Tag Archives: español

Sex workers may unionise – but can prostitutes? The case of Sindicato OTRAS

Last week a Madrid tribunal declared that sex workers can unionise but prostitutes can’t – or that’s what it comes down to. Sindicato OTRAS was granted conventional union status in the summer, having filed the necessary paperwork. But when the news got out, scandalised politicians vowed they wouldn’t allow it, because the current government has declared itself abolitionist. Before long, several women’s organisations in different parts of Spain had put together a lawsuit against the union, on the grounds that prostitution can’t be a job (because it’s violence against women, slavery and so on). I’m simplifying, but believe me, you don’t want to read the convoluted legal language involved.

I spent two evenings with members of Aprosex in late May in Barcelona, one of them a conversatorio with me and many enthusiastic participants held at the headquarters of t.i.c.t.a.c. Shortly afterwards, Aprosex filed papers to become a union: Sindicato OTRAS (Organización de Trabajadoras Sexuales). Sex workers who call themselves anything are welcome: cam-girls, phone-sex operators, strippers, porn actors, bar hostesses, escorts, workers in flats. Some of these offer services many consider to be prostitution.

Job-titles don’t say everything. Some who’ve embraced the term sex worker hate the word prostitute, but a lot of others comfortably use it, especially in Romance languages. A recently-formed group call themselves Colectivo de Prostitutas de Sevilla. The whore-word puta is in process of reclamation, appearing on banners as you see above. Some feel okay calling themselves sex workers as long as it’s clear that they aren’t prostitutes. The paperwork for OTRAS referred to sex work in all its forms, which abolitionists immediately interpreted to mean prostitution: the thing they love to hate.

I don’t need to describe the arguments made by the women’s-group plaintiffs; they are well known. I note their horror that prostitutes, who exist because of patriarchy, can argue that a union will combat it. I have written about anti-prostitution ideas many times, last in The New Abolitionist Model.

But the specific Spanish legal context determined how opponents could argue a lawsuit. In the Penal Code prostitution is not defined as illegal, which rights activists complain leads to alegal status that disadvantages sex workers. You may well think that if an activity is not prohibited or defined as wrong in law then it must by default be considered part of ordinary (legal) life. But the ambiguity has been exploited to claim that if prostitution is not defined as legal work by law and listed in a national register of occupations then it can’t be a job. Porn acting and web-camming might be. The term sex worker seems not precise enough to be, and anyway abolitionists read it as a euphemism for prostitute.

However, it’s more complicated than that. Amongst jobs that are listed in the national register is work in clubes de alterne, bar-venues with private spaces in the back or upstairs for workers to take clients for sex. The word alterne, from the verb alternar, refers to socialising and drinking with customers, and chicas de alterne is a common euphemism for women who work in clubes de carretera, hoteles de plaza, casas de citas and puticlubs – all names of public businesses that may get called brothels, but they may also have a lot more going on in them: films, shows, dance-floors, jacuzzis, who knows what else in a place like the one above in Málaga. Businesses you can call brothels also exist in residential buildings. All these are legal. I wrote more about them in The Sex Industry in Spain. In other parts of the world chicas de alterne are known as bar girls or hostesses.

The Audiencia’s decision noted there would be no problem if chicas de alterne wanted to unionise on the basis of their work socialising. They also do prostitution? No problem. If you find this bizarrely contradictory, consult the Mad Hatter – he understands perfectly. Loopholes like these provide endless paid occupation for lawyers and campaigners like Plataforma 8 de marzo, Comisión para la Investigación de Malos Tratos a Mujeres and L’Escola: women’s organisations who took Sindicato OTRAS to court.

In this case they made many familiar claims about prostitution being violence against women and an obstacle to equality, citing Spanish legislation. They leaned heavily on arguments about trafficking and prostitution being inseparable, quoting EU and UN declarations. But they also claimed that prostitution’s not being an occupation inscribed in Spain’s national job register means that those who practise it can’t be workers because their job does not exist.

Further complications relate to the requirement that workers forming unions need to have the status of employees in a setting where employers define and regulate their work. In the case of prostitution, plaintiffs argued, this would mean managers telling prostitutes how to have sex with clients, which they don’t do. To underscore their point claimants expressed outrage at the possibility that bosses and workers might be able to damage the highly personal nature of sex (personalísimo). The way these repressive arguments opportunistically use the principle of sexual freedom frankly makes me sick.

Requiring workers to assume self-employed status is common practice in sex-industry businesses in many countries, allowing bosses to avoid accusations of pimping and also avoid providing decent working conditions. Being self-employed means workers have no right to negotiate terms or problems in what obviously are workplaces. Individuals may complain to bosses, but only trade unions have the ability to negotiate formally with management without being ignored or simply dismissed. Nota bene: Caveats apply. There is no one meaning to the term trade union, and national contexts differ. Freelance/self-employed/autonomous workers are generally excluded, but new unions want to change that.

OTRAS will appeal to the Supreme Court and meanwhile, despite misleading press headlines, have not been declared illegal. The Audiencia’s decision annulled the group’s statutes (by-laws) but hasn’t the power to dissolve the union (the whole long cryptic decision is at the bottom of the previous link). El Diario did better on the decision than most media outlets.

Everyone wants to know why the association of sex-business owners is allowed to exist. ANELA was inscribed in the national register of associations in 2004, defining their activity as dispensar “productos o servicios” a terceras personas ajenas al establecimiento, “que ejerzan el alterne y la prostitución por cuenta propia”: provide products or services to self-employed third persons… who practise alterne and prostitution.

It is interesting that ANELA’s first attempt to register was also frustrated by the mention of prostitution. Told to remove it because it isn’t legal employment, they refused, citing a 2001 EU court decision that prostitution may be an economic activity for self-employed persons, in the absence of force or coercion. In the same Audiencia (Sala de lo Social) where the case against OTRAS was held, ANELA was initially refused inscription. They appealed to the Supreme Court and won, judges saying that providing the conditions for prostitution to take place doesn’t necessarily make an owner a pimp (proxeneta). Go figure.

Meanwhile, if you weren’t already dazed by contradictions, another sex workers’ union opened this past summer, also in Barcelona. Unión Sindical de Trabajo Sexual was founded as a branch of the already-existing Intersindical Alternativa de Catalunya, and moral crusaders have no argument with it. Not because of which job-titles the workers claim but because, as a branch, they are not a separate autonomous legal entity. I know – it just doesn’t add up.

Enough. I’ve understood for many years that the term prostitution can never be pinned down. It isn’t ‘just a word’: its meaning is far from obvious; its connotations reach deep into patriarchal mechanisms for keeping women down and divided against each other. The comfortable middle-class Spanish feminists desiring to bring down a trade union for sex workers perfectly prove the point. In Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores I went into this in detail.

When I was revising this I saw I hadn’t tagged for Rescue Industry. The hostility of government spokesfolk and organisations that agreed to do their dirty work goes beyond any pretense to be helping and saving. This is about upholding the status quo for a small but influential cadre of privileged women who believe that they Know Best about everything under the sun. Patriarchal hierarchies work for women at the top.

Some things I’ve written about Spain, in English (note Spanish at the bottom):

A novel, The Three-Headed Dog, is set on the Costa del Sol and Madrid, amongst migrants doing various kinds of sex work. In the sequel the setting moves from Galicia through Málaga to Calais and London.

The Sex Industry in Spain: Sex clubs, flats, agriculture, tourism

Highways as sexwork places, with chairs

Who are migrant sex workers?

Sexwork and migration fiction, part 2: Jobs in the sex industry

Change the world by getting men to stop buying sex: Spain

In Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, the field work was carried out in Spain.

Lista de publicaciones mias en castellano

—Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Migrants sell sex in flats, or are they brothels?

Why does it matter where you sell sex? Although most photos attached to media stories show truncated women’s bodies standing in dark streets, the news often concerns indoors: flats where migrants live and sell sex for short periods, ordinary flats rented by someone and hired out to women who fly in and fly out, making money and then moving on. British media like to call them brothels, a stupidity based on laws that prohibit more than one person at a time selling sex in indoor venues (yes, even two friends watching out for each other). Now they’re even called pop-up brothels, a cuteness deserving no further comment.

The flats don’t conform to the widely-held idea of brothels as places where clients can drink and socialise at bars and choose amongst a number of available workers to have sex with. Brothels don’t look like residential apartments in anyone’s imagination, any more than they look like clinics, carwashes or hair salons – all disguises that have been used. In old Barcelona photos you see the term mueblé to signify a brothel somewhere inside a residential building. In the photo to the right there is a venue El Gato Negro, which may be a bar or may lead to the mueblé mentioned in the sign at the left, which could be only a room or could be a flat (gomas in the Gato sign refers to condoms). Contemporary buildings are used the same way, with or without signage (see caption in below photo).

It doesn’t take a business-genius to figure out how to rent a house or flat and then sub-rent the space out to sex workers. Independent women do it or they find out about someone else and sub-rent from them. Nor is it difficult to buy budget air tickets online, nor, in the case of Europe and Europeans, to cross borders without showing passports. Some workers even use Air B&B, leading to outrage when homeowners want to believe chaste ‘families’ are enjoying non-sexual tourism in their rentals.

No wonder freelance sex work is a widespread international occupation. But despite this obvious fact, moral crusaders, police and media writers throw up their hands in horror at the supposed ‘traffickers’ who are setting flats up and then luring – that favourite word – unaware women to work in them. The assumptions are spelled out by judges at criminal trials who inevitably refer to women as vulnerable – a present-day version of innocent. In fact it all feels like the performance of a 19th-century melodrama in modern dress. And when the women protest strenuously enough that they set things up on their own, they are deported (even when selling sex isn’t prohibited – there’s always an excuse to toss them out.)

In a story from Singapore a migrant said to a reporter: ‘We have many customers every day and have all sorts of services. But we will be leaving in two days’ time.’ They were there on ‘social visit passes’ or tourist visas, and they indicated other women would be arriving when they left. The photo intends to show the ordinariness of the environment, I suppose – these are public housing units.

In Barcelona a news item relates how police are aware of 20 flats where, ‘without any kind of licence rooms are rented by the hour for sexual encounters. According to sources close to the case it was the same Martínez Bordiu family who found out that the tenant to whom they had rented the flat was using it as a brothel’ (casa de citas is the old-fashioned term used).

In The Three-Headed Dog, the migrant character Marina is working in a flat in Torremolinos, on the southern coast of Spain. When a client collapses she calls Félix Vidal:

It was after midnight when I parked in front of one of the faceless white apartment blocks, near where a couple with a small child were unpacking their car. I buzzed the street door, and a voice said ‘Closed’, but then there was bumping and a clank, and the door buzzed open. The family joined me in the small lift, fiddling with bags and folding up a push-chair.

At the flat, Marina let me in quickly, her hair springing out around her face like a great black halo. She pulled me into a room and closed the door on four young women in shorts and T-shirts huddled together looking scared. It was a bedroom conceived for a child in the original plan, so the double-sized bed that had been installed took up most of the space. A skimpy whip hung next to a red heart on the wall. On the floor beside the bed lay a man. Marina said, ‘He had some kind of attack. He was still conscious when I called you.’ I checked: he was breathing faintly.

The anonymity and ordinariness of houses, flats, apartments is preferred by a lot of workers and clients alike: people who don’t want bars, socialising, dance floors or fancy atmosphere. To call them brothels is to really stretch the imagination of already tired spectators at the Sex Work Wars. Sex takes place in houses anyway, so what difference does it make if money changes hands?

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Incitement to paedophilia: It’s the zeitgeist

The headline reads Spanish brothel’s “back to school” party sparks outrage in Andalusia. El Bosque is a legal club de alterne where sex workers drink, dance and chat with customers with the option to retire to private rooms for paid sex. The party-poster was called an incitement to paedophilia.

Clubs like El Bosque, known colloquially in Spanish as puticlubs, are legal businesses in Spain; here you can see a typical for-sale advertisement. Activists describe sex work in Spain as alegal: neither expressly prohibited nor permitted by law.

The anti-prostitution movement has long deplored these clubs as sites of violence against women. But in the campaign here, a party-style tolerated for ten years became intolerable to non-campaigners on the ground of promoting paedophilia, despite the obvious age of women (and their clothing) in the poster. The club’s owner removed the posters and cancelled the party.

Why am I interested? To have a ‘field’ of study means keeping track of events over time. Now that I’ve been observing opposition to the sex industry for more than 20 years I clock details, small moments of change. Opposition to paedophilia is not new at all. Outrage about enjo kosai and other kinds of juvenile sex work is also now old. But opposition to commercial-sex parties where adult women wear mock schoolgirl outfits shows a shift in mores about what is offensive. The pictures caused distaste.

But do such parties actually promote sex with young girls? It’s a question impossible ever to answer, like the effect of watching porn or violent movies. For all the palaver about research, most of it carried out about social behaviour can only vaguely intimate effects on one group or another. The neighbours’ feeling offended is palpably real, though neighbours who don’t feel offended are omitted from the story.

My formal study of opposition to the sex industry began with women planning to migrate to Spain, where two paying options awaited them: live-in domestic work or various sex jobs. There’s a wide gamut of these.

The life of migrants who find work in clubs de alterne and other venues is the theme of The Three-Headed Dog, a noir novel set in Málaga and Madrid. One of the characters is a 16-year-old Dominican boy in process of getting into sex work. Eddy is not well-educated but no longer wants to be in school or live with his parents. The detective sent to find him has to choose whether to try to rescue him against his own will.

Read more about sex work and migration in fiction and the ethical dilemmas for those concerned about it.

The Three-Headed Dog can be read on any device, just press for the one you want.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Who are migrant sex workers?

You paid someone to help you leave home, travel across borders or into unknown areas of your own country. You knew you’d be selling sex but probably not much about how it would work. You might not think of yourselves as migrants but as travellers. There’s no need for you to label yourselves based on jobs you take. But others will talk about you and find it convenient to give you an identity-label: Migrant sex workers. Foreign prostitutes. Escorts. Victims of trafficking. Sex slaves.

You look like other woman travellers in the airport. Maybe you bought the ticket online yourself, or maybe someone else did and gave you the booking number. You might be using your own passport applied for by you in the normal way in your country. Or maybe you paid someone to get you a passport under another name or age. You may understand that this implies your connivance in committing crime, or you may not.

However things work out for you, there will be stories about how miserable you are. No way out for Almería’s prostitutes relies on the fact that most undocumented migrants, whatever your jobs, take on debt in order to leave home, arrive to another place and get into paying work. The debts often sound outlandish to outsiders, leading them to describe you as enslaved (using the term debt bondage when they don’t ever refer to mortage- or student-loans like that).

A recent photo series taken at a brothel in Roquetas de Mar purports to show how awful living and working conditions are for migrant sex workers: Infamous Farmhouses (Cortijos de la infamia). But, if you already know from personal experience how poverty and informal or illegal businesses look, you won’t be upset by shots of rubbish in the street. You may even see the bright side of landscapes or interiors, despite their being shot with the purpose of horrifying outsiders. [Note that the caption to this photo describes the women as fleeing inside to escape photographers.]

The disconnect between how outsiders see these scenes and what they mean to migrants is apparently unfixable. I was once challenged, after a speech I’d given, to admit that migrants are, objectively speaking, victims (because of structural inequalities if nothing else, but of course there was a lot else.) I responded that I understood why she, a middle-class educated and avowed Socialist, might view poor migrants as victims. But, I said, if you shift to their point of view then you don’t see things that way. You see yourselves as taking actions to get ahead inside very shitty life circumstances.. That’s what I do, rather than labelling. I look at the situation from the subjects’ standpoint.

There’s no doubt that smugglers often lie and take advantage of travellers who have paid for their services. But campaigns to keep everyone at home in case they might be mistreated by smugglers miss the fundamental point: In the absence of hope for the future people are willing to take risks. In the case of Colombian women hiring smugglers to take them to China, the government campaign aims to ensure that ‘women don’t believe in the offers of easy money to be made abroad.’ But money is made abroad, and lots of it, and no migrant I ever met expected it to be easy. More to the point, everyone doesn’t suffer the same abuse; experiences vary. But what all migrants are doing is taking risks.

It’s not fair, of course it’s not. But insisting everyone is by definition better off staying at home rather than taking risks is crazy in a world where transport is easily available and the adventure of travel is promoted constantly. And without new kinds of flexible migration policies the informal market where smugglers operate will continue unregulated. Putting smugglers in prison will not stop others from entering the field. [Note smugglers are often referred to as travel agents by their paying customers.]

In Sex at the Margins, I avoided labelling women migrants as much as possible. On Twitter I often use the tag #migrantsexworkers for brevity’s sake, but most people don’t label themselves anything. Imagine the term migrant construction workers or migrant kitchen help: they sound silly because it’s understood that they’re not identities. They’re temporary descriptions of folks going through a life-stage. Plenty of women who sell sex don’t call themselves sex workers or prostitutes or anything else. I used to hear women saying I work at night. For that matter, even if you identify as a victim of trafficking, that, too, is a temporary description. Not an identity.

After all, you may have started out doing another job after moving to a new country. For women that’s likely to be some kind of domestic service (as a maid, nanny, cleaner). But if and when that didn’t work out you may have switched to selling sex. Take the recent case of a Bangladeshi migrant in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

In The Three-Headed Dog, characters are going through migration processes, not taking on job-labels. Yes, it’s a crime novel, but one about ordinary people in common situations. They have names, they talk, and none is either a Happy Hooker or a permanently damaged victim. I began writing fiction about these subjects to escape from tedious, repetitive debate-formats where black-and-white questions make nuance impossible.

I’m now being accused by fanatics of ‘sanitising’ injustice by sometimes using the term migrant sex workers. Thank goodness it doesn’t matter to most of you which language or label I use: call yourself what you like. That’s the point.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Sexwork and migration fiction, part 3: Location and nation

two-women-sitting-at-a-bar-1902.jpg!LargeEvery reviewer has to mention a different defect in the book under review: That was my conclusion when reviews of Sex at the Margins were proliferating. Some of the defects pointed to said more about the reviewer than the book, like the English academic who dismissed the research because it had taken place in Spain. I laughed a lot at that one. If you’re interested in migration and globalisation then nation becomes a funny category.

The other day I was interviewed by an investigator interested in undocumented migration in The Three-Headed Dog. We met in a blue bar and drank from stemmed glasses. She agreed I may publish a few points of our conversation, on the subject of place, location and nationality. Her name is Zelda.

mapZelda: Why did you situate The Three-Headed Dog in Spain? Is the plot special to the Costa del Sol? Or could it be moved to Britain or Italy or the state of Florida?

Laura: Spain has long been part of my own life and I lived in Granada while I was reading and doing fieldwork for and then writing what became Sex at the Margins. The Costa del Sol is one of the most fluid and confusing places I know, full of every sort of human mobility, and therefore appealing to me.

The stories in The Dog could be moved in terms of every important concept: How migrants reason and feel about what they’re doing and the sorts of networks they live in. The way they have to look for jobs and housing, the existing in and crossing out of social margins. Those are universal dynamics for undocumented migrants anywhere in the world. But margins feel different according to the terrain and the historical moment. migrantes-coahuiIf the scene were set elsewhere plot-mechanics would vary according to local laws and policing, cultural ideas about sex and women’s mobility, the availability of black-market jobs and the ease of getting out if things go wrong. If there is a coast, boats are an option. Sometimes trains are easily hopped.

Zelda: What about the migrants, are they interchangeable? Could the group of Dominicans on the airplane just as well be Chinese? What about the young Romanian smuggler, could he be Greek? Could Polish Tanya be French? Does anything about nationality matter?

Laura: The human responses portrayed are not unique to any nationality, but some of the mechanics of migration would have to change if you were to make arbitrary switches. For example, Tanya might humanly be French, but she’d be less likely to set up a cleaning service in Madrid. Or the Dominican club-owner, Carlos: If he were Chinese he might certainly run a hostess-bar, but it would be in another part of Madrid, and have a different style, perhaps with gambling, and would the protagonist Félix plausibly have become his close friend?

125969_day labor_GMK_The key to making the story work in any particular place is knowing how migrant networks function and the patterns that have developed based on (1) the possibility of getting visas to other countries and (2) colonial and other dependency/linguistic histories that lead to family relationships. For instance, Brazilians have visa-freedom to travel to Portugal, which is part of Schengen territory, meaning they cross easily into Spain and rest of Europe. Dominican women have a long history as maids and sex workers in Spain – over generations. These are migrations that give meaning to the word transnational.

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Zelda: Can migrant women become sex workers anywhere, whether there’s some kind of regulated sex work or not?

Laura: The two jobs available everywhere to undocumented women are maiding and sex work, but if the plot were picked up and put down in Hong Kong, say, then adjustments would be needed to the kinds of sex businesses where migrants are likely to get employed. And to take up any kind of sex work without knowing the local context and laws, without knowing a few people on the inside, who can give informed advice, is highly risky. This is why there are roles for ‘protectors’ in the migration process, and most of them are not monsters. The plot would have to reflect this.

Zelda: What about racism? Aren’t some countries worse in that way? Wouldn’t that make a big difference to where you set the story?

imgresLaura: In the book, several of the Dominicans reflect on racial hierarchies that affect them in Spain, including those that give some dark ethnicities more cachet than their own. All cultures have ideas and prejudices about Others. But also mixing and hybridity are everywhere, even if more in some places than in others. The consequences are always the same: natives feel threatened, some promote xenophobia, governments talk about tightening borders. But there are colonial histories that can make natives feel that some foreigners are closer to themselves than others, whether their skin is blacker or not.

Zelda: So colonial things, like language. Dominicans who go to Spain already speak Spanish, which has to be an advantage, right? What would happen if you changed the group on the plane to Chinese? Isn’t the whole thing much harder if it’s a new language?

20130516-3L: Not as much as you imagine. Félix visits a Chinese migrant who runs a big variety store and who stands up well to extortion attempts because she has community behind her. Migrants come via networks whether they are legal or not. And migrants from different communities often communicate more easily with each other in the new language, because they all speak more slowly or with a common vocabulary. Then, too, sharing language can work the other way: when Dominicans speak, Spanish listeners know where they are from and bring negative cultural baggage to bear.

Z: The Costa del Sol has all kinds of ethnic groups in it, but you mention places like a Danish church and the urbanizaciones where everyone living there is the same nationality. Don’t a lot of migrants stick to their own kind? Isn’t there insularity among other Europeans who have made second homes on the coast?

CDN-Annons-tidning-2014-09-Svenska-400Laura: There is, but not forever for everyone. Europeans trying to settle and start businesses feel ambivalent about what they’ve left behind and anxious to hold onto their national selves. You see signs in Swedish or German, shops with food items imported so other cuisines can be maintained. But over time things loosen up for a lot of people, they become more curious and less fearful, they make new connections and cultures blend. And for some people, being in a mixed place with a shifting sense of belonging becomes interesting. They don’t find it so easy to answer the question Where are you from? It’s more about This is where I am now. I wrote about this kind of cosmopolitanism among sex workers in Leaving Home for Sex, many years ago.

For more about The Three-Headed Dog, a noir/mystery novel on sexwork and migration, see
Sexwork and Migration Mystery
Melodrama and Archetypes
Jobs in the Sex Industry

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist