Category Archives: colonialism

colonialism describes how outsiders who consider themselves superior rule a majority they have invaded, physically and metaphorically

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

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

If you thought Trafficking was a bad term, try Modern Slavery

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.

Mike Dottridge was director of Anti-Slavery International from 1996 to 2002. For more detail see Eight reasons why we shouldn’t use the term ‘modern slavery’

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…

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Nigerian migrant women as subjects: Sex work in fiction

Anti-trafficking campaigners often single out Nigerian women as the worst case of what they call sex trafficking. I first wrote about this years ago and note that, despite critiques and debunkings, the trend holds. In stories about Nigerian migrant women, ‘rituals’ are usually cited that are supposed to have bound them in a specially sinister way to smugglers. It’s straight-up racist colonialism, the inability and unwillingness to conceive of even the most superficial aspects of a non-western culture. Lurid conclusions are jumped to immediately according to which juju ceremonies are not comparable to Roman Catholic ones, for one example – though promises, petitions and talismans are found in both. As though one sort of prayer for help or success were inherently irrational and the other not.

That’s not to say that conditions are not pretty dire for many women and men in western Africa, politically, economically, on the gender front – which means people can be willing to take big risks and assume onerous debts when they travel to work abroad. Early in my studies I learned about how some migrants think about that in Lucciole neri – Le prostitute nigeriane si raccontano (Iyamu Kennedy and Pino Nicotri, editors, 1999), one of my sources of ethnographic research with migrants who sell sex in Europe, for what eventually became Sex at the Margins. These Nigerians were working in Italy. [NB: It’s never clear whether the label Nigerian actually means born in and identified with that country. In the world of migration national identities are shifty.]

On Black Sisters’ Street, by Chika Unigwe, came out in 2009. I was prompted to read it by This is Africa’s mention of it along with Sex at the Margins. It’s a novel telling the stories of four women’s migrations from Nigeria to Belgium where they work in windows in the red-light district. None of them has had an easy life and none of them sees herself as a victim, despite the presence of a powerful smuggler in Lagos and a controlling madam in Antwerp. They are, the author says, willing to play the trump card that God has wedged in between their legs. Unigwe has said:

If your parents can’t help you out and your government has failed you, these pimps and traffickers have at least given you a chance to leave and make a living. He’s your saviour. It takes someone outside the situation to see these pimps and traffickers as the bad guys.

At the end of the book we are told how three of the women fare in the future. After nine years in Antwerp, Efe became a madam herself.

It would take eighteen months to get her first of two girls whom she would indeed buy at an auction presided by a tall, good-looking Nigerian man in sunglasses and a beret. It would be in a house in Brussels, with lots to drink and soft music playing in the background. The women would enter the country with a musical band billed to perform at the Lokerenfeest. The man in the sunglasses was the manager of the band and as usual had, in addition to genuine members of the band, added the names of the women who had paid him to the list he submitted at the embassy in Abuja. The women would be called into the room one at a time for the buyers to see and admire. They would all have numbers, for names were not important. Their names would be chosen by whoever bought them. Names that would be easy for white clients to pronounce… Efe would buy numbers five and seven. Number five because she smiled easily. Number seven because she looked docile and eager to please, the sort of girl who was grateful for little. Like Madam, Efe would have some police officers on her payroll to ensure the security of her girls and of her business. She would do well in the business, buying more girls to add to her fleet. pp 278-9

Yes, this is an auction where employers bid on women who will sell sex, but beware glossing all nuances and calling it slave-trading. The women in question want to migrate and accept they’ll be selling sex and paying off a debt. Which doesn’t mean they know everything that may happen to them and how constrained life will be in another country. The Three-Headed Dog, my own recent novel, is about the same dynamics, with Latin Americans in Spain but also a strong Nigerian character – Promise.

I first published this post only slightly changed on 22 September 2011 and publish it again now as part of a series on sex work in fiction.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Sexwork and migration fiction, part 3: Location and nation

two-women-sitting-at-a-bar-1902.jpg!LargeEvery reviewer has to mention a different defect in the book under review: That was my conclusion when reviews of Sex at the Margins were proliferating. Some of the defects pointed to said more about the reviewer than the book, like the English academic who dismissed the research because it had taken place in Spain. I laughed a lot at that one. If you’re interested in migration and globalisation then nation becomes a funny category.

The other day I was interviewed by an investigator interested in undocumented migration in The Three-Headed Dog. We met in a blue bar and drank from stemmed glasses. She agreed I may publish a few points of our conversation, on the subject of place, location and nationality. Her name is Zelda.

mapZelda: Why did you situate The Three-Headed Dog in Spain? Is the plot special to the Costa del Sol? Or could it be moved to Britain or Italy or the state of Florida?

Laura: Spain has long been part of my own life and I lived in Granada while I was reading and doing fieldwork for and then writing what became Sex at the Margins. The Costa del Sol is one of the most fluid and confusing places I know, full of every sort of human mobility, and therefore appealing to me.

The stories in The Dog could be moved in terms of every important concept: How migrants reason and feel about what they’re doing and the sorts of networks they live in. The way they have to look for jobs and housing, the existing in and crossing out of social margins. Those are universal dynamics for undocumented migrants anywhere in the world. But margins feel different according to the terrain and the historical moment. migrantes-coahuiIf the scene were set elsewhere plot-mechanics would vary according to local laws and policing, cultural ideas about sex and women’s mobility, the availability of black-market jobs and the ease of getting out if things go wrong. If there is a coast, boats are an option. Sometimes trains are easily hopped.

Zelda: What about the migrants, are they interchangeable? Could the group of Dominicans on the airplane just as well be Chinese? What about the young Romanian smuggler, could he be Greek? Could Polish Tanya be French? Does anything about nationality matter?

Laura: The human responses portrayed are not unique to any nationality, but some of the mechanics of migration would have to change if you were to make arbitrary switches. For example, Tanya might humanly be French, but she’d be less likely to set up a cleaning service in Madrid. Or the Dominican club-owner, Carlos: If he were Chinese he might certainly run a hostess-bar, but it would be in another part of Madrid, and have a different style, perhaps with gambling, and would the protagonist Félix plausibly have become his close friend?

125969_day labor_GMK_The key to making the story work in any particular place is knowing how migrant networks function and the patterns that have developed based on (1) the possibility of getting visas to other countries and (2) colonial and other dependency/linguistic histories that lead to family relationships. For instance, Brazilians have visa-freedom to travel to Portugal, which is part of Schengen territory, meaning they cross easily into Spain and rest of Europe. Dominican women have a long history as maids and sex workers in Spain – over generations. These are migrations that give meaning to the word transnational.

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Zelda: Can migrant women become sex workers anywhere, whether there’s some kind of regulated sex work or not?

Laura: The two jobs available everywhere to undocumented women are maiding and sex work, but if the plot were picked up and put down in Hong Kong, say, then adjustments would be needed to the kinds of sex businesses where migrants are likely to get employed. And to take up any kind of sex work without knowing the local context and laws, without knowing a few people on the inside, who can give informed advice, is highly risky. This is why there are roles for ‘protectors’ in the migration process, and most of them are not monsters. The plot would have to reflect this.

Zelda: What about racism? Aren’t some countries worse in that way? Wouldn’t that make a big difference to where you set the story?

imgresLaura: In the book, several of the Dominicans reflect on racial hierarchies that affect them in Spain, including those that give some dark ethnicities more cachet than their own. All cultures have ideas and prejudices about Others. But also mixing and hybridity are everywhere, even if more in some places than in others. The consequences are always the same: natives feel threatened, some promote xenophobia, governments talk about tightening borders. But there are colonial histories that can make natives feel that some foreigners are closer to themselves than others, whether their skin is blacker or not.

Zelda: So colonial things, like language. Dominicans who go to Spain already speak Spanish, which has to be an advantage, right? What would happen if you changed the group on the plane to Chinese? Isn’t the whole thing much harder if it’s a new language?

20130516-3L: Not as much as you imagine. Félix visits a Chinese migrant who runs a big variety store and who stands up well to extortion attempts because she has community behind her. Migrants come via networks whether they are legal or not. And migrants from different communities often communicate more easily with each other in the new language, because they all speak more slowly or with a common vocabulary. Then, too, sharing language can work the other way: when Dominicans speak, Spanish listeners know where they are from and bring negative cultural baggage to bear.

Z: The Costa del Sol has all kinds of ethnic groups in it, but you mention places like a Danish church and the urbanizaciones where everyone living there is the same nationality. Don’t a lot of migrants stick to their own kind? Isn’t there insularity among other Europeans who have made second homes on the coast?

CDN-Annons-tidning-2014-09-Svenska-400Laura: There is, but not forever for everyone. Europeans trying to settle and start businesses feel ambivalent about what they’ve left behind and anxious to hold onto their national selves. You see signs in Swedish or German, shops with food items imported so other cuisines can be maintained. But over time things loosen up for a lot of people, they become more curious and less fearful, they make new connections and cultures blend. And for some people, being in a mixed place with a shifting sense of belonging becomes interesting. They don’t find it so easy to answer the question Where are you from? It’s more about This is where I am now. I wrote about this kind of cosmopolitanism among sex workers in Leaving Home for Sex, many years ago.

For more about The Three-Headed Dog, a noir/mystery novel on sexwork and migration, see
Sexwork and Migration Mystery
Melodrama and Archetypes
Jobs in the Sex Industry

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist