Tag Archives: travel

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

Migrants sell sex in flats, or are they brothels?

Why does it matter where you sell sex? Although most photos attached to media stories show truncated women’s bodies standing in dark streets, the news often concerns indoors: flats where migrants live and sell sex for short periods, ordinary flats rented by someone and hired out to women who fly in and fly out, making money and then moving on. British media like to call them brothels, a stupidity based on laws that prohibit more than one person at a time selling sex in indoor venues (yes, even two friends watching out for each other). Now they’re even called pop-up brothels, a cuteness deserving no further comment.

The flats don’t conform to the widely-held idea of brothels as places where clients can drink and socialise at bars and choose amongst a number of available workers to have sex with. Brothels don’t look like residential apartments in anyone’s imagination, any more than they look like clinics, carwashes or hair salons – all disguises that have been used. In old Barcelona photos you see the term mueblé to signify a brothel somewhere inside a residential building. In the photo to the right there is a venue El Gato Negro, which may be a bar or may lead to the mueblé mentioned in the sign at the left, which could be only a room or could be a flat (gomas in the Gato sign refers to condoms). Contemporary buildings are used the same way, with or without signage (see caption in below photo).

It doesn’t take a business-genius to figure out how to rent a house or flat and then sub-rent the space out to sex workers. Independent women do it or they find out about someone else and sub-rent from them. Nor is it difficult to buy budget air tickets online, nor, in the case of Europe and Europeans, to cross borders without showing passports. Some workers even use Air B&B, leading to outrage when homeowners want to believe chaste ‘families’ are enjoying non-sexual tourism in their rentals.

No wonder freelance sex work is a widespread international occupation. But despite this obvious fact, moral crusaders, police and media writers throw up their hands in horror at the supposed ‘traffickers’ who are setting flats up and then luring – that favourite word – unaware women to work in them. The assumptions are spelled out by judges at criminal trials who inevitably refer to women as vulnerable – a present-day version of innocent. In fact it all feels like the performance of a 19th-century melodrama in modern dress. And when the women protest strenuously enough that they set things up on their own, they are deported (even when selling sex isn’t prohibited – there’s always an excuse to toss them out.)

In a story from Singapore a migrant said to a reporter: ‘We have many customers every day and have all sorts of services. But we will be leaving in two days’ time.’ They were there on ‘social visit passes’ or tourist visas, and they indicated other women would be arriving when they left. The photo intends to show the ordinariness of the environment, I suppose – these are public housing units.

In Barcelona a news item relates how police are aware of 20 flats where, ‘without any kind of licence rooms are rented by the hour for sexual encounters. According to sources close to the case it was the same Martínez Bordiu family who found out that the tenant to whom they had rented the flat was using it as a brothel’ (casa de citas is the old-fashioned term used).

In The Three-Headed Dog, the migrant character Marina is working in a flat in Torremolinos, on the southern coast of Spain. When a client collapses she calls Félix Vidal:

It was after midnight when I parked in front of one of the faceless white apartment blocks, near where a couple with a small child were unpacking their car. I buzzed the street door, and a voice said ‘Closed’, but then there was bumping and a clank, and the door buzzed open. The family joined me in the small lift, fiddling with bags and folding up a push-chair.

At the flat, Marina let me in quickly, her hair springing out around her face like a great black halo. She pulled me into a room and closed the door on four young women in shorts and T-shirts huddled together looking scared. It was a bedroom conceived for a child in the original plan, so the double-sized bed that had been installed took up most of the space. A skimpy whip hung next to a red heart on the wall. On the floor beside the bed lay a man. Marina said, ‘He had some kind of attack. He was still conscious when I called you.’ I checked: he was breathing faintly.

The anonymity and ordinariness of houses, flats, apartments is preferred by a lot of workers and clients alike: people who don’t want bars, socialising, dance floors or fancy atmosphere. To call them brothels is to really stretch the imagination of already tired spectators at the Sex Work Wars. Sex takes place in houses anyway, so what difference does it make if money changes hands?

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Sexwork and migration fiction, part 3: Location and nation

two-women-sitting-at-a-bar-1902.jpg!LargeEvery reviewer has to mention a different defect in the book under review: That was my conclusion when reviews of Sex at the Margins were proliferating. Some of the defects pointed to said more about the reviewer than the book, like the English academic who dismissed the research because it had taken place in Spain. I laughed a lot at that one. If you’re interested in migration and globalisation then nation becomes a funny category.

The other day I was interviewed by an investigator interested in undocumented migration in The Three-Headed Dog. We met in a blue bar and drank from stemmed glasses. She agreed I may publish a few points of our conversation, on the subject of place, location and nationality. Her name is Zelda.

mapZelda: Why did you situate The Three-Headed Dog in Spain? Is the plot special to the Costa del Sol? Or could it be moved to Britain or Italy or the state of Florida?

Laura: Spain has long been part of my own life and I lived in Granada while I was reading and doing fieldwork for and then writing what became Sex at the Margins. The Costa del Sol is one of the most fluid and confusing places I know, full of every sort of human mobility, and therefore appealing to me.

The stories in The Dog could be moved in terms of every important concept: How migrants reason and feel about what they’re doing and the sorts of networks they live in. The way they have to look for jobs and housing, the existing in and crossing out of social margins. Those are universal dynamics for undocumented migrants anywhere in the world. But margins feel different according to the terrain and the historical moment. migrantes-coahuiIf the scene were set elsewhere plot-mechanics would vary according to local laws and policing, cultural ideas about sex and women’s mobility, the availability of black-market jobs and the ease of getting out if things go wrong. If there is a coast, boats are an option. Sometimes trains are easily hopped.

Zelda: What about the migrants, are they interchangeable? Could the group of Dominicans on the airplane just as well be Chinese? What about the young Romanian smuggler, could he be Greek? Could Polish Tanya be French? Does anything about nationality matter?

Laura: The human responses portrayed are not unique to any nationality, but some of the mechanics of migration would have to change if you were to make arbitrary switches. For example, Tanya might humanly be French, but she’d be less likely to set up a cleaning service in Madrid. Or the Dominican club-owner, Carlos: If he were Chinese he might certainly run a hostess-bar, but it would be in another part of Madrid, and have a different style, perhaps with gambling, and would the protagonist Félix plausibly have become his close friend?

125969_day labor_GMK_The key to making the story work in any particular place is knowing how migrant networks function and the patterns that have developed based on (1) the possibility of getting visas to other countries and (2) colonial and other dependency/linguistic histories that lead to family relationships. For instance, Brazilians have visa-freedom to travel to Portugal, which is part of Schengen territory, meaning they cross easily into Spain and rest of Europe. Dominican women have a long history as maids and sex workers in Spain – over generations. These are migrations that give meaning to the word transnational.

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Zelda: Can migrant women become sex workers anywhere, whether there’s some kind of regulated sex work or not?

Laura: The two jobs available everywhere to undocumented women are maiding and sex work, but if the plot were picked up and put down in Hong Kong, say, then adjustments would be needed to the kinds of sex businesses where migrants are likely to get employed. And to take up any kind of sex work without knowing the local context and laws, without knowing a few people on the inside, who can give informed advice, is highly risky. This is why there are roles for ‘protectors’ in the migration process, and most of them are not monsters. The plot would have to reflect this.

Zelda: What about racism? Aren’t some countries worse in that way? Wouldn’t that make a big difference to where you set the story?

imgresLaura: In the book, several of the Dominicans reflect on racial hierarchies that affect them in Spain, including those that give some dark ethnicities more cachet than their own. All cultures have ideas and prejudices about Others. But also mixing and hybridity are everywhere, even if more in some places than in others. The consequences are always the same: natives feel threatened, some promote xenophobia, governments talk about tightening borders. But there are colonial histories that can make natives feel that some foreigners are closer to themselves than others, whether their skin is blacker or not.

Zelda: So colonial things, like language. Dominicans who go to Spain already speak Spanish, which has to be an advantage, right? What would happen if you changed the group on the plane to Chinese? Isn’t the whole thing much harder if it’s a new language?

20130516-3L: Not as much as you imagine. Félix visits a Chinese migrant who runs a big variety store and who stands up well to extortion attempts because she has community behind her. Migrants come via networks whether they are legal or not. And migrants from different communities often communicate more easily with each other in the new language, because they all speak more slowly or with a common vocabulary. Then, too, sharing language can work the other way: when Dominicans speak, Spanish listeners know where they are from and bring negative cultural baggage to bear.

Z: The Costa del Sol has all kinds of ethnic groups in it, but you mention places like a Danish church and the urbanizaciones where everyone living there is the same nationality. Don’t a lot of migrants stick to their own kind? Isn’t there insularity among other Europeans who have made second homes on the coast?

CDN-Annons-tidning-2014-09-Svenska-400Laura: There is, but not forever for everyone. Europeans trying to settle and start businesses feel ambivalent about what they’ve left behind and anxious to hold onto their national selves. You see signs in Swedish or German, shops with food items imported so other cuisines can be maintained. But over time things loosen up for a lot of people, they become more curious and less fearful, they make new connections and cultures blend. And for some people, being in a mixed place with a shifting sense of belonging becomes interesting. They don’t find it so easy to answer the question Where are you from? It’s more about This is where I am now. I wrote about this kind of cosmopolitanism among sex workers in Leaving Home for Sex, many years ago.

For more about The Three-Headed Dog, a noir/mystery novel on sexwork and migration, see
Sexwork and Migration Mystery
Melodrama and Archetypes
Jobs in the Sex Industry

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Segregation, colonialism and unfreedom at the border

I spent one hour and 20 minutes in the queue at Stansted’s UK Border recently. There were probably 1000 people in the hall, divided into the usual EU passports versus Rest of World. Signs saying Tougher Controls Mean a Longer Wait are dotted around. In fact, tougher controls do not have to mean outrageously long waits, even if more questions are asked of each traveller. Some interrogations last several or more minutes, but if enough agents were allotted, waits could still be reasonable. If, however, management allot only two agents to the 200 people on the non-EU side and interviews take at least a minute – well, things get bad.

On top of this, however, some policy had particular groups of people jumping the queue automatically: not only a disabled person but the five people associated with her, not only the small child holding a flight attendant’s hand but the seven teenagers associated with him. Four such groups occupied one of the agents for half the hour and a half I waited, leaving only one agent to work the 200 in the queue. It was not the eve of a significant tourist event but a Friday evening when ordinary city-break tourists arrive for a London weekend.

The ‘transition’ Home Office website says functions of the UK Border Agency (abolished earlier this year) will be split in two.

On 1 April 2013 the UK Border Agency was split into two separate units within the Home Office: a visa and immigration service and an immigration law enforcement division. By creating two entities instead of one, we will be able to create distinct cultures. First, a high-volume service that makes high-quality decisions about who comes here, with a culture of customer satisfaction for business-people and visitors who want to come here legally. And second, an organisation that has law enforcement at its heart and gets tough on those who break our immigration laws.a high-volume service that makes high-quality decisions about who comes here, with a culture of customer satisfaction for business-people and visitors who want to come here legally.

The claim of distinct cultures sounds ridiculous to me, but on their own terms they failed miserably the other night. No one came out to apologise to the throng, which, if you want to be nationalistic about it, included several families where one partner had a British passport but the other did not, plus their small children. No one came to explain the delay, or offer cups of water or smiles to demonstrate that a ‘distinct culture’ exists to welcome the majority of travellers to the UK.

When one of the agents closed up and left, I sighed loudly and began talking to the woman next to me. Discussing the length of interviews I mentioned how an official wanted to know the nationality of my friends in Britain. The woman said I thought it was just Asians who were treated like that. The landing card gives the impression that crossing is a formality, but the oral questions make it clear that we in the queue are thought liable to be liars, cheats or worse. If this belief is really at the heart of UK border policy then I would like them to make such a closed, imperialist attitude overt on the landing card.

All who travel often can tell anecdotes about long waits and stupid questions at borders. The UK border is a bad one getting worse all the time but not unique. My object here is not to evoke a stream of crazy anecdotes about worse border-encounters. Instead, I am pointing out how my frequent long sessions at UK airport-borders add up to evidence of the field-work kind. It’s not just well-known journalists and their mates that get detained and delayed and ill-treated at airport borders; officials do not have to imagine you have interesting data on electronic devices to begin invasive questioning. The segregation into separate queues is not based on colour or ethnicity though that comes into play. No, it’s a separation by passports that grant different degrees of citizenship. If you don’t have the right kind you can be mistreated for hours with no way to complain or escape. You cannot go backwards or opt out; you are trapped. And given the situation, the longer you wait the more likely you are to be meek and mollifying when your turn arrives – which is a form of coercion.

These places are closed to reporters and photographers; I have no idea what protection one has, or rights. I do not know what happens if someone falls ill in the queue. Chinese visitors are targeted with an absurd and costly process to come as tourists, which can quite properly be called colonialist.

I believe the British government has an outdated view of Chinese visitors, perhaps rooted in colonial times. They wrongly fear many Chinese will overstay. We have to respect our borders, but such unfounded fears are harming the UK economy. – Chief Executive at London’s Hippodrome Casino

Some estimate the UK is already losing billions of tourist pounds. Why bother to apply if through the easy process of obtaining a Schengen visa you can visit lots of other European countries? Sure the UK has a popular brand, but for most of the world it is neither indispensable nor better than the same cliché-level brand of France or Italy.

Having arrived efficiently on a short flight from Copenhagen, I reached my central London destination three full hours after landing at Stansted. This is really outrageous. Usually I manage to maintain a curious attitude, like in Border Thinking. Sometimes I fail.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Cry with trafficked women: Colonial prurience and 3-star hotels

I’ve been ill a great deal this year and for the past month bowed down by a death, but the imminence of August cranked me up sufficiently to vent my now annual disgust at tours from the US that take well-paying travellers to gawk at and pity poorer people in Other Countries (who always smile in the photos taken, of course). If there is anything I hate it’s this. In 2011 I wrote Have fun, take a tour to meet victims of sex trafficking, learn to be a saviour, illustrating it with the egregious Kristof, who has not a jot of shame about looking like a Teddy Roosevelt Rough Rider. Given the sexual aspect, the word prurience came to mind: socially-sanctioned permission to be a voyeur, to go to bars abroad you wouldn’t set foot in at home as part of a do-gooding ‘social justice’ trip. To my mind, this is sex tourism.

This year’s tour to Thailand Delegation to End Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking is aimed at aspiring individuals. What might they mean by that? And why do they call this a delegation to end trafficking rather than, if not pure tourism, a first step towards understanding trafficking? The pretension is obviously meant to provide something to add to CVs, the way internships in impressive-sounding organisations do, though at least those last some months, whereas this tour takes a week (5 -12 August). Look at the rhetoric:

Global Exchange Reality Tours is facilitating this delegation to Thailand geared specifically to confronting the realities of the global trade in human beings. Participants will receive a comprehensive education in the mechanics of human trafficking, as well an understanding of its underlying causes. Participants will meet with those who have been freed from slavery and learn what it means to rebuild one’s life after having been a victim of trafficking, and will also engage directly with groups and individuals on the frontlines of the struggle to expose and ultimately end the trade in human lives.

This is B-movie-type public-relations prose: facilitating – delegation – geared – confronting – realities – global trade – human beings – comprehensive education – mechanics – human trafficking – participants – comprehensive education – mechanics – underlying causes – freed from slavery – rebuild one’s life – frontlines of the struggle – expose – end the trade – human lives. Nothing concrete, nothing real.

For those who aren’t clear as to why I call this colonialism, note the clear differentiation between Subject (tourist) and Object (exotic other). I believe this is the first time they claim tourists will talk with people who have been freed from slavery – an obvious pitch to the cheapest of sentiments. I am appalled that Global Exchange maintains any credibility. Last year I wrote the following in Summertime Imperialism: Meet sex-trafficking victims and other sad folk, because online sales of folkloric and supposedly authentic third-worldish objects is how GE started:

Gift-buying and helping projects wrapped together: One can see how the founders leapt to the idea of taking people on tours. Global Exchange says We are an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world. Easily said. A list of current tours includes Caring for Cuba’s Cats and New Journey of a Lifetime to India with Vandana Shiva. Sound harmless?

I had doubts back then and still do, but those in favour argue the tours are a way for folks who know something is wrong with what they read in the media to see the truth. That’s in theory; the question is how easy is it to provide the truth with anything called a tour? Who decides where to go, what the focus of tours will be and which natives will provide entertainment? Is the idea that all middle-class people have to do is arrive in a poor country and set their eyes upon poverty and suffering in order to experience enlightenment? It’s a short jump from that lack of politics to becoming an Expert who knows What To Do about other people’s lives. Imperialist projects to interfere follow quickly.

Although individual tourists may learn good things from conscientious tour guides, a tour is a holiday, a vacation, whether you set out to see the temples of Bangkok or the bargirls or the trafficking victims. You take a tour for your own benefit and pleasure, even if your pleasure consists in feeling angry and sorry and guilty about what your own government does to people in poorer countries. You go to look at exotic others, and you can’t help drawing conclusions about whole cultures based on what you see – just as tourists and business travellers do. If you happen to talk with someone not on the tour agenda – on a bus, in a bar – then you probably feel chuffed that you saw real people and experienced authentic culture. This is all relatively harmless unless you happen to add this experience to your CV, claiming temples, bar girls or sex trafficking are subjects you are expert in.

This year they provide an itinerary, which includes:

In the morning drive to Chiang Mai: Check into Guesthouse
Visit local project
At night visit nightclubs and bars to observe night activities

It’s been made clear to me that ordinary people in the US have no understanding of what colonialism means and how they themselves perpetuate it. That needs work. Perhaps having broken the spell of not writing I’ll begin again now, even if it is August.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist