Tag Archives: power

Desiring different others, different colours, and even paying them

At the time of the World Cup, a reporter asked me, a bit nervously, about the possibility that white football-fan tourists in South Africa might have plans or desire to have sex with black people. I think it’s quite possible, I replied. Silence. Is there anything wrong with that, do you mean? His continuing silence confirmed that yes, that was what he meant.

No, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with that, I think everyone desires others for something we see or imagine we see in others, which can be their eyes, voice, hair, style, breasts, chest hair, skin colour and many other attributes. We may be imagining things behind this superficial trait, of course. We may imagine they are wilder or more interesting than people we usually meet, or that they are better at sex, or that we are safer with them or that it will be easier to tell them what we like. But whether our partners look like us or different, we are doing that imagining and desiring. I wrote about this for American Sexuality a few years ago.

Does this change completely because there is a money transaction between the partners? Why should it? If you say it does then you grant money a determining status you probably don’t grant it in any other sphere. I know the argument about control and domination backwards and forwards, the one that says that the person who pays has the power to command. I would put it differently: the person who pays has the power to say I want x and will pay for it and if you accept the money I expect you to do it. A notion that the ‘power relation’ will always be skewed towards the white person is too simplistic for me, both too racially oriented and too fetishising of money.

The idea that a richer person will always have more power than a poorer one grants money a singular status I refuse to give it. The idea that money trumps every other type of power crushes the idea of human agency, the space to negotiate other sorts of power. Of course I understand the critique of exoticisation. I understand Frantz Fanon and don’t doubt that poor colonies were in some sense the ‘brothels of Europe’. But such an analysis comes from today, from contemporary perspectives on imperialism and colonisation, and they omit to understand what particular people were doing within their own cultural logics at the time. Every instance of a lighter or richer person wanting to be with a darker or poorer one does not have the same meaning.

I wrote about prices and ethnicities in the sex industry here some time ago.

– Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Helping Women Who Sell Sex: The Construction of Benevolent Identities

This is a long academic piece but useful to understanding the beginnings of what I came to call the Rescue Industry. The links between reference numbers and endnotes go via the original publication’s website (rhizomes). If you use them you just need to click the back button to return to this page.

Helping Women Who Sell Sex: The Construction of Benevolent Identities

Laura María Agustín, rhizomes.10, spring 2005

Abstract: Social interventions aimed at helping the group positioned as most needy in Europe today, migrant women who sell sex, can be understood by examining that time, 200 years ago, when ‘the prostitute’ was identified as needing to be saved. Before, there was no class of people who viewed their mission to be ‘helping’ working-class women who sold sex, but, during the ‘rise of the social,’ the figure of the ‘prostitute’ as pathetic victim came to dominate all other images. At the same time, demographic changes meant that many women needed and wanted to earn money and independence, yet no professions thought respectable were open to them. Simultaneous with the creation of the prostitute-victim, middle class women were identified as peculiarly capable of raising them up and showing the way to domesticity. These ‘helpers’ constructed a new identity and occupational sphere for themselves, one considered worthy and even prestigious. Nowadays, to question ‘helping’ projects often causes anger or dismissal. A genealogical approach, which shows how governmentality functioned in the past, is easier to accept, and may facilitate the taking of a reflexive attitude in the present.

This article addresses the governmental impulse to name particular commercial-sex practices as ‘prostitution’ and its practitioners as ‘prostitutes.’ Although it is conventional to refer to ‘the world’s oldest profession,’ the term prostitution has never described a clearly defined activity and was constructed by particular social actors at a specific time for specific reasons. [i] Within feminism, the phenomenon called prostitution is the centre of an intransigent debate about its meanings, one aspect of the conflict revolving around what words should be used to describe women who offer sexual services for sale: prostitute, sex worker, prostituted woman, victim of sexual exploitation. The use of one label or another locates the speaker on one or the other side of the debate, which essentially asks whether a woman who sells sex must by definition be considered a victim of others’ actions or whether she can enjoy a degree of agency herself in her commercial practice. In the prostitution discourse, those who sell are women and those who buy are men; it is a gendered concept, despite the enormous numbers of transgenders and men who sell sex and the transgenders and women who buy it. The anxiety to define and classify concerns the position of women, and this anxious debate should be seen as a governmental exercise carried out by social actors whose own identities are at stake. Academics and other theorists and advocates for one or another vision define themselves as good feminists or caring persons through their writing and advocacy. Being ‘right’ about how to envision women who sell sex is necessary to these identities, which explains the heated, repetitive nature of the debate. At the same time, for most of those who actually carry out the activity that excites so much interest and conflict, the debate feels far away and irrelevant.

Nowadays, much of the discourse targets migrant women who sell sex, particularly in wealthier countries. I have written in other places about the construction by outsiders of these contemporary subjects as prostitutes, sex workers or victims of ‘trafficking’ when their self-definitions are different (2005a), the construction of victimhood in general (2003a, 2005a), the disqualification of other elements of their identity (2002, 2004b, 2006), the obsession with certain of their sexual practices to the exclusion of everything else about their lives (2003b), the difficulty on the part of many feminists to accept the agency of working-class women who sell sex (2004a) and the voluminous quantity of interventions designed to help, save and control them (2005b).

The social sector desiring to help and save women who sell sex is very large indeed. The proliferation of discourses implicated includes the feminisation of poverty, closing borders and immigration law, international organised crime (especially ‘trafficking’ and modern forms of slavery), sexual-health promotion, the control of contagious diseases, debt bondage, non-recognised economic sectors, violence against women, women’s and human rights, social exclusion, sex tourism, globalisation, paedophilia and child labour, as well as policies aimed at controlling the sale of sex. Attendant technologies have also proliferated, including safe houses, rehabilitation programmes, outreach projects, drop-in centres, academic research, harm-reduction theory and a whole domain of ‘psy’ theories and interventions concerning the causes and effects of selling sex on individuals. People positioned as experts on the subject constantly lobby governments, write and speak at conferences on the subject, with the result that women who sell sex are pathologised as victims daily.

All these preoccupations and apparatuses provide employment for large numbers of people, the majority women. These social-sector jobs are considered dignified, sometimes prestigious and may even be tinged with a sacrificial brush—the idea that those employed in ‘helping’ are unselfish, not themselves gaining anything through their work. The fact that their projects are governmental exercises of power is ignored. There is strong resistance to the idea that rescue or social-justice projects might be questionable or criticised in general, and the internecine feminist conflict focussing on whether the activity called prostitution is inherently a form of violence or can be a plausible livelihood strategy distracts from any real reflection on the usefulness of the projects. Yet, despite the abundant efforts carried out on their behalf, there has been little improvement in the lot of women who sell sex since the whole helping project began two hundred years ago. ‘Programmes presuppose that the real is programmable,’ said Nikolas Rose and Peter Miller (1992: 183). In this case, ‘the real’ is too often a woman designated victim who does not want to be saved, so it is little wonder that programming does not work. This article therefore explores the beginnings of the identification of a pathological activity (prostitution) and the labelling of its practitioners (prostitutes), the governmental projects that resulted and the social effects on both groups involved. Continue reading

Migrants, favours, protection, sex: examples from Embracing the Infidel

In Embracing the Infidel Behzad Yaghmaian narrates his journey to record the stories of migrants trying to find a place to settle in Europe. There are women in the book, but the majority of detailed stories are told by men and boys. Many of the plots are about physical hardships encountered whilst being smuggled across borders: Afghanistan to Iran, Iran to Turkey, Turkey to Greece and Bulgaria, France to England. Long scenes are set in Istanbul, Sofia, Athens, Paris, Calais. Contradictory, arbitrary, frustrating, paper-oriented refugee policy is arguably the book’s main villain, though the sadism of border guards and swindles by smugglers are more dramatic. I especially appreciate Yaghmaian’s ability to tell terrible stories without falling into a victimising, maudlin tone (the subject of Forget Victimisation).

The sex industry is seldom mentioned, but here are a couple of excerpts that show how some migrants find temporary relief through supplying sexual services. The first excerpt tells about men who find male sexual protectors; in the second the protectors are women. In the latter description, you may detect some ambiguity: is this ‘pure business’ or is love and affection involved, too?

The boys with a baba were sheltered. They were paid good pocket money, wined and dined, and dressed in nice outfits. They were young Iranians and Kurds from northern Iraq, men in their early or late twenties. The Kurds came from the villages, the rugged mountains of northern Iraq. The Iranians arrived from small towns, ghettos of big cities, and poor neighborhoods of the capital. They came with a dream. Many failed. They remained in Athens and became the ‘bar kids’ of Victoria Square. Dressing up in their best, they would frequent the gay bars around the square looking for a baba or a customer in search of sexual pleasure. [p 203]

[In Calais] a few fared better than the rest. In their teens or early twenties, some found love in the arms of older French women, some in their sixties. The women had kind and motherly looks, gave the men love and attention, tucked them in their beds, and slept with them. The young men had the comfort of a home and all that came with it. Sex was the central part of the agreement. There was no shower or clean bed for those failing to deliver. This was a strict business deal, with its own rules and codes of conduct. [p 307]

Embracing the Infidel, Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West, New York: Bantam Dell, 2005.

There is a large literature on inter-generational relationships involving exchanges of sex and protection that are considered traditional and conventional in many parts of the world. One example is Enjo Kosai: Compensated Dating.

What Not to Wear if you want to be French, and other tales of sex and women

On Monday Sarkozy threatened to make wearing a burka in public illegal in France. I wrote about this kind of thinking last year in The Guardian. This issue is related to migration, it is related to trafficking and it is related to commercial sex. Ideas about how the right kind of women should look predominate in the history of women: you’re meant to cover yourself up more, or less, or in some particular way. From the original text of Sarkozy’s speech:

Le problème de la burqa n’est pas une problème religieux, c’est un problème de liberté, de dignité de la femme. Ce n’est pas un signe religieux, c’est un signe d’asservissement, d’abaissement. La burqa ne sera pas la bienvenue dans notre République française.

From the BBC story:

We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity. That is not the idea that the French republic has of women’s dignity.

Note the applause from politicians when he makes these statements.

Women wearing burkas are not welcome in France. That ‘Frenchness’ should depend on clothing I find very scary. That the idea of personal identity should be institutionalised by the French state I find even scarier. The original title of the following piece was Which migrants assimilate best? How do we know?, which editors changed to

What Not to Wear – if you want to be French

The Guardian, Comment is Free,  6 August 2008

Laura Agustín

A woman from Morocco who has lived in France for eight years with a French husband, has three French children and speaks fluent French, was refused citizenship recently on grounds of being insufficiently assimilated. The Conseil d’etat said Faiza Silmi’s way of life does not reflect “French values”, particularly the goal of gender equality. The judgment claims she lives in “total submission” to the men in her life because she wears the niqab, which covers all of the face except the eyes. The decision was approved by commentators from right, left and centre. Fadela Amara, the urban affairs minister, called Silmi’s clothing a “prison” and a “straitjacket”. Predictable debates about fundamentalism unfolded in the media, with Silmi appearing as a strange, distant object.

What does Silmi herself say? The website Jeuneafrique.com has just published her first interview with the French press, corroborating another in the New York Times. Silmi’s voice emerges clearly:

I am not submissive to the men in my family nor do I lead the life of a recluse and I go out when I want. When I drive my car, I wear my niqab. I alone decided to wear it, after reading some books. I respect the law and my husband respects my decisions.

While she talked, her husband served tea. Continue reading

Sayad’s The Suffering of the Immigrant: book review by Laura Agustín

The Suffering of the Immigrant is still one of the best books I know about the experience of migration. The book demonstrates how suffering does not have to equal victimisation and, most importantly, how migration is the inevitable consequence of colonialism. The migrants discussed left Kabylia, in northern Algeria, and went to France.

Book Review by Laura Agustín in International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol 29.3 pp 703-15, September 2005

Abdelmalek Sayad, 2004: The Suffering of the Immigrant. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Initially I thought this book’s title might signal the growing trend to victimise migrants, but I was wrong. On the contrary, The Suffering of the Immigrant presents the strongest possible arguments for recognising migrants’ agency in the face of inherent, structural conditions that are all against them and whose consequences they must, undoubtedly, ‘suffer’.

Whereas many contemporary commentators refer to migration as a phenomenon of ‘globalisation’, Abdelmalek Sayad makes no bones about which stage of globalisation we should be looking at: the north’s imperialist colonisation of the south. Most commentators agree that current migratory flows are related to free-market capitalism’s need for flexibility, moving its workplaces around the world while workers move to find them. And probably few would deny that ‘earlier’ colonial relations were implicated, especially where migrants move to their former ‘mother countries’.

But Sayad obliges us to consider a more serious proposition, that migrations are a structural element of colonial power relationships that have never ended. His case study is the Algerian migration to France in the second half of the twentieth century, during which time many migrants passed from being French (citizens of the colony) to Algerian (citizens of an independent Algeria) and back to French (as legal workers and residents in France), with the complication that the majority were Berber peasants. The colonial relationship is seen in the subordination of the economic and social life of rural colonies to the industrial activity of the country in which peasants become ‘workers’.

Sayad’s arguments, however, go much further than this particular case. First, he demonstrates how discourses of migration focus on the situation of ‘immigrants’ — meaning, on how receiving countries view immigration as their own social problem. With this move, the dominant member of the migration relationship firmly maintains control over knowledge and management of this ‘problem’, according to which immigrants are always ‘lacking’ necessary skills and culture. Sayad insists that research must begin at an earlier stage, a demand that has begun to be met by a trend towards studies of ‘transnational’ migrations. But Sayad points to a more intransigent problem here, in which countries of origin participate in the negative construction of their own citizens abroad, construing them as simply absent, treating them as martyrs to the country’s economic good and considering them traitors who lose their original culture and become contaminated by another. If they do manage to return, they are pathologised as being difficult to ‘reinsert’ into society. Sayad shows how individual migrants reproduce this colonialist view of themselves as subaltern misfits only useful in an accountant’s version of migration that selectively calculates ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’.

Sayad debunks categories of migration imagined to be separate, in which ‘settler migrants’ supposedly value families and domestic morality more than ‘labour migrants’, as well as the idea that labour migrations are transitory and without a political dimension. Rather, he suggests that all migrants are united by a distancing from their original home, wracked by guilt that they should never have left and, having done so, that they will not perform well enough. Though they may achieve legal status, they are always treated as foreign by their second country and referred to via ‘digestive’ metaphors about their capacity to be assimilated, integrated or inserted into society. They fail to perceive the social, medical and other ‘helping’ sectors as being on their side. Their loyalties are divided, they don’t know which patrie is really theirs and they experience an alienation from their own children, who may have no interest in their ‘homeland’. They are doubly excluded from real political participation in both countries of origin and reception, thus being deprived of even

the right to have rights, to be a subject by right . . . to belong to a body politic in which [they have] a place of residence, or the right to be actively involved — in other words the right to give a sense and a meaning to [their] action, words and existence (p. 227).

While some of this may seem familiar to migration scholars, its presentation renders it new. Sayad belonged to the group he studied: emigrant from Kabylia, immigrant in France. He gives significant space to migrants’ own words, sometimes in the form of long, repetitive and even confusing testimonies. Although one can imagine his anger over the many injustices he recounts, he recognises their cultural logic.

Sayad makes an important contribution to migration study in his development of Bourdieu’s analysis of ‘state thought’, which he considers one of our most intractable cultural givens. Slurring migrants as ‘hybrids’ and ‘bad’ social products, society manifests its fear of those who ‘blur the borders of the national order and therefore the symbolic value and pertinence of the criteria’ used to establish differences between nationals and foreigners (p. 291). For Sayad, nothing less than the delegitimising of the state is necessary, the denaturalising of what we consider passionately real — our national being.

This is a book about men. The Algerian case that Sayad details was initially about single males, who are pictured as alienated from a natural cycle of courtship and marriage. Sayad reproduces one man’s speculation on a potential woman migrant’s fate: ‘whilst she might gain something by coming here . . . she’d pay a high price for it . . . she would be imprisoned in one room . . . she would miss the sky’ (p. 156). Given the current protagonism of so many women in migration, their absence here is notable, and in this sense Sayad’s case-study imposes a restriction. Given the wealth of ideas here that go far beyond any single case, this restriction can be forgiven.

Before Sayad died he asked his friend and colleague, Pierre Bourdieu, to make a book of the disparate manuscripts he had produced over the years. The result is intellectually rigorous, anthropologically perceptive, moving and poetic.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist