Dear Students of Sex Work and Trafficking

I receive ever more messages from students doing advanced degrees. Almost invariably they request that I answer their personal questions – usually fundamental, 101-level questions I have written about many times and that one could probably find the answer to by googling (including my name if the question is what would I say). The messages sent me also tell where writers have been on my website before arriving at the contact form, and most often they haven’t been anywhere at all.

I used to reply by pointing them to the various kinds of resources on my website:

But I have grown tired of sending such obvious messages; this website is clear and easy to navigate. Someone suggested I write a FAQ, and I was once asked for a list of bullet points summarising my knowledge. I will never provide either of those. Not on principle, no, but because pretty much the whole thrust of what I do is refuse to reduce complex questions to easy summaries or snappy slogans. What would bullet points say, anyway?

  • The average age of entry into prostitution is not 13.
  • There are not 30 million slaves in the world.
  • Some people like selling sex, some dislike it and some don’t mind much.
  • Poorer people are also capable of deciding what to do with their own lives.

You see? Ridiculous. I’ve heard numerous theories about what this need for spoon-feeding means: the Internet makes it too easy to write and ask, these are elitist kids with a huge sense of entitlement, people think it’s part of an academic’s job to help all students, reading is dead, helicopter-parenting teaches students to expect continual mentoring, people think women are born to serve, kids are just arrogant or impolite, it’s a type of intellectual exploitation or plagiarism, they think answering questions is part of every activist’s job. Since I’m not an academic and work freelance, I’m specially bothered when it’s assumed I should take time to do unpaid work on their behalf (for example, and I’m not kidding, act as their supervisor during their phd).

Suggestions of how to handle these queries include delete instantly, send a standard reply, give a price for the consultation. Here is the delightful form-letter author Robert Heinlein sent out 35 years ago. Like Heinlein, I do engage with people who show they have been reading me, who express gratitude and who offer an interesting insight – even one in question-form. In an attempt to fend off the usual ‘Talk with me about trafficking’ messages, I placed this notice for contacting me on this website:

Laura Agustín regrets that she cannot help students with papers or theses or act as a sounding-board for ideas and doubts, no matter how interesting they may be. If your enquiry relates to migration, labour markets, trafficking or sex work then use this website and you’ll find answers.

That was before I went to bed; when I awoke and opened my mail the next day alas, there was a fresh message someone had just written directly underneath the disclaimer.

l am a graduate student at… I am studying trafficking and the sex industry. I realize you are busy, but would you answer my questions about sex work? I could really use some help in making sense of it.

Conclusion? Some people don’t read. This would be banal except that they are supposed to be reading for a living, as (post)graduate students, teaching assistants, would-be professors. I suppose a lot of them have no sense of vocation but hope doing a degree will facilitate getting a good job (. . . ). The contradiction here is that if I do send an answer they have to read it. Perhaps they are more willing to if they have been spoon-fed.

Anyway I’ve decided: I won’t worry about and will now delete questions of this kind. Thanks to all others, including students, who write to me with interesting tit-bits, suggestions, encouragement and even the occasional job. I love getting mail.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

31 thoughts on “Dear Students of Sex Work and Trafficking

  1. Simon Collery

    Dear Laura Agustin, you are a source of inspiration and insight, your blog posts are exactly what people need. So thank you for making so much material available. I have learned a lot from reading your ideas and I hope to continue doing so. The world needs thinkers like you, especially those who also share their thoughts online. More power to your grey cells.
    Simon (no need for personalized reply!)

    1. Laura Agustín

      thank you simon. actually i enjoy responding to people’s comments, but there’s a human tendency to comment only when annoyed so this is very welcome!

    1. Laura Agustín

      they’d be ok if i didn’t know 100% that right away people would say ‘where’s the proof’, ‘how do you know’ and so on. a good parody would be fun, though.

      1. A Viescas

        You could always try linking the bullet points to blog posts, either yours or someone else’s.

        I actually do think this would help; it’s easy to get bogged down by people flooding your inbox with stupid questions, but when navigating websites people do actually tend to follow guidance when given, especially well-designed guidance. (there are always exceptions)

  2. Ariane

    Not so many comments I can see. This curriculum is also a necessary tribute for all sex workers, trusted advocates who are confronted with requests by researchers, students, journalists and people from the art industries. We also need global ethical guidelines and contracts for any kind of cooperation I think.

  3. Annie

    Those requests sound like they come from students lost at sea in academia, hoping someone will give them a clue or a complete dissertation. Unfortunately, the students you may not hear from are reading (this blog, books, articles) and doing our own research. Even if you don’t hear from us, know that your influence is felt and appreciated (and properly cited).

  4. jh

    Love this post, thanks for writing this! I’ve worked for both anti-trafficking and sex worker support orgs and received a lot of queries like these. I’ve been tempted to reply ‘I cannot do your homework for you, please see our website’ to the lazier queries. But I’ve been more receptive to students who think beyond their studies and have ideas about how to make their research useful.

    1. Laura Agustín

      it comes down to a question of quantity. when the messages are few and far between one may respond more genially than when they come in avalances. also some people just seem to *expect* personal service rather than ask hesitatingly.

  5. Sina

    It’s quite interesting that academics seem to have similar problems as many sex workers:-) The most annoying thing about my job is that I get loads of questions by potential clients who have gotten my number/email from an advertisment where every single question is answered in a clearly laid out way…at least I know now that this is not due to some special lack of respect towards sex workers. It’s due to general stupidity and lazyness of people, and it’s even more alarming when it’s not just horny men who show this behaviour…

    1. Laura Agustín

      as i keep saying i am *not* an academic. not. i suppose people in all walks of life run into the same problem, being asked for expertise for free.

      1. sina

        Sorry, in german ‘academic’ is often just used for an educated person with a degree, so i applied the word in a wrong way.

  6. Richard Girard

    Dear Laura,
    Please feel free to send any individuals with such inane questions over to the two articles I wrote last year for, “,” and “”
    I showed the first to Maggie McNeill before I published, and except for differences inherent because of our politics–she’s a libertarian, I’m a Roosevelt Democrat–she found it useful and well-researched. I am currently working on a follow-up to these two articles, of which I will happily aprise you when I have finished it.
    Richard Girard
    PS-I read your book “Sex at the Margins” after I wrote these two articles, and I found it both informative and persuasive. I am trying to find a used copy through my local bookstores so I will have it at hand as a reference for the future article.

    1. laura agustin Post author

      thank you, richard. people who have general questions can find things by googling. i assume those who write to me wish to know what my views are, and it’s those they can easily find on y website. i’m glad you enjoyed sex at the margins – maybe some of what you liked is in publications linked on the list found on that menu tab.

  7. Sonia Onufer Corrêa

    This is fabulous Laura!
    Though I am not as persecuted as you, I am sometimes harassed
    in these same terms. You have inspired me to write
    a template response for those occasions.

  8. Baptiste

    Howard S. Becker dedicated a prominent page “for students” on his website : «I receive a lot of e-mail from students, who want a great variety of information. This little note furnishes all the information I can give you on the most commonly brought-up topics. For some reason, many people feel they cannot write the papers assigned to them without knowing all the facts of my birth. So: I was born in Chicago, Illinois on April 18, 1928. (I will just mention that this is the date of the Great Earthquake and Fire in San Francisco in 1906. Make what you will of that.)»

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  11. Amanda

    Internet sex workers the world over can relate. No one reads the website or especially the Contact page. There’s also the idea that they’re special and unique or that because you’re online, you’re offering [whatever] for free. Or, because you speak on a topic, you’re jumping at the chance to chat with them for free because you just love to answer their questions and do nothing else with your day.

    None of the have any idea how unappealing it is to read a message from someone who hasn’t bothered to engage with whatever you’ve made an effort to publish online.

    “Delete” is the conclusion everyone comes to, as you discovered.

    1. Laura Agustín

      Someone tried to claim yesterday that replying nicely to everyone is the ‘moral obligation’ of those who ‘care’ most, sexworkers. I know plenty of sexworkers like you who agree with me and vice versa, plenty of non-sexworkers who claim to answer and care more. The commenter also accused me of making a career on her back, without knowing anything about my own work background(s). Glad to hear from you again.

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