Tag Archives: laura agustín

Sex at the Margins: Beyond Binaries in Trafficking & Sex Work

I’ve been invited to speak at the Human Trafficking Center of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, Colorado. The talk is called Sex at the Margins: Beyond Binaries in Trafficking & Sex Work. In the 10th-anniversary year of Sex at the Margins I’ll be reflecting on the oceanic changes that have taken place since I first thought about the issues. Beyond Binaries is right: Flee from all attempts to reduce migration and sex-work questions to black and white. What I say is pretty much the opposite of everything seen and said now on the subjects in the media, by politicians and by Rescue Industry participants.

The event, entitled the Monica Petersen Memorial Lecture, is open to the public, taking place on Wednesday 10 January 2018 from 12-2pm at Sie Center Maglione Hall (5th Floor), on the campus at 2201 South Gaylord Street: further details and a link to RSVP here on eventbrite . There is also a facebook page.

Later that day I’ll be reading from Sex at the Margins and The Three-Headed Dog at the University Library, Anderson Academic Commons Room 290, 2150 East Evans Avenue from 17:00-18:00. There’ll be a discussion and Q&A afterwards.

I’d love to meet anyone in person I’ve chatted to online, so do identify yourselves. And I’ve got a couple of days partially free to wander the town, so let me know if anything interesting is happening.

-Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist

The New Abolitionist Model

The New Abolitionist Model

By Laura Agustín, was published in Jacobin Magazine 6 December 2017. I wrote this after reading Julie Bindel’s new book but my thoughts are about the whole anti-prostitution movement as it stands today, whether formulated by so-called radical feminists, Christian missionaries, lawmakers or Rescue Industry social workers. Many others have commented on specific falsehoods and distortions in this book: especially see social media. Links were added by Jacobin. I begin with

__________________________________________________________
Entry for an encyclopedia of feminism: The Sex Work Wars: Decades of acrimonious debate about the meaning of exchanging sex for money. Near-total disagreement about terms, definitions, causes, and effects, and how to measure the involved phenomena. Mutual incomprehension on cultural meanings of sex, sexual identity, and gender relations. Laws backed by politicians based on the supposed truth of one or the other view. Little improvement for those being discussed. Outgrowth of the Lesbian/Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s.
_________________________________________________________

A new shot has been fired in the Sex Work Wars. Julie Bindel’s The Pimping of Prostitution calls for a return to more authentic beginnings, when, as she tells it, everyone involved in the 1960s women’s liberation movement was in thrall to a few shining leaders.

This version rings no bells for me. We were revolting against 1950s domestic ideology that told women to be quiet, feminine, and satisfied with making homes for men. The meaning of liberation was to figure out how to live on our own terms, and if we did read mimeographed newsletters from activists, we didn’t think we had to agree with them. We didn’t feel anyone was our leader. We talked together on the streets, in classrooms, in cafés. Everyone’s experiences counted.

In those conversations, prostitution was considered neither a central issue nor a terrible thing — or not more terrible than everything else we were coming to recognize as oppressive. We wanted to know why housework wasn’t paid and women were supposed to do all the childrearing. We wanted to define our own ways to enjoy sex. We used a new word, ”sexist.” I don’t recall attending a single formal meeting, but I have identified since that time as a feminist.

In this book, Bindel offers two things: cheers and brickbats. Those who agree with her get cheers, everyone else gets brickbats. Less subtle than boxing commentary that recognizes all good punches, this is a bitterness born of thwarting: Prostitution still exists. Millett and Dworkin have been betrayed. Someone must pay.

Nowadays in conversations about women’s rights, there’s widespread agreement about the need for more education, equal salaries, and better job opportunities. But bring up women’s physical bodies, and ideologies of femininity and patriarchy flash like wildfire. Intransigent conflict pursues contraceptionabortion, surrogacy and, perhaps above all, how women can and may consent to have sex. For radical feminists like Bindel, the insertion of money into a sexual relationship signifies no women can ever consent, even when they say they do.

News about women who sell sex has changed tone since publication in 2000 of the UN Protocol on Trafficking, although legal definitions are even now not fully agreed on. Media reports routinely confuse or use all available terms. Human trafficking is not distinguished from people-smuggling, borrowing money to migrate is called debt bondage, awful working conditions and child labor become modern slavery, and selling sex is renamed either sex trafficking or sex slavery. All sociocultural contexts are eliminated in favor of universalizing definitions. No interest is shown in considering how to improve working conditions. The result is to define women as victims in need of rescue, especially when they are selling sex.

In this context it’s not surprising that abolitionism should reemerge into the mainstream. Bindel calls hers the new abolition movement, misleadingly linking to Josephine Butler’s nineteenth-century campaigns to abolish government regulation of prostitution (not prostitution itself). Bindel rejects the aforementioned proliferation of terms: “Trafficking is merely a process in which some women and children are prostituted. Prostitution itself is the problem.” Which at least confirms a long-standing activist complaint regarding anti-trafficking campaigns: that the real object is prohibition of any woman from selling sex, anywhere, anytime.

Fear of trafficking is now used to justify a variety of repressive prostitution-policy regimes, including a law that bans the purchase of sex. First called the Swedish model, then the Nordic, this law, according to Bindel, can now be called the abolitionist model. The idea of this ban is to “End Demand,” on the theory that, if men were stopped from buying sex, women could not be exploited and would never sell sex. It is a ludicrously simplified market theory of supply and demand. Abolitionists claim the law decriminalizes the sale of sex by women (appropriating the central demand of the sex workers’ rights movement), failing to address what would happen to women’s income if there were no clients.

The book’s subtitle, Abolishing the Sex Work Myth, suggests it will prove there are no sex workers. Bindel names many countries she visited. She details the personal sufferings of women who hated selling sex: these are her heroes, and they come across as individuals. Representatives of the “pro-prostitution lobby,” on the contrary, are treated as a series of puppets, quoted to demonstrate their cynicism. Those who recognize the concept of agency as one reason to accept the existence of voluntary sex work are ridiculed as “choice” or “fun” feminists. We hear nothing from women who may not like sex work but continue doing it for their own good reasons.

Mud is slung at escort-agency managers, queer academics, gay libertarians, HIV/health NGOs, migration scholars, Amnesty International, and sex worker-led groups. The greatest wrath is reserved for funders like George Soros’s Open Society Foundations for daring to try to strengthen sex workers’ rights. Because she wants to obliterate all differences and discredit every conceivable source of opposition to radical feminist ideology, variety in types of sex work, degrees of management control, perceptions of autonomy, and amounts of money are dismissed out of hand. Canned summaries of a few moments in sex-worker-rights history are thrown in, but the entire international social movement is dismissed as a pimping “lobby.”

I am capable of reading works whose worldview I don’t like for research purposes, but this book defeated me. The table of contents looks rational, but each chapter consists of many short subsections that appear almost randomly placed. The style is bumpy and awkward, suggesting multiple writers and no editor. There’s no depth, nuance, or engagement with ideas.

And I found very little that might be called new, neither facts nor ideas. If the international abolitionist movement hoped this would be a new heavy weapon against enemies or a way to convince non-experts that sex work is an illusion, they will be shaking their heads in disappointment.

The worst of the contemporary abolitionist project is its failure to confront the question of options for women. Bindel feels Josephine Butler would be on her side? I feel she’d be on mine. At mid-nineteenth century Butler saw how few alternatives women had to achieve economic independence and did not advocate they should be deprived of the possibility of selling sex to survive.

As a scholar in the field, my question has never been whether selling sex is acceptable in moral or feminist terms. Instead I’ve focused on the fact that women everywhere have limited job options, and, when they are not well-educated or connected socially, those options generally reduce to low-paying, low-prestige work: street vending, home sewing, caring, cleaning, retail jobs, sweatshop labor, and selling sex. When the women are undocumented migrants the feasible options reduce to two: living in others’ families as maids or selling sex.

Given the low earnings of these occupations, it is hardly surprising that women who feel they can tolerate it do sex work instead. Less time spent working for more money means being able to support oneself, help others and still have time to take a walk or read a book. Sometimes sex workers get into relationships that don’t look good to outsiders. But what do abolitionists imagine women with few options will do if they are forced to stop sex work?

The old Magdalene Laundries and lock hospitals envisioned nothing better than domestic servitude for ”fallen women.” Is the proposition still that being a servant for pennies and a scant private life is better because it is more dignified? Or is it superior simply because it is notsex work? Either way, to focus always on the moral aspects of sexual labor means forever sidelining projects to improve working conditions and legal protections.

Bindel’s need to manifest indignation at the slightest deviance from a simplified ideology means readers get no distinctions between dastardly procurers, human rights groups, independent escorts, academic researchers, workers in massage parlors, and Hugh Hefner. We’re all the same thing. It’s the textbook definition of fundamentalism.

***

I’ve written previously about feminist fundamentalism in:
The Bad Vibrations of Anatomical Fundamentalism: World Gender War
Sex workers at AWID reject feminist fundamentalism
and Gunilla Ekberg, Sex War and Extremist Feminism.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

International Day To End Violence against Sex Workers

On the International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers, 17 December, I’ll be in Skopje, Macedonia, invited to speak and march by the Coalition ‘Sexual and Health Rights of Marginalized Communities’ in association with the Institute for Ethnology and Antropology at Saints Cyril and Methodius University.

My public talk Sex at the Margins will be held at Public Room, which describes itself like this:

PUBLIC ROOM – Centre for design and innovation: Mezze bar, music, free co–working space for freelancers, concept store, prototyping room, library, commercial bazaars, fine arts and photo exhibitions, professional presentations, workshops for children and adults, business meetings, seminars and celebrations. Public Room is urban, multifunctional place open for all companies, organizations and enthusiasts from all generations… It is a pure hybrid space that abounds with opportunities, creative potential, programme for all tastes and people with positive attitude. You are welcome to realize your ideas in Public Room.

Pure hybrid – sounds like my sort of space. Mixed use, open to all, I’m in favour.

Here’s the facebook post for the event, which will be held at 1800 at 50 Divizija 22, 1000 Skopje: map to Public Room:

On Saturday 16 December, STAR STAR, a sex workers organisation, will do a Red Light District performance in Skopje city centre at 1700-1900 and 2000-2200 (Boulevard St Kliment Ohridski).

On 17 December at noon there is a march on Macedonia Street to mark the Day to End Violence against Sex Workers. Many sex worker groups hold events around the world on this day, and I’m happy to be in Southeast Europe, perhaps even in some sunshine.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Thinking about sex work as work: Dublin Anarchist Book Fair

WSMbookfairtalkI gave a talk called Thinking about sex work as work on 6 April 2013 at the Dublin Anarchist Book Fair. Local abolitionists and anti-prostitution folks were attacking my being there, which is reflected in my introductory remarks. I wrote about wanting the opportunity to talk about sex work without -isms (theory, ideology, rules of thought).

Later I found out the sound deteriorated in the recording I uploaded to my little Youtube channel, and I don’t have a handyperson to fix things like that. Then the other day, while searching for something quite different, I found a clear recording and the person who made it: Aubrey Robinson‏ (@andyazi on twitter). He kindly sent it to me and I’ve uploaded it to the channel.

I haven’t listened to it again and make no claim to be definitive. This is maybe a good case of the personal being political. More rigorously I wrote Sex as Work and Sex Work for The Commoner.

Photo Ahmad Nimer

When I sent this recently to a facebook-man who seemed curious his reply was No, wrong, you can’t talk about sex work without addressing the stigma. I said he should consider before launching into mansplaining in a place where sex workers themselves exchange ideas. He said Fuck that (subject-status doesn’t give knowledge priority, and so on). I said I understand. I don’t think he grasped the nuance – that he had confirmed the mansplaining. Point is, in 30 minutes the plate is full just trying to talk about sex work as work, without the reams of Other Prostitution Issues including stigma, moralising, poverty, agency and everything else on the planet.

I uploaded this video only a while ago and boom, the first comment asks Where are their parents? What do they think? See last line, previous paragraph. Jeez.

There are four other videos on my channel.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Is Sex at the Margins (going to be) a classic?

Herdlicka Berlin2010I nearly didn’t bother to publish Sex at the Margins. In 1998 Zed Books wanted to publish a thesis I’d written for a Master’s degree in Education, but I refused because after two years’ formal study and field research I believed I still didn’t know enough to make a Book. When I was persuaded to do a further degree and the Open University accepted my proposal, Zed signed me to publish the doctoral thesis that might result. I got the degree in early 2004 but neglected to send anything to Zed. I felt finished with it all, I suppose, and couldn’t imagine other people being interested. The manuscript languished until I wrote them rather diffidently two years later. Since I had failed to fulfill my contract on schedule they were under no obligation to me but offered to take a look.

When they said they would publish if I cut the 120 000 words to 90 000, I thought that would be too boring but then decided it would be a pleasure to remove the sogginess required by academic style with its pointless reiteration and endless hedging. Refusing to cut the two long reference lists I began to slash text ruthlessly. When I reached 75 000 words I knew I could make a haiku of the ideas if I wanted but stopped instead.

The outside reader for Zed, a specialist in migration studies, predicted it would become a cult classic. Classics are meant to be enduring, not rendered irrelevant by changing events, tastes or styles. The modifier cult implies an underground quality. The text is now more than ten years old, but the recent review below suggests the book will be read 100 years from now. Could it be?

Review of: Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry on Amazon.com

5 out of 5 stars A modern classic about human trafficking: must read!
6 January 2015 by Thaddeus G. Blanchette (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)zedcoverbrighter

In terms of academic heft, there may be better books that tackle the mess that is modern abolitionism, its take-over of the global anti-trafficking movement and the transformation of the human-rights struggle into a new, convoluted form of anti-immigrant prejudice. There is no better book than this, however, for a general overview and introduction. Agustín’s work has become a classic in the fields of sex work and immigration studies. It is safe to say that no book has irritated or inspired more people in the anti-trafficking field than this one. What do I mean by a classic?

  • When someone comes up to me and says “I am interested in learning about trafficking. Where should I start reading?” this book is the first thing that springs to mind.
  • It goes against the grain of the received wisdom of the times and yet hits its subject matter square on, in such a way that you’ll never be able to hear someone say “trafficking” again without thinking of it, whether or not you agree with Agustín.
  • Because so much of the subject matter is absolutely contaminated by moral panic and bullshit in other books — even well-meaning academic books — but is not contaminated HERE, people are still going to be reading this a century from now and saying “Yes!” when 99.9% of what is now written about so-called trafficking will read the way Victorian screeds against masturbation do today.

The best comparison I can make is with Emma Goldman’s classic (I do not use this term lightly or ironically) The Traffic in Women, a 1910 dissection of that generation’s anti-trafficking panic. You can read Goldman today and nod your head, while most of what passed for highly wise and popular portrayals of “trafficking” at that time will strike you as moralistic and hypocritical blather. Like Goldman, Agustín is not well received by the powers-that-be of her times. Like Goldman, she is often unpopular, not the least among people who should consider her to be their ally. Like Goldman, she speaks truth to power, backed up by a rapier-sharp wit and a deep intersectional analysis. This is why the book is called a “cult classic” today.

That will be shortened to simply “classic” in, oh, say, ten-twenty years. I’m just getting in on the ground floor.

For those who don’t have the slightest clue of what I’m talking about but are worried about the “scourge of human trafficking”, read this and have your mind blown!

Mind-blowing, inspiring, irritating: grand compliments, I think. Many other reviews, both academic and general-media, are available. My favourite online review from 2014 was Molly Crabapple’s

mollyc

Sex at the Margins sells steadily without getting any real promotion, is on many university reading lists and is unlikely to be found on bookshop shelves (but can always be ordered from them). It is easily available to buy online in different formats including:

LarrainValparaiso1957

When I signed the contract with Zed I stipulated I must approve the cover, and those who follow my work know I favour images of people walking – the best portrayal of agency I know.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist