New York Times’s cheesy ersatz reporting on migrant women, sex work and trafficking

Aquí no hay puticlub: There’s no sex club here. This sign was erected by a British landowner along a rural route in Spain where customers in search of a commercial sex venue apparently drive in error. There are many sex clubs, bars and brothels of all shapes and sizes in Spain, where selling sex is not illegal, but key activities surrounding it are. I wrote about the different types of venues years ago when arguing for a cultural study of commercial sex.

I wonder if future historians will track how misinformation about migration and sex work was so willfully reproduced during the present period, how news publications with a reputation for actual investigation began to copy chunks of pseudo news and paste them together, were satisfied to quote only society’s most predictable, official and reductionist sources and failed to admit that the police force of any country is not the place to find out about complex social problems.

Any authentic interest in the topic at hand could not be titled In Spain, Women Enslaved by a Boom in Brothel Tourism – a cartoon-like story full of the most superficial sensationalist cliches, mostly derived from police sources and a few abolitionist advocates. Yet this is the story The New York Times published on its front page the other day, complete with a ludicrous photo of a young woman in high red boots worthy of the cheapest rag. As the story claimed to be about brothels (indoor venues), why did they illustrate the story with a picture of street prostitution – again, on the front page? I know of no serious research that talks about brothel tourism, by the way. On the other hand, men who live in places where no venues are available have always been known to cross borders or travel distances to get to them. There is no news about that.

The issue is failure to investigate and report dysfunctional migration policy and how growing economic inequalities promote the taking of unregulated, unprotected jobs in in underground economies, including in the sex industry. If this article had appeared in the New York Daily News or Britain’s Daily Mail, I wouldn’t even bother to comment, and it would take too long and be too annoying for me to critique the entire article, but here are a few of the most misleading simplifications:

* Young Men Flocking to Spain for Sex With Trafficked Prostitutes: title to a banal set of photos, some taken at a big sex club on the Spanish border near France. Border crossings for all sorts of reasons, sex, wine and rambling among them, have been going on forever in that area not only pottery and leather goods as the article says. How old can these reporters be that they seem to be describing naive tourists from the US in the 1950s?

* Sob story implying migrants’ families are heartless:

The police came across one case in which Colombian traffickers were paying one family $650 a month for their daughter. She managed to escape, he said. But when she contacted her family, they told her to go back or they would send her sister as a replacement.

One police case plucked out of thousands to imply how awful other places are, because there could never be a cruel or desperate family in the US, right? And no mention of the many more family projects that do not involve such melodrama.

* Pretense that something new and different is happening:

…experts say that prostitution — almost all of it involving the ruthless trafficking of foreign women — is booming, exploding into public view in small towns and big cities.

When selling sex is not illegal it may occur anywhere without people hiding, if that’s what they mean by public view – that is hardly surprising news.

* The report says one migrant still owed them more than $2,500, as though it were an egregious amount. In fact, that much can often be paid back in a fairly short time – one, two months – by someone working in a busy sex club. And as I have written many times, migrants pay for a series of valuable services, so without knowing a lot more about this particular story we do not know what this sum means.

* Attempt to cause moral panic about the young.

In the past, most customers were middle-aged men. But the boom here, experts say, is powered in large part by the desires of young men — many of them traveling in packs for the weekend — taking advantage of Europe’s cheap and nearly seamless travel. “The young used to go to discos,” said Francina Vila i Valls, Barcelona’s councilor for women and civil rights. “But now they go to brothels. It’s just another form of entertainment to them.”

All research for a long time has suggested that young men in groups habitually drop into clubs and drive through streets with sex workers as part of nights out. The same evening easily includes both discos and sex clubs. The word packs makes the men sound predatory, of course.

* Then they try to make it a problem of growing demand for sex services from younger tourists, so ignorant about travel outside the US they don’t know that people in neighbouring countries here rarely refer to each other as tourists. In Europe, everyone moves around all the time, the Schengen agreement meaning no border checks. This is not news. And to claim that Spain has also become a go-to destination for sex services is laughable. Spain has been a major tourist destination for decades. Holidays may always include sex, paid or not, and there is definitely a market for men visiting numerous European cities to enjoy stag parties. Spain is not particularly famous for these, but trends may change.

* Ignorance about migration:

Thirty years ago, virtually all the prostitutes in Spain were Spanish. Now, almost none are. Advocates and police officials say that most of the women are controlled by illegal networks — they are modern-day slaves.

Women from Latin America travelling to Spain to work in domestic service or sell sex is indeed a decades-long phenomenon, so that different generations in the same family are involved and networks are mature. Networks are illegal because migrants are undocumented, not because they are sinister. This is just yellow-press exaggeration.

I have to stop here; there is just too much irresponsible rubbish in this article. Toward the end a few interesting facts slip in that indicate the subject is far more complex than the cheesy reporting has so far let on – the reporters must not have realised. I also could provide numerous links to my own writings, many based fundamentally on my own years of living and researching in Spain, but the New York Times will never be interested.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

6 thoughts on “New York Times’s cheesy ersatz reporting on migrant women, sex work and trafficking

  1. Antonio Lorusso

    “the police force of any country is not the place to find out about complex social problems.”

    Or solve complex social problems, but they (and politicians) profit from making them worse.

  2. Pingback: El cutre y falaz reportaje del New York Times sobre mujeres emigrantes, trabajo sexual y trata en España | El estante de la Citi

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  5. Anton Savek

    If you have accepted homosexuality, you have accepted sexwork. You only might not have understood it yet.

    In the past we comdemned homosexuality and prostitution because they were sins, aginst chasity and discusting. But now we accept that people can have sex in different forms.

    But when the past reasons to prohibit female casual sex had vanished we have to invent new arguments. The main new proposals are 1. We must prohibit casual sex because it is dangerous and can lead to violent crimes. 2. Casual sex with immigrants causes crime because foreigners are very often terrible criminals.

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