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.
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.
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.
The other day I lightly said It’s a blokey thing to a young person who replied That’s a sexist thing to say! The next day another young person heard me use the word masculine and cried You’re a feminist! I take it ideas about sexism and feminism have extended their contradictory ways into small corners of ordinary life and think it funny I got accused of opposing sins on back-to-back days. Some of us don’t fit neatly into identity-categories, eh?
Most of the discourse about buying and selling sex focuses on the abstract question Is it Bad or Good? in one way or another. More interesting is anything that shows how diverse transactions are, how wide the field, how contradictory the possibilities, how unlikely the goal of an ethical bottom line. In the following vignette from Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951) a commercial transaction is deeply embedded in context: World War II London, Clapham, the narrator’s love for a married woman, his obsessive jealousy. They have an argument and he walks out. It is May 1940.
That evening I was still full of my hatred and distrust when I reached Piccadilly. More than anything in the world I wanted to hurt Sarah. I wanted to take a woman back with me and lie with her upon the same bed in which I made love to Sarah; it was as though I knew that the only way to hurt her was to hurt myself. It was dark and quiet by this time in the streets, though up in the moonless sky moved the blobs and beams of the searchlights. You couldn’t see faces where the women stood in doorways and at the entrances of the unused shelters. They had to signal with their torches like glow-worms. All the way up Sackville Street the little lights went on and off. I found myself wondering what Sarah was doing now. Had she gone home or was she waiting on the chance of my return?
A woman flashed on her light and said, ‘Like to come home with me, dear?’ I shook my head and walked on. Further up the street a girl was talking to a man: as she lit up her face for him, I got a glimpse of something young, dark and happy and not yet spoiled: an animal that didn’t yet recognise her captivity. I passed and then came back up the road towards them; as I approached the man left her and I spoke. ‘Like a drink?’ I said.
‘Coming home with me afterwards?’
‘I’ll be glad of a quick one.’
We went into the pub at the top of the street and I ordered two whiskies, but as she drank I couldn’t see her face for Sarah’s. She was younger than Sarah, she couldn’t have been more than nineteen, more beautiful, one might even have said less spoiled, but only because there was so much less to spoil: I found I no more wanted her than I wanted the company of a dog or a cat. She was telling me that she had a nice flat on the top floor only a few houses down; she told me what rent she had to pay and what her age was and where she was born and how she had worked for a year in a café. She told me she didn’t go home with anybody who spoke to her, but she could see at once I was a gentleman. She said she had a canary called Jones named after the gentleman who had given it her. She began to talk of the difficulty of getting groundsel in London. I thought: if Sarah is still in my room I can ring up. . .
Looking at her over my whisky I thought how odd it was that I felt no desire for her at all. It was as if quite suddenly after all the promiscuous years I had grown up. My passion for Sarah had killed simple lust for ever. Never again would I be able to enjoy a woman without love.
And yet surely it was not love that had brought me into this pub; I had told myself all the way from the Common that it was hate, as I tell myself still, writing this account of her, trying to get her out of my system for ever, for I have always told myself that if she died, I could forget her.
I went out of the pub, leaving the girl with her whisky to finish and a pound-note as a salve to her pride, and walked up New Burlington Street as far as a telephone-box. I had no torch with me and was forced to strike match after match before I could complete the dialling of my number. Then I heard the ringing tone and I could imagine the telephone where it stood on my desk and I knew exactly how many steps Sarah would have to take to reach it if she were sitting in a chair or lying on the bed. And yet I let it go on ringing in the empty room for half a minute. — The End of the Affair, pp 57-59
Now try to reduce the narrator’s interaction with a woman he picks up on the street to the question Is it Good or Bad?
This post is part of a series on sex work in fiction. Scroll backwards to May 2017 and see the Related Items appearing below this post. I’ve contributed to this production with The Three-Headed Dog, a noir novel about Latin American migrants in Spain.
In Slammerkin, Mary is a street prostitute in mid-18th-century London. Thrown out of her dismal basement home by a mother absolute in condemnation of Mary’s pregnancy at 14, she meets a friendly whore, Doll, who initiates her into street trading. Mary is in love with nice clothing and comes to see there is no hard line between the Good Woman and the Bad.
[Her mother] Susan Digot wouldn’t likely recognise her child-as-was, all gussied up in a flowered jacket-bodice and a worn silk skirt buoyed out by a pair of improvers. Mary looked like a woman of the town, these days. She smelled different, even, with the mouth-watering lemony reek of Hungary water.
What a fool Susan Digot had been, to think everyone in gold braid her better, and the wider the skirt, the higher the breeding! Mary had seen commoners walk as queens on the stage in Drury Lane. Doll was opening Mary’s eyes to all life’s shortcuts, back alleys, gaps in the walls. In these uncertain times, Mary was learning, a duchess was sometimes just a stroller who’d picked the right honourable cully.
Kitty Fisher by Joshua Reynolds
In a four-story house in Golden Square lived a lady who’d once been known in the trade as Angel Arse. On the corner of Hyde Park was a new mansion the Duke of Kingston was building for Miss Chudleigh, who’d been his mistress for a dozen years already and he still hadn’t tired of her. The famous Kitty Fisher was said to be about to swap all her lordly lovers for a rich husband from the Lower House. A bit of loveliness, a bit of luck; that’s all a girl needed.
On long bright evenings, Mary sat on the grass in Lamb’s Conduit Fields behind Holborn and watched the courting couples meander by. The air was full of the sounds of leisure: the archers’ arrows hitting the target, the click of balls on the bowling green, or the distant roars of a dogfight or wrestling match. She was reading again for the first time since school. She bought crack-backed romances and memorised all the long words, in case she’d ever need them. The History of Pamela Andrews was her favourite. The crafty wench, to fend off her master all those times, then squeeze a proposal of marriage out of him in the end! She’d swapped her maid’s apron for bridal satins and ended up as good a lady as any other, hadn’t she? It all went to show, Mary thought. If a girl had her wits about her, nowadays, she could rise as high as she wanted, as sure as cream through the milk. Anything was possible. – Slammerkin p247 (Emma Donoghue 2002)
About Mary’s interpretation of Pamela – well! Astute doesn’t begin to describe it. No wonder social blowhards began to condemn the reading of novels by gels.
The word for the loose gown, a slammerkin, came to be used for the women who wore them. On the word slammerkin, from one etymological dictionary:
There is a group of North Sea Germanic words in sl- that mean “sloppy,” and also “slovenly woman” and, less often, “slovenly man,” and that tend to evolve toward “woman of loose morals.” Compare slattern, also English dialectal slummock “a dirty, untidy, or slovenly person” (1861), variant of slammacks “slatternly woman,” said to be from slam “ill-shaped, shambling fellow.” Also slammakin (from 1756 as a type of loose gown; 1785 as “slovenly female,” 1727 as a character name in Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera”), with variants slamkin, slammerkin. Also possibly related are Middle Dutch slore “a sluttish woman,” Dutch slomp, German schlampe “a slattern.”
This knowledge came to me during regular posts/tweets entitled Today’s word for a Bad Woman. There are way way way too many of them, and almost any negative meaning deteriorates sooner or later into promiscuity and prostitution – beginning with sl- or not.