Tag Archives: psychology

Social-work projects fail sex workers despite helping-hands image

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

Stigma and disqualification not the same as hatred and fear

I wrote Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores for Jacobin (A magazine of culture and polemic) to reach a different audience, perhaps some left-leaning folks who don’t know it’s possible to talk about prostitution, sex work, trafficking and migration in interesting ways.

The piece was very hard to write, not only because I was shocked by the death of someone I knew but because I wanted to bring together many themes without going too deep into any. The exception was perhaps the idea of stigma. I said

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.

I won’t be creating a hierarchy of who suffers stigma most but do believe stigmas vary in how they manifest and feel to those involved as well. There are diverse views amongst people who study the subject. For me in studying the stigma that goes to women who sell sex, there is an extra element not present in other stigmas (HIV, homosexuality, drug use): the impulse to control women sexually, keep them in separate categories of Good and Bad based on their sexual behaviour. This doesn’t mean they ‘suffer more’, that’s not my point. I’m simply interested in the contribution a longtime social impulse makes to the belief amongst so many that women who sell sex are actually (and deplorably) different from women who don’t.

I also am interested in a consequence of stigmatisation more than the mark itself – the mechanism of disqualification. For those who believe the stigma is real, women who carry it are considered not able to speak for or even know themselves, which provides the excuse to disqualify anything they say about how they feel and what they want. Helpers, saviours and police choose to believe – not disqualify – statements that tally with their own views of what women (must) experience. It is distressing to watch so much disqualification of women’s words and deeds, and why I ended the piece with the call that we assume that what all women say is what they mean.

Salon ran the same piece under The sex worker stigma: How the law perpetuates our hatred (and fear) of prostitutes. Of course this title is catchier and better for a more mainstream audience. But I did not write either word, hatred or fear, in the piece itself, so for me the change is jarring. Under the title, Salon wrote Our society turns a blind eye to the murder of sex workers, deeming them less than human. Why is that? I never said stigma makes people less than human, so here we have an editor who may or may not have actually read the essay imposing ideas not held by the author herself. Fear-and-hatred are not a synonym for stigma; there are many more fears and hatreds in the world than stigmas.

The photo Salon ran shows a woman standing in a pose associated with street prostitution but not wearing the uniform that I called ‘the outward sign of an inner stain’. Perhaps that move is in line with their progressive use of sex workers in the title. But what about the caption underneath it? A worker in prostitution who goes by the name Violet in downtown San Francisco. I polled many people afterwards and all were unfamiliar with the term worker in prostitution. In the sex wars, those who denounce prostitution refuse to think of it as work and sex workers often reject the term prostitution.

One way to try to destroy the stigmatising distinction between Good and Bad women proclaims that all women are whores, which I like better than whores’ insisting they are Good, but I guess they come to the same thing. Here are two recent photos showing the first strategy, one in Germany (Wir sind alle prostitutas-We are all prostitutes, where the Spanish prostitutas indicates solidarity with migrant sex workers, and another in Perú (Todos tenemos algo de puta – We all have a bit of the whore in us).

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Fallen Women: persistence of an image

A new film about staging La Traviata is using the most old-fashioned and clichéd image in its publicity: that of Violetta on the floor in the classic pose of Fallen Women. Yes, I know the opera and I know the novel it’s based on (La dame aux camélias 1848) and I am capable of appreciating romantic imagery and tradition. But to choose just this pathetic and highly charged pose to advertise a supposedly innovative film seems perverse and uncreative to me.

I’ve written before about the iconography of the Fallen Woman: her position on the ground, sometimes twisted, sometimes being reached out to by a kind person (usually a man). In La Traviata (1853) Violetta is dying of consumption, so she’s also seen in pathetic poses in bed, but using the floor image in publicity photos drives home the idea that her essence is this: morally low, a kept woman, demi-mondaine, courtesan or woman

who’s gone astray (traviata). At the beginning of the story Violetta is a happy-go-lucky good-time girl (though ill). Finding true love with Alfredo she is portrayed as morally redeemed and self-sacrificing.

Possibly the gay lady may come to the ‘bitter end’ some day, but at present, except from the moral point of view, she is not an object for commiseration. She at least has all that she deliberately bargains for—fine clothes, rich food, plenty of money, a carriage to ride in, the slave-like obedience of her ‘inferiors’, and the ful­some adulation of those who deal with her for her worth. Very often (though under the circumstances it is doubtful if from any aspect this is an advantage) she finds a fool with money who is willing to marry her; but whether she is content to accept the decent change, and to abide by it, of course depends on her nature. – James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, Curse IV: Fallen Women, 1869

Whether the staging is brought into the present or not, Violetta always has a scene on the floor to drive home her moral abjection. Why else would she be on the floor? People who fall get back up right away; if they can’t, they are too injured. In Violetta’s case the injury is moral. Of course people also play on the floor, but Violetta is not playing in these scenes.

A limp Violetta can signify death but also helplessness, unconsciousness, submissiveness, despite the fact that she is tremendously strong both before and after redemption through love. In the beginning she is so good at gaiety that everyone around her has fun. Later she remains faithful to Alfredo despite his father’s meanness and sacrifices her own happiness for her lover. I dislike this plot, but there is no doubt Violetta is not a limp rag of a woman.

Observe the similar pose used to portray a woman hypnotised by Charcot: drooping, weak, the passive object of every male student’s gaze. She was diagnosed as suffering from ‘hysteria’, considered to be a sexual dysfunction at the time (1885). If he were not holding her up, she would fall to the ground. I personally wish all these images of traditional passive femininity would stop being used by anyone in the present, especially someone making the film of an opera and story full of other possibilities.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Intellectual influence (or grooming, if you feel paranoid)

Recently I was accused of ‘academic grooming’ by someone disappointed that everyone who writes and talks about sex does not agree with her. The idea of grooming isn’t developed but interests me. It means preparing someone for a specific purpose, but in the world of concern about sexual abuse grooming is the process by which a victim is manipulated into a sexual relationship. To use the word about teachers or writers and students, university students have to be seen as so passive and gullible they unquestioningly accept everything they hear and read (only on the subject of sex?) and then become – what? practitioners of the perversion? This is puzzling, since no amount of narrow-mindedness can prevent students from hearing contradictory opinions about every topic all the time. Well, maybe it isn’t like that in some religious schools, I don’t know.

After I published Dear Students of Sex Work and Trafficking, one student wrote to me:

I was moved by your recent post regarding students. I am studying for a masters degree in sociology at the university of Copenhagen. For a couple of years i have followed your blog with great interest.

Last semester i did a project where we interviewed migrant women selling sexual services in Denmark. Your blog, articles and of course your book was a great inspiration as to how we approached the subject.
Because of your work, we were inspired to use feminist standpoint epistemology as a starting point. You also inspired us to be critical to our own positions.

If it was not for your expertise and work, we would probably have produced a boring paper repeating nasty stereotypes and neglecting the voices of women in marginalized positions. Actually, i really doubt we could have produced a paper without you. I doubt we would have been able to arrange interviews without being aware of various issues which you have highlighted in your book.

I am basically writing in order to thank you, and to let you know, that there are some students who do not expect you to do our work or anwer stupid questions.

So thank you Laura!

I wrote and thanked him for this message of support and got his permission to publish it here.

Remember those students in Basel that heard Catharine MacKinnon on prostitution one day and me the next? They may have felt quite disoriented or confused but then perhaps had to think for themselves and make up their own minds about the issues – a good thing, on my view. I’m optimistic about people’s ability to figure things out, including girls and young women like those a man is possibly observing closely in the Lewis Hine photo. I also take a conservative view about the power of my words to affect those who hear or read them. I remember, however, the gender-studies expert at Sussex who told me it was irresponsible of me to talk the way I do.

Anyway, the idea of academic grooming seems to be another example of psy concepts twisted and imposed to suit the needs of campaigners – like justifying resistance to rescue or rehabilitation as Stockholm syndrome or brainwashing.

The complaint ends I really do despair for young people today. Heavens, as long as amateur psychobabble is allowed, I’d like to suggest that such a statement is paranoid, seeing demons and dragons where only opinions exist – not to mention a failure to believe in university students to think and make judgements.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Annals of the Rescue Industry: Celebrities pose, feeling good

Last week PBS ran Kristof’s documentary of his Half the Sky book. I’m not in the US so didn’t see it (and don’t have the option of seeing it at all), but publicity material abounds, including photos showing Hollywood stars, such as this one of Meg Ryan hugging a girl at a shelter for victims of trafficking. Some of the press-packaged stories discuss the techniques being used to manipulate viewers into joining a Half the Sky movement. It’s tempting to point to the maternalism inherent in the images, but the publicity makes it clear that this was conscious and deliberate – no one’s pretending real relationships are being portrayed. Ryan explained why ‘privileged celebrities’ were used to tell the stories:

The actresses are the emotional conduits for the experience… Fame is such a perverse power when it comes to this type of advocacy. Celebrities bring attention to the problem, but they’re also resented… How we become sensitive to one another and less judgmental and more forgiving is what’s good. We’re all human. If we can increase compassion in the world, then we have a better place. Meg Ryan and Somaly Mam on Celebrity, Human Trafficking, and Compassion.

Emotional conduit is a pop-psychology notion I’m not sure serious media analysts would go along with here. It sounds more like Kristof’s wish about what would happen – that using attractive female actresses would magically make poor, dark, needy, less attractive women and children easier to care about. Or care about for longer than it takes to watch the documentary, long enough to sign up to do something further, like give money or volunteer on some project.

The publicity photographs have been set up to convey an intimacy disproportionate to the brief visits involved, as though Hollywood stars were gifted with an ability to bond deeply very fast. But in fact they are simply acting. The pictures are portraits of affection acted by people who’ve had training in how to do it. This has nothing to do with real feeling, and perhaps it needn’t. I am not accusing anyone of cynicism here, because the whole project has been calculated.

Eva Mendes is said to have embarked on a ‘life-changing’ visit to Sierra Leone. In this pose she seems to be physically touching a number of children at once, at the same time leaning toward the camera as though giving herself to it.

America Ferrera plays with children of sex workers in Kolkata, India. This shot plays on Ferrera’s more natural, less glamorous style but is equally contrived. The pose suggests she could be a sibling of all these children, playing on our knowledge that this actress is Latina.

Olivia Wilde in Kenya. The inclusion of a cameraperson in this shot underscores how posed and self-conscious it is. The children have obviously been told to hug her so close one might think they actually loved her. Wilde is good at acting genuine-looking emotion, but the children just look squashed and uncomfortable.

By merely standing beside two older women in Somalia (although one appears to be touching her back), Diane Lane’s set-up appears less effusive and intimate, more like people of equal status standing together. Does this mean less potential emotional conduit?

Kristof is hoping to catalyse his movement via CrowdriseTurning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide. Something’s going on in the world of so-called social movements, isn’t it? Remember the two boys with their Hope Boutique Bakery? That was part of Crowd-Fuelled Causes, and I still don’t know what that does.

What I am sure about is how sophisticated media techniques are being brought in to modernise traditional Rescue-Industry events and publicity. Kristof prides himself on being a with-it guy in terms of social media – remember when he live-tweeted that brothel raid? So what’s next – conversations with the camera personnel about how they set up those emotional conduits?

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist