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.
My public talk Sex at the Margins will be held at Public Room, which describes itself like this:
PUBLIC ROOM – Centre for design and innovation: Mezze bar, music, free co–working space for freelancers, concept store, prototyping room, library, commercial bazaars, fine arts and photo exhibitions, professional presentations, workshops for children and adults, business meetings, seminars and celebrations. Public Room is urban, multifunctional place open for all companies, organizations and enthusiasts from all generations… It is a pure hybrid space that abounds with opportunities, creative potential, programme for all tastes and people with positive attitude. You are welcome to realize your ideas in Public Room.
Pure hybrid– sounds like my sort of space. Mixed use, open to all, I’m in favour.
On Saturday 16 December, STAR STAR, a sex workers organisation, will do a Red Light District performance in Skopje city centre at 1700-1900 and 2000-2200 (Boulevard St Kliment Ohridski).
On 17 December at noon there is a march on Macedonia Street to mark the Day to End Violence against Sex Workers. Many sex worker groups hold events around the world on this day, and I’m happy to be in Southeast Europe, perhaps even in some sunshine.
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?
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.