Tag Archives: sexwork

Migrant sex worker: a term that has arrived

I wouldn’t have been surprised if the term migrant sex worker had died out except amongst rights-activists, given the hegemony enjoyed by reductionist trafficking narratives. When I was doing the intellectual work required to produce Sex at the Margins, I didn’t use labels for people but rather described a group of women leaving home for elsewhere and getting by cleaning houses and selling sex. Not all migrants who sell sex are women but women’s presence selling sex was what was manifestly ignored, in a way that reminded me of a lot of other ignoring I’d seen in my life. When I started there was no mention of these women anywhere in the media and then when I searched further I also found nothing in academic articles or books, even in the field of migration. Apparently they didn’t qualify as migrants, or could it be no reporter or student was interested in them as subjects of study? As time went on I understood, from reactions when I spoke about my work, that something else was going on and that au contraire everyone was really perhaps sometimes even too interested.

My favourite straightforward piece of early writing on migrants who sell sex is The (Crying) Need for Different Kinds of Research: Not all is trafficking and AIDS. Later on I published in academic journals, but never easily, as peer-reviewers who knew the subject could not be found in those days, and who was I supposed to be citing if no one had written yet? Who could have vouched for it except for the subjects themselves? Academic publishers consulting objectified subjects: absurd idea.

Anyway, eventually I published A Migrant World of Services: the emotional, sexual and caring services of women, 2003, and Migrants in the Mistress’s House: Other Voices in the Trafficking Debate, 2005 and, taking two and a half years to get published in a migration journal, Disappearing of a Migration Category: Migrants Who Sell Sex, 2006. Still my preference was never to label people migrant sex workers, as no one I’d ever known talked that way about themselves. They were travelling, they were working at night, they were prostitutes, they were helping families, they didn’t want to be maids.

In Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, published in 2007, I believe I only used the phrase migrant sex workers once:

But people who desire to travel, see the world, make money and accept
whatever jobs are available along the way do not fall into neat categories: ‘victims of trafficking’, ‘migrant sex workers’, ‘forced migrants’, ‘prostituted women’. Their lives are far more complex – and interesting – than such labels imply.

Of course by writing the book I drew attention to actions and lifestyles that can add up to an identity, even if it’s only temporary and not used by subjects themselves.

About labels and categories: You often see, in European web material, references like ‘street-based sex workers’. Sometimes that’s a covert way to say migrant sex workers, because there are always migrants selling sex on some street in European cities. Many more aren’t on the street, but only those on streets are readily identifiable by NGO workers and police, who engage in naming and counting. And then there are all the references to victims of trafficking who consider themselves to be migrants.

Projects with migrant sex workers are flourishing in the world of activism. Take Crossings:

A sex-worker produced documentary about the poverty, criminalization, and struggle of migrant sex workers in Europe. The film features the stories of sex workers from 5 European countries, Ukraine, Norway, France, Spain, and Serbia and was collaboratively produced by sex worker organizations and the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe. The project was supported by the Public Health Program of the Open Society Foundations.

That’s right: George Soros’s Open Society funding supports work on migration and sex work both. Tampep (The European Network for the Promotion of Rights and
Health among Migrant Sex Workers) gets EU funding, because, while fanatics rant to exclude migrants absolutely, governments know how easily they get in, and you know how scary ‘threats to public health’ are. Specially sexual ones.

The term is also normalised in Canada, where Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Worker Support Network operates. See their report Anti-trafficking campaign harms migrant sex workers, which ends

We believe women when they tell us they are not trafficked and we believe them when they say they are. And when others like us are targeted or deported, we will not be held as complicit in violence against women because we are sex workers and refuse to be framed as victims. We do not consent to this status.

Some academics use the term, for example when demonstrating that all is not exploitation and misery when foreigner workers are concerned.

University of Otago, Christchurch releases first study of migrant sex workers: The majority of migrant sex workers in New Zealand who participated in new University of Otago research, are in safe employment situations and working to fund study or travel rather than being desperate, exploited or trafficked, the research shows.

Since the exclusion of migrant sex workers is the flaw in New Zealand’s rational prostitution law it’s logical that academics there should be using the term rather than wailing about trafficking.

I didn’t use the term migrant sex worker in The Three-Headed Dog, although numerous of the characters can be called that. It’s a novel in which people migrate to Spain and sell sex in different ways and settings; labels are irrelevant. But if you want to know what the term means I recommend this book over everything else you can read, including Sex at the Margins. These are not activist or academic or politician or Rescue-Industry voices: they are just human voices.

Give it as a holiday gift to someone who doesn’t understand at all. You buy it as an ebook on Amazon; you don’t need a kindle but just tell what eformat you want it in. It is Safe For Work, no fear.

—Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Sex workers may unionise – but can prostitutes? The case of Sindicato OTRAS

Last week a Madrid tribunal declared that sex workers can unionise but prostitutes can’t – or that’s what it comes down to. Sindicato OTRAS was granted conventional union status in the summer, having filed the necessary paperwork. But when the news got out, scandalised politicians vowed they wouldn’t allow it, because the current government has declared itself abolitionist. Before long, several women’s organisations in different parts of Spain had put together a lawsuit against the union, on the grounds that prostitution can’t be a job (because it’s violence against women, slavery and so on). I’m simplifying, but believe me, you don’t want to read the convoluted legal language involved.

I spent two evenings with members of Aprosex in late May in Barcelona, one of them a conversatorio with me and many enthusiastic participants held at the headquarters of t.i.c.t.a.c. Shortly afterwards, Aprosex filed papers to become a union: Sindicato OTRAS (Organización de Trabajadoras Sexuales). Sex workers who call themselves anything are welcome: cam-girls, phone-sex operators, strippers, porn actors, bar hostesses, escorts, workers in flats. Some of these offer services many consider to be prostitution.

Job-titles don’t say everything. Some who’ve embraced the term sex worker hate the word prostitute, but a lot of others comfortably use it, especially in Romance languages. A recently-formed group call themselves Colectivo de Prostitutas de Sevilla. The whore-word puta is in process of reclamation, appearing on banners as you see above. Some feel okay calling themselves sex workers as long as it’s clear that they aren’t prostitutes. The paperwork for OTRAS referred to sex work in all its forms, which abolitionists immediately interpreted to mean prostitution: the thing they love to hate.

I don’t need to describe the arguments made by the women’s-group plaintiffs; they are well known. I note their horror that prostitutes, who exist because of patriarchy, can argue that a union will combat it. I have written about anti-prostitution ideas many times, last in The New Abolitionist Model.

But the specific Spanish legal context determined how opponents could argue a lawsuit. In the Penal Code prostitution is not defined as illegal, which rights activists complain leads to alegal status that disadvantages sex workers. You may well think that if an activity is not prohibited or defined as wrong in law then it must by default be considered part of ordinary (legal) life. But the ambiguity has been exploited to claim that if prostitution is not defined as legal work by law and listed in a national register of occupations then it can’t be a job. Porn acting and web-camming might be. The term sex worker seems not precise enough to be, and anyway abolitionists read it as a euphemism for prostitute.

However, it’s more complicated than that. Amongst jobs that are listed in the national register is work in clubes de alterne, bar-venues with private spaces in the back or upstairs for workers to take clients for sex. The word alterne, from the verb alternar, refers to socialising and drinking with customers, and chicas de alterne is a common euphemism for women who work in clubes de carretera, hoteles de plaza, casas de citas and puticlubs – all names of public businesses that may get called brothels, but they may also have a lot more going on in them: films, shows, dance-floors, jacuzzis, who knows what else in a place like the one above in Málaga. Businesses you can call brothels also exist in residential buildings. All these are legal. I wrote more about them in The Sex Industry in Spain. In other parts of the world chicas de alterne are known as bar girls or hostesses.

The Audiencia’s decision noted there would be no problem if chicas de alterne wanted to unionise on the basis of their work socialising. They also do prostitution? No problem. If you find this bizarrely contradictory, consult the Mad Hatter – he understands perfectly. Loopholes like these provide endless paid occupation for lawyers and campaigners like Plataforma 8 de marzo, Comisión para la Investigación de Malos Tratos a Mujeres and L’Escola: women’s organisations who took Sindicato OTRAS to court.

In this case they made many familiar claims about prostitution being violence against women and an obstacle to equality, citing Spanish legislation. They leaned heavily on arguments about trafficking and prostitution being inseparable, quoting EU and UN declarations. But they also claimed that prostitution’s not being an occupation inscribed in Spain’s national job register means that those who practise it can’t be workers because their job does not exist.

Further complications relate to the requirement that workers forming unions need to have the status of employees in a setting where employers define and regulate their work. In the case of prostitution, plaintiffs argued, this would mean managers telling prostitutes how to have sex with clients, which they don’t do. To underscore their point claimants expressed outrage at the possibility that bosses and workers might be able to damage the highly personal nature of sex (personalísimo). The way these repressive arguments opportunistically use the principle of sexual freedom frankly makes me sick.

Requiring workers to assume self-employed status is common practice in sex-industry businesses in many countries, allowing bosses to avoid accusations of pimping and also avoid providing decent working conditions. Being self-employed means workers have no right to negotiate terms or problems in what obviously are workplaces. Individuals may complain to bosses, but only trade unions have the ability to negotiate formally with management without being ignored or simply dismissed. Nota bene: Caveats apply. There is no one meaning to the term trade union, and national contexts differ. Freelance/self-employed/autonomous workers are generally excluded, but new unions want to change that.

OTRAS will appeal to the Supreme Court and meanwhile, despite misleading press headlines, have not been declared illegal. The Audiencia’s decision annulled the group’s statutes (by-laws) but hasn’t the power to dissolve the union (the whole long cryptic decision is at the bottom of the previous link). El Diario did better on the decision than most media outlets.

Everyone wants to know why the association of sex-business owners is allowed to exist. ANELA was inscribed in the national register of associations in 2004, defining their activity as dispensar “productos o servicios” a terceras personas ajenas al establecimiento, “que ejerzan el alterne y la prostitución por cuenta propia”: provide products or services to self-employed third persons… who practise alterne and prostitution.

It is interesting that ANELA’s first attempt to register was also frustrated by the mention of prostitution. Told to remove it because it isn’t legal employment, they refused, citing a 2001 EU court decision that prostitution may be an economic activity for self-employed persons, in the absence of force or coercion. In the same Audiencia (Sala de lo Social) where the case against OTRAS was held, ANELA was initially refused inscription. They appealed to the Supreme Court and won, judges saying that providing the conditions for prostitution to take place doesn’t necessarily make an owner a pimp (proxeneta). Go figure.

Meanwhile, if you weren’t already dazed by contradictions, another sex workers’ union opened this past summer, also in Barcelona. Unión Sindical de Trabajo Sexual was founded as a branch of the already-existing Intersindical Alternativa de Catalunya, and moral crusaders have no argument with it. Not because of which job-titles the workers claim but because, as a branch, they are not a separate autonomous legal entity. I know – it just doesn’t add up.

Enough. I’ve understood for many years that the term prostitution can never be pinned down. It isn’t ‘just a word’: its meaning is far from obvious; its connotations reach deep into patriarchal mechanisms for keeping women down and divided against each other. The comfortable middle-class Spanish feminists desiring to bring down a trade union for sex workers perfectly prove the point. In Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores I went into this in detail.

When I was revising this I saw I hadn’t tagged for Rescue Industry. The hostility of government spokesfolk and organisations that agreed to do their dirty work goes beyond any pretense to be helping and saving. This is about upholding the status quo for a small but influential cadre of privileged women who believe that they Know Best about everything under the sun. Patriarchal hierarchies work for women at the top.

Some things I’ve written about Spain, in English (note Spanish at the bottom):

A novel, The Three-Headed Dog, is set on the Costa del Sol and Madrid, amongst migrants doing various kinds of sex work. In the sequel the setting moves from Galicia through Málaga to Calais and London.

The Sex Industry in Spain: Sex clubs, flats, agriculture, tourism

Highways as sexwork places, with chairs

Who are migrant sex workers?

Sexwork and migration fiction, part 2: Jobs in the sex industry

Change the world by getting men to stop buying sex: Spain

In Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, the field work was carried out in Spain.

Lista de publicaciones mias en castellano

—Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Migrant sex worker in a Thai brothel: Le Carré’s The Secret Pilgrim

I collect well-styled and informative descriptions of sex-industry settings in novels, here John le Carré’s 1990 The Secret Pilgrim. Fiction can transmit far more of the atmosphere and goings-on in sex venues than social-science research, not least because authors get to express their personal feelings. Here the migrant sex worker is Cambodian, girlfriend of a spy being searched for in a Thai brothel called the Sea of Happiness. The voice changes as I’ve cut to include only bits relevant to clients and sex work.

He’d popped up here on a flying visit. One day, that’s all. One day, one night, then back to the missus and a book. Offshore leisure consortium wanted him to buy a hundred acres of prime coastland for them. Did his business, then off they all go to this girlie restaurant, Duffy and a bunch of his traders – Duffy’s not averse to a bit of the other, never has been. Place called The Sea of Happiness, slap in the middle of the red-light quarter. Upmarket sort of establishment, as they go, I’m told. Private rooms, decent food if you like Hunanese, a straight deal and the girls leave you alone unless you tell ‘em not to.

At girlie restaurants, he explained, somehow contriving to suggest he had never personally been to one, young hostesses, dressed or undressed, sat between the guests and fed them food and drink while the men talked high matters of business. In addition, The Sea of Happiness offered a massage parlour, a discotheque and a live theatre on the ground floor.

Duffy clinches the deal with the consortium, a cheque is passed, he’s feeling his oats. So he decides to do himself a favour with one of the girls. Terms agreed, off they go to a cubicle. Girl says she’s thirsty, how about a bottle of champagne to get her going? She’s on commission, naturally…

…First Henry had had a drink at the bar, then he had watched the show. Then he had sent for the Mama San, who hurried over assuming he had a special wish. He had shown the Mama San his translator’s card and said he was writing an article about her establishment – the superb food, the romantic girls, the high standards of sensitivity and hygiene, particularly the hygiene. He said he had a commission from a German travel magazine that recommended only the best places. The Mama San took the bait and offered him the run of the house. She showed him the private dining rooms, the kitchens, cubicles, toilets. She introduced him to the girls and offered him one on the house, which he declined, to the head chef, the doorman and the bouncers.

“But who is your farang who carries the bottles for you?” Henry had cried out with amusement to the Mama San. “Must he stay behind and work because he cannot pay his bill?”

The Mama San laughed also. Against farangs, or Westerners, all Asians feel naturally united. “The farang lives with one of our Cambodian girls,” she replied with contempt, for Cambodians are rated even lower than farangs and Vietnamese in the Thai zoology. “He met her here and fell in love with her, so he tried to buy her and make a lady out of her. But she refused to leave us. So he brings her to work every day and stays until she is free to go home again. She is number nineteen,” said the Mama San, with a shrug. “Her house name is Amanda. Would you like her?”

Henry could not resist taking a look. The girls who were not with clients lounged on plush benches behind a glass wall, wearing numbers round their necks and nothing else, while they chatted to each other or tended their fingernails or stared vacuously at an ill-tuned television set. As Henry watched, number 19 stood up in response to a summons, picked up her little handbag and a wrap and walked from the room. She was very young. Many girls lied about their age in order to defeat the regulations – penniless Cambodians particularly. But this girl, said Henry, had looked no more than fifteen…

…An hour later, I was presenting myself at The Sea of Happiness and buying a ticket for fifty dollars. I removed my shoes, as custom required, and moments later I was standing in a neon-lit cubicle in my stockinged feet, staring into the passive, much painted features of girl number 19.

She wore a cheap silk wrap with tigers on it, but it was open from the neck down. Underneath it she was naked. A heavy Japanese style make-up covered her complexion. She smiled at me and thrust her hand swiftly towards my groin, but I replaced it at her side. She was so slight it seemed a mystery that she was equal to the work. She was longer-legged than most Asian girls and her skin was unusually pale. She threw off her wrap and, before I could stop her, sprang on to the frayed chaise longue, where she arranged herself in what she imagined to be an erotic pose, caressing herself and uttering sighs of desire. She rolled on to her side with her rump thrust out, draping her black hair across her shoulder so that her tiny breasts poked through it. When I did not advance on her, she lay on her back and opened her thighs to me and bucked her pelvis, calling me “darling” and saying “please.

“Sit up,” I said, so she sat up and again waited for me to come to her. “Put on your wrap.”

When she appeared not to understand, I helped her into it. Henry had written the message for me in Khmer. “I want to speak to Hansen,” it read. “I am in a position to obtain Thai papers for yourself and your family.” I handed it to her and watched her study it. Could she read? I had no way of telling. I held out a plain white envelope addressed to Hansen. She took it and opened it. The letter was typed and its tone was not gentle. It contained two thousand baht. — John le Carré, The Secret Pilgrim, 1990

—Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Highways as sexwork-places, with chairs

When the topic is selling sex outdoors, mainstream media stick to the same photos over and over. Generally now posed, the shots show young female bodies chopped off at the head or feet or waist, standing in dark city streets. I don’t need to give an example because you’ve instantly visualised what I’m talking about. So when I posted an item on facebook from The Local that carried this photo with pink and green chairs, many people sounded surprised.

If you don’t bring a chair, sometimes there’s a kerb to sit on. If there’s not, you might lean on metal barriers. But chairs of all portable types are common along highways in Cataluña, despite longtime attempts by local communities and police to stop the whole activity. Gavà, Castelldefels, Viladecans, Les Filipines – not far from the beach or downtown Barcelona. Places where traffic slows down, where there’s a place to pull over.

These are workplaces to which workers bring staple items: a rucksack with food, makeup, clothes, towels. A parasol, wastebasket, extra plastic bags. A book to read, a thermos of coffee, sunscreen. I mention all this because anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution campaigns focus exclusively on the question of choice: whether any of these women really knew what selling sex would be like when they came to these highways from Rumania, Bulgaria or anywhere else. Whether they can be granted any agency at all, whether prostitution carries a transcendent meaning for feminism. Abstract questions rather than everyday culture in which individuals experience their own workaday lives. Looked at from this other viewpoint, it’s clear women treat these sites as workplaces, and that’s whether the person coming to pick them up after their shift is a friend or some kind of controller.

This isn’t a merely ethnographic value to be pooh-poohed by hard-hitting ideologues. To know about sex work you need to do more than think in the abstract. You need to look at what there is to look at, listen to the music and read more than tweets and policy-papers. Observing the workplace, even if you feel appalled that it’s out on a highway in the hot sun, allows you to see that the women are not only waiting passively as if with a whip over their heads but exercising small choices about their comfort.

The most ethereal of these pictures come from Txema Salvans, whose project The Waiting Game shows many more shots of sex workers along these highways.

Some of the chairs are not so portable after all, but I really like the empire-style fringed one above. The pictures also show that some workplaces are shared – and some chairs.

I’ve written about sexwork-places in Spain many times before, including:

Who are migrant sex workers?

The Sex Industry in Spain: Sex clubs, flats, agriculture, tourism

Sexwork and migration fiction, part 2: Jobs in the sex industry

—Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Back to Barcelona: Migration and Sex Work

In the late 90s I created an email listserv called Industria del Sexo for migrants and sex workers to discuss issues in any Romance language (excluding English was important). There were some academics but no journalists or politicians. Before social media and using the list, a few of us, Spanish and migrants alike, organised an event in Barcelona in 2002, to coincide with an industrial International AIDS conference. It took place in the Centre Cívic Pati Llimona, pictured above. Migration and Sex Work were on the agenda, and migrant sex workers definitely Spoke Out.

I’ll be at Pati Llimona again on 22 May, in a public event organised by Latin Americans in conjunction with the (also industrial) Latin American Studies Association conference (which I’m not attending). I’m in the panel of speakers that begins at 0945: Sexualidades y movilidades, where I’ll try to explain how feminism got so acrimoniously divided over prostitution and the results for migrants. The address is Calle Regomir 3 in the Barri Gòtic; more about the rest of the day on facebook

On 24 May I join Aprosex, Asociación de Profesionales del Sexo, in an event held at TicTac, Calle Santa Dorotea 9, not far from Plaça d’Espanya. Note this is a conversatorio, not me giving a planned talk. Questions to be discussed can be submitted on scraps of paper and later hands raised in hopes of a livelier event (specially for me).

Otherwise, I’m planning to walk my feet off in my usual solitary fashion, flaneur that I have always been. I’ll  enjoy the odd copa here and there, including, amazingly, with a couple of women who were there in 2002. If you know anyone who’d be interested in either of these events, please let them know.

—Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist