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CultMany wrote to me during the brouhaha about Somaly Mam and Nicholas Kristof as though I were not paying enough attention to it. There are lots of events in the fields of anti-trafficking, the sex industry and now even the Rescue Industry that I glance at and don’t find remarkable enough to comment: after 20 years of observing I find it difficult to be really surprised by anything. While I appreciate how infuriating bogus experts are, I published the following to remind everyone that individual personalities are only superficially important in the now highly institutionalised scheme of things.

Somaly Mam, Nick Kristof and the Cult of Personality, 16 June 2014, Jacobin

By Laura Agustín

A Cambodian activist against sex slavery, Somaly Mam, recently resigned from her foundation after an outside investigation confirmed she had lied to attract donors and supporters. The revelations of Mam’s fraudulence are old news, however — Simon Marks’s reports have been appearing in the Cambodian Daily since 2012, and many other debunkings and doubts circulated much earlier among institutions, researchers, and activists trying to reverse unfounded sensationalism about sex trafficking.

Newsweek published some of Marks’s work on May 21, provoking outrage in the New York media establishment — less towards Mam than one of her greatest fans, self-styled slave rescuer Nicholas Kristof. He is accused of hoodwinking liberal-identifying readers and letting down the cause of journalism. Both accusations miss the point.

An editor from this media in-group asked if I would write for them about Somaly Mam’s resignation, having seen tweets indicating I don’t consider it significant. She suggested I write about problems of “accountability” with institutions like Mam’s, along with the “history and failures of the organization and others like it.”

I asked if she was acquainted with my work, mentioning my research on projects to help and save women who sell sex, documented in Sex at the Margins, which originatedthe concept of a “rescue industry.” Since my analysis rarely gets into the mainstream, the focus of anything I do for such outlets would have to explain the basics about that industry. The editor replied that she was not interested in anything so broad. I said if she wanted someone who has studied Mam’s annual reports and the workings of her rescue centers, I have not. I got no reply.

To focus on accountability implies that one accepts that there is a verifiable phenomenon to be accountable about, to espouse the fundamental propositions about human trafficking promoted by government, moral entrepreneurs, and the media which cry that trafficking, especially the kind where women sell sex, is the great scourge of our time. To focus on accountability assumes that the dominant narrative is based on reality, and all we have to do is quibble about individual ethics and demand high standards. This is all wrong.

There are flagrant injustices that need to be addressed regarding undocumented travel and labor, including selling sex. Exploitation of all kinds is rampant, and libertarian claims to bodily autonomy, the adult right to trade sex for money, and “no borders” are not enough. As I’ve been saying for many years, new migration and labor policies can begin to address the problems — not criminalization, policing, the infantilization of women, or raising “rescuer” to a saintly profession. The trafficking hoo-hah is not “myth,” but a terrible misnomer and misframing  — the glossing of complex social phenomena into a simplistic idea that fails over and over, even on its own terms.

In the wide field I call the rescue industry (all missions to “help” women who sell sex, or save them from it), one personality like Mam more or less is unimportant. She became a figurehead through a cult of personality, the phenomenon by which people uninformed about a subject look up to an individual as an inspiring symbol, endowing them with expertise and special knowledge, imagining they are leaders. Cults of personality rely on an unquestioning belief that the hero worshipped has the right fine feelings about an issue, perhaps gained through personal experience.

Human trafficking as a cause began to catch on with the general public in part when film stars attached themselves to it, adding patronage of exciting causes to their portfolios. Various UN agencies named actors as “Goodwill Ambassadors,” lending needed color to the endless parade of men in suits (bureaucrats), men in uniform (police), and frowning women that held sway. Such celebrities presumably inform themselves by reading what comes up easily in online searches, which means media reports parroting uncorroborated statistics and sensationalist horror stories.

To make their knowledge seem real, however, and to be able to project their feelings of caring, celebrities make field-visits to rescue centers in poorer countries. A long list of Hollywood and other celebrities have used such visits to demonstrate their empathy — many specifically visiting Mam venues: Mira Sorvino, Ashton Kutcher, Susan Sarandon, Meg Ryan, Demi Moore, Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, Emma Thompson, and many more. I have written many times about visits like these as an expression of colonialism.

In the world of NGOs, visits by a raft of different characters are viewed as an unfortunate but necessary part of survival. Whole days are dedicated to showing outsiders tidbits of projects in the hope that flattering reports will reach donors’ eyes. Those receiving visits carefully orchestrate them to be entertaining and rewarding for visitors, including by arranging photo opportunities. It is totally conventional for the same objects of pity to be wheeled out every time: They have learned their lines and how to behave appropriately, they know how to hug visitors and smile for the camera. It would be too time-consuming to set up a new scenario for every visit.

The repetition of stories by the same inmates is well known, as is the phenomenon by which victims learn to embellish their stories to provoke more sympathy in listeners (including researchers and program evaluators). That these narrations are often exaggerated in performance or fabricated out of whole cloth is so well known in NGO circles as to be banal. Everyone does it, one old hand wrote me.

Those not familiar with this world are upset to discover that Mam made theater for visitors, because they seem to assume that NGOs must be squeaky-clean ethical. But NGOs (even if their tax-status is called nonprofit) are organizations with employees who want careers, security, and decent salaries so they can buy houses, cars, and everything else employees of profit-making businesses want.

NGOs operate in a precarious world of capricious funding in which they are forced to write proposals for projects in vogue with donors, even projects that contradict their own beliefs. NGO workers cultivate an attitude of benevolently caring more about their social causes than others do, but this is identity-formation, not fact — the building of a satisfying self-image to project to the world. These are conventionally career-seeking people, not self-sacrificing saints.

Of course, fabricating stories to get more followers and money is unethical, and Mam seems to have done a lot of it. Inventing a few false victims for public consumption does not, however, prove there are no real victims or that Mam’s activities never helped anyone. This is why the SMF foundation had her resign — so that activities can continue and damage can be limited.

Will any donors lose significant confidence and withdraw funding because of revelations that her story and two others were falsified? I doubt it. Donors do not like to admit they were duped. But if some do stop funding SMF, they will simply shift support to other similar institutions engaged in the same cause, since the money was already earmarked for it. And some new figure with the ability to stir feelings will eventually emerge from the hundreds of groups now dedicated to sex trafficking and sex slavery.

Figureheads and personalities are of little significance, anyway. The anti-trafficking movement is now structurally mainstreamed in overlapping national and international initiatives — bigger, like the US Trafficking in Persons Office and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and smaller, like the Swedish Institute. Multinational projects like the Global Slavery Index provide official-looking data on trafficking that rest on the wobbliest of sources.

The machinery is now well-oiled. Personalities are beloved by the general public, but dry technocrats and calculating consultants are in charge, with the regular intervention of opportunist politicians.

Then there are the journalists. A few years ago, a veteran New York literary agent said she could not consider my book proposal because she believed Nicholas Kristof. If he was right, I could not be. Kristof’s flying photo-shoots to the jungle were worth more than my twenty years of research. For members of the liberal mainstream that expect the New York Times to be responsible and unbiased, his protagonism in the sex-trafficking craze has been a moral seal of approval, and those liberals feel betrayed by him.

Never expecting institutions like the Times or the Guardian to be unbiased, I paid little attention to Kristof until late 2011, when he live-tweeted a brothel raid in Cambodia alongside Somaly Mam. When I expressed revulsion at this on my blog, I received hate mail. One was not permitted to question Great White Hunter reporters. I was a nobody — how dare I write on this topic? I responded with The Soft Side of Imperialism: Kristof and the Rescue Industry.

Despite many takedowns, Kristof has maintained his popularity, in another cult of personality that simply refuses to ask critical questions. After Mam’s exposure in Newsweek, Kristof first said mildly that it is difficult to pin down facts in Cambodia, excusing himself by faulting a backward nation. After being upbraided loudly by other journalistshe disavowed Mam in a move even more repulsive than his original adulation. But to complain about his misplaced faith is merely an attempt to shift the blame from his followers’ own original flawed act: allowing a sanctimonious Braggadocchio to define the facts in a complex and contradictory field.

One can understand how people swallow grand claims at the outset of a craze, but not years later, after repeated public failures to find large numbers of self-identified victims, the obvious re-branding of old categories like pimping as “trafficking” in order to inflate numbers of villains, and the steady debunking of myths like the sky-rocketing of sex trafficking at sports events.

Why do supporters whine that Kristof deceived them when they have no one to blame but themselves for refusing to face the truth for so many years? They complain that journalists should be accountable, but Kristof writes on sex trafficking in his columnist identity, on editorial pages where his is not the only mediocrity. He is part of a mainstream media machine that supports the status quo and ignores ideas not originated by old-boy networks.

Sad personal stories constitute the most convincing evidence of suffering presented by figureheads like Mam and Kristof. But even if all these were verifiable, they cannot justify the enormous outlay in time, money, and spirit assigned to this cause over time. And sad stories are much less common than the not-so-sad, less sensational stories told to many dozens of field researchers who have interviewed women who sell sex, many of them undocumented migrants (even leaving aside self-identified professional sex workers). Yet these more complicated stories are disqualified by anti-trafficking adherents who dismiss anything that throws doubt on their crusade.

The current fuss about Kristof and Mam reproduces the cult of personality that caused trouble in the first place. To focus on individuals is to avoid addressing structures. A couple of self-promoting showoffs pale beside proliferating government machinery that now churns out salaries and prestige for thousands worldwide caught up in a movement based on fraud.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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ladywithaguncYou can now watch sessions from the University of Texas at Austin November 22-24 conference on Sexual Citizenship and Human Rights: What Can the US Learn from the EU and European Law? The panel called Sex Work, Migration and Trafficking was held on the 23rd, where my original talk was called ‘Contentious and contradictory: Prostitution-law campaigns in Europe‘.

But when I saw that the other two speakers on the panel were speaking on trafficking, one of them from a Rescue-Industry standpoint and the other juridical, I threw out that talk and gave another, hoping to give a humanist context to the other presentations. I called the new talk Denial of Consent, because consent had been mentioned frequently at this event in regard to adolescents’ right to have sex, which was even claimed to be a human-rights concept. I was struck that no one mentioned the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines everyone under 18 as a child and is constantly used by anti-prostitution campaigners to claim that adolescents who sell sex cannot consent. One might think consent is easily granted to boys and not to girls.

It’s a mistake, in a three-day conference dedicated to the subtleties of sexual citizenship, to dump three deep topics – Sex Work, Migration and Trafficking- into a single panel. Each of those deserves a panel of its own, or alternatively a panel could be devoted to just one of those, making sure all the speakers address it. I ended up doing double work, and it was not easy to limit my introduction to only 30 minutes. A lot is omitted in what you hear below, so I hope it all makes sense. The event was held in a Law School, which explains the rather dramatic courtroom setting, with me a witness in the box.

The session is introduced at 01:30 in the below video by Gloria González López of the Center for Mexican American Studies. My talk begins a minute later and ends at 35:58. The third speaker (Janet Halley) was present via Skype, so you cannot see but perhaps you can hear her. Should the videos fail, you can watch on youtube.

Other conference sessions can be viewed here.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry was published by Zed Books in London in 2007 and is distributed in the US through Palgrave Macmillan. I blog often about issues covered in the book, and many of my published articles are available on this website, but to get the full picture, to see how the different topics join up, you need to read the book. As I said in Dear Students of Sex Work and Trafficking, my ideas can’t easily be boiled down to bullet points or a FAQ.

This book is not out of date. Listening to recent arguments against allowing women to sell sex in France it struck me I would be making the same analysis as the one I made ten years ago if I were doing the research now in Europe. Abolitionists and other Rescue Industry folks fail to comprehend what motivates migrants just as hard-headedly as they did 20 years ago, when my attention was first caught by them. It would seem that middle-class Rescuers are blind to the lack of options available to so many migrants and refuse to believe they have learned about life through experience, instead projecting their own feelings without even a pretense of listening to them.

What study after study has found all over the world is that migrants often prefer to take up riskier, better-paying jobs when the alternatives also offer low prestige and much less money. In the course of my wanderings to try to understand, before it could be called research, I learned that many women not migrating look at the world and their places in it in the same way, and that has not changed either. The margins in this book are occupied not only by migrants but lots of people who haven’t travelled anywhere.

Although Sex at the Margins sells steadily without getting any real promotion and is on many university reading lists, you are unlikely to find it in bookstores. But it is easily available to buy online in several formats:

Happy reading or listening!

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Borgen Season 3 Episode 25

At a conference on Sexual Citizenship and Human Rights the other week, I binned the talk I had prepared and instead gave a version of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry. It turned out both the other speakers on the panel were to address trafficking, one as a straightforward Rescue-Industry member, and I’m not capable of watching an innocent audience listen to that stuff without speaking up.

My new talk was called Denial of Consent, because previously at this event consent was mentioned continuously as a key human-rights concept in European sexuality law. How telling, then, that European specialists declaim adolescents’ right to consent to have sex at the same time that other Europeans declaim ever more often that most adult women and trans who sell sex have not consented. In anti-trafficking campaigns the claim is very often that these victims cannot speak/have no voice giving an excuse for others to ‘speak for’ them.

In Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores I focussed on the mechanism by which Rescuers – feminists, social workers, politicians, police – discredit what adult women say about their experiences of selling sex, thus disqualifying them as subjects in a discussion about their own fates. What they say varies widely, of course, but rather than engage in seeking policy that would allow individual experiences to become central and rather than listening with interest to what sexworker activists say and finding migrants to talk to, they claim to Know Better how they should think and feel. The mainstream television series Borgen included a scene in which the non-sexworker experts on a Copenhagen panel discussion of prostitution interrupt and scoff at the sole sexworker participant, demonstrating how well-known the mechanism of disqualification has become (photo above from Season 3, Episode 25). Refusal to believe in the consent of women who sell sex also contradicts widespread anti-rape campaigning that puts consent at the core of sexual relationships.

The law to be voted in France’s Assemblée today (4 December 2013) is the product of years of process and politicking, not only in France but in certain feminist networks in Europe. In April 2011 I wrote Europe’s anti-prostitution initiatives multiply: EU itself and now France, linking developments to the European Women’s Lobby campaign for A Europe Free from Prostitution. Last month I wrote, with Thierry Schaffauser, about how the testimony of sexworker activists have been deliberately disqualified from consideration by politicians and certain feminists in France. This is accomplished by claiming these activists are a privileged elite selfishly putting their own interests above those victims of sex trafficking said to be ‘voiceless’ and requiring others to speak for them. Alice Schwarzer, currently campaigning against Germany’s law regulating prostitution, referred to them recently as ‘a few cheerful prostitutes’, of no consequence compared to the miserable 95%.

It’s now 20 years since I first wondered how this refusal to listen operates, at a time when I lived far from Europe amongst very poor women, many of whom were thinking about travelling to Europe. Some already sold sex at home, many were thinking of doing it abroad, others did not want to sell sex but work as live-in maids. This means that my first thoughts and feelings were attached to a specific real-life situation in which I had no axe to grind, no interest one way or the other. In terms of research on women who sell sex I even had what can be called a control group – women of the same cohort who didn’t sell sex. I was unaware a conflict existed within feminism on the topic, I hadn’t read books about prostitution. I was just as interested in what women said about being maids, and I still am. I’ve commented frequently on how my original research question, before I knew what research was, really, concerned the presumption by middle-class women that they Knew Better than sex workers what they should do with their lives. When I studied for a Master’s and then a doctoral degree my focus was never on migrants but on people wanting to rescue them, and after some six or seven years I felt I had answered my original question in several ways. Read Sex at the Margins for details.

I have followed events closely in Europe now for 15 years, living in several different countries and visiting many others, sometimes for extended stays. France is a country I have known since a first school trip from London to Calais, maybe in 1961, and since then I have spent a lot of time there. So i closely watched the action in France’s Assemblée last Friday – not the rhetoric, which I know by heart, but the tones and nuances of speech by the proponents of the law. The auditorium was nearly empty, but all politicking was over; what happened on the floor was not debate but the formal rhetoric of presenting a proposition. Any suggestion from the opposition that the law was sloppily conceived was rebutted with arch-seriousness about how long and carefully proponents had worked on it. The media were accused of missing the point, said to be not penalising clients but protecting women who sell sex.

I do understand what Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France’s Minister for Women’s Rights, wants to do. I’ve studied in depth what this one kind of feminism wants to achieve, i see how marvellous it sounds – a world without prostitution, a France in which State Feminism takes a daring step towards Gender Equality. Vallaud-Belkacem herself is a very different face for abolitionism from the more embittered and older radical feminists we’ve become used to: Gunilla Eckberg, Melissa Farley, Janice Raymond, Alice Schwarzer and others in every country. She is younger, prettier and was born in a colony, Morocco. French campaigneers have not leant on anti-trafficking rhetoric but on the classic idea that prostitution is a patriarchal institution that must be abolished – the arguments I read when I first started my formal studies in the late 90s. Unfounded numbers of trafficking victims are thrown out, yes, but I read the French effort as being more serious than that. The thing is neither slapdash nor hysterical but part of a sober attempt to change the European panorama, to shift the gaze from small-population Nordic countries never seen as important European players to the continent, to France – to the heart of real Europe. I see this shift as game-changing.

On the other hand, the reason i wrote Sex at the Margins still holds; nothing has improved for sex workers or for people called trafficked or for undocumented migrants in Europe. The anti-trafficking movement has diverted attention and money into everything but benefiting the women pitied in the first place. Campaigners have yet to comprehend how migrants, and a lot of other women, feel about doing high-stigma, risky, better-paying jobs – especially when the other options are practically non-existent. Rescuers’ fundamental project insists on the need to force people into leading lives considered better. It would appear they are incapable of imagining that others are different from themselves, that migrants perceive their options on the basis of their own life experiences and goals. The question is much bigger than Do you like selling sex? rather it is how the range of an individual’s needs, from sleeping patterns to children’s school schedules and the desire for consumer goods may lead them to prefer selling sex to everything else Rescuers can offer. In fact they offer little, which victims and non-victims alike understand.

Few sex workers are attracted by ‘exit strategies’ or ‘diversion programmes’. They hate being low-paid, disparaged, disrespected cleaners, nannies and maids. They don’t want to return to their countries as failed migrants. They don’t want to be poorer again. The sex act may be something they adapt to, learn to enjoy or close their eyes and endure, but if doing it provides more freedom, autonomy, flexibility or hope then it can be preferred, whether people were born in France, China, Nigeria or Brazil. The majority have consented to sell sex, somehow or other, to some degree. Insisting that they leave the milieu when there is so little to offer them is the opposite of kind. In the Rescue Industry protagonists are those who appoint themselves to ‘accompany’ victims out of the life, not those being saved. The consent of adult women is denied en masse.

The French law, apart from the fine of 1500€ for clients arrested the first time, is all about Rescue. The frame is France does not welcome prostitution, meaning prostitution must cease to exist there. It’s estimated at least 80% of sex workers in France moved there from somewhere else, some with the right to remain and look for other jobs. Other migrants are offered 336€ a month for six months if they promise to stop selling sex; since this is far from enough to live on it’s obviously hoped they will leave more quickly, moving to someone else’s country, putting the proposition in the NIMBY tradition – Not in My Back Yard. Street soliciting, outlawed by Sarkozy in 2003 but for many years tolerated or enforced unevenly in different cities, would be permitted again. The law’s backers claim this to be a kind step, but street sex workers say clients will only insist on going to less accessible, more dangerous places to have sex. Besides, local ordinances against street soliciting can be and have been passed at the city level; Lyon is an example.

Logistically the law was informally voted on last Friday. Today is the formal vote. If it passes it is sent to the Sénat, where two scenarios are possible: It passes and goes into effect or it is rejected and sent back to the Assemblée with amendments. In the latter case, the Assemblée vote on a new version that goes back to the Sénat. If the Sénat reject that, a commission paritaire would be named, half from the Sénat, half from the l’Assemblée. The version produced by this commission would then be voted on by the Assemblée, who have the last word. (Thanks to Morgane Merteuil of STRASS for clarifying this process. See their website for other information).

I have loads of links to videos and articles I’ll try to put up soon.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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

Getting tough on underage prostitution

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

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

Child sex trafficking seminar in Paris educates first responders

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

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

Who’s A Victim Of Human Sex Trafficking?

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

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

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

Teen prostitute leaves shelter to return to street life

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

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

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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

Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores

Laura Agustín, Jacobin, 15 August 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Stigma and disqualification

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

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

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

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

Rescue Industry, legal regimes and stigma

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

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

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

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

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

Prostitution law and national moralities

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

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

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

Gender Equality, State Feminism and intolerance

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

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

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

Sweden and prostitution

Jämställdhet, Photo Malinka Persson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When media are king

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

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

Cutting the Gordian Knot

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

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


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The idea of a government outlawing activities accomplishes only one thing clearly: It tells citizens that government has decided something is Wrong and now outlaws doing it. Sending A Message is the principle act behind the Swedish state’s promotion of its law against buying sex, and it is the principle act behind all the other politicians and would-be policymakers who want the law for their countries. Everyone wants to be seen to be Taking a Stand against immoral behaviour. Try bringing evidence into the conversation and you will quickly learn how irrelevant it is; you can find Swedish promoters themselves saying things like We know it doesn’t work but we want to be in the forefront of Gender Justice. This is about standing up for how you think society should be and doing it publicly, and trying to save people from their own immoral selves by outlawing bad things that attract them.

Any other claim about what prohibitionist laws achieve when they outlaw social activities like sex, drinking and drugs is not supported by evidence. That’s because, after the law is passed and the message is sent, individuals deal with prohibition deviously. That is, social pressure is strong to go along with the moral stand taken, but on the private level folks don’t intend or aren’t able to stop taking their own pleasures. So buyers and sellers of drugs, alcohol and sex become creative, some of them maintaining a disapproving stance in public at the same time.

The main claim made by prohibitionism is its deterrent effect, which holds that people will be put off breaking the law a) simply because it is illegal; b) because they are afraid of being put in prison; c) because they do not want to be publicly shamed and lose social status, whether they go to prison or not. In Foucauldian terms a punishment has to be threatened that can rob the crime of all attraction, so the potential perpetrator stops. Shaming is thus proposed by those who would prohibit buying sex (names and photos published on a website, for instance). Heart-rending pictures of victims are distributed to add to the shame at wanting to participate. When those don’t seem to work, or when perpetrators go ahead and pay fines when they are caught instead of resisting charges, prohibitionists propose the ante be upped to obligatory jail sentences.

I wrote about deterrence early on in Sex Workers and Violence Against Women: Utopic Visions or Battle of the Sexes? The theory of deterrence sounds as though it might work to put people off getting punished, but people are not very logical or sensible when it comes to their bodily pleasures – eating, smoking, drinking, drug-taking, sex. I hope someone is documenting the techniques being used as part of a criminology project somewhere – let me know if you are! [Other uses of deterrence are more complicated, see Deterrence in Criminal Justice.] I do wish Foucault were here to talk with me about this.

The prohibition of alcohol in the USA provides insights, though we shouldn’t generalise about everything and everywhere on the basis of them. I only bring it up because Slate just published these elegant cards patrons could carry and show at the door of drinking clubs in midtown New York between 1920 and 1933, the years when making and selling alcohol was prohibited. Calling it a club didn’t make drinking there legal, but if drinkers belonged to insider networks they would get a card, and doormen felt safer letting them inside the venues (the theory being that police and their informants wouldn’t manage to get a card).

Slate says

These cards represent clubs both famous and obscure. The card on the upper right would have admitted a partygoer to the glamorous Stork Club in its second home, which it moved into after it had been “raided out” of its first on West 58th Street. . . All of these cards are for establishments located on roughly the same latitude in midtown Manhattan. In the Prohibition years, according to Irving L. Allen, the blocks between 40th and 60th streets in Manhattan were rife with speakeasies.

The cards show how deviance develops when a market exists for an outlawed activity. Buyers and sellers find each other, including in upper social registers where patrons obviously must include some of the very people who have Taken a Stand and voted in a prohibitionist law. The cards also show how little deterred alcohol-drinkers were.

Then, of course, and far more convincing: all kinds of buying and selling sex are prohibited by criminal law all over the US, except in those few rural counties of Nevada where brothels are allowed. How in the world anyone could propose prohibiting the buying of sex as a deterrent is beyond me.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry was published by Zed Books in London in 2007 and is distributed in the US through Palgrave Macmillan. I blog often about issues covered in the book, and many of my published articles are available on this website, but to get the full picture, to see how the different topics join up, you need to read the book. As I said recently in Dear Students of Sex Work and Trafficking, my ideas can’t easily be boiled down to bullet points or a FAQ.

Although the book sells steadily despite getting no real promotion and is on many university reading lists, you are unlikely to find it in bookstores. But it is easily available to buy online in several formats:

  • Sex at the Margins as a hardback and paperback on Amazon.
  • Sex at the Margins at Audible.com, where you can listen to a sample. The whole book occupies 6 hours and 45 minutes.
  • Sex at the Margins on the Kindle.
  • Sex at the Margins on the Nook.
  • Sex at the Margins on the Kobo.

Audible Editor-at-Large Susie Bright entitled her announcement

The Rescue Industry is Built on Migrant Sex Workers’ Backs:
Laura Agustín’s Rip Roaring Exposé – by Susie Bright

Laura Agustín has almost singlehandedly changed the international debate about the definition and exploitation of the “sex trafficking” world as it is manipulated and exploited by NGOs, the Rescue Industry and major political players.

The corruption and dissembling that is going in the name of “saving victims” is truly shocking, and that’s why Sex at the Margins has been on every feminist, public policy, and migrant rights desk since its first appearance.

“This groundbreaking book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work; that migrants who sell sex are passive victims; and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest.”

The fact that Agustín is an international multi-lingual genius [ Susie a bit over the top here], who can appear in Sweden or Italy or Nairobi at a moment’s notice to speak truth to power, has turned the world on its ear when the usual liars come out to press their sanctimonious case on “fallen women.” She will not suffer fools gladly and she WILL demand evidence.  (Check out her debate with Mira Sorvino at the UN!)

Whatever Laura does next, Margins will remain as the classic that started the fireworks. As far as I’m concerned, this book is the vanguard of feminism and the bleeding edge of migration consciousness.

You can of course also order it in any bookstore.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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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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Do you still think audiobooks are a minor format only used by people that can’t read print? Think again, I certainly have. When books like Sex at the Margins become audiobooks, something is afoot. People are now learning to learn and absorb and enjoy non-fiction while lying in baths, stuck in traffic, glued to exercise machines, cooking meals and trying to shut out everyone else on public transport.

Actually some people don’t have to learn, they already used radio this way.

Audible Editor-at-Large Susie Bright entitled her announcement

The Rescue Industry is Built on Migrant Sex Workers’ Backs:
Laura Agustín’s Rip Roaring Exposé.

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

Laura Agustín has almost singlehandedly changed the international debate about the definition and exploitation of the “sex trafficking” world as it is manipulated and exploited by NGOs, the Rescue Industry and major political players.

The corruption and dissembling that is going in the name of “saving victims” is truly shocking, and that’s why Sex at the Margins has been on every feminist, public policy, and migrant rights desk since its first appearance.

“This groundbreaking book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work; that migrants who sell sex are passive victims; and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest.”

The fact that Agustín is an international multi-lingual genius, who can appear in Sweden or Italy or Nairobi at a moment’s notice to speak truth to power, has turned the world on its ear when the usual liars come out to press their sanctimonious case on “fallen women.” She will not suffer fools gladly and she WILL demand evidence.  (Check out her debate with Mira Sorvino at the UN!)

Whatever Laura does next, Margins will remain as the classic that started the fireworks. As far as I’m concerned, this book is the vanguard of feminism and the bleeding edge of migration consciousness.

Narrated by Robert Blumenfeld, who we last heard reading Euclid’s Widow and Paul Bowles short stories!

-Susie Bright

Susie was one of the first to review Sex at the Margins, on Susie Bright’s Journal and she’s the editor responsible for its becoming an audiobook. I am very grateful for her loyal support.

Note: Amazon’s database is sprawling and incompletely integrated. So sometimes, according to how and when and where you happen to search, you may arrive at a page for Sex at the Margins which does not link to the Kindle or Audible edition (although both are subsidiaries of Amazon). In that case the easiest route is to go to the dedicated online shops for the non-paper versions.

Sex at the Margins at Audible.com, where you can listen to a sample. The whole book occupies 6 hours and 45 minutes.

Sex at the Margins at the Kindle Store.

Sex at the Margins on the Nook and Kobo too.

Sounds like a mantra.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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