I know many folks who relate to the idea of sex work as one of their jobs and to sexworker as one of their identities. But I have known many more who sell sex and don’t feel like this. Of course it’s possible to ask questions that appear to prove interviewees always feel it’s a job: many social scientists study occupations and need everyone to have a clear label. Those of us who’ve sat and listened at length to people’s stories know things are a lot muddier than that. But, you might say, hold on, look at what are captioned ‘tools of the trade’ in the photo here: don’t they prove it’s a job for the woman using them?
I think back to most of my own jobs: Did I ever feel secretary was my identity? Or dogwalker? (That could be me in the 1967 photo in Central Park though I don’t ever remember walking so few dogs at once.) Even when I had the title Managing Editor I never felt it was who I was.
In China the word xiaojie means Miss or young lady. Many women who sell sex prefer to be called xiaojie to sex worker (with the result that non-sexworking misses don’t want to be called that anymore). Ding Yu, sociologist, talks about why:
Many academics feel that it’s important to respect this community by using a term that classifies what they do as a profession. But in fact many xiaojie don’t really understand or like this name because they feel the term emphasizes sex. The term “sex worker” reduces all their work to sex, which doesn’t reflect the reality of what they do. It doesn’t accurately represent the diverse forms of emotional work and entertainment that they’re engaged in; rather, it highlights the one part that’s stigmatized.
There’s an important class dimension. As migrants coming from the country to the city, they want to be part of this modern, developed world. They want to shed the kind of coarseness that’s associated with the countryside. Most ‘xiaojie’ are very well-informed about the conditions of factory work, and they know they’re not interested. They know other women from their hometowns who are factory laborers, and there are plenty of media reports that show how it is tedious, repetitive, and arduous, how the worker is treated like a machine. They know you’re stuck in dorm accommodation, far from the city center, producing luxury items you can’t afford to buy yourself. They know you are outside the modernity and development as a handmaiden to it. Other options, such as being a waitress or nanny or shop assistant — these positions generally see lower income and worse working conditions than being a xiaojie, which is thus not a particularly poor option.
In The Three-Headed Dog several migrants are selling sex. Marina lives and works in flats with other women and a manager but decides to go onto the club circuit. Promise sells in the street. Eddy is keeping company with a tourist. Isabel tried prostitution and prefers being a cleaner. The detective, Félix, once worked in spas. None call themselves or the work by a professional word. Of course, some activists think this is a problem, that there’d be more chance of successful organising if more women were willing to stand up and call themselves by the term that now sounds more like a worker title than other options. This is possible. The catch is in the stigma.
As if Human Trafficking weren’t an already over-used, ambiguous, confusing term for a raft of phenomena, some influential characters want to replace the term with Modern Slavery. I marvel consistently here and on facebook and twitter about the predominance of misleading terminology not only from voracious Online Editors but also from moral entrepreneurs, politicians and now, ever oftener, the police.
The following objection about Modern Slavery is from Mike Dottridge, whom I met long ago when I still didn’t know that everything I was interested in was destined to be called Trafficking, and nor did he. Notes on the photos at the end.
The UN Trafficking Protocol of 2000 describes various forms of exploitation: slavery, forced labour and types of servitude such as debt bondage. Now individual philanthropists and politicians are pushing to substitute the term Modern Slavery for Human Trafficking. What happens then? Bear in mind that a slave is defined as a person who is the legal property of another or can be treated as such: they can be bought, sold, traded or inherited. A slave is a personal possession – a chattel.
*Westerners are happy to use Modern Slavery for a wide range of common practices in developing countries, such as the use of bonded labourers in South Asia or of indigenous children as domestic workers in Paraguay. But human-rights defenders say using the term won’t help them combat specific forms of exploitation they oppose, because slavery simply means something else in their countries.
*Using the term Modern Slavery precipitates us into name-and-shame mode, pointing the finger at governments and businesses which tolerate it. It implies that countries with large numbers of slaves are allowing something awful to occur. So, instead of the Development/cooperation paradigm that was dominant in the second half of the 20th century, with richer countries supporting efforts to bring about social and economic change in poorer ones, we revert back to the 19th-century idea that some uncivilised countries require pressure from civilised ones to abandon unacceptable practices. There are plenty of problems in the way Development policies are applied, but shaming governments into recognising that slavery is occurring in their countries is an example of the wrong way to achieve international cooperation.
*In the minds of people in Western Europe and the Americas, the word slavery refers to the transatlantic slave trade. Using the term for levels of exploitation which do not meet the legal definition trivialises historical chattel slavery and reduces any sense of responsibility in countries that benefited from it. This fits neatly into the agenda of white supremacists who dismiss contemporary racism and discrimination against the descendants of slaves. We should avoid terminology which sounds imperialist and potentially racist.
*This brings me to one of my deepest worries, that the governments that have decided to use Modern Slavery (Australia, the UK and the USA) are also those keen to abandon conventional approaches to Development. Earlier this year Australia and the UK used bullying tactics to persuade others to follow their usage at a UN Security Council debate about trafficking, slavery and forced labour in the context of armed conflict. I fear that moving from the term Trafficking to Modern Slavery opens a Pandora’s Box, with UN organisations like the ILO and UNODC vying for influence, and Australia, the UK and the USA pushing for the term Modern Slavery while the Russian Federation and its allies disagree. This then becomes part of today’s Cold War between East and West and provides an excuse for neither side to take significant action.
*Rich philanthropists interested in financing anti-slavery organisations are not trying to persuade governments to respect the human rights of people who have already been exploited or to reform employment and immigration systems to reduce future exploitation. Philanthropists put emphasis on the responsibility of consumers and businesses but only ask governments to enforce laws. This undermines respect for human rights in general and in particular for the human rights of migrants and others who are abused and exploited.
*The types of exploitation implied by Modern Slavery encourage many government officials to stop paying attention to conventional techniques for protecting workers such as regulation, workplace inspections and trade unions. By creating the impression that they are helpless slaves who need rescuing from the hands of criminals, they propagate a myth that all informal work that helps migrants to survive is illicit and should be prohibited, thereby denying migrants the lifeline on which they often depend.
I’ve been an ardent critic of the way a poor legal definition of Human Trafficking has required years of debate to clarify, still without total success, so I’m loath to see yet more time and money wasted on disputes about definitions and concepts. Instead I want to see investment in action to stop unacceptable exploitation and assist the victims.
Notes from Mike on the photos: At the top are Manjok and Awut and their son Mohammed, who had been abducted and held separately and only married and had their son after release. I met them in Ad-Dha’ein, a small town in South Darfur near what is now the border of North and South Sudan in October 2000 after they had been released from captivity. Of course, they look like ordinary people, rather than ‘slaves’. Above is Bol, who was about six when he was abducted and spent about a dozen years in captivity. I met him in Khartoum.
Just yesterday the Guardian published this info-box on Modern Slavery. I’d say the substitution is well under way and expect loads of new confusion on the part of all and sundry.
In the first novel in my crime series, The Three-Headed Dog, migrants in Spain use slavery-words in the informal way we are all accustomed to. Here is young Eddy, who is happy to have a low-paying job in a bar where he sleeps on a pallet in the basement:
He did wonder sometimes when a customer joked about lazing around the beach. One guy said ‘What’s it like to work for the first time in your life, instead of sitting around drinking from coconuts?’ Eddy went on picking up glasses and putting them on his tray. He had never liked coconut, and the boss had said not to get into conversations.
In the kitchen a boy with Indian-type features said, ‘Fucking Spanish racists. First they go and commit genocide in our countries and take everything we’ve got. Then they leave us to die in poverty. Now when we come back here willing to work for starvation-wages they treat us like dirt.’
Eddy objected. ‘But all that was ages ago. Santo Domingo is the first place they went to, I know all about that. But nowadays is different.’ Hell, it was like those endless demonstrations at home, long-haired political types going on and on about the conquistadores and US imperialism. He found politics boring.
‘You wait,’ said the other boy, squirting detergent into the pan. ‘Some of them hide what they think because racism is out of style, but in the end they’re all alike. I’d rather die than live here and be a slave like this, but my mother needs an operation. If I could get money any other way I would.’ He banged a glass, and it broke, which would be deducted from his wage. The Three-Headed Dog p 148
I don’t want to stop folks using slave as a metaphor in everyday life, but in official and quasi-legal language I sure don’t want the already dysfunctional term trafficking replaced by slavery, whether modern or antique. And as for the yellow-press term sex slaves…
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.
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.
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.