Efforts to save migrants and sex workers also appear in ordinary fiction (by which I mean not melodramas produced by moral crusaders) and some authors have a fine-tuned sense of irony. In Magdalen Nabb’s Some Bitter Taste (2002), Marshal Guarnaccia, a policeman in Florence, helps an Albanian woman escape from her pimp, who is sent to jail. The woman goes to live with a nice man, Mario, but after a time she visits Guarnaccia in his office to tell him his effort to help her has failed.
You’re the only person who’s ever been nice to me… so I wanted to tell you because if I don’t somebody else will. You’re bound to find out. I’m going back on the game.
– What? You’re what? And Mario?
– Oh, Mario… Jesus… I mean, he trotted off every morning at a quarter to eight and I was supposed to clean up his crumbs and wipe the floor over and then he’d come trotting back again and I was supposed to have the water boiling for his pasta and then it was one long whinge – there are no clean shirts, have you seen the fluff under this bed? Where’s the other sock to this? You’ve forgotten to get milk again… No, no, I couldn’t stand the boredom. So I upped and offed.
– Back to Ilir?
– Why not? He’s out now and he wants me back. Nobody ever earned him as much as me and he kept me in style. We ate in a restaurant every night. I like a good time and I get clients who give me a good time, you know what I mean? I like champagne and a few presents. I’m not spending the rest of my young life washing the floor of some poky little kitchen for a boring spotty clerk who thinks he’s earned the right to have his socks washed for a lifetime because he’s been good enough to save me from the streets.
– But what about when you’re not young anymore?
– Well, it’s all over then, isn’t it? Get it while you can, I say. I just… I wanted to tell you myself. It’s not that I’m not grateful to you. I know you meant well. Are you pissed off with me? You are, aren’t you?
– You’ve every right to be. I’d better go. I’m sorry. Because of you, I mean, not that little prick Mario, only because of you. I know you did your best.
Carve it on my tombstone, thought the marshal, watching her leave through a skein of cigarette smoke.- p 309
It’s good commentary on the institution of couplehood: the marriage model in which woman has a domestic capacity. Some would say all would change if they were to have children, but, after all, she still wouldn’t be able to eat in restaurants every night. And the presumed debt to saviours sounds awful: a side-effect of Rescue rarely addressed.
Funny how she comes to thank the policeman but calls the husband-man a little prick.
The Four-Gated City was published in 1969 by Doris Lessing. The passage quoted below describes a single young woman walking west on the Bayswater Road in 1950. The woman is Martha Quest, recently arrived in London from southern Africa, a migrant from colonies considered peripheral observing life in the presumed cosmopolitan centre. Her route takes her from a middle-class dinner held east of Marble Arch to a poor squat in Notting Hill. The photo above shows another part of London at the same period; the photo below the young Lessing.
Note the absence of moral comment and that the job of the police is to make sure the marketplace functions peacefully.
Now she slowed, almost stopped in surprise at a cool hard getaway look from a young woman who stood with her back to a hedge. Of course, she had passed another invisible boundary. From here until Queensway, the pavements were lined with prostitutes, standing singly or in pairs, dozens of them, along the pavements. But Martha was freer here than she had been in that other territory she had only just left, whose boundary was simply a bisecting street. She was protected precisely by the line of girls for sale, who knew she wasn’t one of their trade union and because their hostile warning faces that said go away, you shouldn’t be here, kept her safe from being accosted. Three kinds of animal here. The women, standing with their backs to the hedges, on sale. The ordinary traffic of the pavement – but a slight traffic, mostly couples hurrying past the marketplace, keeping close under the lights, looking embarrassed, as if they were here by mistake, yet glancing furtively at the buying and bargaining.
The customers, men of all ages, walking slowly past the women, or standing under the trees smoking, making choices. And across the street, policemen, spaced out with twenty or thirty yards between each couple, not looking directly at the haggling and dealing, but observing it sideways to make sure that it went on without incident. Martha walked more slowly than she had had to walk in the part of the street she had left. All the way down the street, by lit airy trees, they stood. Although it lightly drizzled, they wore summer dresses, bare necked, bare shouldered; and high thick sandals with bared insteps; and sometimes they held a jaunty umbrella. But there was no elegance here either. They weren’t well-dressed. They shared the national disposition towards gracelessness.
There has been a war on. Suppose one of these men who was making up for the starvation of the war… approached one of the girls saying: I’d like you to wear … whatever was his fantasy, would she snap back: There’s been a war on, you know? Yes, very probably … Martha found herself imagining rooms where furniture, curtains, objects had charm, had flair, and a girl with charm, flair, undressed slowly to show off wittily charming underclothes – a man’s fantasy? Perhaps in all this city it was only these girls’ rooms where there was anything attractive, gay, rightly made? Well, not from the way they were dressed as they stood on the pavement.
Two bloggers have interviewed me on the occasion of publishing a new book. First I’ll show you Maggie McNeill’s, because it’s written; after that I’ll give the link to Johnny Lemuria’s listenable podcast interview.The Honest Courtesan has kindly given permission for me to reproduce the full conversation here.
Dr. Laura Agustín, author of the blog The Naked Anthropologist and the book Sex at the Margins, the seminal work on “sex trafficking” hysteria (in which she coined the term “rescue industry”), has written The Three-Headed Dog, a novel dramatizing the problems faced by migrants. It’s another way of introducing readers to the issues the “sex trafficking” paradigm attempts to paper over, which Dr. Agustín has studied for over 20 years and understands in a way very few others do. I recently read the novel, and Dr. Agustín graciously agreed to answer some questions about it.
MM: Sex at the Margins has been and continues to be a work of major importance to the sex workers’ rights movement; I know it really helped me to shake off the dualistic thinking about “willing” vs “coerced” sex work, and it’s invaluable in getting people to look at their preconceptions around why people (especially women) leave their original home countries to work. So why did you decide to write fiction instead of a 10th-anniversary edition?
LA: The essence of Sex at the Margins doesn’t need updating, by which I mean women’s migration to work as maids or to sell sex, the use of smugglers, the rise of the Rescue Industry. Someone else can document the growth and proliferation of that last, if they can stomach it, but the core ideas haven’t changed. I wanted to write stories to reach people who don’t read books like Sex at the Margins and who only hear about the issues from mainstream media reports. The Three-Headed Dog provides a way to learn about social realities and be gripped by stories at the same time.
MM: I write fiction myself, so that makes sense to me. But what made you choose the crime genre? Why not do a “straight” novel?
LA: Crime seemed like the right frame, because everyone thinks smuggling and undocumented migration are at least technically crimes – leaving the idea of trafficking out of it. I am a fan of some kinds of mystery writing, and the formula of a detective who searches for missing migrants provides infinite opportunities for all sorts of stories and characters.
MM: I think you just started to answer one of my questions! At the end of the book several questions are unresolved, and I would have liked to know more about Félix, the detective. Is this the first of a series?
LA: I’ve got too many stories to tell for one book. The Dog was getting long and complicated, so I decided to make it the first in a series. In the detective genre it’s common for some questions to remain dangling, and readers know they can learn more in the next installment. If I’d been writing 150 years ago I might have done weekly installments in a magazine, as Dickens did with The Pickwick Papers. In the next book, which I’ve started, Félix’s search takes her to Calais and London.
MM: I was very intrigued by Félix, and it seems to me that she might be based on you. Would I be correct? And are any other characters based on people you know?
LA: The characters created themselves in my mind out of the many thousands of migrant friends and acquaintances I’ve had in my life. Including myself. But they sprang forth and told me who they were. I identify with much of Félix’s character, but I identify with much of the smuggler Sarac’s character, too.
MM: I like that Félix has some history of sex work, and that she still seems to be comfortable taking gigs that dip into the edges of sex work.
LA: She certainly was a sex worker during the European tour she did when younger with her friend Leila, who now lives in Tangier. I think she still takes sexwork gigs when it suits her. I expect she’ll tell us more about that in the future.
MM: Not many novels have well-developed and nuanced sex workers as major characters, and when we appear as minor characters we’re mostly there to be rescued or murdered. But these characters, even the minor ones, are much more developed than that. There was one character, Marina, who was clearly intending to do sex work, but what about the others? I couldn’t be sure.
LA: This is Marina’s second time sexworking in Spain. Félix looks for two other characters in spas (massage joints) in Madrid, and one of those is adamant about not intending to be a maid. They’re Latin Americans who belong to a long tradition of working in indoor businesses like bars and flats, or sometimes in the street. They arrive with contacts and some prior knowledge of what they’re getting into, so it’s a serious problem when the smuggler makes them de-plane in Madrid instead of Málaga. Of the other characters, Promise, the Nigerian, planned to sexwork in the street, and Eddy, the boy who goes missing, doesn’t intend anything but is moving in that direction.
MM: It seemed to me that their ending up in Madrid was a very big issue, even beyond the lack of connections. Is Madrid so very different from Málaga?
LA: Yes, Madrid is a harder place, a capital city and centre of echt-Spanish culture. Málaga is on the Costa del Sol, crossroads for many kinds of migration, smuggling, tourism and crime. It’s a long stretch of coast that ends in a point only 32 kilometres from Africa across the Mediterranean Sea. Nowadays many non-Spanish Europeans from colder climates have homes there in quasi-closed communities. The coast is by no means a piece of cake, but it’s not a cold, self-important northern city. Personally I feel a great sense of history there and lived in Granada during the years I worked on Sex at the Margins.
MM: So it’s a good place to find jobs that aren’t strictly legal?
LA: This is about informal economies that exist in parallel to formal ones (which means they’re included in government accounting). Informal economies are even larger than the formal in some developing countries. In Spain it is not illegal to sell sex, but undocumented migrants have no right to be in the country at all, much less work there. The same is true when they get jobs in restaurant kitchens, on construction sites, picking fruit and working as maids and cleaners. The informal economy rolls along, the jobs are available and migrants are more or less glad to get them despite the clandestinity.
MM: And as you discussed in Sex at the Margins, it’s this informal economy that’s depicted as “trafficking” nowadays, even when there’s no coercion involved per se.
LA: The group that arrives by plane at the beginning are undocumented migrants. They’ve got papers to show at the border: passports and tourist visas. Fakery was involved, and these young people are planning to get paid work, so they’re going to misuse the visas. A guy who’s part of the smuggling travels with them. The project is based on the migrants getting jobs and income so they can pay back debts they or their families took on when they bought travel-agency-type services (known in crime-circles as smuggling). Technically they’re all committing crimes, but to the migrants they feel like minor crimes, given the well-known availability of jobs when they arrive. Everyone knows people who’ve done it and sent money home. Do smugglers sometimes resort to nefarious practices? Of course; it’s an unregulated economy. But if smugglers want to stay in the business they guard their reputation. Word spreads.
MM: I’m sure the rescue industry folks would find fault with the fact that the book isn’t about people “rescuing” these migrants from their smugglers.
LA: I wrote this book out of love, not as polemic. I’d have to get paid very well to devote myself for long to analysing moral entrepreneurship; I don’t find crusader-figures interesting. I don’t see the world in black-and-white, I like ambiguity and shifting ground. In Félix’s interior life, questions of helping and saving play a part, but she refuses the rescuer-role.
MM: And really, even the villains aren’t the mustache-twirling cardboard characters so beloved by those who promote the “sex trafficking” narrative. I’m thinking about Sarac, the smuggler, and Carlos, the sex club owner.
LA: The smugglers are squabbling amongst themselves and not very appealing, but they aren’t monsters or driving anyone into bondage. They charge for their services. Sarac worked as a soldier/mercenary, now does “security” and is involved in people-smuggling. He wants to do something new, but not pimping. Carlos operates hostess clubs in Madrid. Those are not illegal, but he may employ illegal migrants. He’s part of an established tradition, and he makes good money on the women’s work.
MM: I think American readers have some very confused ideas about the sex industry and migration in Europe. Do you think The Three-Headed Dog will appeal to them and help clear up some of those misconceptions?
LA: Undocumented migration and working in underground economies are worldwide phenomena no matter what local culture or national laws prevail. Ways to earn money by selling sex vary in the details, but sex workers recognise each other across national borders and talk about the same problems and solutions everywhere. Sometimes places where laws are uglier provide more opportunities. Since the migrants are working illegally in Spain they have a lot in common with all sex workers in the USA, right?
MM: True; all of us are illegal here, whether we were born here or not. Is there anything else you’d like to tell the readers that I haven’t thought of?
LA: Yes, I want to point out that even if you don’t own a Kindle, you can still buy the Kindle version of The Three-Headed Dog and download a free reading app right there. And you can read more about sex industry jobs here at the Naked Anthropologist.
This is a project of author and artist John L Robinson, aka Johnny Lemuria, whose introduction says This is a decadent podcast; if you can’t handle that you should go elsewhere. Actually I didn’t say anything decadent, though some abolitionists think I’m one of Satan’s handmaidens.
Or listen here:
Thank you, Johnny and Maggie. Anyone else interested in an interview? Contact me on the form to your right.
In February I was interviewed by RadioAva (DIY sexworker radio, a project of x:talk) about The Three-Headed Dog. When I arrived at the pub in mid-afternoon a fight was blowing up in the back room, glass splintering and chairs crashing to the floor. Soon the place was full of cops and two clutches of drunken young white men were being moved out the door while shouting out epithets: Knackers! Travellers! The perfect setting for an interview.
In this interview I talk about creativity and pleasure, about my own likes and dislikes. The interviewer describes her feelings about the characters, surprising me by saying she found sexworker Marina ‘too perfect’. Here I confess to identifying not only with the detective narrator, Félix, but also with a villain of the story called Sarac. What are they supposed to do? I say, referring to men reared in tribal and national wars who now may turn to people-smuggling. I talk about cultural relativism as a way of understanding lives unlike our own.
I hear my self in this interview. I hear myself saying more than once I wanted to put it out there, referring to a sense of urgency, that stories of migrants who sell sex are so rarely heard that The Three-Headed Dog can exist as an historical document to be discovered by future historians – like this interview, which is located on the wonderfully-named mixcloud.
Listen to it while doing some chore. Note the bar-clinking in the background. On the same show: Pandora Blake and the ECP. Good company. Thank you, all.
Note: there are musical interludes interspersed with segments of me and Carmen talking. They are all migration-inspired and most were provided by me. They aren’t identified on the podcast, so I’ll do a separate piece about them soon.
In the popular imaginary a pimp is a mean man engaged in pushing a few prostitutes around and taking their money. Usually portrayed as black or foreign, he is made out to thrive on dressing up and showing off. Pimping is sometimes placed as part of gang business and competition, again with racist and xenophobic overtones. In these stereotypes street prostitution is usually assumed, though that is changing.
In anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking crusades and policy the word pimp is used to cover every case of a man benefiting from prostitution, whether by taking a percentage of sex workers’ earnings for work done (as a driver, or web-page tech, for example) or for living with sex workers, giving advice, providing back-up.
Some want to distinguish clearly between those genuine helpers and the bad things ‘real pimps’ do, but I have learned over decades that trying to draw that line is a futile exercise. Sometimes sex workers love the men who push them around. Sometimes women pay men back in ways not visible to outsiders bent on seeing only one thing. Often the relationship is temporarily convenient and may be fluid, drifting back and forth between desired and consensual and not.
Rarely do we get a sense of pimping as a job in an organisation, the sort of ‘organised crime’ that anti-trafficking police forces and the UN go on about. As with so many aspects of the sex industry most people know absolutely nothing about how it can work. When I suggested a field called the Cultural Study of Commercial Sex I said policy (prostitution law, sex-venue licensing, red-light districting, employment rules) would benefit from knowing more instead of staying on the ignorant outskirts. Moralising is very often a form of ignorance. This applies to the world of mediators, facilitators, agents, smugglers, madams and pimps.
The narrator of Jo Nesbø’s Blood on Snow is explaining how he came to be a fixer (hit-man) for a villain. There were various jobs available, and he tried several: driving get-away cars, robbery, drugs-dealing and pimping. In the following story he was on a low rung in the pimping business where Hoffmann is the top boss and Pine his second man. The place is Oslo.
Prostitution. I don’t have a problem with women earning money whatever way they like, and the idea that a bloke – me, for instance – should get a third of the money for sorting things out so the women can concentrate on the actual work. A good pimp is worth every krone they pay him, I’ve always thought that. The problem is that I fall in love so quickly, and then I stop seeing it in terms of business. And I can’t handle shaking, hitting or threatening the women, whether or not I’m in love with them. Something to do with my mother, maybe, what do I know? That’s probably why I can’t stand seeing other people beating up women either. Something just snaps. Take Maria, for instance. Deaf and dumb, with a limp. I don’t know what those two things have got to do with each other – nothing probably – but it’s a bit like once you get started getting bad cards, they just keep coming. Which is probably why Maria ended up with an idiot junkie boyfriend as well. He had a fancy French name, Myriel, but owed Hoffman thirteen thousand for drugs. The first time I saw her was when Pine, Hoffmann’s head pimp, pointed out a girl in a home-made coat and with her hair up in a bun, looking like she’d just left church. She was sitting on the steps in front of Ridderhallen, crying, and Pine told me she was going to have to pay back her boyfriend’s drug debt in kind. I thought it best to give her a gentle start, just hand-jobs. But she jumped out of the first car she got into after barely ten seconds. She stood there in floods of tears while Pine yelled at her. Maybe he thought she’d hear him if he shouted loud enough. Maybe that was what did it. The yelling. And my mum. Either way, something snapped, and even if I could see what Pine was trying to get into her head I ended up decking him, my own boss. Then I took Maria to a flat I knew was empty, then went to tell Hoffmann that I was no use as a pimp either. Blood on Snow, pp 6-7, Jo Nesbø
In my own The Three-Headed Dog, a strongman working for an organisation is looking for a new job. Sarac’s career has included soldiering as a very young man and a range of jobs lumped together as Security, in different parts of Europe and in the Caribbean. He is told his next job will be in West Africa, but he doesn’t want to go, feels comfortable on the Costa del Sol and is now looking for a way to stay. He is approached by a man with a job offer.
In this photo at least a man’s head and body are cut off, not only a woman’s (the usual practice).
‘You have to specialise according to what work the people travelling are going to do. You have to use contacts specific to the sector. For instance, it might sound strange, but I have no good contacts in construction on the coast, or in property development. Those are competitive areas it would be stupid to try to get into. But I do know someone with long experience in the flats. Apartments where women work. You understand. And that’s just here. In the region we can call home I have a few powerful names. The operation would be high-quality, and there are different directions to take. A wide range of businesses, no need to deal with the low end.’ He paused. Sarac betrayed no reaction. Tarts, he thought. Bloody pimp-ing. The very last thing he was looking for. The Three-Headed Dog, Laura Agustín
If you’re interested in fiction’s genre labels: Nesbø’s book is placed as Nordic Noir; the Dog as Mediterranean Noir. Noir is about moral ambiguity, as when a pimp can’t stand abusing women so becomes a hard-boiled killer instead. Sarac is looking for something else to do, and has to get there using strong arms. What else does he have, after all? When police and moral entrepreneurs rant about putting criminal men in prison I often think: What jobs do they imagine to be available for men and boys cut out of the mainstream, with no access to anything but the lowest-class, worst-paid work, no expectation of social mobility or respect? Perhaps those thinking about ‘root-causes’ of prostitution and trafficking might consider that, rather than figuring them all as evildoers to be imprisoned for long terms, in prisons that only teach them better techniques for crime.