Susie Bright interview with Laura Agustin

Susie Bright’s Journal, 9 October 2007

Sex at the Margins with Laura Agustín

For quite some time, we’ve heard about the sex slaves— the traffickers, the sexual bondage emerging at the border. The discovery makes free citizens sick; we feel like we must to do anything to make it stop, to uncover the beast.

But something very weird has been happening. Last month in the Washington Post, a shocking story appeared: Human Trafficking Evokes Outrage, Little Evidence: U.S. Estimates Thousands of Victims, But Efforts to Find Them Fall Short.


It turns out nearly 30 million dollars was spent, in a passionate effort, to find a relative tiny number of victims. The “experts” had estimated over 50,000 sex slaves, then up to a million, and warned of a tidal wave on the horizon. Yet over ten years, and aggressive funding, the activists on the ground found closer to a thousand undocumented workers who matched the description of who they were looking for.

Of course, even one person found in bondage is more than enough. But the politics and polemics of rescue seemed strangely out of whack. Other reporters had raised a red flag years before: see Debbie Nathan’s “Oversexed,” and Daniel Radosh’s critique of “Bad Trade.”

When well-intended social workers and enforcement agents sought out female migrant workers with grievances, they often found people who said, “I’m desperate for papers, but I’m not doing sex work— I’m in a different sort of bondage!”

Or, they found migrants who said, “I am doing sex work, but I’m making it worth my while, and the one way you could help me is by either getting out of my way or getting me legal documents so I make my own decision.” Or, they found male prostitutes who didn’t fit the feminine portrait of victimization at all, and they weren’t eligible for “help,” either. The problem as conceived by the policy makers was completely mismatched with the reality.

Author Laura Agustín has written a new book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labor Markets and the Rescue Industry, which rethinks the arguments of this entire tableau. If you’ve EVER read a story about trafficking, “immigration problems,” and felt like you didn’t know where to turn, this book will turn every assumption you might have on its head. As Agustín wrote in a recent article in the Philly Inquirer:

It’s the season, again, when the United States issues its annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP). Having named sexual slavery as a particular evil to be eradicated, the United States grades other countries on how they are doing….Grading everyone else on moral grounds is highly offensive, particularly when such grades are accompanied by threats of punishment if the line isn’t toed. It’s distressing to witness the deterioration of what good will is left toward this country since the post-2001 wars were initiated and campaigns intensified that presume the United States Always Knows Best…
For crusading politicians and religious leaders, a rhetoric of moral indignation is effective in uniting constituents and diverting the collective gaze away from familiar problems at home. So the culprits, those who get bad grades in the TIP, live far away from U.S. culture, which is assumed to be better.Intransigent local troubles – prisons overflowing with African Americans, millions of children malnourished – are swept aside in the call to clean up other people’s countries.
This moral indignation emanates from people who live comfortably, who are not wondering where their next meal will come from or how to pay doctors’ bills.These moral entrepreneurs do not have to choose between being a live-in maid, with no privacy or free time and unable to save money because the pay is so bad, and selling sex, which pays so well that you have time to spend with your children or read a book, money to buy education or a phone.

I interviewed Laura in California this week as her book makes its American debut.

SB: How did you get involved in this subject, of sex work and crossing borders?

LA: I’d been working in NGO projects in the Caribbean, South America and on the México-US border, and I was profoundly dissatisfied.

Too often, funder psychology assumes that poor people are naïve or simple— what a lot of money is wasted on useless projects!

I spent a year in the early 90s wandering around Europe listening to this— pitying, victimizing stories about migrants and people living in poor countries in general.

It was a turning point in my life when I decided to leave the NGO world.I wanted to know why there was such a big difference between what migrants said about themselves, and what Europeans said about them, and I couldn’t begin to understand why there was such prejudice toward women who sell sex.
Traditional prostitution debates are theoretical, focusing on the abstract question of whether selling sex can be considered a job— or must be defined as violence against women. Often debates seem to be a search for a single moral truth, in which the words of the subjects themselves are irrelevant.

Those committed to stopping commercial sex are certain of their own ideas and don’t trust those of anyone who actually works in the sex industry. They accuse people like me of selling out to patriarchy, being paid by pornographers ,or being a pimp, and they accuse professional sex workers of having false consciousness or being irrelevant elites. They believe there is an essence that all biological women have in common— and they know what that essence is. They feel comfortable talking about women’s experiences across all cultural and linguistic boundaries. Fundamentalisms are on the rise, and this is one of them.

SB: What did you think of the recent Post story?

LA: The bedlam they describe comes about because there is no single definition of “trafficking,” that everyone can agree on. The overall issue is migration, the difficulty of crossing borders to work legally.

However, there are so many undocumented workers filling available jobs, that they are likely as numerous as migrants with the full portfolio of papers. Many kinds of travel and employment are unregulated, and all sorts of abuses and injustices are rampant— but that isnot the same as saying that all informal migrants are mistreated.

The problem with the term “trafficking” (defined as horrible crime and exploitation), comes when it’s applied to everyone, or to all women migrants who sell sex.

This is what all the argument is about. Some people wish to grant a degree of choice and preference to poor people and migrants— and some who do not.

The US government judges the rest of the world annually on their efforts to stop trafficking. Local, national and international organizations allot millions to projects that promise to find and rescue victims of trafficking; hundreds of groups have been founded for this purpose. Their language is evangelistic, and the general public assumes that “Good is Being Done.”

But these missionaries do not ask people whether they want to be rescued. Many migrants don’t welcome their efforts, including poor women of different ethnic and religious beliefs. Rescuers focus the media’s attention on the dramatic moment of “rushing in to liberate slaves,” rather than the oppressive process of detention, interrogation, and forced rehabilitation that the rescuers themselves impose.

The issue is not whether terrible experiences occur or not – of course, they do. But it’s clear to longtime researchers in the field that the tragic cases are a minority and very rarely fatal. My own interest isnot in trafficking but rather in how labor markets and sexualities come to play roles in migration.

When I began, thank goodness “trafficking” was not yet a big panic, or I might never have continued my study.

It should be obvious that no one can get reliable data when people’s travels and jobs are unregulated or illegal. Numbers of undocumented migrants can only be guessed at, and they are moving around and changing jobs all the time.

In Germany last year, for example, frightened feminists estimated that 40,000 women would be trafficked in, to serve fans of the World Cup. Swedish government research afterward showed that there had never been any basis for such an estimate and that few cases of trafficking had been found.

SB: It’s hard to ask you questions without thinking about the language I”m using. The word “migration,” as opposed to immigration, for example. It used to be in vogue to say “undocumented workers,” and of course there are still people saying “illegal aliens.”

LA: Some fish and birds are described as migratory because they travel between places with regularity. Using the word migration instead of immigration refers to the realization that many human beings do the same thing— they leave one place for another, which they then leave again, and perhaps return to, again.

Immigration refers to an idea that people make a final decision to leave home and settle somewhere else. Because of the ease of travel now, and because richer countries are making it so hard to officially enter and stay and settle, the wordmigration is more accurate. But lots of people don’t think of themselves as either immigrants or migrants!

There’s always a search for terms that aren’t derogatory to people on the fringes of mainstream society, in this case those who have gotten inside extra-legally.

“Alien” is a word used centuries ago. Many are offended by the term “illegal;” some scholars prefer to say, “irregular.” “Undocumented” sounds more neutral (in France there is a “sans-papiers” movement), but many of those working illegally do have some papers— passports, permits, visas.

SB: Is it appropriate to say that most major migration today is groups of people fleeing an untenable situation?

LA: No, most people are not “fleeing,” but rather have decided to try their luck somewhere else, where they’ve heard there are more opportunities to get ahead. It’s estimated that about 3% of the world’s total population migrates.

In places where there’s a disaster underway, many more people are displaced, but they might not go far away, and they return as soon as they can.

Even in the worst situations, only certain people leave their countries altogether, and they are not the poorest and most desperate. Migration requires planning, money, and social networks to succeed.

SB: People do a lot of desperate things when they don’t have their own leverage. We get the impression from the mainstream media that migrants who arrive penniless in another country are willing to do “anything.” So what, really, is the “do anything” that poor migrants are faced with?

LA: Most people do not arrive penniless, they arrive with their own or borrowed money, even if the amounts don’t seem large to richer people.

They arrive with a plan, they’ve got the names and telephone numbers or addresses of people they already know, or have been referred to.

If you focus solely on the moment of crossing the border – for example, between Mexico and Arizona— then it all looks like violent drama and desperation. However, most crossings are uneventful and people move on, without the media or vigilantes ever seeing them.

That doesn’t mean they didn’t have to borrow a big amount of money or go through scary moments along the way, and it doesn’t mean these are all happy endings.

But the characterization of everyone as “desperate” is not helpful if you want to de-victimize and acknowledge migrants’ skills and desires to get ahead– however they define it.

People who decide to try their luck abroad, need to be flexible and adaptable in how they will live. They’ll have to share space with people in a way they wouldn’t at home, eat strange food, navigate without understanding much of the language around them, deal with loneliness, and take available jobs.

A lot of the jobs offered them are low-status: busboy, farm worker, maid. Some people are temporarily grateful to get these jobs, but plan to get out and move up as soon as they can. Making money to pay back debts and send home becomes the priority.

SB: Why is it that high risk sex work options are the “desperate measures” that get all the attention?

If I go to work in a sweat shop, or get exploited as a indentured servant, it’s all ho-hum— but if I get exploited within something called “the sex industry,” then it’s worthy of outcry. How do we get people to stop looking for the sexual moral in every migration dilemma?

LA: Sex always gets more attention, don’t you think?

I wouldn’t agree with your use of “high risk.” There are risks in selling sex and there are risks in being a live-in maid, picking ground crops, selling pirated or stolen goods or drugs, working in sweatshops. It’s not a good idea to generalize. They are all unregulated jobs with no insurance, no security, no workplace health and safety, and personal dependence on the boss.

People are concerned about the risk in selling sex when they believe that sex is different from every other human experience, or that it is sacred, that it belongs in the same room with love and should never be tainted by money. Some people think that women are sexually vulnerable by definition, always in danger of being violated.

But not everyone feels that way. Some migrants who sell sex do hate what they are doing, but stay on because the money is better and faster than in any other job they can get. Some don’t mind selling sex because they learn how to “act” it, and keep it separate from the rest of their lives. Some like doing it. Everyone does not feel the same way about sex.

Men and women selling sex account for a large percentage of migrants, certainly. Notice I’m not talking just about women.

The societal fears about “damage” only get applied to women, so the attention goes to them, but men, transsexuals, and transgenders work in large numbers selling sex, possibly making up half of the total.

SB: Of course, being sexually taken advantage of in a servant capacity or a bottom-of-the-barrel factory situation is par for the course, but again, because it is not prostitution per se.

LA: True. People in low-status labor are always being pressured to have sex, to keep their jobs– think of the old clichés about secretaries. People in higher-status jobs don’t escape pressure either. But migrants in both groups figure out how to use the situation to their own advantage— to make money or contacts out of it.

SB: How does this differ with young men making the same voyage? How does the masculine experience differ?

LA: The difference is that the policy makers and rescue industry are not so concerned about men who sell sex, even to the point of not recognizing they are doing it.

Since men are not thought of as sexually vulnerable, they can get away with more without being pursued by rescuers and police.

Men also sometimes don’t get help when they would like some. But it’s too misleading to talk about all men versus all women. There are too many different jobs involved, done in a variety of situations with all sorts of personalities and talents. My advice is, don’t generalize!

SB: Are you saying. that while no one would elect to work for meager wages in a sexually exploitive situation, it could be a better choice than what they escaping from?

LA: I don’t think you’ll find a place in my book where I use the “choice” argument or characterize everyone as “escaping” from horrors.

I don’t group millions of people into one imaginary category, whether you call it prostitutes, sex workers, or victims of trafficking.

You’ll find plenty of places where I quote migrants who do prefer sex jobs to others, and want to be left alone to get on with it. Whether you get high or low wages in your first sex-industry job is a matter of luck, but after a while, if you have skills and talent, you can move, get more autonomy, get a better boss or get out if you want to.

Plenty of middle-class workers feel the same way, both migrants and not migrants. One of the problems in migrating is that your job-qualifications from home aren’t recognized in your new country– diplomas, certificates, degrees. So you find civil engineers driving taxis, schoolteachers selling sex, nurses being maids.

SB: Why does the “empowerment” crowd rub you the wrong way?

The idea of empowerment is that someone gives power to another, or encourages them to take power or find it within themselves.

It’s the “politically correct” way of thinking about those at the bottom of the social heap. However, it places emphasis on the helper and her vision of how to help, encourage and show the way— on good intentions.

In the compromised worlds of “Aid” and “Development,” first-world entities use their funds to help those less privileged. They spend money to set up offices and pay salaries, many to people who work in offices writing proposals that will allow them to stay in business. These organizations have hierarchies, and those engaged at the grassroots level often are the last to influence how funds will be used.

Those closer to the top, know how to write proposals to compete in the funding world. When empowerment comes from above in this way, it’s not surprising that money is spent to little effect, such as rescue projects which can’t find anyone who wants to be rescued.

SB: By its very nature, your book is going to attract the sort of person who DOES want to make the world better, help people, be a RESCUER! What does a caring person do?

LA: I certainly hope people working in social-justice projects will read the book. Many of them already have doubts and feel caught up in a bureaucratic web, dependent on pleasing funders, or itching to take more relevant action.

Those who want to support undocumented workers have few options for getting funds— AIDS prevention and “rescuing victims of trafficking” are two.

But the undocumented want papers. They want the right to work and rent housing legally, to stop fearing the police or bosses, to be able to get on with their lives, and make money to pay back debts.

It is very frustrating for grassroots educators to know they can’t help with any of that.

What should they do? It’s a huge structural question, but if social-type workers don’t believe they have any power to change things they are in the wrong business.

At the end of my book I suggest that people “leave home”— meaning their mental home, the safe place where there cherished ideas about right and wrong go unchallenged. Leave behind nationalisms and religious moralisms— and, above all, the assumption that certain people Know Best how everyone else should behave all over the world.

SB: How much “climbing up the ladder” do you think happens? How many migrants in sex work get out of the game, get out of debt? We always hear about the frightened teenager, held hostage in a brothel… but I wonder, where are the 20 year olds? The thirty and forty year olds?

LA: In my own research I’ve talked with managers of flats (brothels) who started out working in them, with dancers who used to be on the street and so on. There are also many who would like to get out of prostitution but feel trapped in it – transsexuals are the major group complaining of this.

SB: So how far do you take the prostitution as work metaphor? Paging Friedrich Engels!

LA: Marx argued that all workers were prostituted, Engels said that all married women were the same, and many feminists have since made the same argument. It’s very difficult to condemn prostitution and then defend dating and marriage, because all mix up money and sex.

There is hardly anything surprising or innovative about combining sex and money, and I do not see any liberatory potential in it per se.

The problem is in the dominant idea of what role sex is ‘supposed’ to play, and the great fear that money contaminates it. This is ridiculous, given the normalized role of money in dating and marriage.

The fear that those who sell sex are all ‘exploited’ also ignores parallels with other kinds of workers, from maids to football players. Children competing as gymnasts or training to be ballerinas submit to tremendous discipline from others who could equally be thought of as exploiting them. For me, these comparisons are useful in reducing the obsession and stigma attached to prostitution or sex work. However, many consider sex so absolutely ‘different’ that it cannot be compared to anything else. Some believe that sexuality constitutes personal identity – a western idea called the ‘self’, which can be damaged by improper use. This is really what makes the traditional prostitution debate futile: a quasi-religious belief that can never be proved and which seems absurd to those who don’t share it. There’s no point in arguing when such beliefs are at stake.

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