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.
By Laura Agustín, was published in Jacobin Magazine 6 December 2017. I wrote this after reading Julie Bindel’s new book but my thoughts are about the whole anti-prostitution movement as it stands today, whether formulated by so-called radical feminists, Christian missionaries, lawmakers or Rescue Industry social workers. Many others have commented on specific falsehoods and distortions in this book: especially see social media. Links were added by Jacobin. I begin with
__________________________________________________________ Entry for an encyclopedia of feminism: The Sex Work Wars: Decades of acrimonious debate about the meaning of exchanging sex for money. Near-total disagreement about terms, definitions, causes, and effects, and how to measure the involved phenomena. Mutual incomprehension on cultural meanings of sex, sexual identity, and gender relations. Laws backed by politicians based on the supposed truth of one or the other view. Little improvement for those being discussed. Outgrowth of the Lesbian/Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s.
A new shot has been fired in the Sex Work Wars. Julie Bindel’s The Pimping of Prostitution calls for a return to more authentic beginnings, when, as she tells it, everyone involved in the 1960s women’s liberation movement was in thrall to a few shining leaders.
This version rings no bells for me. We were revolting against 1950s domestic ideology that told women to be quiet, feminine, and satisfied with making homes for men. The meaning of liberation was to figure out how to live on our own terms, and if we did read mimeographed newsletters from activists, we didn’t think we had to agree with them. We didn’t feel anyone was our leader. We talked together on the streets, in classrooms, in cafés. Everyone’s experiences counted.
In those conversations, prostitution was considered neither a central issue nor a terrible thing — or not more terrible than everything else we were coming to recognize as oppressive. We wanted to know why housework wasn’t paid and women were supposed to do all the childrearing. We wanted to define our own ways to enjoy sex. We used a new word, ”sexist.” I don’t recall attending a single formal meeting, but I have identified since that time as a feminist.
In this book, Bindel offers two things: cheers and brickbats. Those who agree with her get cheers, everyone else gets brickbats. Less subtle than boxing commentary that recognizes all good punches, this is a bitterness born of thwarting: Prostitution still exists. Millett and Dworkin have been betrayed. Someone must pay.
Nowadays in conversations about women’s rights, there’s widespread agreement about the need for more education, equal salaries, and better job opportunities. But bring up women’s physical bodies, and ideologies of femininity and patriarchy flash like wildfire. Intransigent conflict pursues contraception, abortion, surrogacy and, perhaps above all, how women can and may consent to have sex. For radical feminists like Bindel, the insertion of money into a sexual relationship signifies no women can ever consent, even when they say they do.
News about women who sell sex has changed tone since publication in 2000 of the UN Protocol on Trafficking, although legal definitions are even now not fully agreed on. Media reports routinely confuse or use all available terms. Human trafficking is not distinguished from people-smuggling, borrowing money to migrate is called debt bondage, awful working conditions and child labor become modern slavery, and selling sex is renamed either sex trafficking or sex slavery. All sociocultural contexts are eliminated in favor of universalizing definitions. No interest is shown in considering how to improve working conditions. The result is to define women as victims in need of rescue, especially when they are selling sex.
In this context it’s not surprising that abolitionism should reemerge into the mainstream. Bindel calls hers the new abolition movement, misleadingly linking to Josephine Butler’s nineteenth-century campaigns to abolish government regulation of prostitution (not prostitution itself). Bindel rejects the aforementioned proliferation of terms: “Trafficking is merely a process in which some women and children are prostituted. Prostitution itself is the problem.” Which at least confirms a long-standing activist complaint regarding anti-trafficking campaigns: that the real object is prohibition of any woman from selling sex, anywhere, anytime.
Fear of trafficking is now used to justify a variety of repressive prostitution-policy regimes, including a law that bans the purchase of sex. First called the Swedish model, then the Nordic, this law, according to Bindel, can now be called the abolitionist model. The idea of this ban is to “End Demand,” on the theory that, if men were stopped from buying sex, women could not be exploited and would never sell sex. It is a ludicrously simplified market theory of supply and demand. Abolitionists claim the law decriminalizes the sale of sex by women (appropriating the central demand of the sex workers’ rights movement), failing to address what would happen to women’s income if there were no clients.
The book’s subtitle, Abolishing the Sex Work Myth, suggests it will prove there are no sex workers. Bindel names many countries she visited. She details the personal sufferings of women who hated selling sex: these are her heroes, and they come across as individuals. Representatives of the “pro-prostitution lobby,” on the contrary, are treated as a series of puppets, quoted to demonstrate their cynicism. Those who recognize the concept of agency as one reason to accept the existence of voluntary sex work are ridiculed as “choice” or “fun” feminists. We hear nothing from women who may not like sex work but continue doing it for their own good reasons.
Mud is slung at escort-agency managers, queer academics, gay libertarians, HIV/health NGOs, migration scholars, Amnesty International, and sex worker-led groups. The greatest wrath is reserved for funders like George Soros’s Open Society Foundations for daring to try to strengthen sex workers’ rights. Because she wants to obliterate all differences and discredit every conceivable source of opposition to radical feminist ideology, variety in types of sex work, degrees of management control, perceptions of autonomy, and amounts of money are dismissed out of hand. Canned summaries of a few moments in sex-worker-rights history are thrown in, but the entire international social movement is dismissed as a pimping “lobby.”
I am capable of reading works whose worldview I don’t like for research purposes, but this book defeated me. The table of contents looks rational, but each chapter consists of many short subsections that appear almost randomly placed. The style is bumpy and awkward, suggesting multiple writers and no editor. There’s no depth, nuance, or engagement with ideas.
And I found very little that might be called new, neither facts nor ideas. If the international abolitionist movement hoped this would be a new heavy weapon against enemies or a way to convince non-experts that sex work is an illusion, they will be shaking their heads in disappointment.
The worst of the contemporary abolitionist project is its failure to confront the question of options for women. Bindel feels Josephine Butler would be on her side? I feel she’d be on mine. At mid-nineteenth century Butler saw how few alternatives women had to achieve economic independence and did not advocate they should be deprived of the possibility of selling sex to survive.
As a scholar in the field, my question has never been whether selling sex is acceptable in moral or feminist terms. Instead I’ve focused on the fact that women everywhere have limited job options, and, when they are not well-educated or connected socially, those options generally reduce to low-paying, low-prestige work: street vending, home sewing, caring, cleaning, retail jobs, sweatshop labor, and selling sex. When the women are undocumented migrants the feasible options reduce to two: living in others’ families as maids or selling sex.
Given the low earnings of these occupations, it is hardly surprising that women who feel they can tolerate it do sex work instead. Less time spent working for more money means being able to support oneself, help others and still have time to take a walk or read a book. Sometimes sex workers get into relationships that don’t look good to outsiders. But what do abolitionists imagine women with few options will do if they are forced to stop sex work?
The old Magdalene Laundries and lock hospitals envisioned nothing better than domestic servitude for ”fallen women.” Is the proposition still that being a servant for pennies and a scant private life is better because it is more dignified? Or is it superior simply because it is notsex work? Either way, to focus always on the moral aspects of sexual labor means forever sidelining projects to improve working conditions and legal protections.
Bindel’s need to manifest indignation at the slightest deviance from a simplified ideology means readers get no distinctions between dastardly procurers, human rights groups, independent escorts, academic researchers, workers in massage parlors, and Hugh Hefner. We’re all the same thing. It’s the textbook definition of fundamentalism.
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.
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.
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.