Tag Archives: rescue industry

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 Rescue Industry has a song

Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 19.51.01The Rescue Industry has entered the lexicon and now has its own song: Rescue Two-Step, described as ‘an anti-criminalization anthem dedicated to sex workers everywhere’. Listen and watch, it’s a great song, and if you set it to full screen you’ll see lyrics displayed at the bottom.

Written and produced by Savannah Sly
Starring Bella Robinson, Andorra Andrews, Rick Berlin, Joe King and Savannah Sly
Performed by Savannah Sly & The Fun Boys
Sound Engineering by Fast Eddy

I gotta bunch of rubbers
I gotta burner number
I gotta hotel, ads on Backpage
and I’m settin’ up shop
comin’ to your town
yeah come and get me while you can boys, let’s get down
I got the Internet
I’m really into it
I’m postin’, screenin’, bookin’
weedin’ out the dickheads and cops
It’s a full time job
I swear these online classifieds reduce my harm
Well now, don’t go telling’ me that
using my body to
make my money ain’t a right god gave me, now
you wanna help me?
great, well you could start by
callin’ off your laws and cease assailing me
The Rescue Industry, it wants to RESCUE me!
and take away the tools I use to stay safe
sayin’ they’re helpin’ me
well I disagree
all of this white knight savior shit is killing me
Well now, don’t go telling’ me that
using my body to
make my money ain’t a right god gave me, now
you wanna help me?
great, well you could start by
askin’ how I want it and I’ll tell you for myself
don’t do tellin’ me that
using by body to
make my money ain’t a right god gave me, now
you want to save me?
Great, pray tell me now,
do you plan to pay my rent?
feed kids and spay my cat?
and call off all the debt collectors
and tell the judge to clear my record
so I can work forever and ever and ever and ever and ever…
at dead end jobs for minimum wage
that barely cover the day-to-day
assuming that they’d hire me
some folks don’t like the look of me
could you create a policy
to put an end to bigotry?
or better yet
create a net
to catch me?
don’t go telling’ me that
using my body to
make my money ain’t a right god gave me, now
you wanna help me?
great, well you could start by
askin’ how I want it and I’ll tell you for myself
don’t go telling’ me that
using my body to
make my money ain’t a right god gave me, now
you wanna save me?
great, well start by callin’ off your dogs
and quit behavin’ like you’re trying to choke me out!

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 14.05.35

Screen Shot 2017-05-01 at 19.57.39

It’s time to propose the term Rescue Industry for next editions of the big dictionaries, eh? Someone should make a wiki for it. Meanwhile there’s a a whole category for it on this blog.

–Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist

Exchange on an anti-trafficking hotline

13_9_percent_increase_in_human_trafficki_2612620000_13473621_ver1-0_640_480High Hopes for refuge for human trafficking survivors seemed like just another story about small Rescue-Industry projects getting big funding and providing founders with lots of good feelings about themselves. I ran it on facebook poking gentle fun at the rustling pecan trees. After a few routine comments I got a call on the anti-trafficking hotline.

screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-19-11 screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-19-29 screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-19-48 screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-20-29 screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-20-43 screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-20-59 screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-21-15 screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-21-55 screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-22-08 screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-22-22 screen-shot-2016-12-16-at-22-33-12screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-00-22-58

I don’t think we missed any major points to be cynical about in this spoof of a person who makes a hotline-call to help police, not a victim. It was a spontaneous conversation, and I haven’t edited it to publish here.

e86054d100ce6529f45a589eacb43d80-w2041xNorma Jean Almodovar is author of Cop to Call Girl: Why I Left the LAPD to Make an Honest Living As a Beverly Hills Prostitute, published in 1994. She created and maintains Police Prostitution and Politics: Operation Do the Math, where she keeps track of FBI claims about sex-trafficking. ‘I do it because prostitution abolitionists can’t count,’ she says.

And the pecan trees keep on rustling. I’d sure like to get me some of that horse therapy.

Laura Agustín – The Naked Anthropologist

Trafficking: The globalisation of weak thinking and dumb language

hopeforjusticeukWhat isn’t on this list of signs of human trafficking? Has there ever been a vaguer term than abuse of vulnerability? It could describe being a parent or teacher easily. If informants are supposed to make a telephone call based on any of these signs – which is what this says – then heaven help the switchboards. No wonder Rescue-Industry groups have to ask for so much funding.

Lists of the so-called signs of being a victim of trafficking are now common, even placed in airports in hopes that victims may experience revelation and realise they need rescue. Such techniques demonstrate how the Rescue Industry institutionalises, submitting to funding guidelines written by government bureaucrats. The particular group that produced the list you see here have expanded from the US to the UK. It’s a sort of globalisation of weak thinking.

There are young people now who have grown up surrounded by campaigning against trafficking, unaware there is conflict about how to define the term. Some want to dedicate energy to combating what is figured as a modern social evil. Some compare themselves with 19th-century anti-slavery advocates and feel outraged that anyone would question what they are doing.

The field gets critiqued regularly, and I don’t always contribute when asked for comment. I regularly send a link to Dear Students of Sex Work and Trafficking (students can be taken as a general term for those who wish to inform themselves). I don’t want to repeat the same ideas over and over when it’s all easily findable on a website, and I don’t like reducing complexity to bullet points. I also think everything has been said, and claims that insights are new are untrue. Online Editors routinely splash every banal keyword into headlines, sometimes without reference to what the item actually contains. Exaggeration has taken over.

Recent inquiries roused me to sketch out a few basic ideas that take in the history.

mobilityThe Convention on Transnational Organised Crime was published in Palermo in 2000 by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Two protocols on human mobility were appended, one on trafficking, the other on smuggling. The process of defining these was long and conflictual and has been documented publicly. It was all supposed to pertain to undocumented migrants, a topic nearly always omitted from current commentary. I’ve written about these protocols more than once, particularly their genderedness and how sex is pointed to when the mobile people are women but not when they are men. The cover to my book Sex at the Margins used the image of mobility and human agency seen here.

After the Convention was published, the idea of trafficking began its ascent, and soon we who were interested in migration, sex work and labour policy realised it was useless for gaining equity or rights. The framework of the Convention is Crime – there is no fixing that. The assumption is this human mobility to work is fomented by criminals who use force and coercion against their victims – notions impossible to pin down because they vary infinitely amongst individuals according to momentary conditions. If you look at the footnotes opposing sides published on the language of the protocols you see how they argued about these keywords. Later some wag used the term sex trafficking, moving towards reductionism that is typical to the campaigning of moral entrepreneurs.

Behind this over-simplification and over-focus on sex lie real social inequalities and oppressions: migration policies that favour middle- and upper-class jobs, out-of-date notions of the formal economy and productive labour, young people who want to get away from home, job-seekers willing to take risks to make more money, laws that make commercial sex illegal, laws that make sweatshops illegal and there is more. To lump all this under a single term simply disappears the array of different situations, encourages reductionism and feeds into a moralistic agenda of Good and Evil. The term trafficking is an invention incapable of describing so many realities, and it does not help to reduce them all to two possibilities – the Free vs the Enslaved, the Autonomous vs the Coerced. In the case of those who sell sex it does not help to reduce them to Sex Workers vs Victims of Trafficking.

I am asked what better language would be, but the issue is not language, as though everything might be fixed by changing the words. The framework setting out the problems is good for nothing but policing. I suggest addressing specific injustices on their own terms. For example

-If the subject is runaway teenagers who don’t want to live with their parents or go to school and don’t have money or job-skills, then talk about that.

-If the subject is people who took a job that didn’t turn out the way they expected but they need the money so don’t leave it, then talk about that.

-If the subject is migrants who crossed borders with false papers so they are not legal to work at any job, then talk about that.

And so on. Get down to specifics, deal with real situations, stop arguing about ridiculous abstractions. Social policies do not have to be so dumb.


–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Becoming aware of Awareness-Raising as anti-trafficking tactic

CCO.Knabe-Sex-Trafficking-Board.5.31.12 (1)My Google Alerts are now full of nonsensical items on behalf of a Trafficking Awareness Month in the USA. I first discovered Awareness Raising when I began to study assumptions held in the world of helping. One holds that certain social problems are ‘hidden’, and ‘hidden populations’ are great favourites amongst sociologists (who can then claim to have located and revealed them). Of course, most of us do know marginalised groups exist; we see them every day and may belong to them ourselves. But the idea that we cannot see social ills creates the need for self-identified experts to inform us about them. Hiding has become a term especially used about undocumented women and under-18-year-olds who sell sex.

busHere the theory is played out with a message placed on a city bus so that a lot of random people see it (thus having their awareness raised). The term is not a synonym for consciousness-raising, whether yogic or feminist (Wikipedia is wrong) but a strategy with concrete techniques used first by social-policy adepts and activists and then spread in mediocre news-production and social media. See the example of Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Article 8) for more explanation.

Awareness is by definition superficial and can only become deeper if followed up by curious investigation: wondering, reading, critique, talking with those more experienced, cogitating over ambiguities. But with awareness-raising as goal, previously uninformed audiences tend to accept whatever messages claim to be the truth, so that when campaigners are unprincipled (as many anti-traffickers are), audiences are misinformed. Misinformation – or deliberate disinformation – usually comes in the form of over-simplified categories that reduce human complexities to a couple of black-and-white labels, accompanied by unfounded statistics. I often meet people now who, when they discover what my work has been, dismiss it with a smug claim that we have a ‘difference of opinion’. I object: my knowledge is based on research and analysis over many years, not an awareness campaign disseminated on facebook or an online petition, not the acceptance of heavily biased or badly researched media articles.

satmThis field is not easy to comprehend but fraught with subtleties and apparent contradictions. My work began with my own questions, because I didn’t understand 20 years ago and I knew I didn’t. Over time I came to focus on those who position themselves as called to rescue women they call victims who, in large numbers, didn’t (and still don’t) identify that way (which doesn’t mean nothing is wrong or everyone is happy). I created the term Rescue Industry after years of study to describe non-self-critical helpers who assume they Know Better than the rest of us how we all ought to live. In my book Sex at the Margins I wrote of trafficking as a new keyword (thanks to Molly Crabapple for the tweeted photo). Creating this keyword was an essential step towards the Rescue Industry’s becoming able to engage in awareness-raising: you can’t put snappy messages on buses until you have snappy concepts (for theory-mavens I am talking about an apparatus of governmentality).

Anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution campaigning have produced a generation of people who believe the facts have been established long since about who is Good and Bad, who is Victim and why and how to solve the problems. Most folks are not, of course, particularly interested in the details or nuances to the general narrative. At the same time some opposition campaigners also over-simplify in an attempt to reach uncritical audiences, by invoking civil liberties or freedom of choice and ignoring complexities.

billboardarlingtonHere’s awareness-raising on a highway before a Super Bowl in Texas. Note this is not only about the message but the medium, the board-in-your-driving-face. Speeches and presentations given by social workers, politicians, academics and others at meetings and conferences do not qualify. Website mission statements do not qualify. You have to go out into the world and Do Something broadly educative. I recall when I worked amongst undocumented migrants detained at the Mexico-US border how we dreamt of travelling south to hold posters up in bus and gas stations warning of certain, er, problems ahead.

The following Google Alerts for 6 January 2015 come from around the US; town-names show how awareness-raising as a tactic has spread: Fargo, Spartanburg, Fond du Lac, Fresno, Duluth, Houston. Despite varying immigration and cultural histories, all conform to and reproduce the dominant confusing and dysfunctional message.

Google “Human Trafficking” 6 January 2015

Official Reports Progress in Awareness of Human Trafficking
Department of Defense WASHINGTON, Jan. 5, 2015 – Defense Department awareness of slavery and human trafficking issues is paying off significantly because of …

Human trafficking awareness events planned in Fargo
INFORUM FARGO – An event scheduled here Sunday in honor of National Human Trafficking Awareness Day will feature a panel discussion with local experts …

Ongoing human trafficking cases
Daily Republic Mitchell SD
Trina Nguyen and Loc Tran face federal human trafficking charges and other charges after allegedly operating a brothel in Minot, N.D., and then, after …

SC prosecutor discussing fight against human trafficking
The State Columbia SC The State Wilson’s office says he plans to talk about the need for new legislative tools for fighting human trafficking. Benton plans to talk about how some of those …

Human trafficking: How one Minnesota girl was lured into ‘the game’
Duluth News Tribune Duluth MN It was the early 1980s, and the evolving Block E of downtown Minneapolis had life, with hustlers and prostitutes interspersed with the suit-and-tie …

Human trafficking event held Saturday
Fond du Lac Reporter Fond du Lac WI A presentation about human trafficking will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 10 at Fond du Lac Public Library’s Eugene G. McLane Meeting Room.

Human trafficking hidden but present in Upstate
Spartanburg Herald Journal Spartanburg SC January is human trafficking awareness month, and statewide and local events are scheduled to bring attention to the issue that exploits about 21 …

Life after human trafficking
Houston Chronicle Houston TX Life after human trafficking … Today she’s a 33-year-old college junior with a 4.0 GPA — living proof that the victims of human trafficking can recover.

Fresno meeting set to discuss human trafficking, domestic violence
Fresno Bee Fresno CA Centro La Familia Advocacy Services will host “A Community Convening: Conversations Not Heard” to raise public awareness of human trafficking …

mccainThen, of course, there are ads aimed at victims themselves, which are more properly understood as outreach. The latest generation of these show clearly that objects of help may not know they are victims.

In the midst of writing this post I listened to Marvin Gaye’s early rendition of I heard it through the grapevine. Grapevines pre-date awareness-raising.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist