Post, but I can’t explain whether or not she knows how to reconcile her earlier sex-worker role with her moral outrage now.

If you have time to click here, I’d be grateful to know if it is not available wherever you are – that is, if you get a message saying Not available in your area. Even if you don’t have the time or will to watch the whole thing. If you want to see La Sorvino, she comes a few minutes into Part 4.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


Tags: , , , ,

This article addressing the idea of ‘sex’ in sex trafficking was published a few years back in American Sexuality. I wonder if they would invite me to say such things again? Everything having become so extremely moralistic now, an anthropological view like this is seen as the work of the devil. It is still on their website, though and is now available in French courtesy of Thierry Schaffauser.

The Sex in ‘Sex Trafficking’, American Sexuality, Autumn 2007

Why do we think migrant sex workers need rescuing?

By Laura Agustín

The title of this publication notwithstanding, I don’t believe there are national sexualities. But our language reflects vague impressions of how people in other cultures do sex—a tongue-kiss, ‘French’; anal penetration, ‘Greek’; penis-between-the-breasts, ‘Cuban’. They are stereotypes most of us don’t take seriously, and the national tags vary according to what country we’re standing in. But everywhere we have notions that out there somewhere are strange, wonderful, and exotic kinds of sex waiting for us to try.

But what about sex trafficking, denounced in the media as a rampant crime linked to global gangs and insecurity at borders? The U.S. government, claiming to be the world’s moral arbiter, spends millions issuing an annual report card rating other countries’ efforts to combat this crime and trying to rescue victims around the world. The implication is clear: ‘American’ ideas about sex and morality are the right ones for the planet. In other words, if the ideal of ‘American’ sexual relationships is accepted everywhere, the enslavement of women and children will end.

In the West, in the present, many people believe that sex should express love. This ‘good’ sex is also said to provide a key way to discover personal identity—who we really are, our innermost selves. It is assumed that feelings of love increase pleasure (quantitatively) and intensify it (qualitatively), resulting in meaningful passion that is expressed through long term, emotionally committed relationships. Other sexual relations then seem wrong, among them anonymous, public, and ‘promiscuous’ sex. Above all, ‘real’ love and sex are said to be incompatible with rationality and work—at least that is the way many wish it to be.

At the same time, people wonder: Is there a boom underway in the buying and selling of sex, part of a general sexualization of contemporary culture? Since objective data is impossible to gather when businesses operate outside the law, we cannot know whether sex-and-money transactions are going on more than ever, but we certainly know we see and hear about them more. So although we tell a powerful story about sex and love belonging together, we also understand that people want other kinds of sex. We hear about people who buy and sell sex from our friends, acquaintances, the media, and sometimes through reporting on migration—which is where ‘sex trafficking’ comes in.

In a context of increasing hostility toward migrants, it grates on people’s nerves to think that many might prefer to use sex to earn money instead of washing dishes, babysitting, working in a sweatshop, or picking fruit—for much less money. But migrants—who come in all sizes, shapes and colors, and from infinitely varying backgrounds—are just trying to get by as best they can on what can be a very rocky path. Migrants who cross borders to work need to be flexible and adaptable to succeed. They often do not know beforehand how they will be living, and they may not know the language. They may not find the food, music, or films they like, or the mosque, temple, or church. Everything looks different; they feel lonely. They may feel enormous pressure to pay back debts contracted to undertake their journey, and they may fear being picked up by the police. But they have arrived with a plan, some names and addresses, and some amount of money.

When migration policy is tightened at the same time that low-status jobs are abundantly available, a market opens up to help migrants cross borders. Some of this looks just like legal travel, but much of it involves bigger risks and higher costs, and some entails egregious exploitation—whether migrants are destined to work in mines, private homes, sweatshops, agriculture, or the sex industry.

Some migrants prefer to do anything rather than sell sex—for instance, ‘mules’ who take on the job of carrying drugs inside their bodies. Once across a border, past work experience and diplomas, whether white-collar or blue, are usually not recognized. Migrant schoolteachers, engineers, nurses, hairdressers and a range of others find only low-status, low-paying jobs open to them. Many of them, from everywhere on the social spectrum, would rather work in the sex industry—in one or the other of a huge variety of jobs.

Bars, restaurants, cabarets, private clubs, brothels, discotheques, saunas, massage parlors, sex shops, peep shows, hotel rooms, homes, bookshops, strip and lap-dance venues, dungeons, Internet sites, beauty parlors, clubhouses, cinemas, public toilets, phone lines, shipboard festivities, as well as modelling, swinging, stag and fetish parties—sex is sold practically everywhere. Where these are businesses operating without licences, undocumented workers can easily be employed: the paradox of prohibition. For migrants who are already working without official permission, these jobs may well seem no riskier than any other.

To understand why headlines insist that all migrant women who sell sex are ‘trafficked’, we need to go back to the popular idea that the proper place of sex is at home, between ‘committed’ lovers and family. When only this kind of relationship is imagined to be equitable and valid, it becomes easier to think that women from other cultures are poor, backward, vulnerable objects passively waiting for exploitation by rapacious men. With these notions, from the point of view of the comfortably sheltered, no one would opt to sell sex and migrants must be forced to do it.

What can we know about the actual sex involved in this moral conflict? We know all ‘sex acts’ are not the same in the context of loving relationships, and they are not all the same just because money is exchanged for them. Migrant workers sell millions of sexual experiences every day around the world to customers from different cultures, learning and teaching through experience how physicality mixes with skill, sophistication, hostility, tenderness, insecurity, respect.

When we have sex with others we influence each other, and although a single interaction may not have a lasting impact, many sexual agreements are complex or often repeated. Occasionally, a single experience can change the course of a life. In a commercial relationship, on one side are people flexible about how they make money, on the other are people wanting to fulfill a desire or experiment. These relationships take place in actual social contexts—indeed, sex itself is often subsidiary to the conspicuous consumption of alcohol or entertainment, to cruising or just to men being men together. Since everywhere men are granted more permission to experiment with sex and have more money to spend, their tastes help determine what’s offered and with whom, whether they be women, men, or transsexuals.

These millions of relationships, which take place every day, cannot be reduced to undifferentiated sex acts or eliminated from cultural consideration just because they entail money. Both client and sex worker may be acting seduction, flirtation, and affection when they are together, but camaraderie, friendship, love, and marriage also occur. And both sides are fascinated by sexual differences, imagined to be ‘national’, exotic, and real.

How we perform sex, what we feel when we do particular things, depends on our cultural (not national) contexts: how we were taught to do them and by whom, what we were permitted to try out, whether we talked to others about what we were doing and what we wanted. When we engage sexually with others, we learn and teach, we influence each other and change how we do things—often without knowing it. Because people are poor, or have left their countries to work abroad, or take money in exchange for sex does not change their humanity, their capacity to feel, respond, learn, or teach, whether sex is at issue or not.

Sex trafficking headlines claim that all migrant women who sell sex are invariably being abused, without regard to their diverse backgrounds and without asking them how they feel. But many reject being defined as sexually vulnerable and in need of ‘rescuing’ and protection. Everyone does not feel the same way about sex—in rich countries like the United States, or in any other country. Nationality is a poor way to understand human beings and their sexualities.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


Tags: , , , ,

Come say hello if you are around, please!

First in Rome, 31 May 2011, at an event sponsored by: Suigeneris collettivo TransLesboGayBisexIntersexQueer

Verso L’Europride di Roma

Not Bad Whores, Just Bad Laws - Giornata di discussione sul lavoro sessuale

31 maggio 2011

Facoltà di Giurisprudenza- aula Calasso (piano terra) Sapienza (P.le Aldo Moro 5)

I sessione- ore 14


- Anna Simone (Università Suor Orsola Benincasa, Napoli): “Punire il sesso. Dal DDl Carfagna alle ordinanze anti-prostituzione”

- Pietro Saitta (Università di Messina): “Politiche del decoro e della moralità nella città neoliberista: traffico, lavoro sessuale e discorso pubblico”

- Laura Maria Agustín (the Naked Anthropologist): “Sex at the Margins: Cosa dicono le/i migranti che svolgono sex work sul proprio viaggio”

II sessione- ore 17 e 30


- Thierry Schaffauser (sex worker, attivista, autore di “Fiere di essere puttane”: “Perché è importante sindacalizzarsi e come”

- Giulia Garofalo (attivista, ricercatrice su genere, minoranze sessuali e sex work): “Orgogliose/i di cosa? Capire chi parla di resistenza e sovversione nel sesso commerciale”

verso la Notte Bianca dei Desideri

1 giugno 2011  Città Universitaria, P.le Aldo Moro 5, per l’autofinanziamento verso Roma Europride 2011

Then in Messina, Sicily, 6 June 2011

Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

Discutono: Laura Maria Agustín, antropologa, e Pietro Saitta, sociologo, Università di Messina

Lunedì 6 giugno 2011 – h. 15:00

Aula Buccisano di Scienze Politiche, Via Malpighi (vicino Orto Botanico) – Messina – Sicilia

Evento organizzato in collaborazione col Dottorato in Pedagogia e Sociologia interculturale dell’Università degli Studi di Messina

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


Tags: ,

Bronislaw Malinowski’s fieldwork tent in the Trobriand Islands during Europe’s First World War

Lorraine Nencel, of Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit, published a review of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry last August in American Ethnologist. There are now reviews of this book in 23 academic journals that I know about. (You can read Don Kulick’s, Dan Allman’s, Ken Plummer’s, Elizabeth Bernstein’s, Meena Poudel’s and a few others on this website).

One of the unspoken requirements for writing a review is to find defects in the book, and these can be the most interesting comments. (I do chuckle sometimes at the fact that reviewers rarely criticise the same defects, however – there are always new and different things to complain about.) In this case, Lorraine asserts that I ‘lost my balance’ as researcher when I included my own reactions to situations where I was participant observer. To me, and I still think this, including my own reactions was a requirement for doing reflexive research: that is, I don’t believe any of us does research without having emotions, prejudices and other responses based on our own histories.

Reflexivity, broadly defined, means a turning back on oneself, a process of self-reference (Aull Davies 1999)

Referring to my own reactions was, to me, a requirement, and I am pretty sure my thesis adviser agreed. I said this to Lorraine in an email, and her reply was that I needed to make this all more explicit.

Maybe so. When I was editing the thesis to make it into a Zed Book, I had to cut the original, and great swathes of repetitive or tedious discussion (required for academic work) were done away with. Perhaps the original made my thinking on the researcher’s effect on her research more overt. Anyway, Lorraine ends by saying after reading this book the reader will not be able to think, hear, or talk about migrant sex work and trafficking the same way again. Thank you, Lorraine.

Laura Agustín’s book is an excellent resource for students, researchers, and NGO workers who have ventured into the domain of working or researching “human trafficking.” By simplifying her language and omitting internal text references, the author aims to make this book accessible for experts, academics, and extension workers. Academically, its merits can be sung for the way she managed to debunk existing myths about migration and sex work; identifying the problems, gaps, and silences in contemporary theories and by doing so, unclosing the fuzzy nature of migration for sex work in its diversity. Agustín argues and illustrates that sex work is one of the different but limited alternatives available for illegal migrants in Europe. She analyzes sex work within the group of service activities such as domestic help and personal care—showing that all these activities share similarities in regard to their exploitive and insecure nature. She sustains that sex work must be analyzed within the broader frame of migration theory to understand its complexity. This is one of the objectives of the book. Despite the similarities shared by these different activities, the multitude of studies published on migration and “human trafficking” have isolated sex work from other migration options constructing a separate category of victims that lack agency and autonomy. Agustín wants to understand how and why this occurs. The search for the answer to these questions guides her throughout the book. Finally, a personal motivation led her to this study, namely, being a sex work researcher and activist and previously working in NGOs working with sex workers and migrants, she wants to understand why the life of people who sell sex has not improved, in spite of organizations’ efforts and the many studies dedicated to this goal.

The book opens with a short introduction presenting various vignettes that immediately contrasts sensationalist media representations of migrant sex workers with the actual motives for women choosing to migrate. These include economic motivations but places them side by side with migrants’ desires for other things such as adventure and travel. From that moment on, the reader becomes aware that migrant women’s motivations and experiences are diverse and cannot be represented homogenously. The second chapter initiates the development of Agustín’s theoretical argument. She defines a migrant as a traveler sharing a common process rather than identity with others. The chapter examines definitions such as labor migration and “feminization of migration,” to show, for example, that female migration is not a new phenomenon, criticizing studies that conceptualize the “feminization of migration” as a recent development. It zooms in on migrant sex workers and explains how “trafficking discourses” and the “rescue industry” define migrant sex workers as (trafficked) victims because of the way they leave their home countries and arrive to Europe, that is, through debt bonding. The chapter counteracts these theories of “trafficking” and highlights women’s agency. Using empirical quotes, a picture is painted that portrays migrant women generally to be aware of the consequences of debt bonding. A distinction is made between being aware of the consequences of debt bonding and finding oneself on arriving in Europe in exploitative and violent work conditions— this distinction is generally not recognized in the trafficking literature. In the third chapter, she follows the same road of analysis criticizing the use of concepts such as informal sector, the types of work that migrants do, and the position of sex work therein. She successfully analyzes sex work as a supply and demand relationship. Sex workers are depicted as individuals consciously offering services. The quotes used to illustrate clients’ motivations reveal that far from being deviant, clients perceive buying sex as a demand for a service.

Chapters 4 and 6 should be read together. By tracing in chapter 4 the historical development of “the “rise of the social” in the 19th century, Agustín attempts to understand how the development of the philanthropic discourse that targeted the poor and particularly prostitutes in need of help is reflected in contemporary discourses and initiatives of the “rescue industry.” The chapter illustrates that it was in this period that the “prostitute” as a stigmatized, victimized, morally weak identity was constructed. Chapter 6, based almost entirely on ethnographic fieldwork, dives into the world of governmental and nongovernmental organizations’ activities and documents and shows that even projects that distance themselves from antiquated labels such as the “prostitute,” replacing them with more neutral terms like sex work, do not escape from the 19th century notions of prostitution and help.

Critical analyses of the “rescue industry” are few and hard to find. Agustín should be applauded for her originality and her willingness to put herself in a vulnerable position as researcher and activist. Still it is here, where certain weaknesses can be found. While the link between the 19th-century socially invented object “the prostitute” and the contemporary category of the prostitute or sex worker is analytically strong, the same does not hold true in relation to the development of 19th-century philanthropy and its connection to the contemporary “rescue  industry.” Agustín expects the reader to accept this assertion, but the analysis would benefit by illustrating this link more explicitly. Perhaps this can be partially attributed to the fact that in chapter 6 the author loses her balance between herself as a researcher and as an activist. Agustín’s report of her research findings expresses the irritation and annoyance she felt in the field while accompanying outreach workers. Although she rightfully concludes the chapter expressing the need for help organizations to be reflexive about their work, this conclusion is also applicable to the author. The researcher’s lack of reflexivity concerning her own reactions and position makes her theoretical claim concerning the relationship between 19th-century philanthropy and the contemporary situation less convincing. Nonetheless, after reading this book the reader will not be able to think, hear, or talk about migrant sex work and trafficking the same way again.

Lorraine Nencel, American Ethnologist, Volume 37, Number 3, pp 601-602.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


Tags: , ,

laura agustin lipsI sympathise with people who don’t want to subscribe to blogs, either via email or rss feeds. Occasionally I do a big emailing to those in my address book, and yesterday was one of those occasions. If you would like to be on my list for these very occasional mailings, write to me via the contact form (located to the right). One snag is that some systems, including a spam machine called Vade Retro and those controlling spam for mindspring, earthlink, wanadoo and ya, have put my own isp (nodo50) on a blacklist. Emails from me never get through to people with those addresses, so if you want to be on the list, give me an alternate address. Nodo50 have tried to get it fixed to no avail, and various tests people have done from their own individual ends are no use, and these tightening up of spam filters will always be changing.  I don’t want to migrate my address book anywhere else, thank you – know that advice is coming.

On another communications front, you can be my facebook friend and subscribe to my blog via fb’s Networked Blog system. On fb I also post interesting Internet news, and sometimes quite good conversations come about as a result.

I don’t myself use twitter because I am told it only makes sense if one is willing to be attentive, original and responsive there, which I can’t be. Feel welcome to tweet anything useful from here to your heart’s delight.

laura agustin backview

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


Tags: ,

« Older entries