Australian National Radio: Counterpoint interview

ABC Radio National – Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Counterpoint – 5 May 2008 – Sex at the Margins

Monday 4pm repeated Friday 1pm

Presented by Michael Duffy and and Paul Comrie-Thomson

Claims are often made that large numbers of migrants are trafficked around the world for sex. Laura Maria Agustín has looked closely at the evidence for this and concludes that the figures are exaggerated. She says that the West’s obsession with migrant sex workers is a moral panic produced by concerns about immigration in general.

Transcript : This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying speakers.

Michael Duffy: We often hear claims that large numbers of migrants are trafficked around the world for sex. Well, our next guest, Laura Maria Agustin, has looked closely at the evidence for this and she concludes the figures are hugely exaggerated. She says the West’s obsession with migrant sex workers is a sort of moral panic produced by concern about immigration in general. Her new book is called Sex at the Margins, and I spoke to her last week.

Reading some of your work, it strikes me that a very important thing you bring to this issue is your familiarity, your knowledge of the actual people involved, whereas often people who write about migrant sex workers and so on seem not to know a lot about them, they seem to regard them sometimes as symbols for their fears or even their fantasies. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience? How have you come to understand and know these people?

Laura Maria Agustin: Yes, I considered them my friends. I was working in the NGO world in different parts of the Caribbean and Latin America, and people migrating to go work somewhere else, to be maids or do construction or sell sex was quite well known and conventional and we all understood why it was happening. And then I found out that people in Europe particularly at the time (this was the mid 90s, the late 90s) considered this a terrible tragedy and talked about it in a completely different way. That was my original research question; why should they be talking about them in such a different way? And I naively asked; haven’t they spoken to them yet?

Michael Duffy: What were some of the big differences that you found?

Laura Maria Agustin: The big differences were that from the European point of view, particularly from a certain kind of world view that looks at structural inequalities in the world, which are certainly there; people who are poor in the third world are almost by definition not able to make any choices, are forced to do things, have been deceived, cannot possibly know what’s going to happen to them and therefore are in need of the help of people who understand the world better. And when the situation involves women who sell sex, this is exaggerated by the belief on many people’s part that any woman who is selling sex must have been misled, could not possibly want to do that.

Michael Duffy: So it seems that many people in the West chose to see these other people as victims, or victims to a much greater extent than they really were.

Laura Maria Agustin: Yes, the word ‘victim’ is very unfortunate. Obviously it has a legal meaning. You can be the victim of a crime, and in that case there’s a criminal who is the perpetrator and there is a victim. The question is whether you wish to identify people who get into trouble in general, some of which they knew about beforehand and some of which they didn’t know about, whether you wish to call them all, by definition, victims. And that is a political strategy of many people, to identify them as victims by definition so that therefore you don’t have to take into account all the messy, complicated, contradictory things that they will tell you if you actually talk to them.

Michael Duffy: Why do you think so many Western people have this misconception? Is it simply ignorance or is there some other reason too?

Laura Maria Agustin: About the sex thing, a lot of it is about feminism, a lot of it is differing versions of feminism in which the idea of selling sex is very highly disputed. Some people want to call it an academic debate but actually it’s much bigger than that. I think you could go out on the streets of any Australian city and talk to any age woman and they would come up with this conflict. There’s a very old tradition that thinks money and sex shouldn’t be in the same relationship at the same time, that there’s something wrong with that. And there’s a strand of feminism that wants to define all of that always as violence against women and exploitation. There are other kinds of feminism which don’t feel that way and which think that there’s a great diversity of experience and people feel differently about sex and so we shouldn’t be doing any of that defining. That’s part of the question.

The other part, which is about why do the rich countries want to see so many people from the third world as victims. Well, there are a lot of different answers to that. Some of them are cynical. If they are migrants and you identify them as forced and trafficked then you can justify deporting them, getting rid of them, not having to deal with them, not having to integrate them into society. That’s the most extreme kind of version. But it seems also to just be a continuing kind of colonialist operation in which the rich Western countries just assume that they know how everyone should live and so these people who have chosen or gotten themselves into these messes and have different realities are somehow…it’s impossible to imagine that they are as sentient and choosing and aware as people in France or Australia. That seems to be the problem.

Michael Duffy: And one of the things you’ve found through talking to people is that many migrants, perhaps most migrants are simply not as passive as comfortable people in the West tend to assume they are.

Laura Maria Agustin: I really feel very strongly about this. I am not trying to say that every poor person is always exercising full, free choice and there’s no problem at all. There are huge structural inequalities in the world, and clearly someone who is working on the streets of Dakah in Bangladesh does not have as many choices as you or I might have. However, there’s two things going on. One is that I don’t think that lots of us either have so many choices, and I don’t know that the people who are working in McDonald’s or Marks and Spencer or whatever have had so many wonderful choices and are pursuing a career in the privileged sense that is often given to the people in the West; oh we have all these choices and they don’t.

And the second is that even if you only have three choices, you have them, and you might prefer to do one thing to another. So a very common situation for third world women is to be a maid and be pretty much prisoner inside a wealthy family’s house for six days a week and not be able to get out and to make no money or to be able to sell fruit on the street or to be able to sell sex. And clearly many people don’t want to sell sex and it seems horrible to them, and other people simply don’t feel that way. They prefer it, for whatever their own reasons are; they don’t care about sex that much, they can turn off, they prefer the money, the flexibility. And so it’s just a matter of accepting that we are not all the same and we don’t all feel the same way about sex, and that it’s necessary to give even the poorest people the respect due to making a few small choices.

Michael Duffy: It’s interesting, this obsession with sex. A migrant working in Sydney in the back of a restaurant for $4 or $5 an hour…you rarely see any public concern about that, but a woman is selling sex for maybe several times that much money…in fact I think the figures are exaggerated. Does that happen around the world, that the numbers of migrants who are selling sex or even trafficked for it are vastly exaggerated?

Laura Maria Agustin: Yes, the problem about the statistics is that it’s impossible to count undocumented people. That’s the first thing. So the category of migrants…whenever you see a figure that says there are 50,000, they’re counting the legal ones who have a visa and have some kind of permit. So amongst migration students we usually say, well, double that if you want to include all the people who got in without those kinds of…who have slipped in somehow, who don’t have the papers. So I can’t say if that’s true for Australia, but I assume it would be because it seems to be true everywhere. So you can’t actually count.

Okay, in some parts of Australia you have legalised prostitution but not everywhere and not every business will be counted in the same way. And in most countries these are illegal businesses or people are selling sex out of bars or places that aren’t registered as sex businesses, and therefore you can’t count those workers well either. And you certainly can’t count trafficked people because there’s no agreement in the world on what ‘trafficked’ means. People are still fighting about that. So it’s all very dodgy, all the statistics are very dodgy.

I personally believe that the worst case scenario that you see all the time certainly happens. This is what usually comes up in the media. It definitely happens. It can also happen to men and to transsexual people, it can happen to people, that worst can happen to people who are picking strawberries or being maids, it’s not just about sex. But those worst case scenarios are fortunately not the great majority. There are not vast numbers of people having these things happen to them. There are a lot of really lousy situations going on, but it’s not the worst case, enslaved in chains.

Michael Duffy: Still, as we’ve discussed, it captures the West’s imagination. Have you had much to do with the rescue industry? Have you talked to people there? What do you think is going on there? I’m talking about Western NGOs in third world countries trying to save people.

Laura Maria Agustin: Yes, well, that was my big question when I started; why in the world are they all identified in trying to rescue all these people who don’t want to be recused? So what’s that about? And I think I figured it out. I did research for a year in Europe talking to people who work as volunteers or paid people in NGOs. The bulk of the research was in Spain where I was living for five years. There were all different kinds of projects and they had different kinds of political positions, but they had a mission and they got funding to help people. So it was in their interest to find people to help. If you’re going to help people you have to label which are the ones that need the help. So you can call them trafficking victims, you can call them migrant labourers, you can call them prostitutes, people did it different ways, but your job depends on there being people for you to help.

I went back and I looked in history in the north of Europe to see how this all got started. Because 200 years ago there wasn’t social work and there wasn’t a big social sector, and I found that this…that the evolution of those social sectors (that’s the real technical term for it, the social sector) came at a time when women needed jobs and needed respectable jobs, and the identifying of groups that were victims and deviants was very important to the identification of the social sector as being in a unique position to rescue people from those fates.

Michael Duffy: This is like an extension of those English middleclass people who used to go down to the East End to rescue fallen women back in the 19th century.

Laura Maria Agustin: Yes, that’s it, they went into the East End and they saw people living in the street and eating in taverns and being drunk and not being married and they said to those people, ‘No, you must change your way of life.’ It’s in a straight line from that, it’s still an idea that the middleclass knows how everyone should live.

Michael Duffy: Where do you see this going? Just reflecting on something you said a bit earlier, it does seem to be a powerful way for some Westerners at least to express their nervousness about migration or to even stigmatise it. It’s filling such an important need there. What do you see happening in the future to all this?

Laura Maria Agustin: To me I used to think it’s a moral panic about women and sex, and it’s got so big I don’t think that anymore. It seems to me that the whole fear about trafficking has gone up into the cultural stratosphere with terrorism, that there’s some kind of general anxiety that countries will be invaded, that the good countries will be invaded, that they will somehow lose their identity and their values and their morality, it will all…the Martians are invading, everything is falling apart. It does seem to be some kind of fear. That’s now so general that it seems to have a life of its own. So I used to think, oh well, this little panic will be gone in a few years, and I now think, no, it’s now got into some kind of thing about security. It’s clearly got into the idea of the borders and the security and holding things together desperately and the need to police more.

So actually my latest thoughts are that the discourse is about these poor women victims, but that the real fear is about the male perpetrators, the bad guys who are going to make alternative societies in which all bets are off and they will be in charge of everything, kind of the way people used to feel about the mafia. It seems to me that that’s why the UN and so many of these guys in suits in big organisations are talking about this. I’m actually sceptical that they really care so much about the women.

Michael Duffy: Laura, at least you’re writing about it, which is one good thing. Thanks very much for joining us on Counterpoint today.

Laura Maria Agustin: Thank you, Michael.

Michael Duffy: Laura Agustin there with a more complicated view of a problem that seems to be thrown up increasingly by globalisation. Laura lives in London, she researching the situation of migrant workers in the city’s sex industry. Her book Sex at the Margins is published by Zed Books.

Guest Laura Maria Agustín author, Sex at the Margins, 2007, Zed Books

One thought on “Australian National Radio: Counterpoint interview

  1. James Tugend

    We have the same problem in America, even without the vast enclaves of immigrants. I just wrote a book and interviewed about 100 sex works including a few of their cients. Forced sex work is rare, but the public and the police are misled and misleading. Please see my website. Many sex workers are empowered and have nhaced self-esteem from their work, just as the opposite t often true.


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