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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


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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)

Read the rest of this entry »


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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


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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. Read the rest of this entry »


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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


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This is a long academic piece but useful to understanding the beginnings of what I came to call the Rescue Industry. The links between reference numbers and endnotes go via the original publication’s website (rhizomes). If you use them you just need to click the back button to return to this page.

Helping Women Who Sell Sex: The Construction of Benevolent Identities

Laura María Agustín, rhizomes.10, spring 2005

Abstract: Social interventions aimed at helping the group positioned as most needy in Europe today, migrant women who sell sex, can be understood by examining that time, 200 years ago, when ‘the prostitute’ was identified as needing to be saved. Before, there was no class of people who viewed their mission to be ‘helping’ working-class women who sold sex, but, during the ‘rise of the social,’ the figure of the ‘prostitute’ as pathetic victim came to dominate all other images. At the same time, demographic changes meant that many women needed and wanted to earn money and independence, yet no professions thought respectable were open to them. Simultaneous with the creation of the prostitute-victim, middle class women were identified as peculiarly capable of raising them up and showing the way to domesticity. These ‘helpers’ constructed a new identity and occupational sphere for themselves, one considered worthy and even prestigious. Nowadays, to question ‘helping’ projects often causes anger or dismissal. A genealogical approach, which shows how governmentality functioned in the past, is easier to accept, and may facilitate the taking of a reflexive attitude in the present.

This article addresses the governmental impulse to name particular commercial-sex practices as ‘prostitution’ and its practitioners as ‘prostitutes.’ Although it is conventional to refer to ‘the world’s oldest profession,’ the term prostitution has never described a clearly defined activity and was constructed by particular social actors at a specific time for specific reasons. [i] Within feminism, the phenomenon called prostitution is the centre of an intransigent debate about its meanings, one aspect of the conflict revolving around what words should be used to describe women who offer sexual services for sale: prostitute, sex worker, prostituted woman, victim of sexual exploitation. The use of one label or another locates the speaker on one or the other side of the debate, which essentially asks whether a woman who sells sex must by definition be considered a victim of others’ actions or whether she can enjoy a degree of agency herself in her commercial practice. In the prostitution discourse, those who sell are women and those who buy are men; it is a gendered concept, despite the enormous numbers of transgenders and men who sell sex and the transgenders and women who buy it. The anxiety to define and classify concerns the position of women, and this anxious debate should be seen as a governmental exercise carried out by social actors whose own identities are at stake. Academics and other theorists and advocates for one or another vision define themselves as good feminists or caring persons through their writing and advocacy. Being ‘right’ about how to envision women who sell sex is necessary to these identities, which explains the heated, repetitive nature of the debate. At the same time, for most of those who actually carry out the activity that excites so much interest and conflict, the debate feels far away and irrelevant.

Nowadays, much of the discourse targets migrant women who sell sex, particularly in wealthier countries. I have written in other places about the construction by outsiders of these contemporary subjects as prostitutes, sex workers or victims of ‘trafficking’ when their self-definitions are different (2005a), the construction of victimhood in general (2003a, 2005a), the disqualification of other elements of their identity (2002, 2004b, 2006), the obsession with certain of their sexual practices to the exclusion of everything else about their lives (2003b), the difficulty on the part of many feminists to accept the agency of working-class women who sell sex (2004a) and the voluminous quantity of interventions designed to help, save and control them (2005b).

The social sector desiring to help and save women who sell sex is very large indeed. The proliferation of discourses implicated includes the feminisation of poverty, closing borders and immigration law, international organised crime (especially ‘trafficking’ and modern forms of slavery), sexual-health promotion, the control of contagious diseases, debt bondage, non-recognised economic sectors, violence against women, women’s and human rights, social exclusion, sex tourism, globalisation, paedophilia and child labour, as well as policies aimed at controlling the sale of sex. Attendant technologies have also proliferated, including safe houses, rehabilitation programmes, outreach projects, drop-in centres, academic research, harm-reduction theory and a whole domain of ‘psy’ theories and interventions concerning the causes and effects of selling sex on individuals. People positioned as experts on the subject constantly lobby governments, write and speak at conferences on the subject, with the result that women who sell sex are pathologised as victims daily.

All these preoccupations and apparatuses provide employment for large numbers of people, the majority women. These social-sector jobs are considered dignified, sometimes prestigious and may even be tinged with a sacrificial brush—the idea that those employed in ‘helping’ are unselfish, not themselves gaining anything through their work. The fact that their projects are governmental exercises of power is ignored. There is strong resistance to the idea that rescue or social-justice projects might be questionable or criticised in general, and the internecine feminist conflict focussing on whether the activity called prostitution is inherently a form of violence or can be a plausible livelihood strategy distracts from any real reflection on the usefulness of the projects. Yet, despite the abundant efforts carried out on their behalf, there has been little improvement in the lot of women who sell sex since the whole helping project began two hundred years ago. ‘Programmes presuppose that the real is programmable,’ said Nikolas Rose and Peter Miller (1992: 183). In this case, ‘the real’ is too often a woman designated victim who does not want to be saved, so it is little wonder that programming does not work. This article therefore explores the beginnings of the identification of a pathological activity (prostitution) and the labelling of its practitioners (prostitutes), the governmental projects that resulted and the social effects on both groups involved. Read the rest of this entry »


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In Embracing the Infidel Behzad Yaghmaian narrates his journey to record the stories of migrants trying to find a place to settle in Europe. There are women in the book, but the majority of detailed stories are told by men and boys. Many of the plots are about physical hardships encountered whilst being smuggled across borders: Afghanistan to Iran, Iran to Turkey, Turkey to Greece and Bulgaria, France to England. Long scenes are set in Istanbul, Sofia, Athens, Paris, Calais. Contradictory, arbitrary, frustrating, paper-oriented refugee policy is arguably the book’s main villain, though the sadism of border guards and swindles by smugglers are more dramatic. I especially appreciate Yaghmaian’s ability to tell terrible stories without falling into a victimising, maudlin tone (the subject of Forget Victimisation).

The sex industry is seldom mentioned, but here are a couple of excerpts that show how some migrants find temporary relief through supplying sexual services. The first excerpt tells about men who find male sexual protectors; in the second the protectors are women. In the latter description, you may detect some ambiguity: is this ‘pure business’ or is love and affection involved, too?

The boys with a baba were sheltered. They were paid good pocket money, wined and dined, and dressed in nice outfits. They were young Iranians and Kurds from northern Iraq, men in their early or late twenties. The Kurds came from the villages, the rugged mountains of northern Iraq. The Iranians arrived from small towns, ghettos of big cities, and poor neighborhoods of the capital. They came with a dream. Many failed. They remained in Athens and became the ‘bar kids’ of Victoria Square. Dressing up in their best, they would frequent the gay bars around the square looking for a baba or a customer in search of sexual pleasure. [p 203]

[In Calais] a few fared better than the rest. In their teens or early twenties, some found love in the arms of older French women, some in their sixties. The women had kind and motherly looks, gave the men love and attention, tucked them in their beds, and slept with them. The young men had the comfort of a home and all that came with it. Sex was the central part of the agreement. There was no shower or clean bed for those failing to deliver. This was a strict business deal, with its own rules and codes of conduct. [p 307]

Embracing the Infidel, Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West, New York: Bantam Dell, 2005.

There is a large literature on inter-generational relationships involving exchanges of sex and protection that are considered traditional and conventional in many parts of the world. One example is Enjo Kosai: Compensated Dating.


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On Monday Sarkozy threatened to make wearing a burka in public illegal in France. I wrote about this kind of thinking last year in The Guardian. This issue is related to migration, it is related to trafficking and it is related to commercial sex. Ideas about how the right kind of women should look predominate in the history of women: you’re meant to cover yourself up more, or less, or in some particular way. From the original text of Sarkozy’s speech:

Le problème de la burqa n’est pas une problème religieux, c’est un problème de liberté, de dignité de la femme. Ce n’est pas un signe religieux, c’est un signe d’asservissement, d’abaissement. La burqa ne sera pas la bienvenue dans notre République française.

From the BBC story:

We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity. That is not the idea that the French republic has of women’s dignity.

Note the applause from politicians when he makes these statements.

Women wearing burkas are not welcome in France. That ‘Frenchness’ should depend on clothing I find very scary. That the idea of personal identity should be institutionalised by the French state I find even scarier. The original title of the following piece was Which migrants assimilate best? How do we know?, which editors changed to

What Not to Wear – if you want to be French

The Guardian, Comment is Free,  6 August 2008

Laura Agustín

A woman from Morocco who has lived in France for eight years with a French husband, has three French children and speaks fluent French, was refused citizenship recently on grounds of being insufficiently assimilated. The Conseil d’etat said Faiza Silmi’s way of life does not reflect “French values”, particularly the goal of gender equality. The judgment claims she lives in “total submission” to the men in her life because she wears the niqab, which covers all of the face except the eyes. The decision was approved by commentators from right, left and centre. Fadela Amara, the urban affairs minister, called Silmi’s clothing a “prison” and a “straitjacket”. Predictable debates about fundamentalism unfolded in the media, with Silmi appearing as a strange, distant object.

What does Silmi herself say? The website Jeuneafrique.com has just published her first interview with the French press, corroborating another in the New York Times. Silmi’s voice emerges clearly:

I am not submissive to the men in my family nor do I lead the life of a recluse and I go out when I want. When I drive my car, I wear my niqab. I alone decided to wear it, after reading some books. I respect the law and my husband respects my decisions.

While she talked, her husband served tea. Read the rest of this entry »


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The Suffering of the Immigrant is still one of the best books I know about the experience of migration. The book demonstrates how suffering does not have to equal victimisation and, most importantly, how migration is the inevitable consequence of colonialism. The migrants discussed left Kabylia, in northern Algeria, and went to France.

Book Review by Laura Agustín in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol 29.3 pp 703-15, September 2005

Abdelmalek Sayad, 2004: The Suffering of the Immigrant. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Initially I thought this book’s title might signal the growing trend to victimise migrants, but I was wrong. On the contrary, The Suffering of the Immigrant presents the strongest possible arguments for recognising migrants’ agency in the face of inherent, structural conditions that are all against them and whose consequences they must, undoubtedly, ‘suffer’.

Whereas many contemporary commentators refer to migration as a phenomenon of ‘globalisation’, Abdelmalek Sayad makes no bones about which stage of globalisation we should be looking at: the north’s imperialist colonisation of the south. Most commentators agree that current migratory flows are related to free-market capitalism’s need for flexibility, moving its workplaces around the world while workers move to find them. And probably few would deny that ‘earlier’ colonial relations were implicated, especially where migrants move to their former ‘mother countries’.

But Sayad obliges us to consider a more serious proposition, that migrations are a structural element of colonial power relationships that have never ended. His case study is the Algerian migration to France in the second half of the twentieth century, during which time many migrants passed from being French (citizens of the colony) to Algerian (citizens of an independent Algeria) and back to French (as legal workers and residents in France), with the complication that the majority were Berber peasants. The colonial relationship is seen in the subordination of the economic and social life of rural colonies to the industrial activity of the country in which peasants become ‘workers’.

Sayad’s arguments, however, go much further than this particular case. First, he demonstrates how discourses of migration focus on the situation of ‘immigrants’ — meaning, on how receiving countries view immigration as their own social problem. With this move, the dominant member of the migration relationship firmly maintains control over knowledge and management of this ‘problem’, according to which immigrants are always ‘lacking’ necessary skills and culture. Sayad insists that research must begin at an earlier stage, a demand that has begun to be met by a trend towards studies of ‘transnational’ migrations. But Sayad points to a more intransigent problem here, in which countries of origin participate in the negative construction of their own citizens abroad, construing them as simply absent, treating them as martyrs to the country’s economic good and considering them traitors who lose their original culture and become contaminated by another. If they do manage to return, they are pathologised as being difficult to ‘reinsert’ into society. Sayad shows how individual migrants reproduce this colonialist view of themselves as subaltern misfits only useful in an accountant’s version of migration that selectively calculates ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’.

Sayad debunks categories of migration imagined to be separate, in which ‘settler migrants’ supposedly value families and domestic morality more than ‘labour migrants’, as well as the idea that labour migrations are transitory and without a political dimension. Rather, he suggests that all migrants are united by a distancing from their original home, wracked by guilt that they should never have left and, having done so, that they will not perform well enough. Though they may achieve legal status, they are always treated as foreign by their second country and referred to via ‘digestive’ metaphors about their capacity to be assimilated, integrated or inserted into society. They fail to perceive the social, medical and other ‘helping’ sectors as being on their side. Their loyalties are divided, they don’t know which patrie is really theirs and they experience an alienation from their own children, who may have no interest in their ‘homeland’. They are doubly excluded from real political participation in both countries of origin and reception, thus being deprived of even

the right to have rights, to be a subject by right . . . to belong to a body politic in which [they have] a place of residence, or the right to be actively involved — in other words the right to give a sense and a meaning to [their] action, words and existence (p. 227).

While some of this may seem familiar to migration scholars, its presentation renders it new. Sayad belonged to the group he studied: emigrant from Kabylia, immigrant in France. He gives significant space to migrants’ own words, sometimes in the form of long, repetitive and even confusing testimonies. Although one can imagine his anger over the many injustices he recounts, he recognises their cultural logic.

Sayad makes an important contribution to migration study in his development of Bourdieu’s analysis of ‘state thought’, which he considers one of our most intractable cultural givens. Slurring migrants as ‘hybrids’ and ‘bad’ social products, society manifests its fear of those who ‘blur the borders of the national order and therefore the symbolic value and pertinence of the criteria’ used to establish differences between nationals and foreigners (p. 291). For Sayad, nothing less than the delegitimising of the state is necessary, the denaturalising of what we consider passionately real — our national being.

This is a book about men. The Algerian case that Sayad details was initially about single males, who are pictured as alienated from a natural cycle of courtship and marriage. Sayad reproduces one man’s speculation on a potential woman migrant’s fate: ‘whilst she might gain something by coming here . . . she’d pay a high price for it . . . she would be imprisoned in one room . . . she would miss the sky’ (p. 156). Given the current protagonism of so many women in migration, their absence here is notable, and in this sense Sayad’s case-study imposes a restriction. Given the wealth of ideas here that go far beyond any single case, this restriction can be forgiven.

Before Sayad died he asked his friend and colleague, Pierre Bourdieu, to make a book of the disparate manuscripts he had produced over the years. The result is intellectually rigorous, anthropologically perceptive, moving and poetic.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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The UN recently released yet another report on trafficking which says:

a disproportionate number of women are involved in human trafficking, not only as victims (which we knew), but also as traffickers (first documented here). Female offenders have a more prominent role in present-day slavery than in most other forms of crime.

Sillies . . . if they only had listened to what some of us were saying from the beginning, they wouldn’t find themselves so surprised now. By which I mean that those who help move people around in informal networks are very often friends and relations of the people doing the moving, so why shouldn’t they be women as often as men? If you take away Crime as the framing of this sort of movement, then you don’t have to expect the criminals to be men. The work of smuggling does not require particular physical strength. As an article about coyotes on the Mexico-US border shows, women can be highly adept at people smuggling and trafficking.

Note in the following excerpts that the words trafficking and smuggling are used interchangeably. The original story was published in Spanish, where what English-speakers are calling trafficking is often called la trata and smuggling el tráfico or el contrabando. The article is not about that dread term sex trafficking, and as you’ll see, those trafficked are not seen as victims. I’ve highlighted some suggestive quotations in bold.

Women Are the New Coyotes

La Opinión,  Claudia Núñez, 23 December 2007

Gaviota has six phones that don’t stop ringing. Her booming business produces net profits of more than $50,000 a month. She has dozens of customers lining up for her in a datebook stretching three months ahead.

“The old story of the man who runs the ‘coyotaje’ business is now just a myth. It’s finally coming out that the big business of human trafficking is in female hands. As long as they make it known that they are women, they have lots of business all along the border,” explains Marissa Ugarte, a psychologist, lecturer and founder of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition of San Diego, Calif.

Female coyotes tend to employ other women – most of them single mothers – to line up customers, arrange food and lodging for the undocumented, and participate in cross-border money laundering.

“A real ‘coyote’ organizes everything for you. From who and where to take the ‘goats’ across, and where they will stay on this side of the border, to who will deliver them to the door of the customer (the immigrant’s family). The other ones who just take you across the river or through the desert – those bastards are just sleazebags . . .  says Gaviota, whose smuggling network operates in Laredo, Tex. and transports migrants into the United States at border crossings or across the Rio Grande, depending on the customer’s budget.

“The business is a real money-maker,” says Ramón Rivera, a DHS spokesperson in Washington, D.C. “These women inspire confidence in the immigrants and when the authorities stop them and take them to court, they give them shorter sentences because they are mothers, daughters, because they are women. . . . Read the rest of this entry »


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