I know many folks who relate to the idea of sex work as one of their jobs and to sexworker as one of their identities. But I have known many more who sell sex and don’t feel like this. Of course it’s possible to ask questions that appear to prove interviewees always feel it’s a job: many social scientists study occupations and need everyone to have a clear label. Those of us who’ve sat and listened at length to people’s stories know things are a lot muddier than that. But, you might say, hold on, look at what are captioned ‘tools of the trade’ in the photo here: don’t they prove it’s a job for the woman using them?
I think back to most of my own jobs: Did I ever feel secretary was my identity? Or dogwalker? (That could be me in the 1967 photo in Central Park though I don’t ever remember walking so few dogs at once.) Even when I had the title Managing Editor I never felt it was who I was.
In China the word xiaojie means Miss or young lady. Many women who sell sex prefer to be called xiaojie to sex worker (with the result that non-sexworking misses don’t want to be called that anymore). Ding Yu, sociologist, talks about why:
Many academics feel that it’s important to respect this community by using a term that classifies what they do as a profession. But in fact many xiaojie don’t really understand or like this name because they feel the term emphasizes sex. The term “sex worker” reduces all their work to sex, which doesn’t reflect the reality of what they do. It doesn’t accurately represent the diverse forms of emotional work and entertainment that they’re engaged in; rather, it highlights the one part that’s stigmatized.
There’s an important class dimension. As migrants coming from the country to the city, they want to be part of this modern, developed world. They want to shed the kind of coarseness that’s associated with the countryside. Most ‘xiaojie’ are very well-informed about the conditions of factory work, and they know they’re not interested. They know other women from their hometowns who are factory laborers, and there are plenty of media reports that show how it is tedious, repetitive, and arduous, how the worker is treated like a machine. They know you’re stuck in dorm accommodation, far from the city center, producing luxury items you can’t afford to buy yourself. They know you are outside the modernity and development as a handmaiden to it. Other options, such as being a waitress or nanny or shop assistant — these positions generally see lower income and worse working conditions than being a xiaojie, which is thus not a particularly poor option.
In The Three-Headed Dog several migrants are selling sex. Marina lives and works in flats with other women and a manager but decides to go onto the club circuit. Promise sells in the street. Eddy is keeping company with a tourist. Isabel tried prostitution and prefers being a cleaner. The detective, Félix, once worked in spas. None call themselves or the work by a professional word. Of course, some activists think this is a problem, that there’d be more chance of successful organising if more women were willing to stand up and call themselves by the term that now sounds more like a worker title than other options. This is possible. The catch is in the stigma.
As if Human Trafficking weren’t an already over-used, ambiguous, confusing term for a raft of phenomena, some influential characters want to replace the term with Modern Slavery. I marvel consistently here and on facebook and twitter about the predominance of misleading terminology not only from voracious Online Editors but also from moral entrepreneurs, politicians and now, ever oftener, the police.
The following objection about Modern Slavery is from Mike Dottridge, whom I met long ago when I still didn’t know that everything I was interested in was destined to be called Trafficking, and nor did he. Notes on the photos at the end.
The UN Trafficking Protocol of 2000 describes various forms of exploitation: slavery, forced labour and types of servitude such as debt bondage. Now individual philanthropists and politicians are pushing to substitute the term Modern Slavery for Human Trafficking. What happens then? Bear in mind that a slave is defined as a person who is the legal property of another or can be treated as such: they can be bought, sold, traded or inherited. A slave is a personal possession – a chattel.
*Westerners are happy to use Modern Slavery for a wide range of common practices in developing countries, such as the use of bonded labourers in South Asia or of indigenous children as domestic workers in Paraguay. But human-rights defenders say using the term won’t help them combat specific forms of exploitation they oppose, because slavery simply means something else in their countries.
*Using the term Modern Slavery precipitates us into name-and-shame mode, pointing the finger at governments and businesses which tolerate it. It implies that countries with large numbers of slaves are allowing something awful to occur. So, instead of the Development/cooperation paradigm that was dominant in the second half of the 20th century, with richer countries supporting efforts to bring about social and economic change in poorer ones, we revert back to the 19th-century idea that some uncivilised countries require pressure from civilised ones to abandon unacceptable practices. There are plenty of problems in the way Development policies are applied, but shaming governments into recognising that slavery is occurring in their countries is an example of the wrong way to achieve international cooperation.
*In the minds of people in Western Europe and the Americas, the word slavery refers to the transatlantic slave trade. Using the term for levels of exploitation which do not meet the legal definition trivialises historical chattel slavery and reduces any sense of responsibility in countries that benefited from it. This fits neatly into the agenda of white supremacists who dismiss contemporary racism and discrimination against the descendants of slaves. We should avoid terminology which sounds imperialist and potentially racist.
*This brings me to one of my deepest worries, that the governments that have decided to use Modern Slavery (Australia, the UK and the USA) are also those keen to abandon conventional approaches to Development. Earlier this year Australia and the UK used bullying tactics to persuade others to follow their usage at a UN Security Council debate about trafficking, slavery and forced labour in the context of armed conflict. I fear that moving from the term Trafficking to Modern Slavery opens a Pandora’s Box, with UN organisations like the ILO and UNODC vying for influence, and Australia, the UK and the USA pushing for the term Modern Slavery while the Russian Federation and its allies disagree. This then becomes part of today’s Cold War between East and West and provides an excuse for neither side to take significant action.
*Rich philanthropists interested in financing anti-slavery organisations are not trying to persuade governments to respect the human rights of people who have already been exploited or to reform employment and immigration systems to reduce future exploitation. Philanthropists put emphasis on the responsibility of consumers and businesses but only ask governments to enforce laws. This undermines respect for human rights in general and in particular for the human rights of migrants and others who are abused and exploited.
*The types of exploitation implied by Modern Slavery encourage many government officials to stop paying attention to conventional techniques for protecting workers such as regulation, workplace inspections and trade unions. By creating the impression that they are helpless slaves who need rescuing from the hands of criminals, they propagate a myth that all informal work that helps migrants to survive is illicit and should be prohibited, thereby denying migrants the lifeline on which they often depend.
I’ve been an ardent critic of the way a poor legal definition of Human Trafficking has required years of debate to clarify, still without total success, so I’m loath to see yet more time and money wasted on disputes about definitions and concepts. Instead I want to see investment in action to stop unacceptable exploitation and assist the victims.
Notes from Mike on the photos: At the top are Manjok and Awut and their son Mohammed, who had been abducted and held separately and only married and had their son after release. I met them in Ad-Dha’ein, a small town in South Darfur near what is now the border of North and South Sudan in October 2000 after they had been released from captivity. Of course, they look like ordinary people, rather than ‘slaves’. Above is Bol, who was about six when he was abducted and spent about a dozen years in captivity. I met him in Khartoum.
Just yesterday the Guardian published this info-box on Modern Slavery. I’d say the substitution is well under way and expect loads of new confusion on the part of all and sundry.
In the first novel in my crime series, The Three-Headed Dog, migrants in Spain use slavery-words in the informal way we are all accustomed to. Here is young Eddy, who is happy to have a low-paying job in a bar where he sleeps on a pallet in the basement:
He did wonder sometimes when a customer joked about lazing around the beach. One guy said ‘What’s it like to work for the first time in your life, instead of sitting around drinking from coconuts?’ Eddy went on picking up glasses and putting them on his tray. He had never liked coconut, and the boss had said not to get into conversations.
In the kitchen a boy with Indian-type features said, ‘Fucking Spanish racists. First they go and commit genocide in our countries and take everything we’ve got. Then they leave us to die in poverty. Now when we come back here willing to work for starvation-wages they treat us like dirt.’
Eddy objected. ‘But all that was ages ago. Santo Domingo is the first place they went to, I know all about that. But nowadays is different.’ Hell, it was like those endless demonstrations at home, long-haired political types going on and on about the conquistadores and US imperialism. He found politics boring.
‘You wait,’ said the other boy, squirting detergent into the pan. ‘Some of them hide what they think because racism is out of style, but in the end they’re all alike. I’d rather die than live here and be a slave like this, but my mother needs an operation. If I could get money any other way I would.’ He banged a glass, and it broke, which would be deducted from his wage. The Three-Headed Dog p 148
I don’t want to stop folks using slave as a metaphor in everyday life, but in official and quasi-legal language I sure don’t want the already dysfunctional term trafficking replaced by slavery, whether modern or antique. And as for the yellow-press term sex slaves…
Militia detectives are at Kazansky Station in Komsomol Square, in Martin Cruz Smith’s novel Gorky Park. Cartier-Bresson’s 1954 photo shows the station at the left and surrounding traffic. Moscow prostitution may not have existed officially in 1977, when the story takes place, but sex work certainly did.
At 6 am entire Turkman families lay head to feet on benches. Babies with felt skullcaps nestled on soft bundles. Soldiers leaned slackly against the wall in a sleep so tangibly deep that the heroic mosaics of the ceiling overhead could have been their communal dream. Bronze fixtures glowed fully. At the one refreshment stand open, a girl in a rabbit-skin coat confided in Pasha Pavlovich…
A young soldier took Pasha’s place with the girl. She smiled through a rouge of vaseline and lipstick while the boy read the price chalked on the toe of her shoe; then, hand in hand, they walked out the station’s main door… Komsomol Square was blue before the dawn, the clicking candles of trams the only movement. The lovemakers slipped into a taxi. ‘Five rubles.’ Pasha watched the taxi pull out.
The driver would swing into the nearest side street and get out to watch for militia while the girl and boy went at it in the back seat. Of the five rubles the driver would get half and the chance to sell a congratulatory bottle of vodka to the soldier afterward; the vodka was a lot more expensive than the girl. The girl would get some sips, too. Then a return to the station, a tip to the washroom attendant for a fast douche, and overheated and giddy, she’d start all over. By definition prostitutes did not exist, because prostitution has been eliminated by the Revolution. Charges could be brought against them for spreading venereal disease, performing depraved acts or leading a nonproductive life, but by law there were no whores. – Gorky Park, 1981, p 151
Note there was no street uniform to indicate which women were selling sex: anyone in photos from the period could have been. The shoe marking was new to me. A website purporting to cover ‘sex in the Soviet Union‘ (before 1992) goes on about such identifying marks:
Prostitutes waited on the platforms of large suburban train stations. They sat with their legs stretched out and their prices written on the soles of their shoes, so that any passerby could check it out. There were two price levels for prostitutes in Moscow: either three or five rubles.
The girls usually could be found near the Prospect Mira subway station. They wore rings made of three-ruble or five-ruble bills. One was green, the other was blue, and it was easy to tell the price the girls were asking.
Prostitution politics are symbolic rather than functional: the laws as written do not ever reflect the presence, absence or predominance of commercial sex. This means looking at sex work’s mores (or habitus) can reveal much more. You learn more from good portrayals in fiction than from rote news items. Gorky Park is a perfect example of a book not about prostitution in which sex workers and clients express agency in the face of the law. Another way to think about this is what I call the Cultural Study of Commercial Sex. In this case, a culture of prohibition, secrecy and resistance through codes is shown: perfectly apt for Soviet times.
A combination of titillation and outrage characterise public rhetoric about commercial sex, along with a tone of moral indignation suited to crusaders. A policeman in Cornwall has just warned that paying for sex with an ‘unconsenting’ woman is rape. Poor dullard, as an agent of the law surely he knows that muddling legal terms isn’t good for his job? In UK law paying for sex with a ‘trafficked’ person is prohibited, not defined as ‘rape’. But then think how much easier everything will be when there’s no bothersome distinction to make between trafficking and rape. A single meme to denounce all.
Early on in my studies, when I first was invited to talk to groups, I learned quickly how the temperature went up although I wasn’t saying anything graphic or violent. I thought I was simply recounting how poorer women often decide to take risks to travel via smugglers to rich countries, some of them to work as maids, others to sell sex, many to try both. I thought I was telling good news about curious, determined, brave women.
But those reasonable stories, told in an ordinary tone, caused commotion. Some listeners seemed to feel I’d slapped them, asking Do you think everything is okay? What do you want us to do, not care, not try to help? So I saw there were two problems: First, my tone and emphasis seemed to accept the dire straits some women are in, and, second, my suggestion that trying to make women stay home did them no favours was highly unwelcome.
My tone is key to being able to study in a clear-headed way, plus it is genuinely how I feel. I wasn’t going to take up an indignant, judgmental stance. But I wanted to draw listeners in better, so I tried harder to put myself in the shoes of middle-class audiences, to understand their distress more. To frame my talks with something more familiar to them, some way for it not to sound as though acceptance of reality gets us all off the hook of giving a damn about other’s problems. I got a little better at it.
But I wouldn’t be able to continue commenting unless I felt a sort of calm about it all, a sense of belonging to the great stream of history. Not Progress but a long chain of events surrounding the exchange of sex for money.
In this context I was happy to receive the following email:
I wanted to tell you how much I liked your book The Three Headed Dog. It’s well written and honest. I enjoy your website and think you make a lot of sense.
I used to live in Holland and did from time to time have fun with a sex worker. The house was in a quiet suburb. The locals had no problem with the it. Indeed it was next door to a cafe where kids and adults would eat.
I got to know a few of the women who worked there. None were abused or forced into sex work. Some didn’t like the work, others did. They all were doing it for the money. Strong women not victims.
One lady became my regular. I would enter and be greeted by the Madam who would either ask for her or she would spot me and come over. I would play for her and then to a private room for an hour of fun.
So it’s not the world painted by some people. Thanks once again for your efforts.
The tone is cool and declarative: This is how it was. No rhetoric, few adjectives, no great claims. Just the experience a lot of people have when left alone out of the limelight where politicians and crusaders roar, sex workers and clients alike. Thanks to this anonymous client who wrote to me.
In The Three-Headed Dog, Félix’s partner Marcelo goes in for a bit of bombast about a migrant sex worker who’s started coming to the bar.
‘Yes I know other prostitutes drink at the Dog. But they aren’t coal-black Nigerians in white satin corsets and giant hairdos. They aren’t advertising it like she is.’
Leila finds Marcelo’s conformism intolerable, but I find him restful. A sort of psychological Rotarian who follows predictable lines of opinion, always quoting from the same sources in mainstream newspapers. He even once asked why I never got a job with the police so I could be a Good Guy going after the Bad. I pay no attention.
And I knew he was ashamed even before I replied, because he has limits. ‘Give over, Marcelo. Everyone can wear what they like here, it’s a neighbourhood tavern, not the opera house. She wears a coat over the corset, for God’s sake, but if she ever takes it off I’m not throwing her out, I’m telling you right now. Maybe I’ll wear my own corset here some day – it’s red.’
A drinker who was listening said, ‘Hey, I know which opera it is – La Traviata. You know, where the courtesan falls on the floor crying about her sin.’
The Three-Headed Dog is noir fiction, a novel set in Spain, with undocumented migrants as protagonists. Including sex workers who are coping – imagine that. The detective is a now-regularised migrant as well. It’s the first in a series, prepare for more non-scandalous treatment of underground lives. Readable on any device, no kindle required.
Why does it matter where you sell sex? Although most photos attached to media stories show truncated women’s bodies standing in dark streets, the news often concerns indoors: flats where migrants live and sell sex for short periods, ordinary flats rented by someone and hired out to women who fly in and fly out, making money and then moving on. British media like to call them brothels, a stupidity based on laws that prohibit more than one person at a time selling sex in indoor venues (yes, even two friends watching out for each other). Now they’re even called pop-up brothels, a cuteness deserving no further comment.
The flats don’t conform to the widely-held idea of brothels as places where clients can drink and socialise at bars and choose amongst a number of available workers to have sex with. Brothels don’t look like residential apartments in anyone’s imagination, any more than they look like clinics, carwashes or hair salons – all disguises that have been used. In old Barcelona photos you see the term mueblé to signify a brothel somewhere inside a residential building. In the photo to the right there is a venue El Gato Negro, which may be a bar or may lead to the mueblé mentioned in the sign at the left, which could be only a room or could be a flat (gomas in the Gato sign refers to condoms). Contemporary buildings are used the same way, with or without signage (see caption in below photo).
It doesn’t take a business-genius to figure out how to rent a house or flat and then sub-rent the space out to sex workers. Independent women do it or they find out about someone else and sub-rent from them. Nor is it difficult to buy budget air tickets online, nor, in the case of Europe and Europeans, to cross borders without showing passports. Some workers even use Air B&B, leading to outrage when homeowners want to believe chaste ‘families’ are enjoying non-sexual tourism in their rentals.
No wonder freelance sex work is a widespread international occupation. But despite this obvious fact, moral crusaders, police and media writers throw up their hands in horror at the supposed ‘traffickers’ who are setting flats up and then luring – that favourite word – unaware women to work in them. The assumptions are spelled out by judges at criminal trials who inevitably refer to women as vulnerable – a present-day version of innocent. In fact it all feels like the performance of a 19th-century melodrama in modern dress. And when the women protest strenuously enough that they set things up on their own, they are deported (even when selling sex isn’t prohibited – there’s always an excuse to toss them out.)
In a story from Singapore a migrant said to a reporter: ‘We have many customers every day and have all sorts of services. But we will be leaving in two days’ time.’ They were there on ‘social visit passes’ or tourist visas, and they indicated other women would be arriving when they left. The photo intends to show the ordinariness of the environment, I suppose – these are public housing units.
In Barcelona a news item relates how police are aware of 20 flats where, ‘without any kind of licence rooms are rented by the hour for sexual encounters. According to sources close to the case it was the same Martínez Bordiu family who found out that the tenant to whom they had rented the flat was using it as a brothel’ (casa de citas is the old-fashioned term used).
In The Three-Headed Dog, the migrant character Marina is working in a flat in Torremolinos, on the southern coast of Spain. When a client collapses she calls Félix Vidal:
It was after midnight when I parked in front of one of the faceless white apartment blocks, near where a couple with a small child were unpacking their car. I buzzed the street door, and a voice said ‘Closed’, but then there was bumping and a clank, and the door buzzed open. The family joined me in the small lift, fiddling with bags and folding up a push-chair.
At the flat, Marina let me in quickly, her hair springing out around her face like a great black halo. She pulled me into a room and closed the door on four young women in shorts and T-shirts huddled together looking scared. It was a bedroom conceived for a child in the original plan, so the double-sized bed that had been installed took up most of the space. A skimpy whip hung next to a red heart on the wall. On the floor beside the bed lay a man. Marina said, ‘He had some kind of attack. He was still conscious when I called you.’ I checked: he was breathing faintly.
The anonymity and ordinariness of houses, flats, apartments is preferred by a lot of workers and clients alike: people who don’t want bars, socialising, dance floors or fancy atmosphere. To call them brothels is to really stretch the imagination of already tired spectators at the Sex Work Wars. Sex takes place in houses anyway, so what difference does it make if money changes hands?