Migrant sex worker in a Thai brothel: Le Carré’s The Secret Pilgrim

I collect well-styled and informative descriptions of sex-industry settings in novels, here John le Carré’s 1990 The Secret Pilgrim. Fiction can transmit far more of the atmosphere and goings-on in sex venues than social-science research, not least because authors get to express their personal feelings. Here the migrant sex worker is Cambodian, girlfriend of a spy being searched for in a Thai brothel called the Sea of Happiness. The voice changes as I’ve cut to include only bits relevant to clients and sex work.

He’d popped up here on a flying visit. One day, that’s all. One day, one night, then back to the missus and a book. Offshore leisure consortium wanted him to buy a hundred acres of prime coastland for them. Did his business, then off they all go to this girlie restaurant, Duffy and a bunch of his traders – Duffy’s not averse to a bit of the other, never has been. Place called The Sea of Happiness, slap in the middle of the red-light quarter. Upmarket sort of establishment, as they go, I’m told. Private rooms, decent food if you like Hunanese, a straight deal and the girls leave you alone unless you tell ‘em not to.

At girlie restaurants, he explained, somehow contriving to suggest he had never personally been to one, young hostesses, dressed or undressed, sat between the guests and fed them food and drink while the men talked high matters of business. In addition, The Sea of Happiness offered a massage parlour, a discotheque and a live theatre on the ground floor.

Duffy clinches the deal with the consortium, a cheque is passed, he’s feeling his oats. So he decides to do himself a favour with one of the girls. Terms agreed, off they go to a cubicle. Girl says she’s thirsty, how about a bottle of champagne to get her going? She’s on commission, naturally…

…First Henry had had a drink at the bar, then he had watched the show. Then he had sent for the Mama San, who hurried over assuming he had a special wish. He had shown the Mama San his translator’s card and said he was writing an article about her establishment – the superb food, the romantic girls, the high standards of sensitivity and hygiene, particularly the hygiene. He said he had a commission from a German travel magazine that recommended only the best places. The Mama San took the bait and offered him the run of the house. She showed him the private dining rooms, the kitchens, cubicles, toilets. She introduced him to the girls and offered him one on the house, which he declined, to the head chef, the doorman and the bouncers.

“But who is your farang who carries the bottles for you?” Henry had cried out with amusement to the Mama San. “Must he stay behind and work because he cannot pay his bill?”

The Mama San laughed also. Against farangs, or Westerners, all Asians feel naturally united. “The farang lives with one of our Cambodian girls,” she replied with contempt, for Cambodians are rated even lower than farangs and Vietnamese in the Thai zoology. “He met her here and fell in love with her, so he tried to buy her and make a lady out of her. But she refused to leave us. So he brings her to work every day and stays until she is free to go home again. She is number nineteen,” said the Mama San, with a shrug. “Her house name is Amanda. Would you like her?”

Henry could not resist taking a look. The girls who were not with clients lounged on plush benches behind a glass wall, wearing numbers round their necks and nothing else, while they chatted to each other or tended their fingernails or stared vacuously at an ill-tuned television set. As Henry watched, number 19 stood up in response to a summons, picked up her little handbag and a wrap and walked from the room. She was very young. Many girls lied about their age in order to defeat the regulations – penniless Cambodians particularly. But this girl, said Henry, had looked no more than fifteen…

…An hour later, I was presenting myself at The Sea of Happiness and buying a ticket for fifty dollars. I removed my shoes, as custom required, and moments later I was standing in a neon-lit cubicle in my stockinged feet, staring into the passive, much painted features of girl number 19.

She wore a cheap silk wrap with tigers on it, but it was open from the neck down. Underneath it she was naked. A heavy Japanese style make-up covered her complexion. She smiled at me and thrust her hand swiftly towards my groin, but I replaced it at her side. She was so slight it seemed a mystery that she was equal to the work. She was longer-legged than most Asian girls and her skin was unusually pale. She threw off her wrap and, before I could stop her, sprang on to the frayed chaise longue, where she arranged herself in what she imagined to be an erotic pose, caressing herself and uttering sighs of desire. She rolled on to her side with her rump thrust out, draping her black hair across her shoulder so that her tiny breasts poked through it. When I did not advance on her, she lay on her back and opened her thighs to me and bucked her pelvis, calling me “darling” and saying “please.

“Sit up,” I said, so she sat up and again waited for me to come to her. “Put on your wrap.”

When she appeared not to understand, I helped her into it. Henry had written the message for me in Khmer. “I want to speak to Hansen,” it read. “I am in a position to obtain Thai papers for yourself and your family.” I handed it to her and watched her study it. Could she read? I had no way of telling. I held out a plain white envelope addressed to Hansen. She took it and opened it. The letter was typed and its tone was not gentle. It contained two thousand baht. — John le Carré, The Secret Pilgrim, 1990

—Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Highways as sexwork-places, with chairs

When the topic is selling sex outdoors, mainstream media stick to the same photos over and over. Generally now posed, the shots show young female bodies chopped off at the head or feet or waist, standing in dark city streets. I don’t need to give an example because you’ve instantly visualised what I’m talking about. So when I posted an item on facebook from The Local that carried this photo with pink and green chairs, many people sounded surprised.

If you don’t bring a chair, sometimes there’s a kerb to sit on. If there’s not, you might lean on metal barriers. But chairs of all portable types are common along highways in Cataluña, despite longtime attempts by local communities and police to stop the whole activity. Gavà, Castelldefels, Viladecans, Les Filipines – not far from the beach or downtown Barcelona. Places where traffic slows down, where there’s a place to pull over.

These are workplaces to which workers bring staple items: a rucksack with food, makeup, clothes, towels. A parasol, wastebasket, extra plastic bags. A book to read, a thermos of coffee, sunscreen. I mention all this because anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution campaigns focus exclusively on the question of choice: whether any of these women really knew what selling sex would be like when they came to these highways from Rumania, Bulgaria or anywhere else. Whether they can be granted any agency at all, whether prostitution carries a transcendent meaning for feminism. Abstract questions rather than everyday culture in which individuals experience their own workaday lives. Looked at from this other viewpoint, it’s clear women treat these sites as workplaces, and that’s whether the person coming to pick them up after their shift is a friend or some kind of controller.

This isn’t a merely ethnographic value to be pooh-poohed by hard-hitting ideologues. To know about sex work you need to do more than think in the abstract. You need to look at what there is to look at, listen to the music and read more than tweets and policy-papers. Observing the workplace, even if you feel appalled that it’s out on a highway in the hot sun, allows you to see that the women are not only waiting passively as if with a whip over their heads but exercising small choices about their comfort.

The most ethereal of these pictures come from Txema Salvans, whose project The Waiting Game shows many more shots of sex workers along these highways.

Some of the chairs are not so portable after all, but I really like the empire-style fringed one above. The pictures also show that some workplaces are shared – and some chairs.

I’ve written about sexwork-places in Spain many times before, including:

Who are migrant sex workers?

The Sex Industry in Spain: Sex clubs, flats, agriculture, tourism

Sexwork and migration fiction, part 2: Jobs in the sex industry

—Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Back to Barcelona: Migration and Sex Work

In the late 90s I created an email listserv called Industria del Sexo for migrants and sex workers to discuss issues in any Romance language (excluding English was important). There were some academics but no journalists or politicians. Before social media and using the list, a few of us, Spanish and migrants alike, organised an event in Barcelona in 2002, to coincide with an industrial International AIDS conference. It took place in the Centre Cívic Pati Llimona, pictured above. Migration and Sex Work were on the agenda, and migrant sex workers definitely Spoke Out.

I’ll be at Pati Llimona again on 22 May, in a public event organised by Latin Americans in conjunction with the (also industrial) Latin American Studies Association conference (which I’m not attending). I’m in the panel of speakers that begins at 0945: Sexualidades y movilidades, where I’ll try to explain how feminism got so acrimoniously divided over prostitution and the results for migrants. The address is Calle Regomir 3 in the Barri Gòtic; more about the rest of the day on facebook

On 24 May I join Aprosex, Asociación de Profesionales del Sexo, in an event held at TicTac, Calle Santa Dorotea 9, not far from Plaça d’Espanya. Note this is a conversatorio, not me giving a planned talk. Questions to be discussed can be submitted on scraps of paper and later hands raised in hopes of a livelier event (specially for me).

Otherwise, I’m planning to walk my feet off in my usual solitary fashion, flaneur that I have always been. I’ll  enjoy the odd copa here and there, including, amazingly, with a couple of women who were there in 2002. If you know anyone who’d be interested in either of these events, please let them know.

—Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Grid girls and the Presidents Club: Women and sexist jobs

In 1995, my friend’s 17-year-old daughter Ermina was looking for work in Santiago, Chile. The obvious job available to her was posing in a short skirt beside cars or washing machines in public showrooms – standard promotional technique to this day. What made her hesitate? Girls who took those jobs in Santiago were assumed to be loose – no better than they should be. She might ruin her reputation whether she went on to do more than pose or not. There were also jobs in coffee bars, but they carried an even graver stigma. But Ermina didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of her mother and aunt, who had both migrated to Madrid to work as live-in maids. This was the kind of story I ran into everywhere in Latin America amongst poorer people back in the 90s, and is why I ended up writing Sex at the Margins.

Recently jobs like these have been in the news in the context of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment but they also appear in long-running campaigns against prostitution and trafficking. All objections are increasingly positioned as evidence of Gender Inequality. I thought about writing this post after an event called the Presidents Club got undercoverage – a Financial Times reporter got a job as hostess. Scandal was provoked by revelations of the conditions of work for hostesses – conditions that have been conventional for aeons and most people know about. For those interested in labour rights, reports of low pay and a requirement to sign non-disclosure contracts stood out. For those who felt scandalised, it was having to wear skimpy frocks and accept being groped.

These jobs are widespread, because sexism is everywhere, because women without a lot of education and training have few options for work and because some women like hostess or modeling-type jobs better than whatever others are available. I understand why successful middle-class women denounce the existence of this work. I know this is objectification of women’s bodies and appearance, you don’t have to tell me. But what does it mean to call for their abolition except fewer jobs for women? And although the denouncers are appalled, many other women like or don’t much mind this way of making money.

The Presidents Club got much publicity because it’s an event for elite men. A class issue, as though those men ought to be better than others? Consider what happened ‘lower down’ the culture hierarchy.

Formula 1 ended its tradition of using grid girls because ‘it was at odds with modern societal norms‘.

The men drive the cars, they make the cars, they fix the cars and the women handed out drinks, refreshed the buffet… The grid girls would be led out, a bit like prize cattle, just before the race and stand on the grid where the cars are, with an umbrella or a number of which position the car was in. They would have their bottoms pinched by the mechanics, there would be photographers sat on the floor behind them, taking pictures of their bums, or up their skirts. They had to giggle and pretend that was OK. – broadcaster Beverley Turner

But grid girls protested.

Note the numbers for that tweet – and it wasn’t the only one, and Cooper wasn’t the only tweeter.

In the world of competitive darts, before this trend reports could say ‘stunning walk-on girls provide some much-needed glamour… The lovely ladies have the important job… to provide a key element to the festive entertainment.’

But now the Professional Darts Corporation announced it would end using walk-on girls who accompany players to the stage and hold up score cards. Announcing a protest in Birmingham, the owner of Dream Street Models and Events said, “If they’re banning us at F1 and darts, what’s next? Where’s it going to stop? Will it be boxing, Superbikes, the stands at NEC shows? Most of my models do promotional work, for some it’s a part-time job, but for others it’s their full-time living.”

The Women’s Sport Trust said: “We applaud the Professional Darts Corporation moving with the times and deciding to no longer use walk-on girls. Motor racing, boxing and cycling . . . your move.”

In parts of Asia beer girls (or promotion girls) are paid low wages to jolly male customers into ordering a particular brand of beer. Surviving from tips and working long into the night, they too have been named as improperly exploited by a funder.

The mostly young drink promoters are paid low wages — and work for tips, largely from groups of intoxicated men — to push certain beers in bars. Global Fund announced on Thursday in a statement that it was suspending its partnership with Heineken “based on recent reports of the company’s use of female beer promoters in ways that expose them to sexual exploitation and health risks”.

Exposed by hanging around drinking men and possibly having sex with them possibly for money that lifts them from survival-mode? A lot of women consider this a desirable job. Do you want to add ‘are forced to’ consider it desirable? Ok, but desire counts – don’t tell me you Know Better than they how they should feel and act.

Then there was MIPIM, an annual conference for property people that draws sex workers, an unremarkable fact that contributed to demands for more equality for female delegates at the conference.

Tamsie Thomson, the director of the London festival of architecture, said the Presidents Club scandal had “just scratched the surface of the discrimination and harassment that women and other minorities are routinely subjected to in our industry”. Thomson launched the “the elephant in the room” campaign to encourage women and others to challenge any inappropriate or uncomfortable behaviour and distributed pink elephant badges to raise awareness.

The event and sector are obviously mired in sexist practices, including holding events where only male delegates feel fully welcome. But there’s a disquieting tendency to imply that the fact sex workers might be there somewhere is evidence of Something Being Very Wrong. “What other industry on the face of the earth in 2018 needs to remind businessmen that they can’t bring prostitutes to an industry conference,” asked Jane, a 29-year-old delegate from Manchester. “That alone tells you how backward property is.” Do they imagine that getting rid of sex workers helps fix inequality problems? This leap to pointing at prostitution smacks of scapegoating.

As I lamented in The New Abolitionist Model, banning badly paid jobs because they are objectifying and sexist punishes women in contexts where they haven’t got many options.

Is the proposition still that being a servant for pennies and a scant private life is better because it is more dignified? Or is it superior simply because it is not sex work? Either way, to focus always on the moral aspects of sexual labor means forever sidelining projects to improve working conditions and legal protections.

Surely it’s obvious that more kinds of work for better pay need to exist before jobs women prefer are prohibited, even with the disadvantages they entail. There’s where this kind of feminist needs to put her energy, and that goes for richer and poorer countries alike.

Footnote: Nowadays the Santiago coffee bars are called cafés con piernas, cafes with legs, and (of course) are now named as sites of sex exploitation. The photo at the top shows one example.

And, in case anyone thought this phenomenon is always gender-specific, see this photo by Bill Kobrin of the Art Students League Dream Ball, New York, 1953. Yes – the 1950s.

—Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Victimisation of Mary Prince: Early Rescue-Industry history

I’m always on the lookout for guided walks where I’ll be shown sites and hear histories not in the Establishment’s textbooks. Black History Walks showed me this plaque located in Bloomsbury on a wall where passerbys are unlikely to notice it.

Mary Prince was a slave born in Bermuda about 1788. Sold to several masters on different islands, she was brought to England in 1828 and a few years later dictated her story for publication. She was a migrant woman. You can read about Prince on many websites, one of which marvellously refers to Mary Prince’s Journeys.

The original 1831 edition of The History of Mary Prince had what we’d now call a title page as cover, according to the British Library. Later editions used and continue to use images, however.

Victimising imagery is standard fare in anti-trafficking campaigning as it is in most Third-World ‘Aid’ advertising. The theory is that feeling their heart-strings tugged loosens viewers’ holds on their wallets. The most-used images show girls cowering, hiding their faces, chained in dark places, crying. I collected a lot of the more horrible ones in an album. The victimisation of migrating women was my earliest question and complaint about how the mainstream was talking about them, and I published Forget Victimisation in 2003. (If you go to this link note the photo I used there.)

There are no photos of Prince from her lifetime, so what are the pictures used on covers of later editions of the book?

Penguin Books presently use this: a recognisable icon of anti-slavery history – the original Abolitionism. Slave is made to equal pitiable helpless shackled person in a pleading position. Pleading for help, for someone outside herself to free her. It’s a particularly inappropriate image to use for Mary Prince, whose agency can be in no doubt. Penguin should stop using it.

It’s not as sensationalistic as the image below, but it gets the message across that white people were needed to save black slaves. That slaves were passively waiting for liberation, rather than resisting in myriad ways, subverting the status quo, helping each other. Just the way present-day Rescue Industry campaigns obliterate the agency of migrants who pay smugglers to travel and get into trouble and then try to get themselves out of it.

You’d never guess that enslaved women like Prince existed. You’d never guess she negotiated several families and masters, got married, travelled, campaigned, authored a book. But she did.

On the bright side, the Bloomsbury plaque doesn’t even use the word slave. Now if it could just be placed somewhere a bit more noticeable. . .

—Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist