Tag Archives: development

Sex at the Margins reviewed in Gender & Development

Academic publishing is dysfunctional. Even I, who spend a good bit of time online, never received notice of a review of Sex at the Margins published five years ago in a major journal. Had I known about this one I would have responded to its complaints. The short reply is that the book is based on research I did for a phd. It never set out to be a definitive study of every possible situation, and it was started before I had even heard the word trafficking. By the time I approached the end, I knew I was publishing testimonies that other people would classify and analyse differently, but my object was to account for migrants’ own descriptions of their lives – including women living in the kind of situations depicted in this photo. Yes, I talked to folks like her and others pictured on this page, in Europe and before they had left their own countries. More of my reply after the review itself.

Gender & Development Vol 16, No 1, March 2008

Agustin, Laura Maria, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry
London: Zed Books, 2007

This book should be recommended to everyone who works for any type of ‘rescue industry’, and especially to organisations helping migrants and prostitutes. It should also be interesting for all who read media stories about victims of trafficking, stories that are all similar, which all include information about police rescue actions, and accounts of sexual exploitation and violence; stories that we all know. Usually the  stories do not mention that such actions do not have happy endings, that the ‘rescued women’ are sent back home into the very same situation they were trying to escape, and their lives there are now made more difficult by the new stigma of being a prostitute. Their traffickers are rarely punished.

The book is written by a person who herself has carried out ‘participatory research’, that is, she has worked with migrant prostitutes or ‘victims of trafficking’, as they are referred to in most cases. [LA: Not by me, by other commentators.] It is written from the perspective of a person who knows the situation from the inside, who has followed the flow of migration from Latin America to Spain, who understands the complexity of motivations and circumstances leading to the decisions to migrate. The author looks at women’s strategies to settle in a new country, to find a job there, to engage in one of the caring professions in the so-called ‘informal economy’, or in prostitution. The book is the result of Agustin’s attempts to match her own experience and knowledge gained during her work in migrant communities, with the political responses to the ‘issue of migration’ which are offered by international organisations, governments, and civil-society organisations. She observes the problems of migrant women working in prostitution, as well as the problems in the development of policy responses, the types of social support available to women, and the media accounts of their ‘exploitation’. As she writes: The migration discourse relies on numerous questionable dichotomies: work and leisure, travel and settling, legal and illegal. The label migrant goes to poorer people who are conceived as workers with no other desires and projects, but when migrants are women who sell sex they lose workers’ status and become ‘victims of trafficking’. The obsessive gaze on poverty and forced sex disqualifies working people’s participation in global flows, flexible labour, diaspora and transnationalism. Women are victimised more but the migrant label is disempowering for men too.

The book questions the politicised approach to women’s migration that results not only in too simplistic an interpretation of the new global trends, but as a consequence results also in developing inadequate responses to those trends. While writing about the situation of migrants, the author is showing how the use of the term ‘migration’ is reducing the complex meaning of the movement of people through the borders, especially those who are poor, and from the margins of the world. Migration as opposed to travel; migrants as opposed to travellers or tourists; the need for employment as opposed to the need to seek new horizons and to explore the world. In real life, argues the author, such oppositions rarely exist.

Agustin is describing some of the irrational actions and reactions to the migration of women, by presenting a discursive picture of the ‘migrant prostitute’, a picture that bears a heavy load of suspicion and stereotypes. The figure of a ‘victim of trafficking’ (helpless, abused, in need of support, not able to make sensible decisions and protect herself) is an extreme example of politicisation of the migration discourse. Even more extreme is the practical result of such a narrative, a model of assistance developed to assist victims.

‘Trafficking’ is, to some extent, a modern duplication of the ‘white slave’ discourse from the nineteenth and [early] twentieth centuries. Back then, the term ‘white slaves’ was designed to prevent women’s migration by spreading stories about what happened to women migrating from Europe to the Americas. Today, while the rhetoric is the same, the protection of innocent victims from sexual abuse, the term ‘trafficking’ is used to describe the global migration of women and, once again, the aim is to protect them from sex crimes. I share the conviction of the author that the view of a female migrant as a woman with no agency, no clearly defined migration project, helpless and in need of protection, has given rise to a very conservative, old-fashioned model of charity work.

However, after agreeing with the author on these points, I have to ask, what about the victims of trafficking? While challenging the definition of trafficking, and presenting the complex web of consequences that the contextualisation of migrant women as victims of trafficking has for their rights and their lives, Agustin does not mention the fact that some of the migrant women working in prostitution are indeed victims of trafficking and need support.

While it is very important to reject the charitable approach as flawed, what should replace it? I am not a big fan of any particular approach to prostitution adopted by policy makers to date. All of them seem to me inadequate, and fail to reflect the complexity of the issues covered by this term; and, even more, the complexity of real-life situations and biographies of the people involved. These are people who somehow, stubbornly, do not want to fit into our models. However, working for many years in eastern and central Europe, I have to acknowledge that the situation of many prostitutes cannot be described by any terms other than abuse, force, and exploitation. They are ‘owned’ by the pimps, have their earnings confiscated, and are not free to choose the conditions of their work, among other issues. We cannot use the language of consent, and insist that prostitution is a chosen profession to describe situations of cruel exploitation, deprivation of freedom of movement, and total dependence on the bar or brothel owners. In the same way in which violence against women in the family cannot be called ‘family life’, the violence against migrant women working in prostitution cannot be called ‘sex work’. The difference is that in the case of theorising family life, nobody, for political reasons, is trying to say that all marriages should be perceived as violent, and all married women should be treated as victims, just because violence against women in the family exists.

I am disappointed that Agustin stopped short of looking at the real violence against migrant women, especially those working in the sex industry. She does describe how the term ‘trafficking in women’ is misused, but does not look at the need to re-establish its proper meaning.

I wonder how it was possible that the term ‘trafficking’ was hijacked by the international organisations and state agencies, and that suddenly all women working in sex industry became ‘victims of trafficking’, not only migrants. In eastern Europe, the term is used also to describe ‘internal trafficking’. I would be even more interested to learn how it is possible that the very same actions of the state agencies that were the trigger for NGOs taking action to protect abused migrant prostitutes are now described as ‘anti-trafficking measures’. I do understand the mistrust of Agustin towards such actions, but I wonder whether the decision simply to refuse to look at abused migrant prostitutes as victims of trafficking will stop the violence against them.

Barbara Limanowska, UNDP

I can understand Limanowska’s disappointment: almost every book I read disappoints me in some way. However, it isn’t true that I simply ‘refused to look at abused migrant prostitutes’ or didn’t mention that some victims want support. Conversations I had with escapees from bad situations are included in the book; one vignette in the fieldwork chapter describes a shelter for escapees from trafficking in Madrid. Incidents migrants narrated to me that describe abuse are included as well. What I did that hadn’t been done before was listen to everything else they said, including complications like their compliancy in getting false papers, their willingness to get into debt, the priority they gave to earning money, their desire not to be rescued in the manner often imposed on them and their insistent rejection of a victim identity. Limanowska suggests, even back in 2008, that there are two clearly separable groups – migrants and trafficked people, which leads her to complain that I only wrote about one of the groups and neglected the other. What I actually did was analyse what hundreds of people said to me, trying to shed light on their bigger stories rather than classify them. I found no evidence for the existence of two discrete groups requiring different treatment (or policy). No one that I spoke with, even in shelters for trafficking victims, described themselves as belonging to a group separable from migrants in general.

Sex at the Margins is an edited version of my doctoral thesis. For two years after getting the phd I didn’t even bother to send it to Zed Books, the publisher I had a contract with. I simply never imagined it could be interesting or relevant to many people. That it was good enough for reviewers like Limanowska to forget it was a student’s work, not a big policy-oriented study, is actually a big compliment.

More of the many reviews of the book can be read here.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Sex workers at AWID reject feminist fundamentalism

kthi win plenary awid istanbul 2012I am Kthi Win from Myanmar and I am a sex worker. I manage a national organisation for female, male and transgender sex workers in Burma and I am also the chairperson of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers. Until now, organising anything in Myanmar has been very difficult. People ask, How did you set up a national programme for sex workers? And my answer to them is Our work is illegal. Every night we manage to earn money without getting arrested by the police. We used to work and organise together, so we use this knowledge in order to work out how we can set up the National Network without making the government angry.

This is the opening of Kthi’s plenary speech last Saturday at the AWID conference in Istanbul; at the end Kthi asked those in the hall – 1500-2000 – to stand and repeat with her Sex work is work! Most people did what she asked; no one protested. I presume hard-core abolitionists chose to stay away from this session. You can listen to Kthi’s speech, too.

laura agustin awid 2012

Photo by Debolina Dutta

I was at this event most of last week, part of a group promoting a vision of sex work, migration and feminism that emphasises agency, the state of being in action, taking power, making decisions even when presented with few options. We overtly challenged the reductionist, infantilising ideology that has come to dominate mainstream policy and faux journalism (like The New York Times’s) by attending many sessions and commenting.

I spoke at Don’t Talk to Us About Sewing Machines, moderated by Meena Seshu from SANGRAM in Sangli, India. Wi from Empower spoke first about her research into the state of sex work in Thailand; then she showed the film Last Rescue in Siam, which makes fun of police raids on bars where people are harmlessly singing and drinking. Dale from APNSW then showed a clip from a raid in India that shows sex workers physically resisting police ‘rescue’.

Rebekah Curtis of TrustLaw reported the session in The Word on Women – Anthropologist slams raids “rescuing” sex workers, and I am glad she reproduced these words of mine:

Large amounts of money go into these programmes to rescue people who in many, many, many cases do not want to be rescued, she said, adding that many women choose sex work as a preference to jobs such as domestic work.

We’re talking about the ability to recognise that someone else can make a different decision from your own about her economic or mental or emotional empowerment, she added. That if you want to rescue someone you need to know very well first what it is that they want before you rush in to help them.

I hope our interventions in this very large international women’s event have been worthwhile: one never knows.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Kristof’s seventh-grade sex slave, censorship and colonialism

Writing on Nicholas Kristof’s tweets about saving sex slaves, I said that the important point to criticise is his boast to have caused the closure of six brothels. Whether you believe that brothels are workplaces or slavery dens, you need to ask what the result will be for those working inside when those sites are suddenly closed down (some answers to that are described in this video).

Someone at In These Times wrote about that article of mine, apparently agreeing with my main points, but the post was taken down the same day, making me wonder if the site owners will not allow any criticism of Kristof. Is he such a sacred cow for liberal-leaning news-site managers? Even if they claim to be independent, as it says on their website? It seems absurd, what harm did their blogger do?

The writer had called her article ‘Seventh Grader’ is not an insult: The Naked Anthropologist vs. Nicholas Kristof, in reference to my comment that it is offensive he would ‘refer to a young person in Cambodia with a made-in-USA label like seventh grader‘. She thought it was silly of me because Kristof writes for a US audience who understand that 12-year-olds belong in seventh grade. But many people understood what was annoying about Kristof’s comment, and my guess is he himself likes to think of his work as international, since he at least sometimes lives in Cambodia and writes for the New York Times.

The issue here is colonialism, the imposition not just of the words seventh grader but of the whole world view behind them, a world in which people who are 12 are said to be school children and nothing else because 12-year-olds are claimed to have the right to absolute innocence, lives in which neither work nor sex have a part. Such a claim is questionable in the USA itself, but to transport it wholesale onto a young stranger in Cambodia, a girl glimpsed in a brothel, is to impose an outside interpretation on that girl and the cultural context she’s found in. You may say, based on your belief of what’s right in your culture, that she’s a seventh grader, but you thereby maintain control of someone not in a position to resist, you exploit and victimise her without knowing anything real about her. Kristof says she’s a slave, therefore she is one: is that right?

The writer’s note that the World Food Program labels the world’s children according to the same system of school grades only underscores that we are dealing with colonialism. I write about the Rescue Industry, but many before me have written about the counter-productive thing that is Aid, particularly the version that sends bags of food to hungry places. There are hundreds of resources for such critiques online, or you can read Barbara Harrell-Bond’s Imposing Aid or Graham Hancock’s The Lords of Poverty, if you want it in a more popular style. These out-of-date concepts of Helping are oppressive and haven’t actually stopped structural hunger yet, but they provide hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs for folks from richer countries who assume that their way of life is the best, most successful one despite the presence of many grave social problems and conflicts. Again, the issue is the control the coloniser exercises over the colonised.

This is not cant against the USA. Chinua Achebe commented famously in a critique of Heart of Darkness that Joseph Conrad used Africa

as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. . . The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. Things Fall Apart

As we say nowadays, it’s all about Kristof: his experience, terror, angst, confusion, guilt, desire. Those found in the jungle or brothel are objects in a theatrical drama in which he plays the central role. Did anyone saved in those recent brothel raids want to be rescued as they were, with the results that came about, whatever they were? That is what we do not know, and as far as I can see, we are not going to find out from Kristof or In These Times.

I’ll talk about the idea of whiteness on another occasion.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

They Speak, But Who Listens to (Migrant) Sex Workers?

Receiving Help

One of the basic principles of my work has been respect for what people say about themselves. Before I emerged from the streets into academic rooms where people use big words and are considered Important Members of Society, I did a hundred different jobs, including manual labour, which in many ways I like best. I did community organising, aids-prevention and literacy (alfabetización is a better word) in the Paulo Freirean tradition of educación popular, which is why, when I decided to go back to school after decades away, I did a master’s degree in education (whose practitioners are not considered Important Members of Society).

My original question from what academics call the field was: Why is there such a big difference between how migrants who sell sex talk about themselves and how outsiders talk about them? It didn’t take long to encounter the postcolonial idea that marginalised people’s voices were silenced. At the same time, I had always known expressive, noisy activists among all sorts of marginalised groups. I thought, the problem is not that people are not allowed to speak but that no one listens. In the following piece, published 12 years ago, I speculate about educational activities that might work among migrants that would not look like outside authorities choosing how to ‘help’ them. The ideas are not out of date all these years later, when I might also call them Naked Anthropology.

They Speak, But Who Listens?

Laura María Agustín

In Women@Internet: Creating Cultures in Cyberspace, ed. W. Harcourt. London: Zed Books, 1999, pp 149-161.

A Parable of Connexion

Scene: A small room with a bed and a washbasin.
Characters: A man and a woman.

It’s the third time this man has paid to spend time with this woman. She only speaks a few words of his language, but he seems kind and she decides to take the risk. She tells him she is being held prisoner and wants to get out. Will he help her?

The man is sympathetic but he doesn’t want to get too involved, certainly not to take charge of this woman. So he takes out his cellular phone and says: “Make any call you want.”

The woman hasn’t used a telephone in months. The only number she knows by memory is her sister’s, back in the Ukraine (…or Paraguay….or Burma). She has trouble dialling, doesn’t know any of the codes, but the man helps her. They have to hurry, because he’s only paid for a short time, and they have to whisper, because there are people in rooms on both sides of them.

The call goes through! Her sister answers. The woman can only say, “Help! Get me out of here! I’m being held prisoner!”
“Where are you?” asks her sister.
“In Israel (…or Holland…or Thailand)”.
“But where exactly?”
“I don’t know.”

Stories like this have made headlines all over the world. In the usual version, the faraway recipient of the call begins a long, arduous search for help through hotlines to embassies and international police. In the end, there is a raid and the woman who made the call is liberated. The police, who knew about the brothel all along, are not the heroes of the story. Neither is the client, who took no risks. In fact, the hero of the story is the small cellular phone that enabled the prisoner to connect to the world and be heard. The story does not end perfectly, however, because the woman is deported, and this is not what she wanted.

When I consider the possible uses of new technology for migrant women, I begin with stories like this one. Here, people are enabled to communicate vital pieces of information. Here, there are processes and chains of events and people help each other. Before we can move to the question ‘How will the Internet benefit migrant workers?’, other questions must be considered, for these are not simple or straightforward situations.

Geographical double-think

Although commercial sex is now recognised as a global, multi-billion dollar industry, its workers–in their millions–are only referred to as ‘illegals’, as victims of ‘trafficking’ and as potential ‘vectors’ of HIV/AIDS–when they are referred to at all. The same London newspaper that runs the story of ‘liberated sex slaves’ in Malaysia never mentions the problems migrant Chinese women have finding childcare (or fish sauce) in London. It is the age-old technique of ‘disappearing’ people simply by not acknowledging them.

To be deemed worthy of recognition and of help, where you are is all-important. The same person identified as ‘indigenous’ in the Andes and included in projects of traditional aid is viewed, if she migrates to the North, as a job-stealer, welfare bum, ghetto resident, drug dealer and addict, candidate for deportation and firmly outside the scope of traditional development aid. Unless she puts on some kind of native dress and plays pan-pipes, whereupon she may qualify for ‘cultural’ funding and will probably be left alone by the police–that is, if she plays well enough to gather audiences.

Those who seek to correct this geographic double-think–whether they are involved in battles for fairer immigration law or for better working conditions for domestics, dancers or prostitutes–often talk about rights: the right to communicate, the right to health care. Similarly, when possible uses of new information and communication technologies are mentioned, we hear about the right to access. But access is a tricky thing with people who are being watched and controlled, don’t have much money and are itinerant. Migrant labourers, whether women or men, whatever their labour, have difficulty finding and using the benefits of settled society. Migrants who don’t enjoy ‘legal’ status or whose status depends on a certain amount of fraud or deception, must be extremely cautious about requesting and using services. Migrant prostitutes have the added problems of having to navigate a labyrinth of laws concerning their work. The problems here are logistical and the need is for wireless, rapid and discreet connexions.

The literacy myth and the new information culture

Beyond questions of access lie dreams of educational growth, spiritual expression, ‘liberated voices’ that media like the Internet offer. Again, advocates often mention rights: to education, to ‘life-long learning’, to ‘self-expression’ or ‘self-realisation’. The ‘rights’ argument, however, sets the discussion firmly within First World norms, where citizens not only already have better access and service but more citizens are prepared to take advantage of them. To use the WorldWideWeb and even the simplest e-mail programme, after all, requires a very high level of literacy.

Classic ‘Development’ projects, whether applied to populations located in the Third World or to migrants who have left it, have assumed that Progress happens in stages, of which literacy is the first. Continue reading

Serbian sex work: Doprinos „Razvoju“: Novac zarađen prodajom seksualnih usluga

Doprinos „Razvoju“: Novac zarađen prodajom seksualnih usluga was originally published in English as Contributing to ‘Development’: Money Made Selling Sex , in Research for Sex Work, 9, 8-11 (2006), by Laura Agustín.

The Serbian translation was part of Seks, rad i društvo, projekat na temu seksualnog rada i seksualnosti in Belgrade, 2007.

More information about sex work in Serbia at JAZAS, a member of SWAN, the Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network in Central and Eastern Europe, CIS and South-East Europe. Postcard with Slovakian health message from Odyseus.