Tag Archives: travel

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

During the 20 years I’ve been consciously thinking about migration and prostitution, sex work and the sex industry, I have rarely seen such a bad portrayal of these deep and complex topics as in a New York Times piece on sex slaves I lambasted the other day. I lived a number of years in Spain, and it struck me early on that the endless discussion of prostitution failed to comprehend the variety of kinds of sex for sale within the industry, in all sorts of venues and situations that could be seen as good, bad or indifferent but that ought not to be reduced to any abstract, simplifying, uncontextualised term.

Here are researched descriptions of four types of places where different kinds of sexual services are for sale in Spain: large highway clubs, private flats, small houses associated with agriculture and the international coastal zone. After each description, I highlight the socially interrelated themes that arise from even such a brief glance, in order to point out how a cultural study of commercial sex – not prostitution – might proceed, on the assumption that knowing more about the specifics will help promote justice for more people.

Puticlubes (from puta, whore)

Streams of cars and trucks roar along multi-laned routes that connect Spain with France, Germany and other states east and with Portugal to the west. For long-distance truck drivers, the backbone of European commerce, long stints of solitary driving must be broken up with places offering rest and recreation. The buildings strung along these superhighways, as well as along smaller, provincial roads, are known informally in Spanish society as puticlubes (whoring clubs), but to those that work there they are hoteles de plaza, a term that refers to the employment system used, in which those offering sex for sale pay a daily rate for a place to live and work for three-week stretches. These businesses may house 50 workers or more, and in some areas, such as between Burgos and the Portuguese border, numerous clubs are located close together, forming a veritable erotic shopping area. With multiple floors, luxurious decorations, videos, live shows, jacuzzis and ‘exotic’ music—the latest rock from Moscow, for example—these clubs have come to represent luxurious sites of conspicuous consumption. Here customers pay as much as ten times the ordinary price for drinks, and it is the job of those working there to get them to buy as many as possible, since this is the owner’s major source of income. The array of nationalities living in the club at any one time is a phenomenon surely unique to sexual milieux: a German or Spanish truck driver or businessman may find himself surrounded by Rumanians, Nigerians, Colombians, Ukrainians, Brazilians and Moroccans. Imagine spaces filled with people speaking many languages, spaces where people from very different cultural backgrounds mix: the result may feel extravagantly cosmopolitan to some customers, who use these lavish venues to entertain and impress their own business clients. Other habitués include young men wanting a night out (and perhaps a sexual initiation) and lovelorn bachelors or widowers seeking company, all of whom may spend hours drinking, talking and watching. There is no requirement to purchase sex at all, and if it is, it occupies no more than twenty minutes (rules of the house, which wants workers back promoting drink as soon as possible). A large number of support personnel is needed to keep these high-overhead businesses going, and because they employ many migrants, good public relations are necessary with local police and immigration inspectors. Workers move on after their three-week stints, assuring that novelty will always be on offer.

To consider this venue as only ‘prostitution’ requires focussing exclusively on the 15-20 minutes when customers may retire to a private room with workers. Much feminist polemic has been written about concepts of exploitation, coercion and the lack of choice suffered by women in these jobs, as well as how they have reached this destination. Ignored are the work and lifestyles of long-distance truck drivers; cultures of entertainment among businessmen; multi-ethnic workplace cultures; the performance of masculinity and femininity and the reproduction of gender roles; homosociality (masculine bonding, competition, deal-making); financial advantages of owning such businesses and the extent to which lack of regulation makes it possible; relationships with local communities, employees and management and how sites may be used to accumulate social and cultural capital.

Private Flats

Where clubs specialise in splashiness and publicity, private flats offer discretion. They exist in most towns. Here the client rings up first to make an appointment in the kind of building that suggests tenants are ‘respectable’ middle-class families. The manager of the flat arranges for clients not to run into each other, and the flat itself displays few or no sexual signs; on the contrary, it may have floral-patterned covers and teddy bears on the beds, crucifixes and images of saints on the walls and the smell of home cooking wafting from the kitchen. A chain and cuffs hanging from a hook on one wall may indicate special services offered. If the customer has not requested a worker he already knows, he makes his selection and goes to a bedroom. Again, the mix of nationalities and ethnic groups is notable. These businesses rely on classified advertisements and mobile telephones, the two elements also making possible the boom in independent workers who run their own business from their own flat.

Again, most theory has focussed on the sexual acts that occur in flats and the extent to which women workers have chosen to perform them. Subjects that need researching include the cultural role of privacy and discretion; the possible meanings of domesticity as a sexual setting, including religious and family icons; communications technology’s contribution to the development of businesses.

The Agricultural World

In the southern province of Almería, a large proportion of the tomatoes and other vegetables Europeans eat are grown under plastic in vast plantations operated under semi-feudal conditions. Closeby, various kinds of sex businesses coexist, ranging from luxurious bars with private cubicles to rustic, poor housing where tenants open their doors to clients. The luxurious are located close to the plantations, even directly across from them, and those who enter and pay the prices are Spanish owners and other ‘whites’ from the managerial class, many of them men who were once agricultural labourers themselves. Women who work here come from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The rustic are located farther away, sometimes up inconvenient roads with few public services; here the clients are ‘non-white’, often undocumented, migrants. Here, Nigerian women offer offer sex and other domestic services in their houses (meals, drinks, washing and ironing, music, a place to stay the night). Occasionally tourists wander up from the beaches, seeking something different from the nightlife of the tourist coast.

While ‘prostitution’ is present here, this form of commercial sex attests to a traditional link with migrant sectors such as farming, mining and shipping. Useful research would look at the interrelation of commercial sex with other industries; the intersections of different informal-sector economies and forms of servitude; how the business segments by class, colour and ethnic group. Ethnographic work would consider what kind of relationships are developed among subaltern employees in different expatriate sectors.

The Cosmopolitan Frontier

This is the area of Spain where Spanishness fades and cosmopolitanism, tourism and hybridity reign. Businesses in Torrelinos, Marbella and smaller towns along the coast highway advertise in a brochure called Encuentros (meetings) which categorises its offerings under the terms Gay Bars, Swapping, Private Establishments and Contacts and Sex Shops. A plethora of clubs, bars, party rooms and flats advertise, mentioning as specialities piano-bars, saunas, jacuzzis, turkish baths, dark rooms, go-go shows, striptease, escort services, bilingual misses, private bars, dance floors, a variety of massages, private booths with 96 video channels, gifts for stag and hen parties, latex wear and aphrodisiacs. Apart from the sexual products and services available, other conditions are announced, such as air conditioning, valet or private parking, swimming pools, credit cards, select clientele, television and accessibility for the handicapped. Many adverts play down the commercial aspect by emphasising the ‘non-professionals’ present. Fitting the international environment, businesses are called Milady Palace, Play Boy, Melody d’Amour, Dolly’s, New Crazy, Glam Ur Palace Club and Titanic. Many are located in ordinary shopping strips.

Obviously, ‘prostitution’ occurs in these venues, but further areas for research include the influence of tourism and its correlation with questions of image and class in services; the positioning of gay culture and diverse sexual subcultures with commercial sex; the existence of subcultures within commercial sex; the role of entrepreneurism in the proliferation of sites. It would be interesting to know which kind of customer goes to which kind of place, how entrepreneurs decide what to offer in such a compact area chockful of sex businesses and how long businesses last. Are there sexual cultures here that extend into the rest of Spain or that tourists take home with them?

– Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

The Sex Tourist: A prayer to End His Demand

Pictures like this can cause ranting about Sex Tourism solely because an older white man is seen walking with a younger less-white woman. Their physical characteristics are presumed to determine fixed identities, by which I mean we are supposed to know who they are, fundamentally, simply because of how they look. I have always been very uncomfortable with such blanket categorisation, which reminds me of systems of racial segregation. Or if race is not the crux then age would seem to be, since according to today’s romantic narratives, proper relationships only occur between people of the same age. Anti-sex tourism campaigners who claim only to be concerned about the tourists’ financial power fail to account for the special repulsion they exhibit at age and ethnic/racial differences in these couples, a prejudice that blocks any curiosity about the people involved as people.

Soi Cowboy Photo by Matt Greenfield

Some of the men under scrutiny are tourists, while others call themselves ex-pats, but they all stand accused of having travelled for the purpose of using their money to buy sexual relationships. I bring this fraught topic up because a number of Christian Rescue Industry groups have identified places of sex tourism as a target of their mission, hoping to rescue women who sell sex and stop men who buy it: a species of End Demand project. The testimony below comes from The World Race: This unique mission trip is a challenging adventure for young adults to abandon worldly possessions and a traditional lifestyle in exchange for an understanding that it’s not about you; it’s about the Kingdom. The following are excerpts from a single participant’s description of one experience.

Bill and his 300 women, Laura Meyers, 28 December 2010

. . . One of the most dreadful days of my life was in Pattaya, Thailand. . . I was there on the human trafficking exploratory trip and Michelle and I had spent the day interviewing men and families on why they were in Pattaya. . . Bill was sitting around the table with some other western men. . . Bill was originally from Canada but had moved to Thailand a few years back. . . for “SEX” . . . he had BOUGHT OVER 300 women! Although somewhere in my gut I knew that response was coming, I sat shocked and horrified. . . He had no shame or inkling that what he was doing was wrong. It had never crossed his mind that the women and children that he was buying for sex were being held captive. It had never crossed his mind that . . these girls were . . . being forced to perform for him by their “owner”.

After this beginning, familiar from other Rescue narratives, there is a change.

The more I talked with Bill I heard his heart. . . He told me story after story of how he continually felt rejected . . . from his family, rejected from his friends, rejected from his old way of life, so he came to the one place where “love” is “guaranteed.” The truth was, Bill was not being satisfied and after years of chasing love and looking in all the wrong places he was becoming restless. Bill was hurting. Bill was alone. Bill was searching. . . . that dreadful night in Pattaya, Thailand, although it was brief, I was able just to shed some light on Bill’s life and tell him that there was more to the life that he was living. I was able to share HOPE and extend GRACE. If for no other reason, I may have been in Pattaya, Thailand, the nastiest place I have ever been, for Bill. It’s easy for me to walk into situations like the one with Bill and my heart immediately goes into conviction mode. Where all I see is this sin in Bill’s life, where I see where he is hurting people over and over again and the righteous justice rises within me and I get angry. But more often than not these days, my heart rises for justice for Bill; he is hurting. Obviously, I want the exploitation and abuse to end for the women and children, that’s my heart. But my deepest desire is for Bill’s life to be restored so he can be the end to the exploitation of women and children. If we can get to his heart than there would be no need to have prevention plans and recovery centers for women and children. If we could get to his heart there would be no Red Light District in Pattaya, Thailand.

The idea that commercial sex could disappear through ending demand for it is terribly naive, especially where it is economically and socially significant, as in Pattaya, as I discussed in a review of Sex Trafficking by Siddharth Kara. This Christian narrative of salvation and reform does improve on the usual secular and purely punitive proposal to put all men who buy sex in prison or on sex-offender lists. Otherwise, these missions of naive young Americans to other countries to interfere on religious grounds is just more colonialism, related to Reality Tourism – excuses to travel the world convinced that one’s own culture is best, that one knows how everyone else should live, that one has the right to barge in, judge and then feel good about it.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Forget Victimisation: Granting Agency to Migrants

Once, after I’d given a talk, an academic feminist geographer became very upset while trying to get me to admit that the poor of this world are victims objectively, by definition, because of ‘global structural inequalities’. I replied that I understood how she, coming from her position of middle-class person identifying as socialist, produced poorer people this way. I went on to say, ‘But if you move over to the poor person’s place and ask them how they see their situation, they may well not produce such an image of themselves.’ I thought the woman was going to go through the roof with outrage at my refusal to accept her point as objectively true.

This planet is rife with terrible differences between the poor and the rich, men mostly have more power and money than everyone else and things are getting worse. But given the injustice, I prefer to listen to how people describe their own realities rather than create static, general categories like Exploited Victims. It is also not smart to claim that poor people only leave their countries because they are forced to, with no possibility for their desires and abilities to think and weigh risks. Most poor people don’t leave their countries.

I published Forget Victimisation: Granting Agency to Migrants in 2003, but several people have written to me recently about how up-to-date and useful it is. In the mainstream media, two reductionist visions are common: one that blames migrants as grasping criminals, the other that sees them as sad victims. Unfortunately many people with leftist sympathies and visions fall into the trap of victimisation.  Click on the title to get the pdf or read the whole thing below. What I say applies to all migrants, whatever jobs they do, including sex work.

Forget Victimisation: Granting Agency to Migrants

Development, 46.3, 30-36 (2003)

Laura Agustín

There is a growing tendency to victimise poor people, weak people, uneducated people and migrant people. The trend, which began as a way of drawing attention to specific forms of violence committed against women, has now become a way of describing everyone on the lower rungs of power. Routinely, supporters position them as victims in order to claim rights for them, but this move also turns them into victims, and victims need help, need saving—which gives a primary role to supporters. Much rhetoric about migration has fallen into this pattern: migrants, it turns out, are not only vulnerable to exploitation, a patent truth, but they are ‘victims’.

The other choice, according to sensationalist media treatments, is criminal. Since news on migrants is reported only when disasters befall them, or when they are caught in something ‘illegal’, they can only be positioned in one of these two ways: as past victims of poverty or conflict in their home states and present victims of criminal bands, or as criminals who take advantage of such victims. The victims need to be saved, and the criminals to be punished. This reductionism encourages the idea that there is something inherently dangerous about being a migrant. Since migrants are usually seen as people from the third world, the positioning of so many of them as victims—of economic restructuring if not of criminal agents—harks back unsettlingly to the old category of the ‘native’. And since migrants nowadays are so often women, these natives are constituted as backward, developmentally less than first-world women. This is most overt, of course, in ‘trafficking’ discourses (for example, in Barry, 1979) but can now be heard in general talk about ‘illegal’ migrants.

Ratna Kapur shows how this victimising tendency began in the early 1990s with the project to reveal the widespread, routine nature of violence against women:

In the context of law and human rights, it is invariably the abject victim subject who seeks rights, primarily because she is the one who has had the worst happen to her. The victim subject has allowed women to speak out about abuses that have remained hidden or invisible in human rights discourse (Kapur, 2001: 5).

This strategy has led to many benefits for women. The problem is that the person designated a victim tends to take on an identity as victim that reduces her to being seen as a passive receptacle and ‘encourages some feminists in the international arena to propose strategies which are reminiscent of imperial interventions in the lives of the native subject’ (Kapur, 2001: 6).

The category ‘migrant’, awkward and ambiguous to begin with, becomes more so when it is victimised. In this article, I want to look at what we think we mean when we call someone a migrant, and then suggest that there are both class and postcolonial analyses to be made of this constructed identity and the passivity assigned to it. To do this, I will call on my own research with migrating people in various parts of the world. What I recount is widely known, but not often included in formal studies of migrations.

Conventional travellers

On the surface, there seem to be patently different kinds of travellers: tourists, people whose work involves travel, refugees and migrants. Tourists are generally defined as people with time and money to spend on leisure activities who take a trip somewhere to do it: they are ‘travelling for pleasure’. Tourism is defined by an absence (work), and tourists are believed to have left their jobs behind to indulge consciously in not working. In the literature, the tourist is someone from the North (the tourism of Southerners is invisible). Some people oppose a status of ‘traveller’ to that of tourist, saying their trips are unplanned, open-ended, longer and more appreciative of the ‘real culture’ of a place. ‘Interacting with the culture’ is the goal for many of these, and this interaction most likely comes about through getting a job. ‘Working’ does not exclude pleasure, then, for first-world subjects.

People who travel in the course of carrying out their jobs are at first glance also clearly identifiable. Whether sent on trips by companies or undertaking them on their own, business travellers are obliged to be on the road. Their trips may be long or short, involve familiarity with the culture visited and the local language or not and require sociability or not, but they have in common that this is not supposed to be ‘leisure time’. But is this true? Many businesspeople also engage in tourism during their trips, using their ‘expense accounts’ to entertain clients, much of this money going to sites where tourists also go (theatres, cabarets, sex or gambling clubs, restaurants, bars, boat trips, sports events). The trips taken to attend conferences, do field work or provide consultations by academics, ‘development’ and technical consultants, missionaries and social-sector personnel also feature tourism. Sports professionals, singers, musicians, actors, salespeople, sailors, soldiers, airline and train personnel, commercial fishermen, farm-workers, long-distance truck drivers and a variety of others travel as part of their professions. Modern explorers search for oil, minerals, endangered species of animals and plants and ‘lost’ archaeological artefacts. Many of these people spend a long time away from home, and their work life is punctuated by leisure and tourist activities. Some of these people have homes or ‘home bases’ in more than one place. Students who take years abroad or travel to do field work are combining tourism and work. The main goal of a voyage for religious pilgrims is not work, but they may work and engage in tourist activities on the way to and from the pilgrimage. And then there are nomads whose traditional way of gaining a livelihood includes mobility.

The dichotomy working traveller/work-free traveller is misleading, and many forms of travel have aspects of both. So what makes a ‘migrant’ different?

This other kind of traveller

Some people distinguish between all the above types and ‘migrants’, on the grounds that the latter ‘settle’. According to this distinction, migrants move from their home to make another one in someone else’s country. They are not positioned as travellers or tourists, since they are looking not only to spend money but earn it. The word migrant is nearly always used about the working class, not about middle-class professionals and not about people from the first-world, even if they also have left home and moved to another country. Instead, the word rings of a subaltern status. Continue reading

Leaving Home for Sex: Cosmopolitanism or sex trafficking or both?

It is striking that in the year 2001 women should so overwhelmingly be seen as pushed, obligated, coerced or forced when they leave home for the same reason as men: to get ahead through work.

Sex trafficking and human trafficking were not words on everyone’s lips when I wrote the above ten years ago. I was trying to figure out what was special and problematic about migrants who sell sex, believing that migrants are migrants, no matter what jobs they end up getting (including prostitution or sex work). Nowadays, a lot of the social conflict is about statistics: how many are trafficked, how many are illegal migrants. But even more it is about definitions, world views, ideas about sex and money, the insistence that a particular cultural view should be everyone’s.

Most conversations about migrants who sell sex present black-and-white versions of something that is almost entirely grey. For moral crusaders who would rush to legislation or attempt to prove that one sort of law is better than others, my vision is not satisfying. I say Stop, slow down. Until you comprehend the myriad elements present amongst people who leave home to go to another country and sell sex, you shouldn’t be passing laws about them. Of any kind. This is not useless postmodern dithering but the position that until you understand the minimum about how people experience their own lives you cannot responsibly take actions to help them. If you don’t care what they say themselves then don’t talk about helping and admit that control is what you want: the power to make people stop doing what you don’t approve of and start doing something else, whether they want to or not.

Leaving Home for Sex is the first piece I published that defined what my work would be for the next few years. At the time it was unusual not to use the term prostitute, but I also didn’t just substitute the term sex worker. Instead, I tried to describe how selling sex can be an occupation that works out all right for migrant women without their taking on a definite identity based on it. You will see ‘Challenging place’ in the original title because the piece was written for a special journal issue on women and ‘place’, meaning the idea of place, local and global both. I suggested that migrant workers didn’t fit into that framework but could sometimes be viewed as cosmopolitan subjects: that neither poverty nor bad jobs nor lack of complete ‘choice’ over your life prevents you from also becoming cosmopolitan. There are some footnotes not hyperlinked but listed at the end of the text in full reproduced here. Click on the title to get the pdf.

Leaving Home for Sex

Laura Mª Agustín, Development, 45.1, 110-117 (2002).

As soon as people migrate, there is a tendency to sentimentalise their home. Warm images are evoked of close families, simple household objects, rituals, songs, foods.[1] Many religious and national holidays, across cultures, reify such concepts of ‘home’ and ‘family’, usually through images of a folkoric past. In this context, migration is constructed as a last-ditch or desperate move and migrants as deprived of the place they ‘belong to’.Yet for millions of people all over the world, the birth and childhood place is not a feasible or desirable one in which to undertake more adult or ambitious projects, and moving to another place is a conventional—not traumatic—solution.

How does this decision to move take place? Earthquakes, armed conflict, disease, lack of food impel some people in situations that seem to involve little element of choice or any time to ‘process’ options: these people are sometimes called refugees. Single men’s decisions to travel are generally understood to evolve over time, the product of their ‘normal’ masculine ambition to get ahead through work: they are called migrants. Then there is the case of women who attempt to do the same.

Research in a marginal place: Geographies of exclusion

For some time I worked in educación popular in Latin America and the Caribbean and with latino migrants in North America and Europe, in programmes dedicated to literacy, AIDS prevention and health promotion, preparation for migration and concientización (whose exact translation does not exist in English but combines something about consciousness-raising with something about ‘empowerment’). My concern about the vast difference between what first-world social agents (governmental, NGO workers, activists) say about women migrants and what women migrants say about themselves led me to study and testify on these questions. I have deliberately located myself on the border of both groups: the migrants and the social, in Europe, where the only jobs generally available to migrant women are in the domestic, ‘caring’ and sex industries. My work examines both the social and the migrants, so I spend time in brothels, bars, houses, offices, ‘outreach’ vehicles and ‘the street’, in its many versions. Data on what migrant women say come from my own research and others’ in many countries of the European Union; women have also been interviewed before or after migrating in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Data on what social agents say come from my own research with those who work on prostitution issues in those countries, including as evaluator of projects for the International Labour Office and the European Commission.

Although researchers and NGO personnel have been working with migrant prostitutes for nearly twenty years in Europe, publication of their findings remains outside mainstream press and journals. Most of the people who have met and talked with many migrant prostitutes are neither academics nor writers. ‘Outreach’ is conceptualised as distinct from ‘research’ and generally funded as HIV/AIDS prevention. This means that the published products of outreach research are generally limited to information on sexual health and practices; the other many kinds of information collected remain unpublished. Some of those who work in these projects have the chance to meet and exchange such information, but most do not. Recently, a new kind of researcher has entered the field, usually young academic women studying sociology or anthropology and working on migrations. These researchers want to do justice to the reality around them, which they recognise as consisting of as many migrant prostitutes as migrant domestic/‘caring’ workers. Most of these researchers do oral histories and some have begun to publish but it will be some time before such findings are recognised. Stigma works in all kinds of ways, among them the silencing of results that do not fit hegemonic discourses.[2] The mainstream complaint says ‘the data is not systematised’ or ‘there is no data.’ In my research, I seek out such ‘marginalised’ results.

Discourses of leaving home

It is striking that in the year 2001 women should so overwhelmingly be seen as pushed, obligated, coerced or forced when they leave home for the same reason as men: to get ahead through work. Continue reading

The Sex in ‘Sex Trafficking’: about sex acts and nationality

This article addressing the idea of ‘sex’ in sex trafficking was published a few years back in American Sexuality. I wonder if they would invite me to say such things again? Everything having become so extremely moralistic now, an anthropological view like this is seen as the work of the devil. It is still on their website, though and is now available in French courtesy of Thierry Schaffauser.

The Sex in ‘Sex Trafficking’, American Sexuality, Autumn 2007

Why do we think migrant sex workers need rescuing?

By Laura Agustín

The title of this publication notwithstanding, I don’t believe there are national sexualities. But our language reflects vague impressions of how people in other cultures do sex—a tongue-kiss, ‘French’; anal penetration, ‘Greek’; penis-between-the-breasts, ‘Cuban’. They are stereotypes most of us don’t take seriously, and the national tags vary according to what country we’re standing in. But everywhere we have notions that out there somewhere are strange, wonderful, and exotic kinds of sex waiting for us to try.

But what about sex trafficking, denounced in the media as a rampant crime linked to global gangs and insecurity at borders? The U.S. government, claiming to be the world’s moral arbiter, spends millions issuing an annual report card rating other countries’ efforts to combat this crime and trying to rescue victims around the world. The implication is clear: ‘American’ ideas about sex and morality are the right ones for the planet. In other words, if the ideal of ‘American’ sexual relationships is accepted everywhere, the enslavement of women and children will end.

In the West, in the present, many people believe that sex should express love. This ‘good’ sex is also said to provide a key way to discover personal identity—who we really are, our innermost selves. It is assumed that feelings of love increase pleasure (quantitatively) and intensify it (qualitatively), resulting in meaningful passion that is expressed through long term, emotionally committed relationships. Other sexual relations then seem wrong, among them anonymous, public, and ‘promiscuous’ sex. Above all, ‘real’ love and sex are said to be incompatible with rationality and work—at least that is the way many wish it to be.

At the same time, people wonder: Is there a boom underway in the buying and selling of sex, part of a general sexualization of contemporary culture? Since objective data is impossible to gather when businesses operate outside the law, we cannot know whether sex-and-money transactions are going on more than ever, but we certainly know we see and hear about them more. So although we tell a powerful story about sex and love belonging together, we also understand that people want other kinds of sex. We hear about people who buy and sell sex from our friends, acquaintances, the media, and sometimes through reporting on migration—which is where ‘sex trafficking’ comes in.

In a context of increasing hostility toward migrants, it grates on people’s nerves to think that many might prefer to use sex to earn money instead of washing dishes, babysitting, working in a sweatshop, or picking fruit—for much less money. But migrants—who come in all sizes, shapes and colors, and from infinitely varying backgrounds—are just trying to get by as best they can on what can be a very rocky path. Migrants who cross borders to work need to be flexible and adaptable to succeed. They often do not know beforehand how they will be living, and they may not know the language. They may not find the food, music, or films they like, or the mosque, temple, or church. Everything looks different; they feel lonely. They may feel enormous pressure to pay back debts contracted to undertake their journey, and they may fear being picked up by the police. But they have arrived with a plan, some names and addresses, and some amount of money.

When migration policy is tightened at the same time that low-status jobs are abundantly available, a market opens up to help migrants cross borders. Some of this looks just like legal travel, but much of it involves bigger risks and higher costs, and some entails egregious exploitation—whether migrants are destined to work in mines, private homes, sweatshops, agriculture, or the sex industry.

Some migrants prefer to do anything rather than sell sex—for instance, ‘mules’ who take on the job of carrying drugs inside their bodies. Once across a border, past work experience and diplomas, whether white-collar or blue, are usually not recognized. Migrant schoolteachers, engineers, nurses, hairdressers and a range of others find only low-status, low-paying jobs open to them. Many of them, from everywhere on the social spectrum, would rather work in the sex industry—in one or the other of a huge variety of jobs.

Bars, restaurants, cabarets, private clubs, brothels, discotheques, saunas, massage parlors, sex shops, peep shows, hotel rooms, homes, bookshops, strip and lap-dance venues, dungeons, Internet sites, beauty parlors, clubhouses, cinemas, public toilets, phone lines, shipboard festivities, as well as modelling, swinging, stag and fetish parties—sex is sold practically everywhere. Where these are businesses operating without licences, undocumented workers can easily be employed: the paradox of prohibition. For migrants who are already working without official permission, these jobs may well seem no riskier than any other.

To understand why headlines insist that all migrant women who sell sex are ‘trafficked’, we need to go back to the popular idea that the proper place of sex is at home, between ‘committed’ lovers and family. When only this kind of relationship is imagined to be equitable and valid, it becomes easier to think that women from other cultures are poor, backward, vulnerable objects passively waiting for exploitation by rapacious men. With these notions, from the point of view of the comfortably sheltered, no one would opt to sell sex and migrants must be forced to do it.

What can we know about the actual sex involved in this moral conflict? We know all ‘sex acts’ are not the same in the context of loving relationships, and they are not all the same just because money is exchanged for them. Migrant workers sell millions of sexual experiences every day around the world to customers from different cultures, learning and teaching through experience how physicality mixes with skill, sophistication, hostility, tenderness, insecurity, respect.

When we have sex with others we influence each other, and although a single interaction may not have a lasting impact, many sexual agreements are complex or often repeated. Occasionally, a single experience can change the course of a life. In a commercial relationship, on one side are people flexible about how they make money, on the other are people wanting to fulfill a desire or experiment. These relationships take place in actual social contexts—indeed, sex itself is often subsidiary to the conspicuous consumption of alcohol or entertainment, to cruising or just to men being men together. Since everywhere men are granted more permission to experiment with sex and have more money to spend, their tastes help determine what’s offered and with whom, whether they be women, men, or transsexuals.

These millions of relationships, which take place every day, cannot be reduced to undifferentiated sex acts or eliminated from cultural consideration just because they entail money. Both client and sex worker may be acting seduction, flirtation, and affection when they are together, but camaraderie, friendship, love, and marriage also occur. And both sides are fascinated by sexual differences, imagined to be ‘national’, exotic, and real.

How we perform sex, what we feel when we do particular things, depends on our cultural (not national) contexts: how we were taught to do them and by whom, what we were permitted to try out, whether we talked to others about what we were doing and what we wanted. When we engage sexually with others, we learn and teach, we influence each other and change how we do things—often without knowing it. Because people are poor, or have left their countries to work abroad, or take money in exchange for sex does not change their humanity, their capacity to feel, respond, learn, or teach, whether sex is at issue or not.

Sex trafficking headlines claim that all migrant women who sell sex are invariably being abused, without regard to their diverse backgrounds and without asking them how they feel. But many reject being defined as sexually vulnerable and in need of ‘rescuing’ and protection. Everyone does not feel the same way about sex—in rich countries like the United States, or in any other country. Nationality is a poor way to understand human beings and their sexualities.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist