Tag Archives: urban space

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

International Day To End Violence against Sex Workers

On the International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers, 17 December, I’ll be in Skopje, Macedonia, invited to speak and march by the Coalition ‘Sexual and Health Rights of Marginalized Communities’ in association with the Institute for Ethnology and Antropology at Saints Cyril and Methodius University.

My public talk Sex at the Margins will be held at Public Room, which describes itself like this:

PUBLIC ROOM – Centre for design and innovation: Mezze bar, music, free co–working space for freelancers, concept store, prototyping room, library, commercial bazaars, fine arts and photo exhibitions, professional presentations, workshops for children and adults, business meetings, seminars and celebrations. Public Room is urban, multifunctional place open for all companies, organizations and enthusiasts from all generations… It is a pure hybrid space that abounds with opportunities, creative potential, programme for all tastes and people with positive attitude. You are welcome to realize your ideas in Public Room.

Pure hybrid – sounds like my sort of space. Mixed use, open to all, I’m in favour.

Here’s the facebook post for the event, which will be held at 1800 at 50 Divizija 22, 1000 Skopje: map to Public Room:

On Saturday 16 December, STAR STAR, a sex workers organisation, will do a Red Light District performance in Skopje city centre at 1700-1900 and 2000-2200 (Boulevard St Kliment Ohridski).

On 17 December at noon there is a march on Macedonia Street to mark the Day to End Violence against Sex Workers. Many sex worker groups hold events around the world on this day, and I’m happy to be in Southeast Europe, perhaps even in some sunshine.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Sex work in fiction: Gorky Park, Moscow prostitution doesn’t exist

Militia detectives are at Kazansky Station in Komsomol Square, in Martin Cruz Smith’s novel Gorky Park. Cartier-Bresson’s 1954 photo shows the station at the left and surrounding traffic. Moscow prostitution may not have existed officially in 1977, when the story takes place, but sex work certainly did.

At 6 am entire Turkman families lay head to feet on benches. Babies with felt skullcaps nestled on soft bundles. Soldiers leaned slackly against the wall in a sleep so tangibly deep that the heroic mosaics of the ceiling overhead could have been their communal dream. Bronze fixtures glowed fully. At the one refreshment stand open, a girl in a rabbit-skin coat confided in Pasha Pavlovich…

A young soldier took Pasha’s place with the girl. She smiled through a rouge of vaseline and lipstick while the boy read the price chalked on the toe of her shoe; then, hand in hand, they walked out the station’s main door… Komsomol Square was blue before the dawn, the clicking candles of trams the only movement. The lovemakers slipped into a taxi. ‘Five rubles.’ Pasha watched the taxi pull out.

The driver would swing into the nearest side street and get out to watch for militia while the girl and boy went at it in the back seat. Of the five rubles the driver would get half and the chance to sell a congratulatory bottle of vodka to the soldier afterward; the vodka was a lot more expensive than the girl. The girl would get some sips, too. Then a return to the station, a tip to the washroom attendant for a fast douche, and overheated and giddy, she’d start all over. By definition prostitutes did not exist, because prostitution has been eliminated by the Revolution. Charges could be brought against them for spreading venereal disease, performing depraved acts or leading a nonproductive life, but by law there were no whores. – Gorky Park, 1981, p 151

Note there was no street uniform to indicate which women were selling sex: anyone in photos from the period could have been. The shoe marking was new to me. A website purporting to cover ‘sex in the Soviet Union‘ (before 1992) goes on about such identifying marks:

Prostitutes waited on the platforms of large suburban train stations. They sat with their legs stretched out and their prices written on the soles of their shoes, so that any passerby could check it out. There were two price levels for prostitutes in Moscow: either three or five rubles.

The girls usually could be found near the Prospect Mira subway station. They wore rings made of three-ruble or five-ruble bills. One was green, the other was blue, and it was easy to tell the price the girls were asking.

Prostitution politics are symbolic rather than functional: the laws as written do not ever reflect the presence, absence or predominance of commercial sex. This means looking at sex work’s mores (or habitus) can reveal much more. You learn more from good portrayals in fiction than from rote news items. Gorky Park is a perfect example of a book not about prostitution in which sex workers and clients express agency in the face of the law. Another way to think about this is what I call the Cultural Study of Commercial Sex. In this case, a culture of prohibition, secrecy and resistance through codes is shown: perfectly apt for Soviet times.

-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

Incitement to paedophilia: It’s the zeitgeist

The headline reads Spanish brothel’s “back to school” party sparks outrage in Andalusia. El Bosque is a legal club de alterne where sex workers drink, dance and chat with customers with the option to retire to private rooms for paid sex. The party-poster was called an incitement to paedophilia.

Clubs like El Bosque, known colloquially in Spanish as puticlubs, are legal businesses in Spain; here you can see a typical for-sale advertisement. Activists describe sex work in Spain as alegal: neither expressly prohibited nor permitted by law.

The anti-prostitution movement has long deplored these clubs as sites of violence against women. But in the campaign here, a party-style tolerated for ten years became intolerable to non-campaigners on the ground of promoting paedophilia, despite the obvious age of women (and their clothing) in the poster. The club’s owner removed the posters and cancelled the party.

Why am I interested? To have a ‘field’ of study means keeping track of events over time. Now that I’ve been observing opposition to the sex industry for more than 20 years I clock details, small moments of change. Opposition to paedophilia is not new at all. Outrage about enjo kosai and other kinds of juvenile sex work is also now old. But opposition to commercial-sex parties where adult women wear mock schoolgirl outfits shows a shift in mores about what is offensive. The pictures caused distaste.

But do such parties actually promote sex with young girls? It’s a question impossible ever to answer, like the effect of watching porn or violent movies. For all the palaver about research, most of it carried out about social behaviour can only vaguely intimate effects on one group or another. The neighbours’ feeling offended is palpably real, though neighbours who don’t feel offended are omitted from the story.

My formal study of opposition to the sex industry began with women planning to migrate to Spain, where two paying options awaited them: live-in domestic work or various sex jobs. There’s a wide gamut of these.

The life of migrants who find work in clubs de alterne and other venues is the theme of The Three-Headed Dog, a noir novel set in Málaga and Madrid. One of the characters is a 16-year-old Dominican boy in process of getting into sex work. Eddy is not well-educated but no longer wants to be in school or live with his parents. The detective sent to find him has to choose whether to try to rescue him against his own will.

Read more about sex work and migration in fiction and the ethical dilemmas for those concerned about it.

The Three-Headed Dog can be read on any device, just press for the one you want.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist