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

6 thoughts on “The Sex in ‘Sex Trafficking’: about sex acts and nationality

  1. figleaf

    Hi Laura,

    Your essays on migration and sex work resonate for me because of my own experiences with counter-culture homelessness back when I was a very young man. We weren’t exactly “undocumented” and the people I traveled with were almost entirely citizens, but our cultural status (draft-avoiding, long haired, “hippie” clothes before such clothes had retro chic) meant we had to be very wary of police, citizen vigilantes, and often of conventional employers.

    And your descriptions of the experience of arriving somewhere new, with just a name or address, often no money, and having to take what work was available, often at the convenience of our local “hosts” or people who were willing to work with “you people” sounds very familiar to — including the paradox of unlicensed employers often being the least safe and most exploitative.

    Same with your point that the vast majority preferred to do anything other than sex work (and, ironically, take a “straight” job… assuming in the depths of the Nixon-era oil embargoes such work could be found.) Most preferred to do something else, including day labor, informal agricultural labor, and even being drug “mules,” but others, ranging from very reluctant to almost enthusiastic, would agree. And as you say in those circumstances you wouldn’t say any of us were outright *trafficked* either for labor or sex. And if any of us were we certainly didn’t see it that way.

    But living as we did, as on or close to the street as we did, we were also aware that there were others almost like us, sometimes in factories or on farms but mostly in sex work, who *didn’t* have a choice. And often even they weren’t really *that* different from the rest of us, not mindless, not thralls, and sometimes very nearly as locally independent… and sometimes even with warmer clothes or more spending money… as we were. But they were the ones who had to “get back” to someone, “have arrangements” with a guy they couldn’t “cross” or mess with. It was all really vague but sometimes they’d be pretty stressed or even desperate not to be found.

    Anyway, when I hear people say “all ‘X’ are trafficked” I think that’s wrong, and wrong the way you document in your work. Instead when I hear the word “trafficked” I think about that small subset who really didn’t have the same choices we did, who had more than law enforcement to worry about, and who sometimes suffered much more dire consequences.

    It wasn’t all of us, as maybe an outsider might have concluded, and it wasn’t even one percent of us, but they were there. More complicated, sure, and *way* less common, but there. I know my experiences were only somewhat analogous to the undocumented/migrant communities you work in, but I can’t imagine it’s so different that there isn’t the same kind of small subset of people who need… maybe not so much “rescue” the way “anti-trafficking” people mean it but… still in their circumstances need a lot more than relaxed document requirements or more open borders or more local tolerance to regain their autonomy.

    Anyway, if any of that sounds similar to some of the people in the populations you study I’d appreciate hearing your insights into their conditions and what might best help them out of *their* circumstances.



    note: It occurs to me as I’m about to press “submit” that at least in my former subculture the people most likely to be “trafficked” or “pimped” were, perhaps ironically, the least likely to be transients — often there when we arrived, almost never able to “head west” or “head back east” when invited to migrate to check out rumors of new possibilities. And so to that extent I wonder if they really even show up in genuinely migrant communities.

    also note: I appreciated your subtle dig about drug mules and the commercial, dangerous, and intimate use of *their* bodies… which somehow is never counted as “use of their bodies.”

  2. laura agustin Post author

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. There’s more than one answer to your question. If your concern is about one extreme of the spectrum of migrants, the enslaved ones, then there are now hundreds of initiatives worldwide and many millions of dollars, pounds and euros dedicated to them. They are the small minority, but all the attention goes to them.

    My own work is about the majority, those who are not only being ignored but actually disappeared inside these other policies. I feel my job is to work on this, and I don’t have much company! But I’ve been researching this for nearly 15 years and constantly find proof of the worsening situation for migrants who (happen to) sell sex.

    Other answers to your question about ‘what to do’ include fixing poverty, inequality, informal v formal economy constructions. Etc. Huge changes.

    Finally, readers might find useful The Shadowy World of Sex Across Borders in the Guardian last week:


  3. William Thirteen

    nice piece Laura.
    It is amazing how much media attention has been directed at ‘trafficking’ in the past 18 months or so. The cynic in me wonders if this is a conscious attempt to direct attention away from deeper, more structural global issues regarding economy & labor. But perhaps it is just a return to the classic moral crusade which allows participants to feel good about themselves and their ‘helpfulness’ but ultimately poses no threat to their worldview or pocketbooks…

  4. Laura Agustín

    hello william, thanks again. now that the movement has become so massive, popular and segmented i think we can assume that both of your theories plus others are at work. certainly there is a very classic feeling to the concern about sexual exploitation, at the same time that some politicians must happily use the topic for other ends. i haven’t changed my mind since doing the historical research for the book: that rescuers need victims, and the more victims the more jobs for rescuers of all kinds.

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