Last month I spoke at the Dublin Anarchist Bookfair, held in Liberty Tower on the Liffey. There was some resistance to my insistence on sticking to the programme from a couple of audience members during the Q&A, but I was firm. I had been invited to talk about sex work as work for 30 minutes, which isn’t long, and it isn’t a definitive presentation. But in my experience these conversations rarely get further than the affirmation sex work is work, and I was glad to have the opportunity to begin to talk about practical issues of different sorts, not feminist or moralist issues and not trafficking! This video comes from the Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland) and includes the Q&A session at the end.
A few people have complained the sound is bad. This must be an unfortunate conflict of softwares combined with Internet connections, because most people can’t hear any problem. Sorry if you are unlucky.
Last week at Gatwick airport, after asking me several apparently random questions presumably intended to trip me up, the official wagged my passport at me frustratedly. I knew what he wanted to ask but couldn’t: Damn it, who are you? These poor foot-soldiers in the war of the borders are required, whilst maintaining a calm and polite facade, to bully border-crossers in the hope of finding someone with nefarious purposes. I’m so accustomed to it that I scarcely notice, at the same time I’m aware that, if they want, they can keep me out, so it is always a moment of heightened attention lived in a zone of border thinking.
My Purpose was given as visiting friends, so he’d asked What nationality are your friends? Lots of different nationalities, I said. Oh, so you’re visiting more than one friend? You see why I call these questions random, and they also border on ethnic profiling, but never mind. They are probably sent lists of Annoying Questions of the Week. They hadn’t gotten him anywhere in his quest, anyway, which is why he flapped the passport at me and asked What do you do, anyway? I write, I replied. Now we were back on a more well-trodden track but still with stumbling-points. Have I read anything you’ve written? he challenged. I said I had no idea and and doubted it, but of course while he is having a hard go of figuring out who I am I haven’t a clue about him. Maybe he’s a No-Borders activist in his time off. Finally he gave up and waved me through.
Yesterday I was interviewed by a London politician on my views and proposals relating to trafficking. At one point I was explaining how underground economies mostly tootle along without disturbing anyone, replete with opportunism and abuse but flexible and tending to solve problems internally. To illustrate, I mentioned an incident during my own five years of illegal status (not in the UK). Who are you? I could almost hear him think. At another point I referred to my own experience of being oppressed by the work-permit system, where leaving a job one has a permit for means instant expiration of one’s legal status in the country. He has been told about the live-in maids who cannot leave because their passports are stamped for that single specific employment, even if they are being abused. To find out that supposedly ‘highly-skilled’ permits are just the same and that a researcher might feel abused and want to quit the job but stay and find another had never occurred to him. These are the nuts-and-bolts workings of a dysfunctional migration system, and they are rarely addressed in the abstract debating that goes on about migrants.
At one point, attempting to pin me down, he said, Philosophically you could be called a libertarian -and I cut him off right there. No, I said, I am not a libertarian, I rarely talk about rights and freedoms. I also am not a neoliberal proponent of the happiness of making money in a free marketplace. What I am is a believer in human agency. I believe that disadvantaged persons with limited options of how to proceed in life have, until they are actually put in chains, some space to move, negotiate, prefer one option to another. This position hardly seems philosophical to me, and I am not going to get credit for inventing a new theory with it. Yet time and again it turns conversations upside down.
Similarly, I handle the endlessly tedious conversation about whether selling sex can ever ‘be work’ like this: If one person tells me they experience it as rape and exploitation, I believe them. If another person tells me they experience it as a profession, I believe them. The other day sex workers in Santo Domingo, faced with a government proposing to criminalise their clients, reminded the state attorney that muchas de ellas mantienen a sus familias de este trabajo – many of them maintain their families with this work. (You’d think that would be punto final, wouldn’t you, especially in a poor country where any jobs at all are scarce – but it never is). Why this difference of perception and emotion should lead to such a hullaballoo is really beyond explanation.
Maybe these views make me a philosopher of the cracker barrel, doling out obvious common sense. But the politician explained his grimaces of embarrassed delight: You say things that occur to me in the back of my mind but I tell myself I must not allow them. Because they are taboo? I replied. Or, what do you think, because they are outside the box, revolutionary or downright criminal? Which lines are being crossed, exactly, with this naked talk?
Photo of Laura Agustín by Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland)
Doing public gigs exposes one to all sorts of comment, some nice and some not so nice. At University College Dublin I sketched out the ideas in Sex at the Margins – a book that began in the early 90s with me listening to Dominican villagers, ten years later became a doctorate on the Rescue Industry and three years after a published book. At the Anarchist Bookfair I talked about Sex Work as Work (a video of the talk will be online soon).
This talk was only 30 minutes long so I had warned I didn’t intend to get bogged down in arguments about the meaning of prostitution. Nevertheless, the first person called on after my talk began to lay out an argument that prostitution is oppression of women and so on, so after not long I interrupted her from the stage to ask Do you have a question? No, she said, she wanted to debate. I said, This time is for questions about my talk. She quickly framed one, which was
Will you condemn the sex industry as patriarchy?
I said no, because that question is too broad and general to have meaning for me. It’s a bottom-line question, and by saying no without explaining all the ins and outs of my thinking I will have sounded like an anti-feminist to some. But if I travel so far to speak without pay I really do want to hear audience reaction to what I do say, not to what I don’t say.
All other questions asked were interesting, but at the end there was
How can we move toward a society in which sex is not commodified?
Photo by Workers Solidarity Movement (Ireland)
Anarchism takes in a wide variety of ways of thinking. I accept that talking about revolution and how things would be afterwards is really interesting and important to many, but my talk had been about feet-on-the-ground ways to better the lives of people who sell sex through employment policy and organising. So I replied
I don’t know. Everything else is commodified, why should sex be different?
This provoked a tweeter to say
Michael O’Leary, the million or billionaire owner of Ryanair, is widely hated in Ireland. I can’t find a single significant thing he and I have in common. When I have more time to talk about commodification I discuss the odd point that even mother love is accepted by most of the same objectors as being ok to buy and sell in the form of nannying and caring for children and older and sick people. The same tweeter said
Although an interest in revolution and utopia are only one of many possible topics subsumed by feminism or anarchism or any other ism, those wanting to discuss them always assume the moral high ground. Practical, pragmatic arguments about the here and now would seem to occupy a lower place in the hierarchy according to some. But not according to me, and I also dislike being challenged to show I am a good or righteous person publicly, merely as an exercise to label me – really to show I’ve failed some ethical test.
People ask me how I deal with being disliked or vilified. I accept that appearing in public exposes me, and I don’t always express myself perfectly. I don’t read prepared papers and I avoid standing behind protective podiums. I’m not a trained performer. But beyond those reasons, in order to talk about the formal-informal sector divide in government accounting and how it affects employment policy, the ILO’s conclusions in its report The Sex Sector and what the term ‘sex industry’ comprises, in 30 minutes, one has to omit the disclaimers. I could begin every point by condemning inequality, sexism, racism, imperialism, the oppression of women and poor people, but then I would lose a big chunk of the time I’ve got for the talk, and I’m not willing to do that. So I regret when I am misinterpreted badly, but I accept that it comes with the territory.
Nordic Network for Social and Health Organisations, Sex Workers and Researchers Working in the Field of Prostitution is the full name of a group that holds annual meetings where social workers – and some sex workers – meet. Members come from Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Finland. This year’s meeting is in Oslo, and I am invited to talk about the Rescue Industry. I am always glad when social workers want to hear about and discuss (or dispute!) this topic.
If you are interested in attending, details follow the programme.
0900-0945 Olav Lægdene, Manager Nadheim
Advantages and disadvantages with the law prohibiting the purchase of sexual services
1000-1045 Astrid Renland, Administrator PION and Susanne Møller, SIO Danmark
Possibilities and limitations in organizing of sex workers
1100-1400 Workshops with lunch (1200-1245)
A Multicultural Health Work for Sex Workers: Nurses Ann Kirstine Kirk and Radostina Angelova, Pro Sentret B Empowerment: How to shape and share a Shelter for the Future
Knut Isachsen and Dagfrid Fosen, Natthjemmet C Outreach on the Internet:
Nurse Camilla Johannessen, Pro Sentret
Social worker Morten Sortodden, PION: Male Sex Workers
Social worker Lena Hanssen, Nadheim: Female Sex Workers D The Connection between Trafficking and Migration? Director Bjørg Norli, Pro Sentret E Workshop in Thai for Thai
1400-1500 Responses from the workshops
The conference fee is 1000 NOK (or 500 NOK for one day) including lunch. For more information: contact Liv Jessen or Arne Randers-Pehrson at Pro Sentret. The conference language will be English.
It is rare for critical commentary on the anti-trafficking movement to get real media coverage, so this story from Vancouver seems significant. I don’t like the title, because it narrows a broader argument, but titles are written by editors with other priorities.
Charlie Smith, The Georgia Straight, 24 November 2011
An author and scholar who likes to refer to herself as the Naked Anthropologist has compared the current climate against human trafficking to the panic over white slavery in the late 19th century. Laura Agustín, author ofSex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry (Zed Books, 2007), told the Georgia Straight by phone that in the earlier case, there was an uproar over whether Caucasian and Jewish women moving to New York or Buenos Aires, Argentina, were being traded as slaves.
While she won’t use the word “panic” to describe the current situation (“I try to avoid these labels,” she said), Agustín suggested that there is a widespread “rescue movement”, led by governments and the United Nations, which is trying to characterize a range of issues—migrant sex workers, child labourers overseas, and people who pay huge fees to immigrate—as “slavery”. Using this terminology gives a growing “antislavery” movement, largely based in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, the moral justification to launch interdiction programs as part of an international justice movement.
“I don’t think anyone cares about the women or about sex,” Agustín claimed from a hotel room in Toronto. “This is some kind of enormously funded thing about organized crime…men in government, feeling threatened by other men who aren’t participating and are having parallel societies. It’s up in the cultural stratosphere with terrorism.”
Agustín, an advocate for sex workers’ rights based in Sweden, has a PhD from The Open University in the United Kingdom. She said that the words “human trafficking” started entering the lexicon in a serious way around 2003 and 2004. Now, she maintained that the language is shifting to emphasize slavery. She bluntly described this movement as a colonial initiative.
“The protagonists to end slavery are the same Anglo-Saxon people that were in the 19th century, so you get the trafficking ambassador for the U.S. government invoking [British antislavery crusader] William Wilberforce and arguing that the U.S. and the U.K. have a special mission to go out to other people’s countries and save people,” Agustín said.
Most people don’t have an issue with this. Agustín, on the other hand, said the problem with the rescue industry, which involves many nongovernmental organizations, is that it doesn’t pay nearly enough attention to the choices that people are making to improve their lives. While researching migration in the 1990s, she spent time on a Caribbean island where there was a tradition of large numbers of women moving to Europe, where they would work in one of two jobs: as a maid or selling sex.
“People tried to decide which they wanted to do, and they weighed their options,” she said.
Later in Madrid, Agustín spent time studying people who helped these migrants and who felt sorry for them. She said these rescuers didn’t weigh the downside for women who are forced out of prostitution against their will. “I asked the question: why is selling sex not considered a service?”
The answer, which arose out of her anthropological research, was that there was no rescue industry until the rise of the European bourgeoisie. “They positioned themselves as the ones who knew best about how to live and designated a number of people to be victims,” she said. “And prostitutes were high on the list. They had not been considered victims before that.”
Agustín accused Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times of indulging in a similar attitude by cheering the closure of brothels in the developing world without asking what happens to these workers. “He’s an egregious example of a white person who assumes that he’s doing good, who assumes that he knows how other people should live,” she alleged.