Real media coverage for critique of anti-trafficking Rescue Industry

It is rare for critical commentary on the anti-trafficking movement to get real media coverage, so this story from Vancouver seems significant. I don’t like the title, because it narrows a broader argument, but titles are written by editors with other priorities.

Naked Anthropologist Laura Agustín claims antislavery movement harms sex workers

Charlie Smith, The Georgia Straight, 24 November 2011

An author and scholar who likes to refer to herself as the Naked Anthropologist has compared the current climate against human trafficking to the panic over white slavery in the late 19th century. Laura Agustín, author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry (Zed Books, 2007), told the Georgia Straight by phone that in the earlier case, there was an uproar over whether Caucasian and Jewish women moving to New York or Buenos Aires, Argentina, were being traded as slaves.

While she won’t use the word “panic” to describe the current situation (“I try to avoid these labels,” she said), Agustín suggested that there is a widespread “rescue movement”, led by governments and the United Nations, which is trying to characterize a range of issues—migrant sex workers, child labourers overseas, and people who pay huge fees to immigrate—as “slavery”. Using this terminology gives a growing “antislavery” movement, largely based in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, the moral justification to launch interdiction programs as part of an international justice movement.

“I don’t think anyone cares about the women or about sex,” Agustín claimed from a hotel room in Toronto. “This is some kind of enormously funded thing about organized crime…men in government, feeling threatened by other men who aren’t participating and are having parallel societies. It’s up in the cultural stratosphere with terrorism.”

Agustín, an advocate for sex workers’ rights based in Sweden, has a PhD from The Open University in the United Kingdom. She said that the words “human trafficking” started entering the lexicon in a serious way around 2003 and 2004. Now, she maintained that the language is shifting to emphasize slavery. She bluntly described this movement as a colonial initiative.

“The protagonists to end slavery are the same Anglo-Saxon people that were in the 19th century, so you get the trafficking ambassador for the U.S. government invoking [British antislavery crusader] William Wilberforce and arguing that the U.S. and the U.K. have a special mission to go out to other people’s countries and save people,” Agustín said.

Most people don’t have an issue with this. Agustín, on the other hand, said the problem with the rescue industry, which involves many nongovernmental organizations, is that it doesn’t pay nearly enough attention to the choices that people are making to improve their lives. While researching migration in the 1990s, she spent time on a Caribbean island where there was a tradition of large numbers of women moving to Europe, where they would work in one of two jobs: as a maid or selling sex.

“People tried to decide which they wanted to do, and they weighed their options,” she said.

Later in Madrid, Agustín spent time studying people who helped these migrants and who felt sorry for them. She said these rescuers didn’t weigh the downside for women who are forced out of prostitution against their will. “I asked the question: why is selling sex not considered a service?”

The answer, which arose out of her anthropological research, was that there was no rescue industry until the rise of the European bourgeoisie. “They positioned themselves as the ones who knew best about how to live and designated a number of people to be victims,” she said. “And prostitutes were high on the list. They had not been considered victims before that.”

Agustín accused Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times of indulging in a similar attitude by cheering the closure of brothels in the developing world without asking what happens to these workers. “He’s an egregious example of a white person who assumes that he’s doing good, who assumes that he knows how other people should live,” she alleged.

Laura Agustin will speak at 7 p.m. on Sunday (November 27) at the Vancouver Public Library central branch. Admission is by donation.

4 thoughts on “Real media coverage for critique of anti-trafficking Rescue Industry

  1. kato

    The general problem is that certain people and organisations are trying to control other peoples lives when they choose to be sex workers, in attempting to control and dominate the lives of sex workers, they are creating a lot of trouble for sex workers who refuse to do or are hesitant to do a lesser paying alternative to sex work.

    For instance the migrant part time or full time sex workers from some parts of europe enter another part of europe, where they can earn far far far more money than a lesser paying alternative in their own country or their destination country, they do sex work because its a trade where they can get great profit.

    When they stop doing sex work eventually, they may return back to their own country and have the required assets to set themselves up for a new alternative or purchase property.

    The student sex workers who do sex work to finance their student fees, they don’t want to be in restaurants or being a waitress or a waiter almost the whole day, they would rather service their 1 or 2 clients a day and make in a couple of hours, what they would need a whole week to make from a lesser paying alternative.

    The sex workers who hasn’t had any real qualifications to beat the minumum wage aspect in society, sometimes do sex work where they can make far more for far less time, than people with qualifications who are above the minumum wage aspect.

    These are all some of the reasons why sex work exists in society, these sex workers should have full rights so they can empower themselves to feel safe, even though not everyone likes them and their chosen profession.

    These sex workers are hated in society by certain people and organisations who see them as a threat to society, so in order to stop the threat that they think is real, they will go on a campaign of misinformation and negativity in order to remove any platform that allows sex workers the opportunity to have a livelihood in society from sex work, the people who reject sex work in society also seem to conflate and overestimate situations of where there is criminality surrounding sex work.

    But from all of this, the one thing that is easy to recognise is the campaigns of misinformation against sex workers.

  2. Maggie McNeill

    I agree with you about the significance, Laura; any mainstream media coverage with contradicts the “trafficking” narrative is good, however flawed the article itself may be, because it presents an alternative view to mainstream readers who might otherwise have none.


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