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elliott-convention-girlA typical paperback cover from the heyday of pulp fiction makes convention girls look carefree and glamorous. Some might have been and still be, but picking clients up at bars where convention-attendees hang out may be the sex work of everyday women, sometimes opportunist and unplanned.

It seems that Elizabeth Short was such a woman, looking to get ahead in postwar Hollywood. James Ellroy memorialised her in his novel The Black Dahlia (1987), which draws on the actual police investigation as well as the author’s feelings about his own mother’s murder. In Ellroy’s snappy 1940s cop-lingo, women under scrutiny are described:

Together, we questioned fifty-odd people, mostly men, about their association with Elizabeth Short. We heard predictable stories of them meeting Betty in bars and buying her drinks and dinner, listening to her fantasies of being the bride or widow of war heros, bedding or not bedding her. A number of the men did not even know the notorious Dahlia–they were “friends of friends,” their names passed on out of pussy hound camaraderie.

Of our parcel of names, sixteen of the guys were what Fritzie labeled “Certified Dahlia Fuckers.” They were mostly lower-echelon movie minions: agents, talent scouts and casting directors who hung out at Schwab’s Drugstore chasing gullible would-be starlets, empty promises on their lips, Trojan “value packs” in their pockets. They told proud or shamefaced casting couch stories every bit as sad as Betty’s tales of bliss with studs in uniform. Finally, the men in Elizabeth Short’s little black book had two things in common–they got their names in the LA dailies and they coughed up alibis that eliminated them as suspects. And word filtered back to the squadroom that the publicity eliminated more than a few of them as husbands.

The women–just pals–girl talk acquaintances, fellow cocktail lounge cadgers and aspiring actresses heading nowhere. A dozen or so were hookers and semi-pro B-girls, instant soulmates that Betty met in bars. They gave us leads that petered out on follow-up investigation–basically, the word that Betty sold herself freelance to conventioneers at several lower-class downtown hotels. They hedged that Betty rarely peddled it, and could not identify any of her tricks by name; Fritzie’s canvassing of the hotels got him an angry zero.– The Black Dahlia

highPussy-hounds: marvellous. B-girls are bar girls, if you didn’t know. But hanging out waiting for an opportunity leads to terms like semi-pro. What if you have sex with someone who might give you a part in a film, apart from buying you dinner tonight? Did the crime against Betty the Dahlia occur because she was having sex or because she was an opportunist or because it was LA or because there was a sadistic killer at large? To blame it on prostitution is — limiting.

Ellroy includes Mexican migration in The Black Dahlia too.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: The Lemurian Hour podcast conducted via Skype audio.

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

Or listen here:

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

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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

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

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

wall-nogales-mexico-nogales-arizona-

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

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

18157331_1126093070830088_5220002586304535237_nmelillafence

Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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13_9_percent_increase_in_human_trafficki_2612620000_13473621_ver1-0_640_480High Hopes for refuge for human trafficking survivors seemed like just another story about small Rescue-Industry projects getting big funding and providing founders with lots of good feelings about themselves. I ran it on facebook poking gentle fun at the rustling pecan trees. After a few routine comments I got a call on the anti-trafficking hotline.

screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-19-11 screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-19-29 screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-19-48 screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-20-29 screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-20-43 screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-20-59 screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-21-15 screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-21-55 screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-22-08 screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-22-22 screen-shot-2016-12-16-at-22-33-12screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-22-58

I don’t think we missed any major points to be cynical about in this spoof of a person who makes a hotline-call to help police, not a victim. It was a spontaneous conversation, and I haven’t edited it to publish here.

e86054d100ce6529f45a589eacb43d80-w2041xNorma Jean Almodovar is author of Cop to Call Girl: Why I Left the LAPD to Make an Honest Living As a Beverly Hills Prostitute, published in 1994. She created and maintains Police Prostitution and Politics: Operation Do the Math, where she keeps track of FBI claims about sex-trafficking. ‘I do it because prostitution abolitionists can’t count,’ she says.

And the pecan trees keep on rustling. I’d sure like to get me some of that horse therapy.

Laura Agustín – The Naked Anthropologist

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hopeforjusticeukWhat isn’t on this list of signs of human trafficking? Has there ever been a vaguer term than abuse of vulnerability? It could describe being a parent or teacher easily. If informants are supposed to make a telephone call based on any of these signs – which is what this says – then heaven help the switchboards. No wonder Rescue-Industry groups have to ask for so much funding.

Lists of the so-called signs of being a victim of trafficking are now common, even placed in airports in hopes that victims may experience revelation and realise they need rescue. Such techniques demonstrate how the Rescue Industry institutionalises, submitting to funding guidelines written by government bureaucrats. The particular group that produced the list you see here have expanded from the US to the UK. It’s a sort of globalisation of weak thinking.

There are young people now who have grown up surrounded by campaigning against trafficking, unaware there is conflict about how to define the term. Some want to dedicate energy to combating what is figured as a modern social evil. Some compare themselves with 19th-century anti-slavery advocates and feel outraged that anyone would question what they are doing.

The field gets critiqued regularly, and I don’t always contribute when asked for comment. I regularly send a link to Dear Students of Sex Work and Trafficking (students can be taken as a general term for those who wish to inform themselves). I don’t want to repeat the same ideas over and over when it’s all easily findable on a website, and I don’t like reducing complexity to bullet points. I also think everything has been said, and claims that insights are new are untrue. Online Editors routinely splash every banal keyword into headlines, sometimes without reference to what the item actually contains. Exaggeration has taken over.

Recent inquiries roused me to sketch out a few basic ideas that take in the history.

mobilityThe Convention on Transnational Organised Crime was published in Palermo in 2000 by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Two protocols on human mobility were appended, one on trafficking, the other on smuggling. The process of defining these was long and conflictual and has been documented publicly. It was all supposed to pertain to undocumented migrants, a topic nearly always omitted from current commentary. I’ve written about these protocols more than once, particularly their genderedness and how sex is pointed to when the mobile people are women but not when they are men. The cover to my book Sex at the Margins used the image of mobility and human agency seen here.

After the Convention was published, the idea of trafficking began its ascent, and soon we who were interested in migration, sex work and labour policy realised it was useless for gaining equity or rights. The framework of the Convention is Crime – there is no fixing that. The assumption is this human mobility to work is fomented by criminals who use force and coercion against their victims – notions impossible to pin down because they vary infinitely amongst individuals according to momentary conditions. If you look at the footnotes opposing sides published on the language of the protocols you see how they argued about these keywords. Later some wag used the term sex trafficking, moving towards reductionism that is typical to the campaigning of moral entrepreneurs.

Behind this over-simplification and over-focus on sex lie real social inequalities and oppressions: migration policies that favour middle- and upper-class jobs, out-of-date notions of the formal economy and productive labour, young people who want to get away from home, job-seekers willing to take risks to make more money, laws that make commercial sex illegal, laws that make sweatshops illegal and there is more. To lump all this under a single term simply disappears the array of different situations, encourages reductionism and feeds into a moralistic agenda of Good and Evil. The term trafficking is an invention incapable of describing so many realities, and it does not help to reduce them all to two possibilities – the Free vs the Enslaved, the Autonomous vs the Coerced. In the case of those who sell sex it does not help to reduce them to Sex Workers vs Victims of Trafficking.

I am asked what better language would be, but the issue is not language, as though everything might be fixed by changing the words. The framework setting out the problems is good for nothing but policing. I suggest addressing specific injustices on their own terms. For example

-If the subject is runaway teenagers who don’t want to live with their parents or go to school and don’t have money or job-skills, then talk about that.

-If the subject is people who took a job that didn’t turn out the way they expected but they need the money so don’t leave it, then talk about that.

-If the subject is migrants who crossed borders with false papers so they are not legal to work at any job, then talk about that.

And so on. Get down to specifics, deal with real situations, stop arguing about ridiculous abstractions. Social policies do not have to be so dumb.

alice_cram

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Social work, whether voluntary or paid, rests on an assumption that people with problems can be helped by outsiders who provide services that facilitate solutions. Hands predominate in icons used on social-work websites: holding hands, piles of hands, hands of different shapes and colours. I suppose these are meant to signify working together – mutuality – non-hierarchy – equality. But how many social-work situations involving a sex worker reflect those values? Take this news item from Los Angeles:

Getting tough on underage prostitution

LA County calls on legislators to toughen laws, while those who work with young prostitutes grapple with how to get them off the streets. “Children cannot give consent by definition,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. McSweeney said there are times when deputies pick up an underage girl and take her to county social services. Often, he said, that girl will end up in a group home, flee the next day, and be back on the street that night. It’s a revolving door, he said, and the system could use some tweaking.

Rejection of help is widely known amongst people who sell sex of all ages, yet to question ideas about helping is frowned upon. It is said people who are at least trying to do good deserve credit. Do they have to be perfect? At any rate, they are not employed as soldiers or bankers, they are socially involved, at least they care. But for most social workers, the job is just a job. They don’t imagine themselves to be saints but do appreciate the security and respect associated with it. They would probably prefer to think their work is relevant and appreciated. Consider a news item from Texas:

Child sex trafficking seminar in Paris educates first responders

“You would think that if you ran across a child that was being used for sex trafficking that they would stand up and say help me and that’s not the case,” said Paris Regional Medical Emergency Director Doug LaMendola. “They are so mentally reprogrammed into submissiveness that they won’t speak up.”

It must be frustrating when help is rejected, but inventing psychological reasons is a dodge to avoid wondering if the projects could be improved. Some psy excuses used with women who sell sex are brainwashingStockholm Syndrome and acting out. Now consider a news item from Chicago:

Who’s A Victim Of Human Sex Trafficking?

One recent Friday morning in a stuffy, crowded classroom at the Cook County jail in Chicago, a few women shared stories at a meeting of a group called Prostitution Anonymous. If they agree to get help, the women usually are not charged with prostitution in Cook County, though they may face other charges, from drug use to disorderly conduct.

Coercing people to participate in programmes is where social work touches bottom.

The idea that it’s impossible to change the lives of those in need unless they want them changed reveals a key assumption: that those in helping positions by definition already know what everyone needs. What happens if the person to be helped doesn’t accede to the helper’s proposition? Help fails, as it so often does in the oldest and commonest attempts worldwide to help women who sell sex, known as Exit Strategies, Diversion Programs and Rehabilitation. Consider recent news from Oklahoma:

Teen prostitute leaves shelter to return to street life

“She was in protective custody and doesn’t want any help,” he said. “There is no indication of a drug history. That’s the life she preferred. There is no telling how much money she was making.”
Woodward said the teenager comes from a rough family in the Tulsa area. “She doesn’t like her family, and she didn’t want us to contact her family,” he said.

Most women and young people who sell sex are simply not attracted by the alternative occupations or ‘homes’ offered that provide no flexibility, no autonomy, no street life, no way to have fun and pitiful money. Social workers can always point to people they know who appreciated some such project, but mainstream media provide examples of failure every week. The significant refusal here is on the social-work side, where not believing what people say they need guarantees that the situation for sex workers stays the same, despite endless hand-wringing and rhetoric about the need to help them.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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This essay ran first in Jacobin and was picked up by Salon and given a different title. Comments on the different slants to come soon.

Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores

Laura Agustín, Jacobin, 15 August 2013

It doesn’t matter which political direction you come from: the topics of sex work, sexual exploitation, prostitution and sex trafficking seem like a veritable Gordian Knot. As long as you listen to one set of advocates and take their evidence in good faith, you are okay. But the minute you listen to another set of advocates with different arguments and evidence, everything falls apart. The way these subjects intersect leads to untenable contradictions that make progress seem impossible. Hand-wringing and ideological free-for-alls predominate.

Twenty years ago I first asked two questions that continue to unsettle me today. The first is answerable: What does a woman who sells sex accomplish that leads to her being treated as fallen, beyond the pale, incapable of speaking for herself, discountable if she does speak, invisible as a member of society? The answer is she carries a stigma. The second question is a corollary: Why do most public conversations focus on laws and regulations aimed at controlling these stigmatized women rather than recognizing their agency? To that the answer is not so straightforward.

I am moved to make this assessment after the murder of someone I knew, Eva-Maree Kullander Smith, known as Jasmine. Killed in Sweden by an enraged ex-partner, Eva-Maree was also a victim of the social death that befalls sex workers under any name you choose to call them. Immediately after the murder, rights activists cursed the Swedish prostitution law that is promoted everywhere as best for women. My own reaction was a terrible sinking feeling as I realized how the notion of a Rescue Industry, named during my research into the “saving” of women who sell sex, was more apt than even I had thought.

Murders of sex workers are appallingly frequent, including serial killings. In Vancouver, BC, Robert Pickton killed as many as 26 between 1996 and 2001 before police cared enough to do anything about it. Gary Ridgeway, convicted of killing 49 women in the 1980s-90s in the state of Washington, said, “I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.” Infamous statements from police and prosecutors include the Attorney General’s at Peter Sutcliffe’s 1981 trial for the murder of at least 13 women in the north of England: “Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of this case is that some were not.” He could say this because of a ubiquitous belief that the stigma attached to women who sell sex is real – that prostitutes really are different from other women.

My focus on the female is deliberate. All who propose prostitution policy are aware that men sell sex, but they are not concerned about men, who simply do not suffer the disgrace and shame that fall on women who do it.

Stigma and disqualification

Many people have only a vague idea what the word stigma means. It can be a mark on a person’s body – a physical trait, or a scarlet letter. It can result from a condition like leprosy, where the person afflicted could not avoid contagion. About his selection of victims Sutcliffe said he could tell by the way women walked whether or not they were sexually “innocent”.

Stigma can also result from behaviors seen to involve choice, like using drugs. For Erving Goffman, individuals’ identities are “spoiled” when stigma is revealed. Society proceeds to discredit the stigmatized – by calling them deviants or abnormal, for example. Branded with stigma, people may suffer social death – nonexistence in the eyes of society – if not physical death in gas chambers or serial killings.

In the late 1990s I wondered why a migrant group that often appeared in media reports and was well-known to me personally was absent from scholarly migration literature. I came to understand that migrant women who sell sex were disqualified as subjects of migration, in some perhaps unconscious process on the part of scholars and journal editors. Was the stigma attached to selling sex so serious that it was better not to mention these migrants at all? Or did people think that the selling of sex must transport anything written about it to another realm, such as feminism? When I submitted an article to a migration journal addressing this disqualification, The Disappearing of a Migration Category: Women Who Sell Sex, two and a half years passed before its publication, probably because the editor could locate no peer reviewers willing to deal with my ideas.

Of the many books on prostitution I read back then, most dismissed the possibility that women who sell sex can be rational, ordinary, pragmatic and autonomous. The excuses followed a pattern: The women didn’t understand what they were doing because they were uneducated. They suffered from false consciousness, the failure to recognize their own oppression. They were addicted to drugs that fogged their brains. They had been seduced by pimps. They were manipulated by families. They were psychologically damaged, so their judgements were faulty. If they were migrants they belonged to unenlightened cultures that gave them no choices. They were coerced and/or forced by bad people to travel, so they weren’t real migrants, and their experiences didn’t count. Because they were brainwashed by their exploiters, nothing they said could be relied on. This series of disqualifications led to large lacunae in social-scientific literature and mainstream media, showing the power of a stigma that has its very own name – whore stigma. Given these women’s spoiled identities, others feel called to speak for them.

Rescue Industry, legal regimes and stigma

The person in a helping profession or campaign is said to embody the good in humanity – benevolence, compassion, selflessness. But helpers assume positive identities far removed from those spoiled by stigma, and benefits accrue to them: prestige and influence for all and employment and security for many. Many believe that helpers always know how to help, even when they have no personal experience of the culture or political economy they intervene in. What I noted was how, despite the large number of people dedicated to saving prostitutes, the situation for women who sell sex never improves. The Construction of Benevolent Identities by Helping Women Who Sell Sex was the key that unlocked my understanding of the Rescue Industry.

Abolitionists talk continuously about prostitution as violence against women, set up projects to rescue sex workers and ignore the dysfunctionality of much that is conceived as “rehabilitation”. Contemporary abolitionism focuses largely on the rescue of women said to be victims of trafficking, targeting the mobile and migrant women I mentioned earlier, who are now completely disappeared in a narrative of female victimhood. Although much of this goes on under a feminist banner, colonialist maternalism describes it better.

In classic abolitionism, whore stigma is considered a consequence of patriarchy, a system in which men subjugate women and divide them into the good, who are marriageable, and the bad, who are promiscuous or sell sex. If prostitution were abolished, whore stigma would disappear, it is claimed. But contemporary movements against slut-shaming, victim-blaming and rape culture clearly show how whore stigma is applied to women who do not sell sex at all, so the claim is feeble. Instead, abolitionism’s aversion to prostitution probably strengthens the stigma, despite the prostitute’s demotion to the status of victim rather than the transgressor she once was.

Under prohibitionism, those involved in commercial sex are criminalized, which directly reproduces stigma. In this regime, the woman who sells sex is a deliberate outlaw, which oddly at least grants her some agency.

For advocates of the decriminalization of all commercial-sex activities, the disappearance of whore stigma would occur through recognizing and normalizing the selling of sex as labor. We don’t yet know how long it may take for stigma to die out in places where some forms of sex work are decriminalized and regulated: New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Holland. Given the stigma’s potency in all cultures one would expect it to diminish unevenly and slowly but steadily, as happened and continues to happen with the stigma of homosexuality around the world.

Prostitution law and national moralities

I explained my skepticism about prostitution law at length in an academic article, Sex and the Limits of Enlightenment: The Irrationality of Legal Regimes to Control Prostitution. All prostitution laws are conceived as methods to control women who, before ideas of victimhood took hold, were understood to be powerful, dangerous figures associated with rebellion, revolt, carnival, the world upside down, spiritual power and calculated wrongdoing. Conversations about prostitution law, no matter where they take place, argue about how to manage the women: Is it better to permit them to work out of doors or limit them to closed spaces? How many lap-dancing venues should get licenses and where should they be located? In brothels, how often should women be examined for sexually transmitted infections? The rhetoric of helping and saving that surrounds laws accedes with state efforts to control and punish; the first stop for women picked up in raids on brothels or rescues of trafficking victims is a police station. Prostitution law generalizes from worst-case scenarios, which leads directly to police abuse against the majority of cases, which are not so dire.

In theory, under prohibitionism prostitutes are arrested, fined, jailed. Under abolitionism, which permits the selling of sex, a farrago of laws, by-laws and regulations give police a myriad of pretexts for harrying sex workers. Regulationism, which wants to assuage social conflict by legalizing some sex-work forms, constructs non-regulated forms as illegal (and rarely grants labor rights to workers). But eccentricities abound everywhere, making a mockery of these theoretical laws. Even Japan’s wide-open, permissive sex industry prohibits “prostitution” defined as coital sex. And in recent years a hybrid law has arisen that makes paying for sex illegal while selling is permitted. Yes, it’s illogical. But the contradiction is not pointless; it is there because the goal of the law is to make prostitution disappear by debilitating the market through absurd ignorance of how sex businesses work

Discussion of prostitution law occurs in national contexts where rhetoric often harks back to essentialist notions of morality, as though in this highly-travelled, hybrid-culture world it were still possible to talk about authentic national character, or as though “founding father” values must define a country for all time. One intervenor at the recent Canadian Supreme Court hearing on prostitution law argued that decriminalization would defy founding values of “the Canadian community”: “that women required protection from immoral sexual activity generally and prostitution specifically” and “strong moral disapproval of prostitution itself, with a view to promoting gender equality”. The national focus clashes with anti-trafficking campaigns that not only claim to use international law but sponsor imperialist interventions by western NGOs into other countries, notably in Asia, with the United States assuming a familiar meddling role vis-à-vis Rest-of-World.

Gender Equality, State Feminism and intolerance

Gender Equality is now routinely accepted as a worthy principle, but the term is so broad and abstract that a host of varying, contradictory and even authoritarian ideas hide behind it. Gender Equality as a social goal derives from a bourgeois feminist tradition of values about what to strive for and how to behave, particularly regarding sex and family. In this tradition, loving committed couples living with their children in nuclear families are society’s ideal citizens, who should also go into debt to buy houses and get university educations, undertake lifetime “careers” and submit to elected governments. Although many of these values coincide with long-standing governmental measures to control women’s sexuality and reproduction, to question them is viewed with hostility. The assumption is that national governmental status quos would be acceptable if women only had equal power within them.

Gender Equality began to be measured by the UN in 1995 on the basis of indicators in three areas: reproductive health, empowerment and the labor market. Arguments are endless about all the concepts involved, many seeing them as favouring a western concept of “human development” that is tied to income. (How to define equality is also a vexed question.) Until a couple of years ago, the index was based on maternal mortality ratio and adolescent fertility rate (for health), share of parliamentary seats held by sex plus secondary/higher education attainment (for empowerment) and women’s participation in the work force (for labor). On these indicators, which focus on a narrow range of life experiences, northern European countries score highest, which leads the world to look there for progressive ideas about Gender Equality.

These countries manifest some degree of State Feminism: the existence of government posts with a remit to promote Gender Equality. I do not know if it is inevitable, but it is certainly universal that policy promoted from such posts ends up being intolerant of diverse feminisms. State Feminists simplify complex issues through pronouncements represented as the final and correct feminist way to understand whatever matter is at hand. Although those appointed to such posts must demonstrate experience and education, they must also be known to influential social networks. Unsurprisingly, many appointed to such posts come from generations for whom feminism meant the belief that all women everywhere share an essential identity and worldview. Sometimes this manifests as extremist, fundamentalist or authoritarian feminism. Sweden is an example.

Sweden and prostitution

Jämställdhet, Photo Malinka Persson

The population of only nine and a half million is scattered over a large area, and even the biggest city is small. In Sweden’s history, social inequality (class differences) was early targeted for obliteration; nowadays most people look and act middle-class. The mainstream is very wide, while social margins are narrow, most everyone being employed and/or supported by various government programmes. Although the Swedish utopia of Folkhemmet – the People’s Home – was never achieved, it survives as a powerful symbol and dream of consensus and peace. Most people believe the Swedish state is neutral if not actually benevolent, even if they recognize its imperfections.

After the demise of most class distinctions, inequality based on gender was targeted (racial/ethnic differences were a minor issue until recent migration increases). Prostitution became a topic of research and government publications from the 1970s onwards. By the 1990s, eradicating prostitution came to be seen as a necessary condition for the achievement of male-female equality and feasible in a small homogeneous society. The solution envisioned was to prohibit the purchase of sex, conceptualized as a male crime, while allowing the sale of sex (because women, as victims, must not be penalized). The main vehicle was not to consist of arrests and incarcerations but a simple message: In Sweden we don’t want prostitution. If you are involved in buying or selling sex, abandon this harmful behavior and come join us in an equitable society.

Since the idea that prostitution is harmful has infused political life for decades, to refuse to accept such an invitation can appear misguided and perverse. To end prostitution is not seen as a fiat of feminist dictators but, like the goal to end rape, an obvious necessity. To many, prostitution also seems incomprehensibly unnecessary in a state where poverty is so little known.

These are the everyday attitudes that social workers coming into contact with Eva-Maree probably shared. We do not know the details of the custody battle she had been locked in for several years with her ex-partner. We do not know how competent either was as a parent. She recounted that social workers told her she did not understand she was harming herself by selling sex. There are no written guidelines decreeing that prostitutes may not have custody of their children, but all parents undergo evaluations, and the whore stigma could not fail to affect their judgements. For the social workers, Eva-Maree’s identity was spoiled; she was discredited as a mother on psycho-social grounds. She had persisted in trying to gain mother’s rights and made headway with the authorities, but her ex-partner was enraged that an escort could gain any rights at all and did all he could to impede her. The drawn-out custody process broke down on the day she died, since standard procedures do not allow disputing parents to meet during supervised visits with children.

In a 2010 report evaluating the law criminalizing sex-purchase, stigma is mentioned in reference to feedback they received from some sex workers:

The people who are exploited in prostitution report that criminalization has reinforced the stigma of selling sex. They explain that they have chosen to prostitute themselves and feel they are not being involuntarily exposed to anything. Although it is not illegal to sell sex they perceive themselves to be hunted by the police. They perceive themselves to be disempowered in that their actions are tolerated but their will and choice are not respected.

The report concludes that these negative effects “must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution”. To those haunted by the death of Eva-Maree, the words sound cruel, but they were written for a document attempting to evaluate the law’s effects. Evaluators had been unable to produce reliable evidence of any kind of effect; an increase in stigma was at least a consequence.

Has this stigma discouraged some women from selling sex who might have wanted to and some men from buying? Maybe, but it is a result no evaluation could demonstrate. The report, in its original Swedish 295 pages, is instead composed of historical background, repetitious descriptions of the project and administrative detail. Claims made later that trafficking has diminished under the law are also impossible to prove, since there are no pre-law baseline statistics to compare to.

The lesson is not that Sweden’s law caused a murder or that any other law would have prevented it. Whore stigma exists everywhere under all prostitution laws. But Sweden’s law can be said to have given whore stigma a new rationality for social workers and judges, the stamp of government approval for age-old prejudice. The ex-partner’s fury at her becoming an escort may derive in part from his Ugandan background, but Sweden did not encourage him to view Eva-Maree more respectfully.

Some say her murder is simply another clear act of male violence and entitlement by a man who wanted her to be disqualified from seeing their children. According to that view, the law is deemed progressive because it combats male hegemony and promotes Gender Equality. This is what most infuriates advocates of sex workers’ rights: that the “Swedish model” is held up as virtuous solution to all of the old problems of prostitution, in the absence of any evidence. But for those who embrace anti-prostitution ideology, the presence or absence of evidence is unimportant.

When media are king

Media handling of these incidents reproduces stigma with variation according to local conditions. The mainstream Swedish press did not mention that Eva-Maree was an escort, because to do so would have seemed to blame her and blacken her name. In the case of a series of murders in Ipswich, England, the media’s relentless talk of prostitutes led the victims’ parents to request they use the term sex workers. A number of dead women on Long Island, NY, were discussed as almost “interchangeable – lost souls who were gone, in a sense, long before they actually disappeared” (Robert Kolker, New York Times, 29 June 2013). A woman murdered recently near Melbourne, Australia, was called “St Kilda prostitute” rather than “sex worker” or even, simply, “woman”, in a place where the concept of sex work is actually on its bumpy way to normalization. I’m talking here about the mainstream, whose online articles are reproduced over and over, hammering in the clichés.

Editors who append photos to articles on the sex industry use archetypes: women leaning into car windows, sitting on bar stools, standing amidst traffic – legs, stockings and high heels highlighted. Editors do this not because they are too lazy to find other pictures but to show, before you read a word, what the articles are really about: women whose uniform is the outward sign of an inner stain. Similarly, when writers and editors use the clichéd language of a “secret world”, “dark underbelly”, “stolen childhoods”, “seedy streets” and “forbidden fruit”, they are not simply being sensationalist but pointing to the stigma: Here’s what this news is really about – the disgusting and dangerous but also eternal and thrilling world of whores.

Cutting the Gordian Knot

Not long ago I was invited to speak at the Dublin Anarchist Bookfair on the topic of sex work as work. The announcement on Facebook provoked violent ranting: to have me was anti-feminist, against socialism and a betrayal of anarchism. I wrote Talking about sex work without isms to explain why I would not discuss feminist arguments in the short Dublin talk. I’m not personally interested in utopias and after 20 years in the field really only want to discuss how to improve things practically in the here and now. No prostitution law can comprehend the proliferation of businesses in today’s sex industry or account for the many degrees of volition and satisfaction among workers. Sexual relations cannot be “fixed” through Gender-Equality policy. If I were Alexander standing over the knot I would slice it thus: All conversations from this moment will begin from the premise that we will not all agree. We will look for a variety of solutions to suit the variety of beliefs, and we will not compete over which ideological position is best. Most important, we will assume that what all women say is what they mean.

LAURA AGUSTÍN is author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry (Zed Books). A researcher and analyst of human trafficking, undocumented migration and sex-industry research for the past 20 years, she blogs as The Naked Anthropologist.


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This hiv-prevention sign (from Ghana) offers three options: don’t have any sex at all, have it with only one other person forever or have the sex you want but use condoms. The choice is in your hands, meaning no authority figure is proclaiming which choice is right; you have to decide for yourself. I know some people dislike this ABC strategy because they don’t want abstinence to be there at all; I also know some critics think this approach neglects the realities of sex workers, gays and drug users. And I am sure some people dislike Love Life as smarmy. It’s a slogan, that’s all, and I put it here because it represents a humanistic way to think about sex and risk. Note that if you opt out of choosing, police are not mandated to force or rescue you from whatever you are doing.

I remember when I first heard about AIDS, in a radio news report in 1982, and I remember when public-health entities began to offer programmes to help reduce the spread of the virus. I don’t remember when I first heard the term harm reduction, but the approach seemed obviously right. I particularly recall when it was realised that many people who really needed them were not showing up at public clinics to get condoms and tests. This might be when I started to understand what margins mean. Going out to where people hung out, at times good for them rather than for health workers, was a breakthrough idea: Outreach. Haranguing people about their promiscuity or bad habits was understood to be useless. This pragmatic worldview was in the air. Disease prevention was the goal – avoiding human suffering if it could be avoided. Reducing harms.

This once obvious way to view illness, suffering, harm and risk has been eroding for some time. Now we hear about zero tolerance and other hard-line policies that prohibit people from behaviours considered wrong. To choose to take risks is often considered suspicious behaviour. My own tolerant ideas about migrants who undertake undocumented travel and jobs, particularly if they sell sex, gets me called amoral: apparently believing what people say themselves about their lives is the act of a heartless bitch. To me it all seems quite illogical.

For a long time mainstream policymakers were only interested in sex workers as disease-spreaders, so AIDS conferences were places where they were talked about, as objects. The question was How can we get them to practice safer sex? That is still of course the prevalent view amongst doctors, pharmaceutical companies and policymakers: stigma towards prostitutes dies very, very hard. But in the last decade or so the presence of sex workers at these conferences has significantly strengthened (bolstered by outside funding), and the events become sites of activism to promote human, sexual and workers’ rights, empowerment and protagonism in hiv prevention. This coincides with the opening up of a space for considering sex-work policy within the harm-reduction movement, which I first thought about when asked to speak at a conference in Portugal a few years ago.

Condoms are the obvious protection for everyone involved in commercial sex – right? That’s the harm-reduction approach. Yet in the US, where prostitution is prohibited, police can use the carrying of multiple condoms as proof that people are prostitutes and arrest them. The result? People don’t carry them. That’s the harm-enhancement approach detailed in this video from Human Rights Watch.

For the next week the International AIDS Conference is going on in Washington DC, and because US immigration policy is hostile to drug users and prostitutes – even when they are sponsored visitors spending the whole time in a conference venue - a lot of international participants won’t be there. An alternative event taking place in Kolkata, the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, is being attended by workers from dozens of countries. I had expected to go myself but finally couldn’t make it. Here is a calendar of events on sex work at both conferences, which will be video-linked for certain sessions. Good luck to all.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

 

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If you are in London next Monday, come to the launch of the Stop the Arrests campaign. The event will be short and sweet and it would be good to see a lot of people not only turn up but also join the resistance to yet more policing and repression of sexual practices involving money. It’s also a good central location with numerous pubs nearby for socialising afterwards.

It’s not to late to put your signature on the list of supporters.

I will be speaking about the lack of evidence linking sporting events with trafficking. I wrote about the background to this initiative a while back.

INVITATION: Stop the Arrests Campaign Launch

WHEN: 1830 Monday 18 June 2012

WHERE: Centre for Possible Studies, 21 Gloucester Place, London W1U 8HR (nearest tube: Marble Arch)

Campaign group Stop the Arrests will hold a public launch in central London this Monday to outline its call for a moratorium on sex worker arrests during the London 2012 Olympic Games. The panel includes Laura Agustín, trafficking expert and author of Sex at the Margins, Georgina Perry, manager of Open Doors, a sex worker health project operating in Hackney and a video link up with Brooke Magnanti, aka Belle de Jour and author of The Sex Myth. Stop the Arrests is concerned that the policing of sex work and sex establishments in the lead-up to the Olympics threatens to compromise the safety and autonomy of sex workers.

The launch will also feature voices from workers in the sex industry.

The Met have recently been in touch with Stop the Arrests to inform that they have developed ”an alternative system of dealing with sex workers during the Olympic period”. This protocol, which will be made public on Monday 18 June,  has been developed without any input from sex worker organisations or other specialist services working with sex workers, such as health and harm minimisation organisations.

Ava Caradonna, Spokesperson for x:talk said: Stop the Arrests has tried for months to get an audience with the Met to discuss policing protocol during the Olympics. A senior Met officer has assured us that that the relevant department is aware of xtalk and the proposal for a Moratorium and yet we have not been consulted. The current laws and policing around sex work have been criticised from many different quarters for the lack of consultation with sex workers and sex worker-led organisations, and the failure of these policies to take into account the realities of the sex industry. It is deeply worrying that the Met continues to develop policies that ignore these criticisms and the views of those affected.

Media Enquires:

Xanthe Whittaker: 07901335613
Katie Cruz: 07917732990

NOTES

1. Campaign group Stop the Arrests issued the Mayor of London with a letter on June 6 calling upon him to use his powers, in co-operation with the police and UK Border Agency, to stop the arrest, detention and deportation of sex workers during the Olympics. Signatories to the letter, which was initiated by the xtalk project, include John McDonnell MP and chair of the Green Party, Jenny Jones, author Brooke Magnanti (Belle de Jour), Jane Ayres, manager of The Praed Street Project – a sex worker health project operating in London, and the UK Harm Reduction Alliance. Full details of campaign and list of signatories here.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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