A Migrant World of Services: the emotional, sexual and caring services of women

Since I’ll be talking about sex work as a labour issue at the Anarchist Bookfair, I thought I would re-run an early academic publication of mine, A Migrant World of Services. In my quest to understand why so many people disqualify selling sex as a potential job, I looked critically at traditional economic concepts such as the distinctions between productive and unproductive labour and between formal and informal employment sectors. I discovered these concepts are entirely arbitrary and out-dated and produce oppression for no good reason. For example, the majority of women’s work inside homes is labelled unproductive, and probably the majority of women’s jobs outside the home are also disqualified as real and productive by relegating them to the informal sector of the economy. I couldn’t see, and still cannot, how an economic sector  named Services, which takes in a raft of jobs, could exclude so many women’s jobs, so I also investigated ideas about emotional and caring work. Not only migrants are ripped off by these disqualifications – all are, and when men do these jobs they are as well.

A Migrant World of Services (pdf)

Social Politics, 10, 3, 377-96 (2003)

Laura Maria Agustín

Abstract: There is a strong demand for women’s domestic, caring and sexual labour in Europe which promotes migrations from many parts of the world. This paper examines the history of concepts that marginalise these as unproductive services (and not really ‘work’) and questions why the west accepts the semi-feudal conditions and lack of regulations pertaining to this sector. The moral panic on ‘trafficking’ and the limited feminist debate on ‘prostitution’ contribute to a climate that ignores the social problems of the majority of women migrants.

In a variety of scenarios in different parts of Europe, non-Europeans are arriving with the intention to work; these are largely migrant women and transgender people from the ‘third world’ or from Central and Eastern Europe and countries of the former Soviet Union. The jobs available to these women in the labour market are overwhelmingly limited to three basic types: domestic work (cleaning, cooking and general housekeeping), ‘caring’ for people in their homes (children, the elderly, the sick and disabled) and providing sexual experiences in a wide range of venues known as the sex industry. All these jobs are generally said to be services.

In the majority of press accounts, migrant women are presented as selling sex in the street, while in public forums and academic writing, they are constructed as ‘victims of trafficking.’ The obsession with ‘trafficking’ obliterates not only all the human agency necessary to undertake migrations but the experiences of migrants who do not engage in sex work. Many thousands of women who more or less chose to sell sex as well as all women working in domestic or caring service are ‘disappeared’ when moralistic and often sensationalistic topics are the only ones discussed. One of the many erased subjects concerns the labour market—the demand—for the services of all these women. The context to which migrants arrive is not less important than the context from which they leave, often carelessly described as ‘poverty’ or ‘violence.’ This article addresses the European context for women migrants’ employment in these occupations. Though domestic and caring work are usually treated as two separate jobs, very often workers do both, and these jobs also often require sexual labour, though this is seldom recognised. All this confusion and ambiguity occurs within a frame that so far has escaped definition.

For the rest, get the pdf.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

11 thoughts on “A Migrant World of Services: the emotional, sexual and caring services of women

  1. Pingback: A Migrant World of Services : x:talk

  2. Pingback: Sex Traffic at the ICA : x:talk


  4. Pingback: The Soft Weapon « The Honest Courtesan

  5. Ariane

    in a way sex work is mostly emancipating because sex as work thwart and challenge most powerful institutions: morality and gender concepts around sexuality and social roles, population policies. Non reproductive sexuality hits economics. Core agenda.

  6. Sexworker Marc of Frankfurt

    One other distinction may be the complexity of work:

    There are task we humans do and do not need learning: making sounds, emotional care, sex…

    And there are task which we have developed only with culture: writing, governing, money making…

    The difference can also be shown with brain research and modern imaging technologies. One set of task are possible by just being human, whereas others have to be taught or learned and our brain has to adapt by developing new neuron networks according to that task.

    That is a great distinction which can be exploited by cultures, which are based on hierarchy, since they are based on the concept of limited resources (because of or leading to materialistic thinking and competition).

    The opposite concept of unlimited resources because of immaterial abundance (information) may contribute to change that and foster cooperation.

    (But not in times of recession, peak of everything, population growth, climate change, fear of war). Then the “war on whores” comes in handy to govern limited resources via making distinctions…

    Why equal societies are healthier was researched by Richard G Wilkinson, Kate E Pickett equalityTrust. org. uk

  7. Frans van Rossum

    First observation: the explosion of changes in sexual interaction coincides – at least in the Western world – with the time that relatively safe contraception and safe sex practice (condom) became available to the general public, beginning in the late Fifties. Until then – at least in Holland – the traditional core group of prostitutes was rather small, and they were predominantly full time career women. Since the advent of the condom, around 1960, temporary sex workers of all stripes entered the scene, first mainly as street workers and escorts, a bit later in sex clubs that began to spring up like mushrooms. So, speaking of mankind’s history, safe sex activities as part of the very diverse prostitution services are fairly recent, and I think that the DNA of the species is absorbing the consequences much slower than our intellectual faculty does, hence the current heated, unreconcilable discussions between status-quo supporters and progression supporters. The status-quo supporters are naturally not yet in the condition to grasp the irreversible change in the potentials of sexual interaction. Such a drastic change has its own pace but must be advanced for many reasons.
    Second observation: Mankind is nothing but one species that contributes to the balance of life on earth. It is subordinate to and not in control of the laws of nature. Speaking of sex: Nature itself has apparently its own agenda in the simple fact that the condom became widely available in the same period that overpopulation became an issue on this planet and entered human awareness. I personally remember it first mentioned around 1955. If the human invention “condom” helped causing the “explosion” of prostitution (together with the increasing wealth and leisure culture in the Western world), nature must have had a reason for it.
    It could be argued that nature has begun prioritizing, quasi mandated non-reproductive, i.e. recreational sexual behavior in order to regulate the population growth. In that sense, commercial sexual services can be seen as a very functional vehicle for reigning in population growth. In addition to all other good arguments for paying sex workers for valuable services, this one in particular would support their values and entitle them to being paid well. It should even support the concept that wise governments actively and openly promote sex work in its many varieties, and help it structure itself into social life as any other profession (this is still some time away). Now, in my perspective there must be a reason why at this stage in mankind’s history migration has become irreversible and is increasingly expanding throwing the entire system of “national politics” in such a disarray. It’s clear that sex work and migration have become worldwide allies, giving Western governments this “trafficking” fit beyond any reason. My utopian vision is that the concept of “sex workers without borders” will in due time help raze the current barriers between races and protective nations, exactly because their actual sexual activities are in the end subordinate to the elements of “care-taking,” simple one-on-one companionship and attention, the essence of sex work.

  8. Sex Worker

    @ Frans van Rossum So you believe that “prostitution explosion” occurred due to the invention of condoms? Or at least one of the reasons? Not sure If I agree with that. I personally believe back in the 50’s there was demand for other services and one of them included prostitution. There will always be demand for services and sex is no exception.


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