Tag Archives: sexuality

Grid girls and the Presidents Club: Women and sexist jobs

In 1995, my friend’s 17-year-old daughter Ermina was looking for work in Santiago, Chile. The obvious job available to her was posing in a short skirt beside cars or washing machines in public showrooms – standard promotional technique to this day. What made her hesitate? Girls who took those jobs in Santiago were assumed to be loose – no better than they should be. She might ruin her reputation whether she went on to do more than pose or not. There were also jobs in coffee bars, but they carried an even graver stigma. But Ermina didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of her mother and aunt, who had both migrated to Madrid to work as live-in maids. This was the kind of story I ran into everywhere in Latin America amongst poorer people back in the 90s, and is why I ended up writing Sex at the Margins.

Recently jobs like these have been in the news in the context of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment but they also appear in long-running campaigns against prostitution and trafficking. All objections are increasingly positioned as evidence of Gender Inequality. I thought about writing this post after an event called the Presidents Club got undercoverage – a Financial Times reporter got a job as hostess. Scandal was provoked by revelations of the conditions of work for hostesses – conditions that have been conventional for aeons and most people know about. For those interested in labour rights, reports of low pay and a requirement to sign non-disclosure contracts stood out. For those who felt scandalised, it was having to wear skimpy frocks and accept being groped.

These jobs are widespread, because sexism is everywhere, because women without a lot of education and training have few options for work and because some women like hostess or modeling-type jobs better than whatever others are available. I understand why successful middle-class women denounce the existence of this work. I know this is objectification of women’s bodies and appearance, you don’t have to tell me. But what does it mean to call for their abolition except fewer jobs for women? And although the denouncers are appalled, many other women like or don’t much mind this way of making money.

The Presidents Club got much publicity because it’s an event for elite men. A class issue, as though those men ought to be better than others? Consider what happened ‘lower down’ the culture hierarchy.

Formula 1 ended its tradition of using grid girls because ‘it was at odds with modern societal norms‘.

The men drive the cars, they make the cars, they fix the cars and the women handed out drinks, refreshed the buffet… The grid girls would be led out, a bit like prize cattle, just before the race and stand on the grid where the cars are, with an umbrella or a number of which position the car was in. They would have their bottoms pinched by the mechanics, there would be photographers sat on the floor behind them, taking pictures of their bums, or up their skirts. They had to giggle and pretend that was OK. – broadcaster Beverley Turner

But grid girls protested.

Note the numbers for that tweet – and it wasn’t the only one, and Cooper wasn’t the only tweeter.

In the world of competitive darts, before this trend reports could say ‘stunning walk-on girls provide some much-needed glamour… The lovely ladies have the important job… to provide a key element to the festive entertainment.’

But now the Professional Darts Corporation announced it would end using walk-on girls who accompany players to the stage and hold up score cards. Announcing a protest in Birmingham, the owner of Dream Street Models and Events said, “If they’re banning us at F1 and darts, what’s next? Where’s it going to stop? Will it be boxing, Superbikes, the stands at NEC shows? Most of my models do promotional work, for some it’s a part-time job, but for others it’s their full-time living.”

The Women’s Sport Trust said: “We applaud the Professional Darts Corporation moving with the times and deciding to no longer use walk-on girls. Motor racing, boxing and cycling . . . your move.”

In parts of Asia beer girls (or promotion girls) are paid low wages to jolly male customers into ordering a particular brand of beer. Surviving from tips and working long into the night, they too have been named as improperly exploited by a funder.

The mostly young drink promoters are paid low wages — and work for tips, largely from groups of intoxicated men — to push certain beers in bars. Global Fund announced on Thursday in a statement that it was suspending its partnership with Heineken “based on recent reports of the company’s use of female beer promoters in ways that expose them to sexual exploitation and health risks”.

Exposed by hanging around drinking men and possibly having sex with them possibly for money that lifts them from survival-mode? A lot of women consider this a desirable job. Do you want to add ‘are forced to’ consider it desirable? Ok, but desire counts – don’t tell me you Know Better than they how they should feel and act.

Then there was MIPIM, an annual conference for property people that draws sex workers, an unremarkable fact that contributed to demands for more equality for female delegates at the conference.

Tamsie Thomson, the director of the London festival of architecture, said the Presidents Club scandal had “just scratched the surface of the discrimination and harassment that women and other minorities are routinely subjected to in our industry”. Thomson launched the “the elephant in the room” campaign to encourage women and others to challenge any inappropriate or uncomfortable behaviour and distributed pink elephant badges to raise awareness.

The event and sector are obviously mired in sexist practices, including holding events where only male delegates feel fully welcome. But there’s a disquieting tendency to imply that the fact sex workers might be there somewhere is evidence of Something Being Very Wrong. “What other industry on the face of the earth in 2018 needs to remind businessmen that they can’t bring prostitutes to an industry conference,” asked Jane, a 29-year-old delegate from Manchester. “That alone tells you how backward property is.” Do they imagine that getting rid of sex workers helps fix inequality problems? This leap to pointing at prostitution smacks of scapegoating.

As I lamented in The New Abolitionist Model, banning badly paid jobs because they are objectifying and sexist punishes women in contexts where they haven’t got many options.

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 not sex work? Either way, to focus always on the moral aspects of sexual labor means forever sidelining projects to improve working conditions and legal protections.

Surely it’s obvious that more kinds of work for better pay need to exist before jobs women prefer are prohibited, even with the disadvantages they entail. There’s where this kind of feminist needs to put her energy, and that goes for richer and poorer countries alike.

Footnote: Nowadays the Santiago coffee bars are called cafés con piernas, cafes with legs, and (of course) are now named as sites of sex exploitation. The photo at the top shows one example.

And, in case anyone thought this phenomenon is always gender-specific, see this photo by Bill Kobrin of the Art Students League Dream Ball, New York, 1953. Yes – the 1950s.

—Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

A Migrant World of Services: the emotional, sexual and caring services of women

Since I’ll be talking about sex work as a labour issue at the Anarchist Bookfair, I thought I would re-run an early academic publication of mine, A Migrant World of Services. In my quest to understand why so many people disqualify selling sex as a potential job, I looked critically at traditional economic concepts such as the distinctions between productive and unproductive labour and between formal and informal employment sectors. I discovered these concepts are entirely arbitrary and out-dated and produce oppression for no good reason. For example, the majority of women’s work inside homes is labelled unproductive, and probably the majority of women’s jobs outside the home are also disqualified as real and productive by relegating them to the informal sector of the economy. I couldn’t see, and still cannot, how an economic sector  named Services, which takes in a raft of jobs, could exclude so many women’s jobs, so I also investigated ideas about emotional and caring work. Not only migrants are ripped off by these disqualifications – all are, and when men do these jobs they are as well.

A Migrant World of Services (pdf)

Social Politics, 10, 3, 377-96 (2003)

Laura Maria Agustín

Abstract: There is a strong demand for women’s domestic, caring and sexual labour in Europe which promotes migrations from many parts of the world. This paper examines the history of concepts that marginalise these as unproductive services (and not really ‘work’) and questions why the west accepts the semi-feudal conditions and lack of regulations pertaining to this sector. The moral panic on ‘trafficking’ and the limited feminist debate on ‘prostitution’ contribute to a climate that ignores the social problems of the majority of women migrants.

In a variety of scenarios in different parts of Europe, non-Europeans are arriving with the intention to work; these are largely migrant women and transgender people from the ‘third world’ or from Central and Eastern Europe and countries of the former Soviet Union. The jobs available to these women in the labour market are overwhelmingly limited to three basic types: domestic work (cleaning, cooking and general housekeeping), ‘caring’ for people in their homes (children, the elderly, the sick and disabled) and providing sexual experiences in a wide range of venues known as the sex industry. All these jobs are generally said to be services.

In the majority of press accounts, migrant women are presented as selling sex in the street, while in public forums and academic writing, they are constructed as ‘victims of trafficking.’ The obsession with ‘trafficking’ obliterates not only all the human agency necessary to undertake migrations but the experiences of migrants who do not engage in sex work. Many thousands of women who more or less chose to sell sex as well as all women working in domestic or caring service are ‘disappeared’ when moralistic and often sensationalistic topics are the only ones discussed. One of the many erased subjects concerns the labour market—the demand—for the services of all these women. The context to which migrants arrive is not less important than the context from which they leave, often carelessly described as ‘poverty’ or ‘violence.’ This article addresses the European context for women migrants’ employment in these occupations. Though domestic and caring work are usually treated as two separate jobs, very often workers do both, and these jobs also often require sexual labour, though this is seldom recognised. All this confusion and ambiguity occurs within a frame that so far has escaped definition.

For the rest, get the pdf.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

The Cultural Study of Commercial Sex: Needed more than ever

When I first began reading about people who sell sex and people who want them to stop, in the late 1990s, I was struck by the repetitive nature of the majority of books and articles, both academic and non-academic. When research was done, it produced the same knowledge over and over, generally about women who sell sex in streets – which was odd since many were already pointing out the diminution and even dying out of most street prostitution. The Internet is the New Street, it was said – and that was 15 years ago.

When what I read was ideological, it centred on an abstract term, prostitution, but it soon became obvious that this term has no stable meaning, signifying a raft of different things to different people of different social classes and cultures. A great deal of academic research did exactly what had been done before but now in a new city – or country – or part of town! Identities tended to be essentialised, particularly regarding race, drug use and low income.

In 2005 I proposed that researchers use a broader framework to take in all exchanges of sex for money, presents or other benefits, anywhere and anytime (historical research included, in other words). I followed this up in 2007 when invited to edit a special journal issue for Sexualities that contained eight articles using the cultural framework. Given that so much research – not to mention campaigning for better laws and policies – relies on scanty knowledge of what is actually going on, this is more relevant than ever. Otherwise, you get collateral damage, penalising people and activities unintentionally (I am assuming most people do not approve of collateral damage, but some actually claim it is ‘necessary’ for the Greater Good).

The Cultural Study of Commercial SexSexualities, 8, 5, 618-631 (2005). Click the title to get the pdf.

The article begins like this:
Why create this framework

Societies’ twin reactions to commercial sex – moral revulsion and resigned tolerance – have paradoxically permitted its uncontrolled development in the underground economy and impeded cultural research on the phenomena involved. Affirmations that the global sex industry is growing and its forms proliferating are conventional in government and non-governmental fora, in the communications media and in scholarly writing. Commercial sex businesses and trafficking for sexual exploitation are blamed for massive violations of human rights, but the supporting information is unreliable, given the lack of agreement on basic definitions, the difficulty of counting clandestine objects and the fact that much of this stigmatized activity forms part of conventional social life.

Little work exists in a sex-industry framework, but if we agree that it refers to all commercial goods and services of an erotic and sexual kind, then a rich field of human activities is involved. And every one of these activities operates in a complex socio-cultural context in which the meaning of buying and selling sex is not always the same. The cultural study of commercial sex would use a cultural-studies, interdisciplinary approach to fill gaps in knowledge about commercial sex and relate the findings to other social and cultural concepts. Recent work has demonstrated how people who sell sex are excluded from studies of migration, of service work and of informal economies, and are instead examined only in terms of ‘prostitution’, a concept that focuses on transactions between individuals, especially their personal motivations. With the academic, media and ‘helping’ gaze fixed almost exclusively on women who sell sex, the great majority of phenomena that make up the sex industry are ignored, and this in itself contributes to the intransigent stigmatization of these women. While the sexual cultures of lesbian/gay/ bisexual/ transgender people are being slowly integrated into general concepts of culture, commercial sex is usually disqualified and treated only as a moral issue. This means that a wide range of ways of study are excluded. A cultural-studies approach, on the contrary, would look at commercial sex in its widest sense, examining its intersections with art, ethics, consumption, family life, entertainment, sport, economics, urban space, sexuality, tourism and criminality, not omitting issues of race, class, gender, identity and citizenship. An approach that considers commercial sex as culture would look for the everyday practices involved and try to reveal how our societies distinguish between activities considered normatively ‘social’ and activities denounced as morally wrong. This means examining a range of activities that take in both commerce and sex.

The purpose of this article is to point out the scarcity of research in these areas and reveal the kinds of issue that are up for study. Although public debate and academic theory on commercial sex abound, few participants are familiar with the wide variety of forms and sites involved; most are dealing with stereotypes and interested solely in street prostitution. This is an area where more information and images need to be disseminated, a project for which I make a small beginning here with some descriptive material from Spanish sex venues.

Since this is the beginning of what I hope will become a new field, I do not here offer any solutions to what is too often characterized as a ‘social problem’. Rather, I hope to interest others in taking up the call to study not ‘prostitution’ but the sex industry in new ways and to gather much more information on the object of governance before offering blanket solutions. This does not mean that important moral and ethical issues are not at stake nor that there is not widespread injustice in the industry. On the contrary, my proposal takes these injustices very seriously, laments the absence of workable solutions up to now and hopes that with better research these may be found.

Further headings are How study has proceeded so far, Definitions of the sex industry in general, Local particulars: examples from Spain, Elements of culture and researcher positionality and a raft of good References.

More examples of writing on sex-industry cultures outside the well-worn paths:

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Sex as Work and Sex Work: a marxian take

A couple of years ago I was asked to write for a special edition of The Commoner on Care Work and the Commons (Silvia Federici and Camille Barbagallo, editors). Atypically for people considering caring and reproductive labour, they wanted to include sex work. They asked me a series of questions, some of which did not feel natural for me to answer. Their language was a certain kind of marxian, which I don’t speak fluently, and I had to keep asking for clarifications. Finally their special edition came out earlier this year, with my Sex as Work and Sex Work in it.

Now it has appeared in Jacobin. It starts with a joke, and I see I published another different joke about the idea of sex as work a while back: that one involves a Polish woman, her husband and a leaky faucet.

Sex as Work and Sex Work

Laura Agustín, 16 May 2012

An army colonel is about to start the morning briefing to his staff. While waiting for the coffee to be prepared, the colonel says he didn’t sleep much the night before because his wife had been a bit frisky. He asks everyone: How much of sex is ‘work’ and how much is ‘pleasure’? A Major votes 75-25% in favor of work. A Captain says 50-50%. A lieutenant responds with 25-75% in favor of pleasure, depending on how much he’s had to drink. There being no consensus, the colonel turns to the enlisted man in charge of making the coffee. What does he think? With no hesitation, the young soldier replies, ‘Sir, it has to be 100% pleasure.’ The surprised colonel asks why. ‘Well, sir, if there was any work involved, the officers would have me doing it for them.’

Perhaps because he is the youngest, the soldier considers only the pleasure that sex represents, while the older men know a lot more is going on. They may have a better grasp of the fact that sex is the work that puts in motion the machine of human reproduction. Biology and medical texts present the mechanical facts without any mention of possible ineffable experiences or feelings (pleasure, in other words), as sex is reduced to wiggly sperm fighting their way towards waiting eggs. The divide between the feelings and sensations involved and the cold facts is vast.

The officers probably also have in mind the work involved in keeping a marriage going, apart from questions of lust and satisfaction. They might say that sex between people who are in love is special (maybe even sacred), but they also know sex is part of the partnership of getting through life together and has to be considered pragmatically as well. Even people in love do not have identical physical and emotional needs, with the result that sex takes different forms and means more or less on different occasions.

This little story shows a few of the ways that sex can be considered work. When we saysex work nowadays the focus is immediately on commercial exchanges, but in this article I mean more than that and question our ability to distinguish clearly when sex involves work (as well as other things) and sex work (which involves all sorts of things). Most of the moral uproar surrounding prostitution and other forms of commercial sex asserts that the difference between good or virtuous sex and bad or harmful sex is obvious. Efforts to repress, condemn, punish and rescue women who sell sex rest on the claim that they occupy a place outside the norm and the community, can be clearly identified and therefore acted on by people who Know Better how they should live. To show this claim to be false discredits this neocolonialist project.

Loving, with and without sex

We live in a time when relationships based on romantic, sexual love occupy the pinnacle of a hierarchy of emotional values, in which it is supposed that romantic love is the best possible experience and that the sex people in love have is the best sex, in more ways than one. Romantic passion is considered meaningful, a way for two people to ‘become one’, an experience some believe heightened if they conceive a child. Other sexual traditions also strive to transcend ordinariness in sex (the mechanical, the frictional), for example Tantra, which distinguishes three separate purposes for sex: procreation, pleasure and liberation, the last culminating in losing the sense of self in cosmic consciousness. In the western romantic tradition, passion is conceived as involving a strong positive emotion toward a particular person that goes beyond the physical and is contrasted to lust, which is only physical.

It is, however, impossible to say exactly how we know which is which, and the young enlisted man in the opening story might well not understand the difference. Sex driven by surging or excess testosterone and sex as adolescent rebellion against repressive family values cannot be reduced to a mechanical activity bereft of emotion or meaning; rather, those kinds of sex often feel like ways of finding out and expressing who we are. And even when sex is used to show off in front of others, or to affirm one’s attractiveness and power to pull, ‘meaningless’ would seem to be the last thing it should be called. Here it is true that one person may not only lack passion but totally neglect another’s feelings and desires, but just as often this other person is engaged in the same pursuit. The point is that reductions like lust and love don’t go very far towards telling us what is going on when people have sex together. Moreover, while real passion is meant to be based on knowing someone long and intimately, a parallel story glorifies love at first sight, in which passion is instantly awakened – and this can occur as easily at a rave or pub as at the Taj Mahal.

Part of the mythology of love promises that loving couples will always want and enjoy sex together, unproblematically, freely and loyally. But most people know that couples are multi-faceted partnerships, sex together being only one facet, and that those involved very often tire of sex with each other. Although skeptics say today’s high divorce rate shows the love-myth is a lie, others say the problem is that lovers aren’t able or willing to do the worknecessary to stay together and survive personal, economic and professional changes. Some of this work may well be sexual. In some partnerships where the spark has gone, partners grant each other the freedom to have sex with others, or pay others to spice up their own sex lives (as a couple or separately). This can take the form of a polyamorous project, with open contracts; as swinging, where couples play with others together; as polygamy or temporary marriage; as cheating or betrayal; or as paying for sex.

The sex contract

Even when love is involved, people may use sex in the hope of getting something in return. They may or may not be fully conscious of such motives as:

  • I will have sex with you because I love you even if I am not in the mood myself
  • I will have sex with you hoping you will feel well disposed toward me afterwards and give me something I want
  • I will have sex with you because if I don’t you are liable to be unpleasant to me, our children, or my friends, or withhold something we want

In these situations, sex is felt to be and accepted as part of the relationship, backed up in classic marriage law by the concept of conjugal relations, spouses’ rights to them and the consequences of not providing them: abandonment, adultery, annulment, divorce. This can work the opposite way as well, as when a partner doesn’t want sex:

  • I will not have sex with you, so you will have to do without or get it somewhere else

The partner wanting sex and not getting it at home now has to choose: do without and feel frustrated? call an old friend? ring for an escort? go to a pick-up bar? drive to a hooker stroll? visit a public toilet? buy an inflatable doll? fly to a third-world beach?

People of any gender identity can find themselves in this situation, where money may help resolve the situation, at least temporarily, and where more than one option may have to be tried. Tiring of partners is a universal experience, and research on women who pay local guides and beach boys on holidays suggests there is nothing inherently male about exchanging money for sex. That said, our societies are still patriarchal, women still take more responsibility for maintaining homes and children than men and men still have more disposable cash than women, making the overtly commercial options more viable for men than for others.

We don’t know how many people do what, but we know that many clients of sex workers say they are married (some happily, some not, the research is all about male clients). In testimonies about their motivations for paying for sex, men often cite a desire for variety or a way to cope with not getting enough sex or the kind of sex they want at home.

  • I want to have sex with you but I also want it with someone else

This is the point in the sex contract many have trouble with, the question being Why?Why should someone with sex available at home (even good sex) also want it somewhere else? The assumption is, of course, that we all ought to want only one partner, because we all ought to want the kind of love that is loyal, passionate and monogamous. To say I love my wife and also I would like to have sex with othersis to seem perverse, or greedy, and a lot of energy is spent railing against such people. However, there is nothing intrinsically better about monogamy than any other attitude to sex.

If saving marriages isa value, then more than one sex worker believes her role helps prevent break-ups, or at least allows spouses to blow off steam from difficult relationships. Workers mean not only the overtly sexual side of paid activities but also the emotional labor performed in listening to clients’ stories, bolstering their egos, teaching them sexual techniques, providing emotional advice. Rarely do sex workers position clients’ spouses as enemies or say they want to steal clients away from them; on the contrary, many see the triangular relationship – wife, husband, sex worker – as mutually sustaining. In this way sex workers believe they help reproduce the marital home and even improve it.

Sex as reproductive labor

In support of the idea that sex reproduces social life, one can say that people fortunate enough to experience satisfying sex feel fundamentally affirmed and renewed by it. In that sense, a worker providing sexual services does reproductive work. Paid sex work is a caring service when workers provide friend-like or therapist-like company and when they give a back rub – whether the caring is a performance or not. The person providing the caring services uses brain, emotions and body to make another person feel good:

  • Leaning over to comfort a baby
  • Leaning over to massage aching shoulders
  • Leaning over to kiss a neck or forehead or chest
  • Leaning over to suck a penis or breast

If the recipient perceives the contact as positive, a sense of well-being is produced that the brain registers, and the individual’s separateness is momentarily erased. These effects are not different simply because the so-called erogenous zones are involved rather than other parts of the body. In this sense, sex work, whether paid or not, reproduces fundamental social life.

The argument against sex work as reproductive labor is that sexual experiences, while sometimes temporarily rejuvenating, are neither always felt as positive nor essential to the individual’s continued functioning. Humans have to eat and keep our bodies and environments clean but we don’t have to have sex to survive: the well-being produced by sex is a luxury or extra. Sex feels as essential as food to a lot of people, and they may be very unhappy without it, but they can go on living.

Sex as a job

The variability of sexual experience makes it difficult to pin down which sex should properly be thought of as sex work. My own policy is to accept what individuals say. If someone tells me they experience selling sex as a job, I take their word for it. If, on the contrary, they say that it doesn’tfeel like a job but something else, then I accept that.

What does it mean to say it feels like a job? There are several possibilities:

  • I organise myself to offer particular services for money that I define
  • I take a job in someone else’s business where I control some aspects of what I do but not others
  • I place myself in situations where others tell me what they are looking for and I adapt, negotiate, manipulate and perform – but it’s a job because I get money

There are other permutations, too, of course. All service jobs involve customer relations, which are eternally unpredictable. Some clients are able to specify exactly what services they want and make sure they are satisfied, but some cannot and may end up getting what the worker wants to provide. To imagine that the worker is always powerless because the client pays for time makes no sense, since all workers jockey for control in their jobs – of what happens when and how long it takes. This is a simple definition of human agency. And it’s important to remember that a very large proportion of sex work is spent on selling: the seduction and flirtation necessary to turn atmosphere, potentiality and possibility into an exchange of money for sex.

Furthermore, although we like to think about the two roles, salesperson and customer, as separate, in the sexual relation roles can be blurred. Theorists want to think about the worker doing something for the client or the client commandingthe worker to act. But carrying out a command does not exclude doing it one’s own way, nor, for that matter, enjoyment, feelings of connectivity and the reproduction of self.

Non-partner sex in the home

Many would like to believe that non-commercial (or ‘real’) sex takes place in homes, while commercial sex lurks in seedy other places. However, sex outside the partnership easily takes place while one of the partners is not there. This can be sex that is ordered in and paid for or adulterous, promiscuous, play or non-monogamous sex. Sometimes the non-partner is consideredalmost one of the family’ – a live-in maid or nanny. Other times the non-partner is someone who’s come to perform some other paid job – the proverbial milkman or plumber. There’s also sex in the home online, via webcam, or over the telephone, as well as images or objects that enhance a sexual experience in which no partner is necessary at all. The sex industry penetrates family residences in many ways and cannot be, by definition, the family’s Other.

Most commentary on how the sex industry is changing focuses on the Internet, where apart from more conventional business sites, sexual communities form and reform continuously. Social networking sites like facebookprovide spaces where the commercial, the aesthetic and the activist intersect and overlap, also complicating the traditional divide between selling and buying. Chat and instant messaging provide opportunities for people to experiment with sexual identities including commercial ones. Much of all this is unmeasurable, taking place on sites where all participants are mixed together, not sorted into categories of buyers and sellers. Statistics on the value of pornography sold on the Internet focus on sites with catalogues of products for sale, but the sphere of webcams, like peep shows of old, blurs the wobbly line between porn and prostitution.

Although some (like Elizabeth Bernstein 2007) claim that sex workers offering girlfriend-like experiences are a manifestation of post-industrial life, I am not convinced. Sex worker testimonies from many periods reveal the complexity always waiting to happen when brief encounters are repeated, when clients seek again someone with whom they felt a bond as well as a sexual attraction. Nor am I convinced that the experiences of upper-class clients patronising courtesans, geishas or mistresses are inherently different from the socialising of working-class men and women in ‘treating’ cultures. Instead, it is clear that the lines between commercial and non-commercial sex have always been blurry, and that middle-class marriage is itself an example.

Scholars of sexual cultures won’t get far if they follow dogma that considers marriage to be separate and outside the realm of investigations of commercial sex. In societies where matchmaking and different sorts of arranged marriages and dowries are conventional, the link between payment and sex has been overt and normalised, while campaigners against both sex tourism and foreign-bride agencies are offended precisely because they see a money-exchange entering into what they believe should be ‘pure’ relationships. We have too much information now about non-family forms of love and commitment, non-committed forms of sex and non-sexual forms of love to hold on to these arbitrary, mythic divisions, which further oppressive ideas about sexually good and bad women. We know now that monogamy is not necessarily better, that paid sex can be affectionate, that loving couples can do without sex, that married love involves money and that sex involves work.

I see no postmodern crisis here. Some believe that the developed West was moving in a good direction after the Second World War, towards happier families and juster societies, and that neoliberalism is destroying that. But historical research shows that before the bourgeoisie’s advancement to the centre of European societies, with the concomitant focus on nuclear families and a particular version of moral respectability, loose, flexible arrangements vis-à-vis sex, family and sexuality were common in both upper- and working-class cultures (Agustín 2004) . In the long run it may turn out that 200 years of bourgeois ‘family values’ were a blip on the screen in human history.

Sex, equality and money

Understanding professional sex work has not been made easier by making ‘equality’ the standard for gender relations. We can only really know whether sexual experiences are equal if everyone looks and acts the same, which is not only impossible but repressive of diversity. In sexual relations, equality projects run into the problem of dissimilar bodies, different ways of exhibiting arousal and experiencing satisfaction, not to mention differences in cultural background and social status. Those who complain about other people’s perversity and deviance are accused in return of being boring adherents of repressive sex.

In terms of the work of sex, we run into a further difficulty vis-à-vis equality, the cliché that sees participants taking either an active or a passive role and identity. But many people, not just professional sex workers, know that the work of sex can mean allowing the other to take an active role and assuming a passive one as well astaking the active role or switching back and forth. Sometimes people do what they already know they like, and sometimes they experiment. Sometimes people don’t know what they want, or want to be surprised, or to lose control.

For some critics, the possession of money by clients gives them absolute power over workers and therefore means that equality is impossible. This attitude toward money is odd, given that we live in times when it is acceptable to pay for child and elderly care, for rape, alcohol and suicide counselling and for many other forms of consolation and caring. Those services are considered compatible with money but when it is exchanged for sex money is treated as a totally negative, contaminating force –thiscommodification uniquely terrible. Money is a fetish here despite the obvious fact that no body part is actually sold off in the commercial sex exchange.

Sex work and migrancy

In many places, migrant women and young men do most of the paid sex work, because:

there are enormous structural inequalities in the world, because there are people everywhere willing to take the risk of travelling to work in other countries and because social networks, high technology and transportation make it widely feasible (Agustín 2002). Migrants take jobs that are available, accept lower pay and tolerate having fewer rights than first-class citizens because those are less important than simply getting ahead. Even those with qualifications for other jobs, whether as hairdressers or university professors, are glad to get jobs considered unprestigious by non-migrants. While many view migrants in low-prestige jobs as absolute victims too constrained by forces around them to have real agency, social gain or enjoyment, there are other ways to understand them (Agustín 2003).

Critics hold that migrants who work in private homes reproduce the social life of their all-powerful employers but accomplish little on their own behalf. This is strange, because low-prestige workers who are notmigrants are acknowledged to gain a connection to society, knowledge of being a useful economic actor and more options because of having money.

We look at migration as neither a degradation nor improvement . . . in women’s position, but as a restructuring of gender relations. This restructuring need not necessarily be expressed through a satisfactory professional life. It may take place through the assertion of autonomy in social life, through relations with family of origin, or through participating in networks and formal associations. The differential between earnings in the country of origin and the country of immigration may in itself create such an autonomy, even if the job in the receiving country is one of a live-in maid or prostitute. (Hefti 1997)

One of the great contradictions of capitalism is that even unfair, unwritten, ambiguous contracts can produce active subjects.

Ways forward

I have proposed the cultural study of commercial sex (Agustín 2005), in which scholars are free of the constraints of the traditional study of prostitution, where ideology and moralising about power, gender and money have long held primacy. Cultural study does not assume that we already knowwhat any given sex-money exchange means but that meaning changes according to specific cultural context. This means we cannot assume there is a fundamental difference between commercial and non-commercial sex. Anthropologists studying non-western societies consistently reveal that money and sex exchanges exist on a continuum where feelings are also present, and historians reveal the same about the past (for example, Tabet 1987 and Peiss 1986).

Sex and work cannot be completely disentangled, as the officers knew and the enlisted man would some day find out.


Agustín, Laura. 2005. The Cultural Study of Commercial Sex. Sexualities, Vol 8, No 5, pp 618-631.

____________ 2004. ‘At Home in the Street: Questioning the Desire to Help and Save.’ In Regulating Sex: The Politics of Intimacy and Identity. E. Bernstein and L. Shaffner, eds., 67-82. New York: Routledge Perspectives on Gender.

____________ 2003.‘Sex, Gender and Migrations: Facing Up to Ambiguous RealitiesSoundings, 23, 84-98.

____________ 2002. Challenging Place: Leaving Home for SexDevelopment, Society for International Development, Rome, Vol. 45.1, March, 110-16.

Bernstein, Elizabeth. 2007. Temporarily Yours: Intimacy, Authenticity and the Commerce of Sex.Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hefti, Anny Misa. 1997. ‘Globalisation and Migration.’ Paper presented at European Solidarity Conference on the Philippines, Zurich, 19-21 September.

Peiss, Kathy. 1986. Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Tabet, Paola. 1987. ‘Du don au tarif. Les relations sexuelles impliquant compensation’.Les Temps Modernes, n° 490, 1-53.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Sex scandals: Mrs Robinson, the Pope and Julian Assange

What do Mrs Robinson, the Pope and Julian Assange have in common? They all got caught in sex scandals, which will be considered on a panel at the mega America Anthropological Association conference in Montreal in November.

Excerpt from the Abstract

. . . The papers do not look past sex scandals to ask what they are ‘really’ about. Instead, they take the scandals seriously as significant social and cultural events that have their own genesis, configuration, cadence and course. Anthropologists are well-placed to understand sex scandals because extended fieldwork and familiarity with different groups and with conflicts in society allows us to place the scandal in historical, political, and cultural context. . .

I am on this panel, giving a talk called Assange’s Sex in Sweden, because I was an expert witness for him in the UK earlier this year, having written about rape in Sweden a while ago. This is the sort of academic-industrial conference I have always avoided, but for various reasons I am going to this one. I can’t say how much I will be there apart from my own panel, though!

AAA Conference, Montreal, Canada 2011
4-0430 Notes on a Scandal

Friday 18 November 2011: 10:15-12:00

Organizer and Chair: Don Kulick, University of Chicago

On Julian Assange
Laura Maria Agustín (Independent scholar)
On Jacob Zuma
Bjarke Oxlund (University of Copenhagen)
On Silvio Berlusconi
Roberta Raffaetà (Università di Trento)
On Mrs. Robinson
Thomas Strong (National University of Ireland, Maynooth)
On Aussie Footballers
Lenore H Manderson (Monash University)
On Thai Monks
Peter A Jackson (Australian National University)
On the Holy See
Nancy Scheper-Hughes (University of California, Berkeley)

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist