Disappearing of a Migration Category: Migrants Who Sell Sex

The Disappearing of a Migration Category: Migrants Who Sell Sex is the article that broke the ice about women who travel and sell sex for a living. I submitted it to a journal I knew would be sympathetic in 2004, but it took them two and a half years to publish it – that’s how hard it was to find peer reviewers who would actually review the article rather than angrily dismiss it as wrong. The premise was obvious: Although migration had come to form a large interesting international field of study, with all sorts of subcategories and theories, migrants who sell sex were not mentioned anywhere. That was the topic of the article – the disappearing of a group, and ideas about why.

I am glad to say that the article opened the door for a generation of researchers who before that could find little or no academic work to refer to when trying to explain what their research was showing them: that many migrant women preferred selling sex to their other options, whatever those were and wherever they came from. Many younger researchers (such as phd students) were doing ethnographic research with migrants, which meant getting to know them sometimes quite well and hearing the details of their lives. Whether or not these researchers assumed beforehand that migrants who sell sex are all forced or trafficked into it, their research revealed that such an assumption is often wrong. Of course there were other researchers finding people who did feel forced and trafficked: the point is there was and is a lot of variation, but this was not acknowledged. The abstract of the article reads:

Migrant women selling sex are generally neglected by migration and diaspora studies. The moral panic on ‘trafficking’, a prolonged debate within feminism on commercial sex and some activists’ attempts to conflate the concept of ‘prostitution’ with ‘trafficking’ combine to shift study of these migrants to domains of criminology and feminism, with the result that large numbers of women’s migrations are little known. This article reveals the silences at work and where the attention goes, and theorises that the shift from conventional study to moral outrage facilitates the avoidance of uncomfortable truths for Western societies: their enormous demand for sexual services and the fact that many women do not mind or prefer this occupation to others available to them.

Click to get the article: The Disappearing of a Migration Category Migrants Who Sell Sex
Laura Agustín, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 32(1), 29-47, 2006.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist