Don Kulick’s review of Sex at the Margins

As a longtime appreciator of Don Kulick’s Travesti: Sex, Gender, and Culture among Brazilian Transgendered Prostitutes, I am happy that he appreciated my book, too.

Sexuality Research & Social Policy, Vol. 5/4, 95–96 (2008)

Don Kulick

A few years ago, as my colleague Deborah Cameron and I were lamenting how much academic life is spent wrangling over debates fueled by misinformation and polemic, we half-jokingly came up with an idea for a book series we thought would be fun to edit. The series would be titled Let’s Stop Talking Crap About… and would consist of short, no-nonsense texts that explained why debates about some particular topic were misguided and pointless wastes of time.

Debbie and I have not (yet) done anything with that idea. But if we were editing a series like that, Laura María Agustín’s Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry is the kind of text we would be commissioning. The book easily could have been titled Let’s Stop Talking Crap About Prostitution and Trafficking. It offers a sensible, levelheaded, knowledgeable, and accessible overview of why current debates about prostitution and trafficking are so flawed and confused, as well as a careful discussion of why laws and policies resulting from these debates are harmful to precisely the people they supposedly protect.

The author is a well-known scholar and advocate who has worked for many years both among migrants in various countries and among the professionals—social workers, nongovernmental organization (NGO) employees and volunteers, and others in the social sector—who administer and assist those migrants. She summarizes both her own research and a great deal of secondary literature. By highlighting the enormous variation that exists among migrants who sell sexual services, she demonstrates that debates about prostitution and trafficking can proceed as they do only because very few of the social workers, policymakers, government representatives, and others involved in these discussions actually know what they are talking about.

Agustín spells out the basic message of Sex at the Margins on page 5: “This book argues that those declaring themselves to be helpers actively reproduce the marginalisation they condemn.” She goes on, several pages later, to explain this message more fully: “Social agents’ current practices in services, education, outreach, publications and policy-making…perpetuate a constructed class—‘prostitute’—which justifies their actions and serves an isolationist immigration policy” (p. 8).

This frank assessment is unlikely to sit particularly well with many of the social agents who work with prostitutes and prostitution. But the author does not blame, lecture, or scold. She acknowledges that social workers and others who work with prostitutes are genuinely interested in helping them. The problem is that most of the policies and interventions concerned with prostitution and trafficking are grounded in (a) statistics pulled out of thin air, (b) ideological posturing devoid of knowledge about how migration actually operates, (c) moral evaluations of sex that regard it as fundamentally incomparable with any other human activity, and (d) patronizing understandings of women that ultimately rely on the idea “that poorer women are better off staying at home than leaving and possibly getting into trouble” (p. 39).

Agustín is a skillful narrator. She draws the reader into the text by presenting the material as a kind of journey of discovery. She expresses her surprise at how little all the passion and effort focusing on prostitution and trafficking have managed to improve the lives of people who sell sex. On the contrary: Much of the current rhetoric and many of the programs and practices in which social workers and policymakers engage have meant that, still, debates center on how to

“control prostitution,” unpredictable local toleration predominates, police abuse is endemic, commercial sex is blamed for spreading sexually transmitted diseases, thriving networks facilitate workers’ mobility and entrance into commercial sex, which pays far better than any other job available to women, male and transgender workers are overlooked, and research focuses repeatedly on individual motivations for buying and selling sex. (p. 135)

The first half of Sex at the Margins contains a very strong chapter about the dynamics of migration that summarizes research on how migrant women actually get to Europe. This research effectively debunks the myth of the sinister, malevolent trafficker that is so dear to the hearts of many who dilate about trafficking. Agustín also quotes extensively from women who sell sexual services, providing a range of opinions on how these women feel about working in the sex industry once they are in Europe and pointing out that

even when migrants feel deceived, they usually complain of working conditions, not that the work is sexual. And they often prefer to remain in the industry. Many migrants’ primary goal is paying off debts in the shortest possible time, so they focus on the future and play down the unpleasant stages already behind them. (pp. 34–35)

Another chapter discusses the ways in which women who sell sexual services perceive their occupation: Many view it as a kind of service job comparable to that of domestic servant or nanny. In this chapter, Agustín argues against the view that sex is incommensurable with anything else. She summarizes:

In the end, it is only possible to isolate sexual services from other services if sexual communication and touching are accepted as totally different from all other contact. This isolation also requires us to accept that the only thing that happens in a sexual service is “sex,” reducing the relationship to physical contact between specific points of the body and
pretending that nothing else happens. (p. 65)

The second half of the book provides a nutshell history of how prostitution came to be a social problem in Western discourse, and how that view of prostitution as immoral continues to structure contemporary policy, philanthropy, and NGO outreach programs. In the final two chapters, the author provides examples of how work designed to assist migrants who sell sexual services in fact only tends to entrench their marginalization and suffering.

Anyone teaching about migration and sex work will want to assign this book to students of all levels. Undergraduates will appreciate the way in which the arguments slowly and compellingly. They will like the calm, reasoning quality of the prose, as well as the fact that the analysis is grounded in a solid understanding of a wide range of data and geographic settings. Graduate students will benefit from Agustín’s general overview of the field and from her analysis of ideology, policy, and social services. If everyone interested in migration and prostitution were to read this book, then maybe people really could stop talking crap about these topics. Or, as the author concludes:

Were government employees, political appointees, feminists, NGO spokespersons and other social agents able to shed their certainty of knowing how everyone else should live, they might be able to dispense with neocolonialism, admit that agency can be expressed in a variety of ways, acknowledge their own desires, and accept that Europe’s dynamic, changing, risky diversity is here to stay. (p. 194)

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