Sex at the Margins
Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry
By Laura María Agustín
Zed Books Ltd Copyright © 2007 Laura María Agustín
All rights reserved.
Some years ago, on a trip to Australia and Thailand, I met five Latin American women connected to the sex industry: the owner of a legal brothel and two migrants working for her in Sydney, and two women in a detention centre for illegal immigrants in Bangkok. These five women were from Perú, Colombia and Venezuela; they were from different strata of society; they were different ages. They also had very different stories to tell.
The brothel owner was a permanent resident in Australia. Her migrant workers came to Australia on visas to study English, which gave them the right to work, but getting the visa required paying for the entire eight-month course in advance, which meant acquiring large debts. The madam was very affectionate with them but also very controlling; they lived in her house and travelled with her to work, where she was teaching them the business. The outreach workers from a local health project did not speak Spanish.
Of the two women detained in Bangkok, one had been stopped at a Tokyo airport with a forged visa for Japan. She had been invited by her sister, who once worked illegally selling sex and now was an illegal vendor within commercial sex milieux. This traveller was deported back to Bangkok, the last stage of her journey, where she was imprisoned for a year before being sent to the detention centre. The second traveller was caught on camera in a robbery carried out by her boyfriend and others in Bangkok, after she had travelled around with them in other parts of Asia; she completed a three-year prison sentence before being sent to the centre. Her papers were completely false, including a change of both name and nationality.
Both detained women were waiting for someone to pay their plane fare home, but there were no offers. The women's complicity in events leading to their detention disqualified them from aid to victims of 'trafficking'; not all Latin American countries maintain embassies in Thailand, and only one person from local organisations visiting the detention centre spoke Spanish. While the two new migrants in Sydney seemed to accept the work they had just begun doing, I sensed ambiguity and ambivalence about the language course on which their visas were based, and the size of their debts did not leave them any real choice about what jobs to take. Both appeared to be recent graduates of secondary schools. The migrant to Japan believed she had not been destined to sell sex, but her own upper-middle-class family had been involved in getting her the fake papers, and she was suffering considerable guilt about letting them down. The woman caught in the robbery, who was in her mid-thirties and from a working-class background, gave the impression that she had sold sex, but she did not appear to give much importance to it. Her eyes shone when she told me about the thrill of seeing places like Hong Kong and Singapore.
Numerous characters had participated in fixing up these women's journeys, including Pakistanis, Turks, Australians and Mexicans. On the surface, the stories have all the ingredients of exotic melodrama. 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.
An open space near a highway, at night. Cars continuously drive up, headlights shining on figures standing about who are scantily dressed, in high heels, thick makeup, wigs. Brief snatches of conversation, raucous laughter, taunts.
Scene from Pedro Almodovar's Todo sobre mi made2
Within seconds, most viewers guess what's happening in such a scene, which is depicted in the media most days of the week. This is what people call 'prostitution', buyers of sex approaching vendors who make themselves available in marginal urban spaces. The following treatment is not unusual:
French working girls lose their privileged role Paris's sex trade is threatened by a new conservatism and a wave of East European prostitutes.
Casual visitors to the Bois de Boulogne at night find they have wandered into a surreal enchanted wood. Among the trees gleam exposed flesh, bottoms and breasts are displayed in bizarre leather arrangements, thighs spring from high boots — here almost all the prostitutes are men. Some have been operated on but most are pumped full of hormones and silicone.
Behind this carnivalesque scene is a rigid organisation. Each section of each alley relates to a geographical area — Colombian, Brazilian, Peruvian, North African, Spanish, and so on.
References to carnival, risqué clothing, distinct nationalities, sex change and — not least — some 'loss' Europeans are suffering because of migrants: these are the standard ingredients of stories about Europe's sex industry. Another typical treatment invokes slavery:
Once they were girls. Now they are slaves Frightened and penniless children from Eastern Europe are trapped in prostitution in London.
'I start work at six most evenings and sometimes don't finish till eight the next morning. I must see up to 30 men a night if all the bills are to be paid. I owe a lot of money to the men who brought me here.' It is hard to hear Aura's quiet voice over the noises in the Soho street below. She is sitting on the edge of a small double bed. The sheets are soiled, the floor covered with a stained carpet. Her dark features and highly made-up face belie her age. She is only 17 ...
Here the focus is on the age of a victim, her helplessness, and the barbaric conditions she is forced to endure. Repeated continually with little variation, these treatments keep the gaze squarely on the non-European Others who have moved onto the sex scene. Statistics are tossed out without sources and the focus stays on miserable tales of a few individuals. On the way to football's 2006 World Cup, media coverage intensified, giving unsubstantiated figures concerning the millions of men expected to converge on Germany:
Angela Merkel's World Cup trafficking silence
... German officials are in denial about what the rest of the world sees: There is a human-rights disaster in the making in the coming months. In short: Where are all the women needed for this increased demand for prostitution going to come from? And under what conditions will they 'work'?
For the most part, they won't be German women. Over three quarters of the women in prostitution in Germany are foreign nationals, the majority of them from poorer Central and Eastern European countries. The German Women's Council estimates that 40,000 women will be brought into Germany to service the fans. Experts estimate that most of them are trafficked, meaning they are in prostitution as a result of force, fraud, or coercion. In most cases, they are literally controlled and in many cases effectively enslaved by criminals and organized crime groups.
Sensationalism is common enough in the media's attention to all migrants — and it should be noted that both Right-leaning and Left-leaning media are implicated, as in the above examples. But where sex is involved, not only the media (where it is unsurprising) but many sober authority figures take the same tone, decrying migrations that involve working in the sex industry and setting up projects to prevent them. The urge is to help or even save migrant women, and it has spawned a veritable Rescue Industry.
Sex at the Margins examines the intersection of two groups of people: those who migrate to Europe and engage in domestic, caring and sexual labour, and those working in the social sector with these migrants. By social sector I mean people whose jobs, whether paid or voluntary, are dedicated to improving the condition of society in a wide range of ways. Many social agents identify themselves as doing work dedicated to helping others, providing them with services to improve their lives, and for this reason they consciously spend time thinking about how people ought to live and how to achieve that vision. The social sector takes in projects that are broadly aimed to affect a large population, and projects that are narrowly aimed at particular problems. Social agents include social workers, policy makers, individuals in charge of funding, religious personnel, counsellors, academics and non-governmental organisation (NGO) employees and volunteers: anyone who, in their work, consciously attempts to better other people's lives.
Increasingly, people who work in home and personal services in Europe are migrants who enjoy few rights. Some discussions of commercial sex are just beginning to reflect this sea-change, an acknowledgement that the traditional debate about whether 'prostitution' is violence or work does not address the hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants earning money in this sector. Overwhelmingly, however, media, academic, government and most NGO voices either infantilise these migrants or ignore their existence.
Sex at the Margins examines current ideas about this phenomenon of travel and work, demonstrating the discursive gaps and silences through which poorer and undocumented people slip, especially women who sell sex. Usually, these slippages are blamed on abstractions — society, the state — but this book argues that those declaring themselves to be helpers actively reproduce the marginalisation they condemn. I aim to connect domains usually treated separately — studies of migrations and service work, the sex industry, feminism, philanthropy and social projects — to show that these separations cannot be justified once all the cards are on the table.
I began to brood about this topic fifteen years ago while working in Latin America and the Caribbean as an educator with adults, including women and men who sold sex. Many were thinking of travelling to work in Europe or had already returned from there, or they had friends and family working abroad. Trips were a common topic of conversation everywhere: trying one's luck abroad, making money, seeing the world, meeting new people, learning new things. As part of my NGO job, I talked with families of daughters selling domestic and sex services abroad. I wrote a proposal for education for travellers, an interesting project we framed as 'capacity-building', aimed at averting the most drastic kind of problems confronted by poorer people who travel to Europe. However, the European funder's desire to discourage migration forced us to reduce the proposal to a single aspect: psychological support for traumatised returnees. Similarly, when a funder commissioned a film on the experiences of migrant women in Holland, the result was a nightmare vision of police raids, client violence, economic desperation and social shame. The film was shown widely to poor women, who were invariably sceptical about the melodrama. All of them knew people who were successful in their working travels to Europe, whether they sold sex or not. In an attempt to understand why funders viewed the situation as they did, I spent a year in several European capitals, talking with people in a number of NGOs and with migrants themselves. Later, I enrolled for a Master's degree and carried out ethnographic field work in Madrid among outreach projects and migrants selling sex in the street.
Taken together, these experiences showed me that how people on the southwestern side of the Atlantic talked about their own trips had little in common with European ways of talking, and this is still mainly true. The crux of the difference concerns autonomy: whether travellers are perceived to have quite a lot versus little or none at all. I decided to try to find out how this difference comes about and what it is made of, but where I expected to find theory to enlighten me, I found little: either the whole problematic was reduced to a few simplistic concepts, or they were ignored. Thus when I looked at work in the fields of migration and diaspora studies people selling sex were not there (until extremely recently), migrant women from poor countries being figured as domestic workers and migrant men as engaged in construction and agriculture. Studies of services, the concept usually invoked to describe migrant women's work, omitted sex. There was a new area, 'trafficking', which dealt with the criminal aspects of the worst kind of migration and could not be imposed on all migrants. People selling sex were dealt with and normalised in AIDS research, but there the interest was reduced to condom use and other aspects of 'risk behaviour'. Nowhere did I find these migrants treated as having a range of interests, occupations and desires — as being people who read newspapers, cook, go to church, films and parties or who count themselves as activists in any political or social cause. At the beginning, then, I was dealing with absences and silences, except in one area.
Within feminist theory, a hyper-production of writings existed on the concept of 'prostitution', repetitively arguing about whether or not it is always and intrinsically violent and exploitative. In this literature, it was common for each side to do little more than criticise the other. There were also scores of research studies about women who sell sex in the street, tending always to try to explain why in the world they did it, the assumption being that it was uniquely perverse and devastating. With few exceptions, this large literature, including epidemiological and health-promotion research, time and again arrived at the same conclusions. Descriptive studies seemed more open-minded but often concentrated on a specific locale or epoch ('female sex work in Calcutta', 'prostitution in belle époque New Orleans'), and this specificity could not be extrapolated to current migrant subjects.
I wanted to know about the abundant social programming aimed at helping these migrants. Given the lack of information, the incoherence of so much social action was not surprising. But why had social agents not come up with their own theories, based on their experiences? Are they so caught up in their projects that they do not stop to measure the effects on the people they want to help? By and large, they accept the 'prostitution' discourse — and the 'prostitute' as victim — as fact, not as social construction. From there, they position themselves as benevolent helpers, in what seems to them to be a natural move. Through historical research, I found that this self-positioning began at a time in European history when interest was awakened in the art of government and the welfare of the governed. Those who were concerned, the growing middle class, saw themselves as peculiarly suited to help, control, advise and discipline the unruly poor, including their sexual conduct. I speculated that examination of this impulse to control during the period when the modern sense of 'prostitution' was produced would help explain what goes on today, and my historical research did prove that early, proto-feminist concepts relied on notions of helping and saving that go some way to explain social programming today.
In my field work, I found that the theorising, with its silences and fixations, can be understood as the desire first to know and then to control people whose activities are considered deviant. The focus I bring to this study belongs to a postcolonial framework that questions missions to help non-Europeans, particularly the maternalistic tradition — even when it is called feminist — to rescue non-European and poorer women.
This book argues that social helpers consistently deny the agency of large numbers of working-class migrants, in a range of theoretical and practical moves whose object is management and control: the exercise of governmentality. The journeys of women who work in the sex industry are treated as involuntary in a victimising discourse known as 'trafficking', while the experiences of men and transgenders who sell sex are ignored. The work of migrant women in Europe, not only in sex but in housework and caring, is mostly excluded from government regulation and accounts, leaving these workers socially invisible. Migrants working in the informal sector are treated as passive subjects rather than as normal people looking for conventional opportunities, conditions and pleasures, who may prefer to sell sex to their other options. The victim identity imposed on so many in the name of helping them makes helpers themselves disturbingly important figures. Historical research demonstrates how this victimising and the concomitant assumption of importance by middle-class women, which began two centuries ago, was closely linked to their carving out of a new employment sphere for themselves through the naming of a project to rescue and control working-class women. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Sex at the Margins by Laura María Agustín. Copyright © 2007 Laura María Agustín. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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