Tag Archives: power

The Em- of Empowerment: Neoliberal missionaries and maternalism

I remember where I first heard the word empowerment. It was a poor, not very attractive place, the kind celebrities visit to have feel-good photos taken of themselves hugging children who appear to adore them. The girls at Somaly Mam’s over-visited home for ex-victims of trafficking are regularly required to perform the emotional work of gazing happily at rich visitors from abroad (as in this shot the US State Department has the nerve to call ‘diplomacy’).

Celebrity Rescuers like Shay Mitchell imagine they are experiencing Love:

My friends and I went to [a Mam] center, and we literally got out of the truck and the younger girls were running to me and my friends. They hadn’t met us before, they had no idea who we were. They didn’t care. It was just the fact we’d come to visit — that was enough for them to come up and give us a hug. They were saying, “Sister, sister.” That was unconditional love like I’ve never felt in my entire life.

That’s a lot of naiveté, even for a missionary. Do these folks actually not know that oft-visited residents learn how they are meant to greet fat-cat visitors? And there’s a jolly neoliberal proposition:

Somaly has heart-and-hand necklaces . . . They’re survivor-made products and when you purchase them, you’re helping a survivor become financially self-sufficient.

Self-sufficient – Is she kidding? Mam’s website is characterised by statements like We help victims of sex slavery to become survivors, and empower survivors as part of the solution. Thirteen years ago I wrote the following piece daring to doubt the idea of empowerment, and I haven’t changed my mind today. (More repellent feel-good photos here, if you can stomach them. Below, I do believe some of the faces from another Mam photo shoot are the same as above)

The Em- of Empowerment: Injecting pride in unwilling subjects?

Laura Agustín, Research for Sex Work, 3, 15-16 (2000).

The verb is transitive: someone gives power to another, or encourages them to take power or find power in themselves. It’s used among those who want to help others identified as oppressed. In Latin America, in educación popular, one of the great cradles of this kind of concept, the word itself didn’t exist until it was translated back from English. To many people, if they know it at all, the word empoderamiento sounds strange. It’s an NGO word, used by either volunteer or paid educators who view themselves as helpers of others or fighters for social justice, and is understood to represent the current politically correct way of thinking about ‘third world’, subaltern or marginalised people. But it remains a transitive verb, which places emphasis on the helper and her vision of her capacity to help, encourage and show the way. These good intentions, held also by 19th-century European missionaries, we know from experience do not ensure non-exploitation.

In the current version of these good intentions, ‘first-world’ people and entities use their funds to help or empower those less privileged. They spend money to set up offices and pay salaries, many to people who remain in offices, often engaged in writing proposals that will allow them to stay in business. These organisations have hierarchies, and those engaged in education or organisation at the grassroots level often are the last to influence how funds will be used. Those closer to the top, who attend conferences, live in Europe or have career interests in the organisation, know how proposals must be written to compete in the crowded funding world. This condition of structural power should not be overlooked by those concerned with empowerment, who more often view themselves as embattled, as non-government, as crusaders situated against conservative policies. Yet, when a concept like empowerment comes from above in this way, we needn’t be surprised at the kind of contradictions that result—literacy programmes that don’t keep people interested in reading, AIDS education that doesn’t stop people from refusing to use condoms.

To empower me as a sex worker you assume the role of acting on me and you assume that I see myself as an individual engaged in sex work. If I don’t see myself this way, then I am disqualified from the empowerment project, despite your best intentions. The identity issue here is crucial; funders and activists alike are currently interested in valorising cultural and individual difference. While it is a great advance to recognise and ‘give voice to’ human subjects who were before marginalised or disappeared, the problem remains that if you want to inject pride in me that I am a worker and supporter of my family and I don’t recognise or want to think of myself that way, the advance won’t occur, in my case.

But, you say, those are the real conditions, we live in a world of funders and partial successes. We’re doing the best we can, and we acknowledge that these empowerment projects often fail. Since it’s to no one’s benefit that successes be quite so partial, let’s consider whether there is any way which this empowerment concept might be conceived differently, forgetting for the moment the funder and his funds.

In educación popular, in programmes sometimes called capacitación [capacity-building], people get together to talk, sometimes with the encouragement of a person from ‘outside’. This person might be called an animadora or an educator, her job to facilitate conditions where subjects might realise they have a problem in common which, if they acted together, they might be able to move toward solving. I’m describing a very fundamental, ‘pure’ version, perhaps, now complicated in many places in many ways by different histories, international contacts, hybrid forms. Still, it’s worth considering what the most basic idea always has been.

Here, the most the outsider does is provide the suggestion of a time and place, with perhaps a very basic reason for getting together, perhaps just ‘meeting neighbours’. Who finds out about this meeting? Everyone who lives there, if it’s a village or small barrio and people talk to each other fairly freely. Letting people know can be an important task of the outsider. Sometimes, in larger places, an ‘identity’ is targeted, but it can be a very general identity, such as everyone concerned to improve conditions in the community.

The educator/animator might suggest the group talk about a topic such as how to get running water, bus service or rubbish collection—topics of concern to everyone, including sex workers. Or she might present a question—such as why everyone is talking about migrating to work somewhere else—and hope people will respond. But if they don’t, and if nothing seems to happen, her job is to resist the temptation to push the conversation. The hope is rather that if people feel free to talk, they will, eventually, if only to see if others share their feelings. This process can be extremely slow and even invisible, and no money or materials from outside are required. The profound assumption is rather that people themselves already know a lot—what they want, what they need. If they agree after some time that a technical fact or help is needed that none of them possess, then they might feel ‘empowered’ to search for that fact on the outside.

Does the ‘outsider’actually need to be there during this process? The answer depends on the person, on how quietly encouraging she is, on how patient and undisappointed if the group doesn’t take off, agree on anything or if it agrees to a programme the opposite of what the funders want.

Can this vision be applied when funders seem concerned solely with the sex organs of people assumed to ‘identify’ themselves as sex workers? If educators must ‘target’ prostitutes as those who come to a meeting? Perhaps, if the same kind of mostly undirected sharing of experiences is encouraged. Many times sex workers will then be heard to discuss not sex, clients and condoms—the topics always brought up by funders—but all the other aspects of their lives, which are not peculiar to them as sex workers. They might talk about a new song, a new dress, a new club—or a new idea for getting together to protect and help each other.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Sex workers and Violence against Women: Utopic Visions or Battle of the Sexes?

The other day, discussing the recommendation that DNA should be taken from men who buy sex, I ended with a question: how can anyone maintain a utopic vision about gender equality that relies on punishing so many people as criminals? That reminded me I had asked the same question in an article published more than ten years ago.

Although I wouldn’t write it exactly the same way now, I stand by its basic ideas. If Gender Equality is one of feminism’s goals, how can we imagine it without reducing everything to black and white, perpetrator and victim, crime, crime, crime? Click for the pdf or keep reading here.

Sexworkers and Violence Against Women: Utopic Visions or Battle of the Sexes?

Laura Maria Agustín

Development, 44.3, 107-110 (2001)

Sexual exploitation and prostitution

In the movement to construct a discourse of ‘violence against women’, and thus to raise consciousness about kinds of mistreatment which before were invisible, the stage has been reached where defining crime and achieving punishment appears to be the goal. While it is progressive to raise consciousness about violence and exploitation in an attempt to deter the commitment of crimes, I hope to show that the present emphasis on discipline is very far from a utopic vision and that we should now begin to move toward other suggestions for solutions.

The following argument uses the example of prostitution or ‘sexual exploitation’ as an instance of ‘violence against women’, but the approach can apply to any attempt to deal with not only definitions of gender and sexual violence but with proposals to deal with them. When applied to adult prostitution, the term ‘sexual exploitation’ attempts to change language to make ‘voluntary’ prostitution impossible. For those who wish to ‘abolish’ prostitution, therefore, this change in terms represents progress, for now language itself will not be complicit with the violence involved. For those who may or may not want to ‘abolish’ prostitution but who in the present put the priority on improving the everyday lot of prostitutes, this language change totalizes a variety of situations involving different levels of personal will and makes it more difficult to propose practical solutions. When applied to the prostitution of children, the term ‘sexual exploitation’ represents a project to change perceptions about childhood. For those who believe that the current western model of childhood as a time of innocence should become the ‘right’ of all children in the world, this term is very important.

Criminalization of clients

Efforts to change sexist, racist and other discriminatory forms of language have long been a focus of projects of social justice in western societies, and the push to define ‘violence against women’ clearly forms part of this movement. Along with this, we see a strong move to have actions that fall within these new definitions proclaimed as crimes and their perpetrators punished. If prostitution is globally redefined as sexual exploitation (by ‘globally’ I mean that no distinctions are made according to whether prostitutes say they ‘chose’ sex work to any extent), therefore, all those who purchase sexual services, called usually ‘clients’, become ‘exploiters’.

Obviously, different terms function better or coincide more with different situations, but when social movements consciously work to change language they almost inevitably eliminate these differences. Since there are still plenty of places in the world where prostitutes are simplistically viewed as evil, contaminated, immoral and diseased, campaigns to change language so as to see the lack of choice and elements of exploitation in prostitutes’ situations are positive efforts to help them. Why, then, do these positive efforts have to be based on finding a different villain, to replace the old one?

I am referring to the discipline-and-punishment model that these efforts to change language and change perception inevitably use: in constructing a victim they also construct a victimizer—the ‘exploiter’, the bad person. After that, it is inevitable that punishment becomes the focus of efforts: passing laws against the offense and deciding what price the offender should pay. This model of ‘law and order’ is familiar to most of us as an oppressive, dysfunctional criminal justice system. We know that prisons rarely rehabilitate offenders against the law; we know that in some countries prison conditions are so bad that riots occur frequently, and if they don’t, perhaps they should. We also know that it is usually extremely difficult to prove sexual offenses (because of how the law is constructed, because of the difficulty of all these definitions of victimization, because legal advice can find ways out, etc.). Yet we continue to insist on better policing and more effective punishment, as though we didn’t know all of this.

International regulations on trafficking and sexual exploitation

My own work examines both the discourses and the practical programming surrounding the European phenomenon of migrant prostitution, the term used to describe non-Europeans working in the European sex industry (and, indeed, everyone who travels from one place to another in that vast network of diverse businesses). In most countries of the European Union, migrants appear now to constitute more than half of working prostitutes, and in some countries possibly up to 90 percent (Tampep, 1999). This situation has caused a change in the thinking on violence: now ‘traffickers’ of sex workers are discussed more than their clients. Because so many of the migrants come from ‘third world’ countries, ‘trafficking’ discourses have become a forum for addressing ‘development’ projects such as structural adjustment policies of the International Monetary Fund. But the more active debates have concerned violence, in a way that constructs them as organized crime.

One of the fora of this highly conflictive discussion was the United Nations Commission for the Prevention of Crime and Penal Justice, which met various times in Vienna to elaborate protocols on the trafficking of migrant workers. Two distinct lobbying groups argued over definitions of words such as consent, obligation, force, coercion, deceit, abuse of power and exploitation. Two distinct protocols were produced, one which applies to the ‘trafficking of women and children’ while the other to ‘smuggling of migrants’. The gender distinction is clear, expressing a greater disposition of women –along with children– to be deceived (above all about sex work), and also expressing an apparently lesser disposition to migrate. Men, on the other hand, are seen as capable of migrating but of sometimes being handled like contraband, thus the word agreed on is not trafficking but smuggling. The resulting protocols now form part of the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UN, 2000), which member countries will debate individually and decide to sign or not.

What is the problem? In an effort to save as many victims as possible, the protocols totalize the experience of all women migrants working in the sex industry, and all those who help them migrate—a wide array of family, friends, lovers, agents and entrepreneurs, as well as small-time delinquents and (probably, but this is not proved) big-time criminal networks—are defined as traffickers. Every kind of help, from preparing false working papers, visas or passports to meeting migrants at the airport and finding them a place to stay, is defined as the crime of trafficking.

The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) specifically tries, both at the Vienna meetings and internationally, to fuse the two concepts of ‘trafficking’ and ‘prostitution’ and to define them both as crimes of violence against women. Not only everyone who helps people migrate and work in the sex industry but everyone who buys sexual services ends up defined as an exploiter, a rapist and a criminal. CATW favours legislation to penalize clients of prostitutes (CATW, 2000).

The booming sex market

The problem with proposing the penalization of sexual ‘exploiters’, or clients of prostitutes, comes from the magnitude of the phenomenon, which is almost never confronted. Statistics are unreliable for all sectors of an industry overwhelmingly unrecognized legally or in government accounting, and which operates informally and relies on bribes, legal loopholes and facades. However, we can understand from the many studies of different aspects of the sex industry that it is booming. Prostitution and exploitation sites are so numerous everywhere that customers cannot be exceptional cases (yet they are often spoken of as if they were ‘perverts’ or ‘deviants’). Rather it is clear that adult and adolescent men everywhere consider it permissible to buy sexual services, and some estimates calculate that most men do it at some time in their lives.

More than 20 years ago, one Roman prostitute calculated this way:

Rome was known to have 5,000 prostitutes. Let’s say that each one took home at least 50,000 liras a day. Men don’t go more than once a day. That means that for someone who asked 3,000 liras in a car, to arrive at 50,000 she had to do a lot, maybe twenty or so. Figure it out, 20 times 5,000 comes to 100,000 clients. Since it’s rare for them to go every day, maybe they go once or twice a week, the total comes to between 400,000 and 600,000 men going to whores every week. How many men live in Rome? A million and a half. Take away the old men, the children, the homosexuals and the impotent. I mean, definitely, more or less all men go. (Cutrufelli, 1988: 26, author’s translation)

Continue reading

Women Doing Things: Not waiting to be saved

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

Maquiladora women

Rice paddy woman

Aircraft industry women

Seducing woman

Heavy equipment driving woman

Migrating woman

Protesting women

Doctoring woman

Street-trading women

Reading woman

Rock-splitting woman

Writing woman

Performing woman

Inspiring woman

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Alternate Ethics: Why it is okay to lie to researchers, as a sex worker, drug user or anybody else

Furry Girl recently ran a quote from a piece I wrote some years ago, suggesting that it can be perfectly ethical for sex workers, drug users or anyone else to avoid answering researchers’ questions or lie to them, if participating in the research seems necessary for some reason. Those worried about traffickers and pimps coercing women to sell sex might like to know that a lot of other coercion goes on, not least from organisations that make people feel they should cooperate when institutional or individual researchers come round asking questions. Research is not holy, there are interests involved, and, incidentally, it doesn’t make things automatically all right if the researcher says she or he is a sex worker.

Alternate Ethics, or: Telling Lies to Researchers (click here for the pdf or keep reading below)

Laura Maria Agustín, Research for Sex Work, June 2004, 6-7.

On the subject of ethics in sex work research, we usually think of the insensitivity and careerism of researchers whose interest is in obtaining information they will take credit for. I want to point to another problematic angle: the issue of whether those being researched are honest with researchers. Why, after all, should people who are being treated as objects of curiosity tell the truth?

We are all so surrounded by research projects that they seem to be a natural part of life, but what is research for? While often presented as pure advancement of knowledge, research is often integral to people’s jobs, whether they work in government, NGOs or universities, and the audience for whatever they find out is first and foremost whoever paid for the research.

Institutional research projects are required to explain the investigator’s ethical responsibility to the people researched. But the assumption is that once research begins, researchees will cooperate, freely telling researchers what they want to know. Since this side of the research relationship has not usually been given any choice about participating, it has also not been required to agree to an ethical standard of behaviour. Since no universal ethics exists, it is no criticism to say that research subjects simply may not tell (all) the truth to researchers.

Sad stories, omissions and outright lies

When a person working in an ‘irregular’ trade is approached by a professional-looking person from the straight world, and is not a paying customer, he or she is naturally viewed with suspicion. In the worst case, the visitor may be working for the police; in the best case, be someone giving out free condoms or needles. Of course, researchers have to find a way to ‘gain access’ to their subjects, making friends with the head of an NGO or a bar or convincing a doctor of their good intentions, and thus may be introduced as an ‘ally’. This goes for those conducting any kind of research using any kind of methodology. But even if the person comes with a good introduction, how does it feel to have him or her move toward you with the intention of asking personal questions? In most cultures, such a situation does not occur naturally. A Nigerian sex worker in a Spanish park once commented on outsiders asking questions:

I don’t understand what they’re doing, they don’t have anything to offer. The others that come are doctors, they give us medicine, exams. But these want to talk, and I don’t have any reason to talk to them.

It has long been recognised that people who are considered ‘victims’ or ‘deviants’ are likely to tell members of the mainstream what they believe they want to hear. Given that so much research with sex workers has focused on their personal motivations (wanting to know why they got into sex work, which is assumed to be bad), it’s not surprising that many make their present circumstances appear to be the fatal or desperate result of a past event. After all, if we were forced to be what we are now, we cannot be blamed for it. One Dominican woman told me:

All those social worker types feel sorry for me. They don’t want to hear that I prefer to do this work, so I tell them I have no choice. They want to hear that I was forced to do this, so that’s what I tell them. Anyway, I was, because my family was poor.

Ethics or self-protection? There are other reasons to tell sad stories. When behind the research project sex workers know that a certain health-care service may be at stake, or that only if they can present convincingly as victims will they get help, it is not surprising if they tell stories that serve their own interests. Or, in the case of research for health promotion, workers may not want to talk about their own failures to use condoms or their own getting drunk—who does, after all? Or, in the case of research on ‘trafficking’, sex workers may not want to admit they thought boyfriends really cared about them, when it turned out they were only using them, or admit they paid people to concoct false travel documents for them. It really doesn’t matter whether their answers will be treated ‘confidentially’, because they simply may not want to talk about such intimate matters. To put it another way, keeping secrets may help sex workers gain independence or control over projects to help them. Continue reading

Desiring different others, different colours, and even paying them

At the time of the World Cup, a reporter asked me, a bit nervously, about the possibility that white football-fan tourists in South Africa might have plans or desire to have sex with black people. I think it’s quite possible, I replied. Silence. Is there anything wrong with that, do you mean? His continuing silence confirmed that yes, that was what he meant.

No, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with that, I think everyone desires others for something we see or imagine we see in others, which can be their eyes, voice, hair, style, breasts, chest hair, skin colour and many other attributes. We may be imagining things behind this superficial trait, of course. We may imagine they are wilder or more interesting than people we usually meet, or that they are better at sex, or that we are safer with them or that it will be easier to tell them what we like. But whether our partners look like us or different, we are doing that imagining and desiring. I wrote about this for American Sexuality a few years ago.

Does this change completely because there is a money transaction between the partners? Why should it? If you say it does then you grant money a determining status you probably don’t grant it in any other sphere. I know the argument about control and domination backwards and forwards, the one that says that the person who pays has the power to command. I would put it differently: the person who pays has the power to say I want x and will pay for it and if you accept the money I expect you to do it. A notion that the ‘power relation’ will always be skewed towards the white person is too simplistic for me, both too racially oriented and too fetishising of money.

The idea that a richer person will always have more power than a poorer one grants money a singular status I refuse to give it. The idea that money trumps every other type of power crushes the idea of human agency, the space to negotiate other sorts of power. Of course I understand the critique of exoticisation. I understand Frantz Fanon and don’t doubt that poor colonies were in some sense the ‘brothels of Europe’. But such an analysis comes from today, from contemporary perspectives on imperialism and colonisation, and they omit to understand what particular people were doing within their own cultural logics at the time. Every instance of a lighter or richer person wanting to be with a darker or poorer one does not have the same meaning.

I wrote about prices and ethnicities in the sex industry here some time ago.

– Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist