Category Archives: fiction

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

Who are migrant sex workers?

You paid someone to help you leave home, travel across borders or into unknown areas of your own country. You knew you’d be selling sex but probably not much about how it would work. You might not think of yourselves as migrants but as travellers. There’s no need for you to label yourselves based on jobs you take. But others will talk about you and find it convenient to give you an identity-label: Migrant sex workers. Foreign prostitutes. Escorts. Victims of trafficking. Sex slaves.

You look like other woman travellers in the airport. Maybe you bought the ticket online yourself, or maybe someone else did and gave you the booking number. You might be using your own passport applied for by you in the normal way in your country. Or maybe you paid someone to get you a passport under another name or age. You may understand that this implies your connivance in committing crime, or you may not.

However things work out for you, there will be stories about how miserable you are. No way out for Almería’s prostitutes relies on the fact that most undocumented migrants, whatever your jobs, take on debt in order to leave home, arrive to another place and get into paying work. The debts often sound outlandish to outsiders, leading them to describe you as enslaved (using the term debt bondage when they don’t ever refer to mortage- or student-loans like that).

A recent photo series taken at a brothel in Roquetas de Mar purports to show how awful living and working conditions are for migrant sex workers: Infamous Farmhouses (Cortijos de la infamia). But, if you already know from personal experience how poverty and informal or illegal businesses look, you won’t be upset by shots of rubbish in the street. You may even see the bright side of landscapes or interiors, despite their being shot with the purpose of horrifying outsiders. [Note that the caption to this photo describes the women as fleeing inside to escape photographers.]

The disconnect between how outsiders see these scenes and what they mean to migrants is apparently unfixable. I was once challenged, after a speech I’d given, to admit that migrants are, objectively speaking, victims (because of structural inequalities if nothing else, but of course there was a lot else.) I responded that I understood why she, a middle-class educated and avowed Socialist, might view poor migrants as victims. But, I said, if you shift to their point of view then you don’t see things that way. You see yourselves as taking actions to get ahead inside very shitty life circumstances.. That’s what I do, rather than labelling. I look at the situation from the subjects’ standpoint.

There’s no doubt that smugglers often lie and take advantage of travellers who have paid for their services. But campaigns to keep everyone at home in case they might be mistreated by smugglers miss the fundamental point: In the absence of hope for the future people are willing to take risks. In the case of Colombian women hiring smugglers to take them to China, the government campaign aims to ensure that ‘women don’t believe in the offers of easy money to be made abroad.’ But money is made abroad, and lots of it, and no migrant I ever met expected it to be easy. More to the point, everyone doesn’t suffer the same abuse; experiences vary. But what all migrants are doing is taking risks.

It’s not fair, of course it’s not. But insisting everyone is by definition better off staying at home rather than taking risks is crazy in a world where transport is easily available and the adventure of travel is promoted constantly. And without new kinds of flexible migration policies the informal market where smugglers operate will continue unregulated. Putting smugglers in prison will not stop others from entering the field. [Note smugglers are often referred to as travel agents by their paying customers.]

In Sex at the Margins, I avoided labelling women migrants as much as possible. On Twitter I often use the tag #migrantsexworkers for brevity’s sake, but most people don’t label themselves anything. Imagine the term migrant construction workers or migrant kitchen help: they sound silly because it’s understood that they’re not identities. They’re temporary descriptions of folks going through a life-stage. Plenty of women who sell sex don’t call themselves sex workers or prostitutes or anything else. I used to hear women saying I work at night. For that matter, even if you identify as a victim of trafficking, that, too, is a temporary description. Not an identity.

After all, you may have started out doing another job after moving to a new country. For women that’s likely to be some kind of domestic service (as a maid, nanny, cleaner). But if and when that didn’t work out you may have switched to selling sex. Take the recent case of a Bangladeshi migrant in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

In The Three-Headed Dog, characters are going through migration processes, not taking on job-labels. Yes, it’s a crime novel, but one about ordinary people in common situations. They have names, they talk, and none is either a Happy Hooker or a permanently damaged victim. I began writing fiction about these subjects to escape from tedious, repetitive debate-formats where black-and-white questions make nuance impossible.

I’m now being accused by fanatics of ‘sanitising’ injustice by sometimes using the term migrant sex workers. Thank goodness it doesn’t matter to most of you which language or label I use: call yourself what you like. That’s the point.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist