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.
Two bloggers have interviewed me on the occasion of publishing a new book. First I’ll show you Maggie McNeill’s, because it’s written; after that I’ll give the link to Johnny Lemuria’s listenable podcast interview.The Honest Courtesan has kindly given permission for me to reproduce the full conversation here.
Dr. Laura Agustín, author of the blog The Naked Anthropologist and the book Sex at the Margins, the seminal work on “sex trafficking” hysteria (in which she coined the term “rescue industry”), has written The Three-Headed Dog, a novel dramatizing the problems faced by migrants. It’s another way of introducing readers to the issues the “sex trafficking” paradigm attempts to paper over, which Dr. Agustín has studied for over 20 years and understands in a way very few others do. I recently read the novel, and Dr. Agustín graciously agreed to answer some questions about it.
MM: Sex at the Margins has been and continues to be a work of major importance to the sex workers’ rights movement; I know it really helped me to shake off the dualistic thinking about “willing” vs “coerced” sex work, and it’s invaluable in getting people to look at their preconceptions around why people (especially women) leave their original home countries to work. So why did you decide to write fiction instead of a 10th-anniversary edition?
LA: The essence of Sex at the Margins doesn’t need updating, by which I mean women’s migration to work as maids or to sell sex, the use of smugglers, the rise of the Rescue Industry. Someone else can document the growth and proliferation of that last, if they can stomach it, but the core ideas haven’t changed. I wanted to write stories to reach people who don’t read books like Sex at the Margins and who only hear about the issues from mainstream media reports. The Three-Headed Dog provides a way to learn about social realities and be gripped by stories at the same time.
MM: I write fiction myself, so that makes sense to me. But what made you choose the crime genre? Why not do a “straight” novel?
LA: Crime seemed like the right frame, because everyone thinks smuggling and undocumented migration are at least technically crimes – leaving the idea of trafficking out of it. I am a fan of some kinds of mystery writing, and the formula of a detective who searches for missing migrants provides infinite opportunities for all sorts of stories and characters.
MM: I think you just started to answer one of my questions! At the end of the book several questions are unresolved, and I would have liked to know more about Félix, the detective. Is this the first of a series?
LA: I’ve got too many stories to tell for one book. The Dog was getting long and complicated, so I decided to make it the first in a series. In the detective genre it’s common for some questions to remain dangling, and readers know they can learn more in the next installment. If I’d been writing 150 years ago I might have done weekly installments in a magazine, as Dickens did with The Pickwick Papers. In the next book, which I’ve started, Félix’s search takes her to Calais and London.
MM: I was very intrigued by Félix, and it seems to me that she might be based on you. Would I be correct? And are any other characters based on people you know?
LA: The characters created themselves in my mind out of the many thousands of migrant friends and acquaintances I’ve had in my life. Including myself. But they sprang forth and told me who they were. I identify with much of Félix’s character, but I identify with much of the smuggler Sarac’s character, too.
MM: I like that Félix has some history of sex work, and that she still seems to be comfortable taking gigs that dip into the edges of sex work.
LA: She certainly was a sex worker during the European tour she did when younger with her friend Leila, who now lives in Tangier. I think she still takes sexwork gigs when it suits her. I expect she’ll tell us more about that in the future.
MM: Not many novels have well-developed and nuanced sex workers as major characters, and when we appear as minor characters we’re mostly there to be rescued or murdered. But these characters, even the minor ones, are much more developed than that. There was one character, Marina, who was clearly intending to do sex work, but what about the others? I couldn’t be sure.
LA: This is Marina’s second time sexworking in Spain. Félix looks for two other characters in spas (massage joints) in Madrid, and one of those is adamant about not intending to be a maid. They’re Latin Americans who belong to a long tradition of working in indoor businesses like bars and flats, or sometimes in the street. They arrive with contacts and some prior knowledge of what they’re getting into, so it’s a serious problem when the smuggler makes them de-plane in Madrid instead of Málaga. Of the other characters, Promise, the Nigerian, planned to sexwork in the street, and Eddy, the boy who goes missing, doesn’t intend anything but is moving in that direction.
MM: It seemed to me that their ending up in Madrid was a very big issue, even beyond the lack of connections. Is Madrid so very different from Málaga?
LA: Yes, Madrid is a harder place, a capital city and centre of echt-Spanish culture. Málaga is on the Costa del Sol, crossroads for many kinds of migration, smuggling, tourism and crime. It’s a long stretch of coast that ends in a point only 32 kilometres from Africa across the Mediterranean Sea. Nowadays many non-Spanish Europeans from colder climates have homes there in quasi-closed communities. The coast is by no means a piece of cake, but it’s not a cold, self-important northern city. Personally I feel a great sense of history there and lived in Granada during the years I worked on Sex at the Margins.
MM: So it’s a good place to find jobs that aren’t strictly legal?
LA: This is about informal economies that exist in parallel to formal ones (which means they’re included in government accounting). Informal economies are even larger than the formal in some developing countries. In Spain it is not illegal to sell sex, but undocumented migrants have no right to be in the country at all, much less work there. The same is true when they get jobs in restaurant kitchens, on construction sites, picking fruit and working as maids and cleaners. The informal economy rolls along, the jobs are available and migrants are more or less glad to get them despite the clandestinity.
MM: And as you discussed in Sex at the Margins, it’s this informal economy that’s depicted as “trafficking” nowadays, even when there’s no coercion involved per se.
LA: The group that arrives by plane at the beginning are undocumented migrants. They’ve got papers to show at the border: passports and tourist visas. Fakery was involved, and these young people are planning to get paid work, so they’re going to misuse the visas. A guy who’s part of the smuggling travels with them. The project is based on the migrants getting jobs and income so they can pay back debts they or their families took on when they bought travel-agency-type services (known in crime-circles as smuggling). Technically they’re all committing crimes, but to the migrants they feel like minor crimes, given the well-known availability of jobs when they arrive. Everyone knows people who’ve done it and sent money home. Do smugglers sometimes resort to nefarious practices? Of course; it’s an unregulated economy. But if smugglers want to stay in the business they guard their reputation. Word spreads.
MM: I’m sure the rescue industry folks would find fault with the fact that the book isn’t about people “rescuing” these migrants from their smugglers.
LA: I wrote this book out of love, not as polemic. I’d have to get paid very well to devote myself for long to analysing moral entrepreneurship; I don’t find crusader-figures interesting. I don’t see the world in black-and-white, I like ambiguity and shifting ground. In Félix’s interior life, questions of helping and saving play a part, but she refuses the rescuer-role.
MM: And really, even the villains aren’t the mustache-twirling cardboard characters so beloved by those who promote the “sex trafficking” narrative. I’m thinking about Sarac, the smuggler, and Carlos, the sex club owner.
LA: The smugglers are squabbling amongst themselves and not very appealing, but they aren’t monsters or driving anyone into bondage. They charge for their services. Sarac worked as a soldier/mercenary, now does “security” and is involved in people-smuggling. He wants to do something new, but not pimping. Carlos operates hostess clubs in Madrid. Those are not illegal, but he may employ illegal migrants. He’s part of an established tradition, and he makes good money on the women’s work.
MM: I think American readers have some very confused ideas about the sex industry and migration in Europe. Do you think The Three-Headed Dog will appeal to them and help clear up some of those misconceptions?
LA: Undocumented migration and working in underground economies are worldwide phenomena no matter what local culture or national laws prevail. Ways to earn money by selling sex vary in the details, but sex workers recognise each other across national borders and talk about the same problems and solutions everywhere. Sometimes places where laws are uglier provide more opportunities. Since the migrants are working illegally in Spain they have a lot in common with all sex workers in the USA, right?
MM: True; all of us are illegal here, whether we were born here or not. Is there anything else you’d like to tell the readers that I haven’t thought of?
LA: Yes, I want to point out that even if you don’t own a Kindle, you can still buy the Kindle version of The Three-Headed Dog and download a free reading app right there. And you can read more about sex industry jobs here at the Naked Anthropologist.
This is a project of author and artist John L Robinson, aka Johnny Lemuria, whose introduction says This is a decadent podcast; if you can’t handle that you should go elsewhere. Actually I didn’t say anything decadent, though some abolitionists think I’m one of Satan’s handmaidens.
Or listen here:
Thank you, Johnny and Maggie. Anyone else interested in an interview? Contact me on the form to your right.