Category Archives: fiction

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

Sex at the Margins: Beyond Binaries in Trafficking & Sex Work

I’ve been invited to speak at the Human Trafficking Center of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, Colorado. The talk is called Sex at the Margins: Beyond Binaries in Trafficking & Sex Work. In the 10th-anniversary year of Sex at the Margins I’ll be reflecting on the oceanic changes that have taken place since I first thought about the issues. Beyond Binaries is right: Flee from all attempts to reduce migration and sex-work questions to black and white. What I say is pretty much the opposite of everything seen and said now on the subjects in the media, by politicians and by Rescue Industry participants.

The event, entitled the Monica Petersen Memorial Lecture, is open to the public, taking place on Wednesday 10 January 2018 from 12-2pm at Sie Center Maglione Hall (5th Floor), on the campus at 2201 South Gaylord Street: further details and a link to RSVP here on eventbrite . There is also a facebook page.

Later that day I’ll be reading from Sex at the Margins and The Three-Headed Dog at the University Library, Anderson Academic Commons Room 290, 2150 East Evans Avenue from 17:00-18:00. There’ll be a discussion and Q&A afterwards.

I’d love to meet anyone in person I’ve chatted to online, so do identify yourselves. And I’ve got a couple of days partially free to wander the town, so let me know if anything interesting is happening.

-Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist

Xiaojie: no sexworker identity

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.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Sex work in fiction: Gorky Park, Moscow prostitution doesn’t exist

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.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Incitement to paedophilia: It’s the zeitgeist

The headline reads Spanish brothel’s “back to school” party sparks outrage in Andalusia. El Bosque is a legal club de alterne where sex workers drink, dance and chat with customers with the option to retire to private rooms for paid sex. The party-poster was called an incitement to paedophilia.

Clubs like El Bosque, known colloquially in Spanish as puticlubs, are legal businesses in Spain; here you can see a typical for-sale advertisement. Activists describe sex work in Spain as alegal: neither expressly prohibited nor permitted by law.

The anti-prostitution movement has long deplored these clubs as sites of violence against women. But in the campaign here, a party-style tolerated for ten years became intolerable to non-campaigners on the ground of promoting paedophilia, despite the obvious age of women (and their clothing) in the poster. The club’s owner removed the posters and cancelled the party.

Why am I interested? To have a ‘field’ of study means keeping track of events over time. Now that I’ve been observing opposition to the sex industry for more than 20 years I clock details, small moments of change. Opposition to paedophilia is not new at all. Outrage about enjo kosai and other kinds of juvenile sex work is also now old. But opposition to commercial-sex parties where adult women wear mock schoolgirl outfits shows a shift in mores about what is offensive. The pictures caused distaste.

But do such parties actually promote sex with young girls? It’s a question impossible ever to answer, like the effect of watching porn or violent movies. For all the palaver about research, most of it carried out about social behaviour can only vaguely intimate effects on one group or another. The neighbours’ feeling offended is palpably real, though neighbours who don’t feel offended are omitted from the story.

My formal study of opposition to the sex industry began with women planning to migrate to Spain, where two paying options awaited them: live-in domestic work or various sex jobs. There’s a wide gamut of these.

The life of migrants who find work in clubs de alterne and other venues is the theme of The Three-Headed Dog, a noir novel set in Málaga and Madrid. One of the characters is a 16-year-old Dominican boy in process of getting into sex work. Eddy is not well-educated but no longer wants to be in school or live with his parents. The detective sent to find him has to choose whether to try to rescue him against his own will.

Read more about sex work and migration in fiction and the ethical dilemmas for those concerned about it.

The Three-Headed Dog can be read on any device, just press for the one you want.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist