Tag Archives: activism

Migrant sex worker: a term that has arrived

I wouldn’t have been surprised if the term migrant sex worker had died out except amongst rights-activists, given the hegemony enjoyed by reductionist trafficking narratives. When I was doing the intellectual work required to produce Sex at the Margins, I didn’t use labels for people but rather described a group of women leaving home for elsewhere and getting by cleaning houses and selling sex. Not all migrants who sell sex are women but women’s presence selling sex was what was manifestly ignored, in a way that reminded me of a lot of other ignoring I’d seen in my life. When I started there was no mention of these women anywhere in the media and then when I searched further I also found nothing in academic articles or books, even in the field of migration. Apparently they didn’t qualify as migrants, or could it be no reporter or student was interested in them as subjects of study? As time went on I understood, from reactions when I spoke about my work, that something else was going on and that au contraire everyone was really perhaps sometimes even too interested.

My favourite straightforward piece of early writing on migrants who sell sex is The (Crying) Need for Different Kinds of Research: Not all is trafficking and AIDS. Later on I published in academic journals, but never easily, as peer-reviewers who knew the subject could not be found in those days, and who was I supposed to be citing if no one had written yet? Who could have vouched for it except for the subjects themselves? Academic publishers consulting objectified subjects: absurd idea.

Anyway, eventually I published A Migrant World of Services: the emotional, sexual and caring services of women, 2003, and Migrants in the Mistress’s House: Other Voices in the Trafficking Debate, 2005 and, taking two and a half years to get published in a migration journal, Disappearing of a Migration Category: Migrants Who Sell Sex, 2006. Still my preference was never to label people migrant sex workers, as no one I’d ever known talked that way about themselves. They were travelling, they were working at night, they were prostitutes, they were helping families, they didn’t want to be maids.

In Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, published in 2007, I believe I only used the phrase migrant sex workers once:

But people who desire to travel, see the world, make money and accept
whatever jobs are available along the way do not fall into neat categories: ‘victims of trafficking’, ‘migrant sex workers’, ‘forced migrants’, ‘prostituted women’. Their lives are far more complex – and interesting – than such labels imply.

Of course by writing the book I drew attention to actions and lifestyles that can add up to an identity, even if it’s only temporary and not used by subjects themselves.

About labels and categories: You often see, in European web material, references like ‘street-based sex workers’. Sometimes that’s a covert way to say migrant sex workers, because there are always migrants selling sex on some street in European cities. Many more aren’t on the street, but only those on streets are readily identifiable by NGO workers and police, who engage in naming and counting. And then there are all the references to victims of trafficking who consider themselves to be migrants.

Projects with migrant sex workers are flourishing in the world of activism. Take Crossings:

A sex-worker produced documentary about the poverty, criminalization, and struggle of migrant sex workers in Europe. The film features the stories of sex workers from 5 European countries, Ukraine, Norway, France, Spain, and Serbia and was collaboratively produced by sex worker organizations and the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe. The project was supported by the Public Health Program of the Open Society Foundations.

That’s right: George Soros’s Open Society funding supports work on migration and sex work both. Tampep (The European Network for the Promotion of Rights and
Health among Migrant Sex Workers) gets EU funding, because, while fanatics rant to exclude migrants absolutely, governments know how easily they get in, and you know how scary ‘threats to public health’ are. Specially sexual ones.

The term is also normalised in Canada, where Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Worker Support Network operates. See their report Anti-trafficking campaign harms migrant sex workers, which ends

We believe women when they tell us they are not trafficked and we believe them when they say they are. And when others like us are targeted or deported, we will not be held as complicit in violence against women because we are sex workers and refuse to be framed as victims. We do not consent to this status.

Some academics use the term, for example when demonstrating that all is not exploitation and misery when foreigner workers are concerned.

University of Otago, Christchurch releases first study of migrant sex workers: The majority of migrant sex workers in New Zealand who participated in new University of Otago research, are in safe employment situations and working to fund study or travel rather than being desperate, exploited or trafficked, the research shows.

Since the exclusion of migrant sex workers is the flaw in New Zealand’s rational prostitution law it’s logical that academics there should be using the term rather than wailing about trafficking.

I didn’t use the term migrant sex worker in The Three-Headed Dog, although numerous of the characters can be called that. It’s a novel in which people migrate to Spain and sell sex in different ways and settings; labels are irrelevant. But if you want to know what the term means I recommend this book over everything else you can read, including Sex at the Margins. These are not activist or academic or politician or Rescue-Industry voices: they are just human voices.

Give it as a holiday gift to someone who doesn’t understand at all. You buy it as an ebook on Amazon; you don’t need a kindle but just tell what eformat you want it in. It is Safe For Work, no fear.

—Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Migrant Caravan in Tijuana: Report from a volunteer lawyer

Tijuana is a city in the north of the state of Baja California in Mexico, close to the San Isidro Land Port of Entry, where wikipedia says 20,000 pedestrians cross northwards daily. This is the route chosen by most of those called the Migrant Caravan, Central Americans who have travelled together through Mexico to reach the border and request asylum in the USA. Dina Francesca Haynes, a law professor just returned from four days’ work amongst migrants on the Mexican side, has given permission to reproduce her facebook report, including the photos she took.

Field log, leaving Tijuana, 4 December 2018

I am still a bit overwhelmed and my thoughts are not yet settled, but here are some impressions.

People from all over the world are suffering. Some have pinned their dreams on the United States, and my job, as I see it, includes giving them a realistic understanding of what they are about to encounter, so that they can make an informed decision before they decide to cross into the US. What they are about to face is detention often in hostile conditions, in facilities run by uncaring and unprofessional private prisons, intent on making already miserable people more miserable, for profit. A Russian roulette of asylum officers and immigration judges. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free is but a bitter memory.

The US can certainly absorb these people. This group of 5-7 thousand currently in Tijuana, with more on the Mexican side of other ports of entry, is an entirely political problem. An unlawfully executed political problem. Far more people have come each year for decades. The problem is the unlawful bottleneck that the US government has imposed. The law states that any person may present themselves at a port of entry and request (the opportunity to apply for) asylum. The US is imposing a procedural limit on the number of people (without visas) who may cross to seek asylum, and the Mexican government, who also limit the number of people who can start to cross, based on the daily, seemingly arbitrary decision of the US, is complicit. Each person is designated a number. Some have it written on the inside of their forearm in sharpie. I don’t have to tell you what that invokes. Today, for example, 30 people were permitted to cross. Sunday, none were. Possibly as retaliation for actions they didn’t like, as a show of power. The rest wait in unsafe conditions for weeks to months longer. Each day hundreds trek to the border to see if their number is called. The atmosphere where people wait is ripe with adrenaline-nerves and fear and hope.

Today I helped three orphans traveling alone from Sierra Leone, Cameroon and Guinea Conakry. They had been on the road for 3 months, travelling from South Africa to Brazil to Ecuador to Panama where they walked across the country. They are children. They arrived in Mexico and tried to find other Africans. One older African offered to take them in. Two other older Africans, one only 18 herself and another studying to be a minister, had offered to help lend them some money. To do this, they had arranged to wire money to the Mexican citizens working in the store below where they were staying. You might have guessed the end of this story already – the wired money was received, but not passed along to the intended recipient. I gave legal advice to a girl the same age as my daughter who had been raped by police in her country that is descending into chaos. I gave legal advice to a boy escaping his uncle’s demand that he become a child laborer, enslaved to another for life. I walked a group of 15 people to find some food to eat. They hadn’t eaten a real meal for days. I gave one of them my tennis shoes.

On Friday, I helped a woman from Guatemala and her two children. She was so astute and caring and determined that, in addition to everything else she was dealing with, she asked if I could help her find a therapist to speak to her children who were traumatized. So I did, because there was a therapist coming to volunteer.

Today, three volunteer pastors from different churches arrived to marry couples afraid of being separated when they crossed, most same sex couples.

There is a lot of heart here. The people coming to volunteer gain nothing except love and grace. They expend a lot, emotionally, physically and financially. There are people helping to cook and serve food to the hungry. People unpacking clothes that have been donated. People calling and paying for taxis to get people to and from safe houses and urgent appointments. There are people monitoring what the police and border patrol are doing and the myriad ways they are violating the law. People giving money to those who have none. There are translators and students and doctors. People giving.

There is also chaos and bottomless need and people operating in emergency mode, responding and putting out fires and having no time to plan or think about how to best proceed or coordinate. There are muddy fields where people have been living and are getting sick. One little girl asked if she would be taken away from her mother. She hugged me when she said goodbye, and then thanked me in English. So much heart and fortitude expended by people who travelled months to try to get to the US to seek asylum. So much heard and grace expended by volunteers trying to serve them, as we all work together in a building with an open sewer outside and a space barely fit to serve a few, let alone masses of need.

We US citizens are living through a humanitarian crisis that we have allowed our own government to create. Many of us are allowing ourselves to be blind to it, because it is horrible to think about. Because we have exported the locus of the tragedies we have created. But that doesn’t change the fact that is happening and that we are responsible, because our government is perpetrating this by violating international law, and its own domestic law for no gain. We gain nothing by limiting the number of asylum seekers who enter. And we lose nothing by letting them apply. If we had directed the funds expended on sending 5600 troops to the border to this problem, instead, it could have been solved 10 times over, weeks ago.

We have the capacity to absorb these people with little or no negative consequence. We are choosing not to, because our government has decided to demonize the smallest annual number of asylum seekers in years. They deserve so, so much more. — Dina Francesca Haynes, Professor of Law

I’ve lived many such complicated and long-drawn-out moments on different borders myself, including a job 25 years ago at the other end of this border at Matamoros/Brownsville. Dina’s two gloomy brown photos look to me like the detention centers I’ve seen in Texas, but Dina says they are part of the architecture of the border crossing at San Ysidro. The resemblance is clearly not coincidental.

Though Tijuana/San Ysidro don’t look like Calais and other migrant camps near the Channel Tunnel, they don’t look that unlike, either. The longer so many people have to wait, the worse things become, in a myriad of ways.

For some of my writings about borders see Border Thinking and Segregation, colonialism and unfreedom at the border . They were prompted by airport borders into the UK but I’ve had these experiences in many countries of the world.

I’ve tweeted about this migration caravan (@LauraAgustin) and surely will again.

—Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Strike4Decrim on Women’s ‘Day’ Soho 8 March 2018

I was glad to be able to participate in the Strike4Decrim events on the evening of 8 March – International Women’s Day. In general I’m no fan of official ‘days’ to celebrate supposedly coherent groups: mothers, fathers, women. Inevitably the differences get smoothed out and mainstreamed, many feel excluded and some feel seriously annoyed. General ‘women’s gatherings had taken place earlier in the day in a straighter part of town, but although Soho is getting blander all the time, a little kinkiness remains.

Here’s me talking for five minutes at the start, before we marched. The photos are by Alexander Schulenburg, who approached me to say he liked my talk and later tweeted on the event. I also ran into sex workers met in other countries and other years and some I worked with as far back as 2005. I appreciate being reminded of the continuity and feeling surrounded (notes of my talk at the bottom).

Why call it a strike? The word is meant to recentre women’s work, specially invisible things like ‘caring’ and reproductive labour. The intention was to expand the concept of strike and ‘use tactics and perspectives that think about how we struggle at the point of production and reproduction’. By including a sex workers’ rights event on the day, what gets counted as a feminist issue was expanded. I was glad to be there, given lamentable histories of leaving sex workers out.

My notes for the five minutes

Rights movement stronger now – multiple groups but we work together better than we used to
Regular folks seem to understand the idea of labour rights better
But the hostility of the Establishment hasn’t improved – folks who work in government, whether politicians or Home Office
They pay too much attention to anti-prostitution activists, radical feminists

The other day a few former sex workers won a case in the High Court to remove the requirement to tell employers about past soliciting convictions. Good, right?
Problem is they won on the basis that they were coerced victims.
The judge said it was ‘greatly to their credit they had succeeded in removing themselves from prostitution’
Casual dispensing of morality by a male judge

If you want to know what patriarchy is – it’s this!
If you want to know what infantilisation is – it’s this: talking about women as wayward children to be patted on the head if they do as they’re told
It appears that to benefit from this small bit of decriminalisation you must repent of your sin of being a prostitute, otherwise you keep those convictions on your record
even though it is legal to sell sex in this country

The selling of sex is still firmly framed as a social evil in laws and regulations
Great distance between that and ideas about human rights, workers’ rights

Migrants, even if their presence is legal, are most likely to be called victims of trafficking if they come to police attention and are lucky if not deported

The kinds of freedoms and treatment most women take for granted are not granted to sex workers
Gatherings like this one are important – so we can see each other outside in the street caring about the same things
To me this fits the idea of ‘strike’

Not silence – NOISE

Police were also offered leaflets.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Social-Problem novels and The Three-Headed Dog

StokeNewingtonFeb2017I was interviewed in an old pub in Stoke Newington next to a photo-plaque memorialising Writers and Reformers.* I suppose it was by chance, but maybe not.

Campaigners for equal rights and other freedoms don’t talk about reform anymore, but if it’s not revolution they want then technically it is reform. According to this western worldview, we are moving in a stream of time called Progress towards – something if not Utopia then always fairer, healtheir and wealthier all the time.

In the 19th century in northern Europe and North America, there was a movement of writers to expose social injustices through novels, with the goal of reform. They thought that if more people knew about injustices wrought upon the poor, women and children, then readers might add to pressure on government elites to reform laws. It was consciousness-raising about the suffering of others: The books were aimed at middle-class readers.

2940012004093_p0_v1_s260x420Protest novel, social novel thesis novel, propaganda novel, industrial novel, working-class/proletarian novel, condition-of-England novel: all describe the works of writers including Mary Gaskell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Charles Dickens and, in the 20th century, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, Nadine Gordimer and many more.

Critics argue about whether their social visions portrayed the truth and whether the authors really blamed structural problems or were more interested in individual character. On the literary front, too much protest can work against story-telling and other aesthetic qualities, leading to criticism about the novels being insufficiently literary. Other distinctions include

The value of Condition-of-England novels lies primarily not in their fictional plots, social analyses, and recommended solutions but primarily in first-hand detailed observations of industrialism, urbanism, class, and gender conflicts. – The Victorian Web

I’m not a fan of drawing lines to distinguish between Real Art and everything else; I think you can have activist purpose and write beautifully at the same time, just as you can write nicely and have nothing much to say. The observations you make may feel significant to readers or not. Trends of the moment play a part: at the particular time in which I’m writing this, critics may introduce the idea of Cultural Appropriation, which suggests that outsiders should not write about social injustices they have not themselves lived.

sinclair - jungle bindingTo protest it may be enough to produce a portrait of how bad things are. To believe that reform is possible you need to be clear about what would constitute improvement. A novel about children forced to work in satanic mills might call for better working conditions for them or, alternatively, claim their right not to work at all but rather be allowed to enjoy ‘childhood’. To qualify as a reform-novel you may need to propose concrete solutions that can be formed into laws.

Agustin-TheThreeHeadedDog-14001-250x400The Three-Headed Dog portrays life in underground economies amongst undocumented migrants, smugglers and sex workers, in a particular time and place: Spain in the early 21st century. After observing events surrounding undocumented migration and prostitution law for so many years, I got tired of being annoyed by the pontificating on policy and morals from people who seemed not to know many realities. To participate in mainstream debates one is pretty well forced to accept the framework of whoever’s funding the event or publication. The frameworks are never what I would choose myself.

Writing stories is a way to show how things are without being caught up in these alien frames. It is also a way to portray some of my own life, what I look at and care about. But not with avid activist purpose: in my case it’s about allowing ideas to float up from the depths and shape themselves into readable stories. Without calculating if they will be saleable, not taking advice about how to spin the ideas so they’re more palatable to policymakers or listening to the many well-meaning intermediaries who have counseled me to change things.

In the early years after Sex at the Margins came out I tried to talk about how labour policy might be linked to migration policy here and now (in the European Union and everywhere else). Seldom did interviewers follow this up, asking instead for me to rate competing prostitution laws (oversimplified into decriminalisation, ‘legalisation’ and penalisation of buying sex). Since then, policies on undocumented migration and what’s called trafficking have worsened.

But I resist. Resistance is still an option, the refusal to accept alien framings, perhaps the concept of debate itself. I wouldn’t call The Three-Headed Dog a Social-Problems Novel, but not because it’s written inside a crime or noir genre. I’d say rather because I don’t propose policies that might improve the wretched mess. At this moment I want more of the realities to come out – in a fuller form, with space for anthropological observation and literary emotion. So that a few readers somewhere may see into lives they otherwise never get to hear about. [This leads to ideas about what Education is, but enough for now.]

* In the pub plaque: Samuel Rogers, Anne Laetitia Barbauld, Mary Wollstonecraft, John Howard, Edgar Allen Poe and Dr Isaac Watts (none a known social-problem novelist)

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

The Rescue Industry has a song

Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 19.51.01The Rescue Industry has entered the lexicon and now has its own song: Rescue Two-Step, described as ‘an anti-criminalization anthem dedicated to sex workers everywhere’. Listen and watch, it’s a great song, and if you set it to full screen you’ll see lyrics displayed at the bottom.

Written and produced by Savannah Sly
Starring Bella Robinson, Andorra Andrews, Rick Berlin, Joe King and Savannah Sly
Performed by Savannah Sly & The Fun Boys
Sound Engineering by Fast Eddy

LYRICS:
I gotta bunch of rubbers
I gotta burner number
I gotta hotel, ads on Backpage
and I’m settin’ up shop
comin’ to your town
yeah come and get me while you can boys, let’s get down
I got the Internet
I’m really into it
I’m postin’, screenin’, bookin’
weedin’ out the dickheads and cops
It’s a full time job
I swear these online classifieds reduce my harm
Well now, don’t go telling’ me that
using my body to
make my money ain’t a right god gave me, now
you wanna help me?
great, well you could start by
callin’ off your laws and cease assailing me
The Rescue Industry, it wants to RESCUE me!
and take away the tools I use to stay safe
sayin’ they’re helpin’ me
well I disagree
all of this white knight savior shit is killing me
Well now, don’t go telling’ me that
using my body to
make my money ain’t a right god gave me, now
you wanna help me?
great, well you could start by
askin’ how I want it and I’ll tell you for myself
don’t do tellin’ me that
using by body to
make my money ain’t a right god gave me, now
you want to save me?
Great, pray tell me now,
do you plan to pay my rent?
feed kids and spay my cat?
and call off all the debt collectors
and tell the judge to clear my record
so I can work forever and ever and ever and ever and ever…
at dead end jobs for minimum wage
that barely cover the day-to-day
assuming that they’d hire me
some folks don’t like the look of me
could you create a policy
to put an end to bigotry?
or better yet
create a net
to catch me?
don’t go telling’ me that
using my body to
make my money ain’t a right god gave me, now
you wanna help me?
great, well you could start by
askin’ how I want it and I’ll tell you for myself
don’t go telling’ me that
using my body to
make my money ain’t a right god gave me, now
you wanna save me?
great, well start by callin’ off your dogs
and quit behavin’ like you’re trying to choke me out!

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 14.05.35

Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 19.57.39

It’s time to propose the term Rescue Industry for next editions of the big dictionaries, eh? Someone should make a wiki for it. Meanwhile there’s a a whole category for it on this blog.

–Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist