Tag Archives: fiction

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

Nigerian migrant women as subjects: Sex work in fiction

Anti-trafficking campaigners often single out Nigerian women as the worst case of what they call sex trafficking. I first wrote about this years ago and note that, despite critiques and debunkings, the trend holds. In stories about Nigerian migrant women, ‘rituals’ are usually cited that are supposed to have bound them in a specially sinister way to smugglers. It’s straight-up racist colonialism, the inability and unwillingness to conceive of even the most superficial aspects of a non-western culture. Lurid conclusions are jumped to immediately according to which juju ceremonies are not comparable to Roman Catholic ones, for one example – though promises, petitions and talismans are found in both. As though one sort of prayer for help or success were inherently irrational and the other not.

That’s not to say that conditions are not pretty dire for many women and men in western Africa, politically, economically, on the gender front – which means people can be willing to take big risks and assume onerous debts when they travel to work abroad. Early in my studies I learned about how some migrants think about that in Lucciole neri – Le prostitute nigeriane si raccontano (Iyamu Kennedy and Pino Nicotri, editors, 1999), one of my sources of ethnographic research with migrants who sell sex in Europe, for what eventually became Sex at the Margins. These Nigerians were working in Italy. [NB: It’s never clear whether the label Nigerian actually means born in and identified with that country. In the world of migration national identities are shifty.]

On Black Sisters’ Street, by Chika Unigwe, came out in 2009. I was prompted to read it by This is Africa’s mention of it along with Sex at the Margins. It’s a novel telling the stories of four women’s migrations from Nigeria to Belgium where they work in windows in the red-light district. None of them has had an easy life and none of them sees herself as a victim, despite the presence of a powerful smuggler in Lagos and a controlling madam in Antwerp. They are, the author says, willing to play the trump card that God has wedged in between their legs. Unigwe has said:

If your parents can’t help you out and your government has failed you, these pimps and traffickers have at least given you a chance to leave and make a living. He’s your saviour. It takes someone outside the situation to see these pimps and traffickers as the bad guys.

At the end of the book we are told how three of the women fare in the future. After nine years in Antwerp, Efe became a madam herself.

It would take eighteen months to get her first of two girls whom she would indeed buy at an auction presided by a tall, good-looking Nigerian man in sunglasses and a beret. It would be in a house in Brussels, with lots to drink and soft music playing in the background. The women would enter the country with a musical band billed to perform at the Lokerenfeest. The man in the sunglasses was the manager of the band and as usual had, in addition to genuine members of the band, added the names of the women who had paid him to the list he submitted at the embassy in Abuja. The women would be called into the room one at a time for the buyers to see and admire. They would all have numbers, for names were not important. Their names would be chosen by whoever bought them. Names that would be easy for white clients to pronounce… Efe would buy numbers five and seven. Number five because she smiled easily. Number seven because she looked docile and eager to please, the sort of girl who was grateful for little. Like Madam, Efe would have some police officers on her payroll to ensure the security of her girls and of her business. She would do well in the business, buying more girls to add to her fleet. pp 278-9

Yes, this is an auction where employers bid on women who will sell sex, but beware glossing all nuances and calling it slave-trading. The women in question want to migrate and accept they’ll be selling sex and paying off a debt. Which doesn’t mean they know everything that may happen to them and how constrained life will be in another country. The Three-Headed Dog, my own recent novel, is about the same dynamics, with Latin Americans in Spain but also a strong Nigerian character – Promise.

I first published this post only slightly changed on 22 September 2011 and publish it again now as part of a series on sex work in fiction.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Wearing slammerkins and dreaming: Sex work in fiction

64be395da850ff563440fc4da91994b8In Slammerkin, Mary is a street prostitute in mid-18th-century London. Thrown out of her dismal basement home by a mother absolute in condemnation of Mary’s pregnancy at 14, she meets a friendly whore, Doll, who initiates her into street trading. Mary is in love with nice clothing and comes to see there is no hard line between the Good Woman and the Bad.

2505937ea8c9c8e6aebb554012fa4295[Her mother] Susan Digot wouldn’t likely recognise her child-as-was, all gussied up in a flowered jacket-bodice and a worn silk skirt buoyed out by a pair of improvers. Mary looked like a woman of the town, these days. She smelled different, even, with the mouth-watering lemony reek of Hungary water.

What a fool Susan Digot had been, to think everyone in gold braid her better, and the wider the skirt, the higher the breeding! Mary had seen commoners walk as queens on the stage in Drury Lane. Doll was opening Mary’s eyes to all life’s shortcuts, back alleys, gaps in the walls. In these uncertain times, Mary was learning, a duchess was sometimes just a stroller who’d picked the right honourable cully.

Kitty Fisher by Joshua Reynolds

Kitty Fisher by Joshua Reynolds

In a four-story house in Golden Square lived a lady who’d once been known in the trade as Angel Arse. On the corner of Hyde Park was a new mansion the Duke of Kingston was building for Miss Chudleigh, who’d been his mistress for a dozen years already and he still hadn’t tired of her. The famous Kitty Fisher was said to be about to swap all her lordly lovers for a rich husband from the Lower House. A bit of loveliness, a bit of luck; that’s all a girl needed.

Richardson_pamela_1741On long bright evenings, Mary sat on the grass in Lamb’s Conduit Fields behind Holborn and watched the courting couples meander by. The air was full of the sounds of leisure: the archers’ arrows hitting the target, the click of balls on the bowling green, or the distant roars of a dogfight or wrestling match. She was reading again for the first time since school. She bought crack-backed romances and memorised all the long words, in case she’d ever need them. The History of Pamela Andrews was her favourite. The crafty wench, to fend off her master all those times, then squeeze a proposal of marriage out of him in the end! She’d swapped her maid’s apron for bridal satins and ended up as good a lady as any other, hadn’t she? It all went to show, Mary thought. If a girl had her wits about her, nowadays, she could rise as high as she wanted, as sure as cream through the milk. Anything was possible. – Slammerkin p247 (Emma Donoghue 2002)

About Mary’s interpretation of Pamela – well! Astute doesn’t begin to describe it. No wonder social blowhards began to condemn the reading of novels by gels.

The word for the loose gown, a slammerkin, came to be used for the women who wore them. On the word slammerkin, from one etymological dictionary:

There is a group of North Sea Germanic words in sl- that mean “sloppy,” and also “slovenly woman” and, less often, “slovenly man,” and that tend to evolve toward “woman of loose morals.” Compare slattern, also English dialectal slummock “a dirty, untidy, or slovenly person” (1861), variant of slammacks “slatternly woman,” said to be from slam “ill-shaped, shambling fellow.” Also slammakin (from 1756 as a type of loose gown; 1785 as “slovenly female,” 1727 as a character name in Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera”), with variants slamkin, slammerkin. Also possibly related are Middle Dutch slore “a sluttish woman,” Dutch slomp, German schlampe “a slattern.”

This knowledge came to me during regular posts/tweets entitled Today’s word for a Bad Woman. There are way way way too many of them, and almost any negative meaning deteriorates sooner or later into promiscuity and prostitution – beginning with sl- or not.

-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

Worker declines rescue in Magdalen Nabb: Sex work in fiction

michaelrougierEfforts 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?

-No, no…

– 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.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist