Mobile Orientations: An Intimate Autoethnography of Migration, Sex Work, and Humanitarian Borders

Mobile Orientations: An Intimate Autoethnography of Migration, Sex Work, and Humanitarian Borders

by Nicola Mai

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Despite continued public and legislative concern about sex trafficking across international borders, the actual lives of the individuals involved—and, more importantly, the decisions that led them to sex work—are too often overlooked. With Mobile Orientations, Nicola Mai shows that, far from being victims of a system beyond their control, many contemporary sex workers choose their profession as a means to forge a path toward fulfillment.

Using a bold blend of personal narrative and autoethnography, Mai provides intimate portrayals of sex workers from sites including the Balkans, the Maghreb, and West Africa who decided to sell sex as the means to achieve a better life. Mai explores the contrast between how migrants understand themselves and their work and how humanitarian and governmental agencies conceal their stories, often unwittingly, by addressing them all as helpless victims. The culmination of two decades of research, Mobile Orientations sheds new light on the desires and ambitions of migrant sex workers across the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226585147
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/16/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Nicola Mai is professor of sociology and migration studies at Kingston University, London.

Read an Excerpt


Intimate Autoethnography

Affective and Intersubjective Knowledge

"So what are you doing here, exactly?" Fatjon asked. We had met in Piazza della Repubblica, one of the main male sex work joints in central Rome.

"I am working at the university," I replied evasively.

He went on ironically, "Oh yeah? And what is your job?"

"I am writing a book about how young men fucking queers for a living manage to remain men while doing what they do," I replied, less hesitantly.

"And they pay you for that?"


"And do they pay you well?"

"Not too bad," I admitted, embarrassed.

"You have a very good job, man, and I think I can help you," was his enthusiastic reaction.

Fatjon was a nineteen-year-old male sex worker (among many other things) from Albania. He became my first informant, thanks to his intellectual curiosity and the shared intimate, affective, and intersubjective platform that enabled knowledge to happen to us, together.

In framing knowledge as something that happens to and between people, I draw on the work of Veena Das (1998, 192), who underlines the affective and intersubjective nature of anthropological knowledge production. The notion of intersubjectivity is particularly strategic for understanding how agency is embedded in mobile orientations for two main reasons. First, it frames subjectivities as socially interdependent and as emerging through dialogue and "human relations with material and natural things" (Jackson 1998, 6). Second, it acknowledges the role played by sex-gendered and other self representations in people's understandings of themselves in relation to the social worlds they live in.

Researching sex-gendered subjectivities and mobilities requires a degree of self-reflexivity to bypass the "official" self representations that allow people to protect themselves from moralizing, criminalizing, and pathologizing assumptions (and interventions) during interviews and fieldwork. Affective and intersubjective dynamics played a strategic role in the emergence of the data and concepts presented in this book. In order to understand the complexity of people's mobile orientations and agentic decisions, I often used affective transactions and intersubjective dynamics as a privileged observation site from which to question self representations, particularly when interview narratives were contradicted by ethnographic evidence.

From a posthuman perspective, affect is a strategic concept to understand the "pre-personal" way in which energy and other intensities can orient bodies, objects, and subjects, bypassing socially embedded emotions and subjectivities (Massoumi 2002). However, the transmission of intensities can only work by being reinscribed within and between subjects through "affective practices" that are socially rooted (Wetherell 2013) — a consideration that problematizes the supposed "subjectless" nature of affect. Hence the concept of affect is used in this book in the context of the socially embedded practices within which affect resonates and "makes sense" between people. In this chapter, as well as in those that follow, affective consonances and "dissonances" (Hemmings 2012) provide strategic toolkits that allow me to identify and analyze the intersubjective dynamics characterizing the events and encounters that punctuated my fieldwork. Drawing on the traditional sociological focus on empathy as an affective repertoire to connect with other people, I use a wider affective palette, including irony and revulsion, to describe how I came to meet and interact with the people whose narrated and lived lives made my research happen.

In some cases, pain and empathy were the main affective and intersubjective platforms on which knowledge happened between research participants and me. In some circumstances, particularly in cases that presented aspects of subjection to force and trafficking, I asked people to abstain from talking about the details of particularly traumatic events and situations in their lives for four main reasons. First, I did not want to upset them by revisiting distressing memories. Second, I wanted to keep the focus of the interview on their migration and work experiences. Third, I wanted to avoid "overaffecting" the intersubjective process of knowledge generation with pain and suffering, in order to potentially allow more pluralist and heterogeneous self representations and stories to surface. Finally, I wanted to protect myself from upsetting details and traumatic stories that I felt I would not be able to contain emotionally or psychologically. More often, I tried to elicit irony as the main affective current underlying the intersubjective dynamics through which knowledge happened. As I show in chapters 6 and 7, irony has been a powerful strategic affect in my work, enabling knowledge and eliciting self representations that often exceed normative sex-gendered practices and sexual-humanitarian discourses.

Doing Intimate Autoethnography

Intersubjective intimacy — a close association and relationship with informants and other research participants — was a privileged context through which knowledge happened throughout my autoethnographic observations. Heidi Hoefinger (2013, 8) conceptualizes "intimate ethnography" as a self-reflexive, egalitarian mapping of the shared emotional and social relations between researcher and participants within the negotiation of intimacy and friendship. Drawing on this notion, I operationalize the intimate dimension as a strategic epistemological and methodological suture point between intersubjectivity and autoethnography. The resulting notion of intimate autoethnography acknowledges the nature of knowledge production as co-constructed by intersubjective relations between observing and observed subjects. At the same time, it builds on critiques of the potential "banal egotism" (Probyn 1993, 80) of self-reflexive ethnography, which can paradoxically participate in the reproduction of coherent and separately observable selves and others (Rabinow 1977).

In methodological terms, the practice of intimate autoethnography means negotiating a reflexive, affective, and intersubjective connectedness with the people and spaces defining the field of observation. It means acknowledging the research aims, objectives, and questions when entering the field, while at the same time embodying this connectedness with the people, situations, and places being observed. When everything goes well, this embodied awareness translates into an affectively and sensuously connected intersubjective presence that enables people in the field to open up about themselves and their lives. When stigmatization and criminalization frame fieldwork, omissions and lies become precious, if sometimes enigmatic, indicators of silenced discourses and practices that can be better observed during ethnography.

Throughout my research on the sex industry, I have never felt fundamentally different from the people I have researched. We have "simply" been given different self representations, opportunities, and resources in life. I think that this intimate awareness helped me to be with people and share their spaces and time in ways that often made me seem part of the social tapestry I was observing, while maintaining my role as observer and researcher. In all of the contexts analyzed in this book, I carried out ethnographic observation by "deeply hanging out" (Geertz 2001, 107) in sex work places and by establishing direct contact with sex workers. I think immersing oneself critically and selectively in the material culture, spaces, and practices being analyzed, and then writing about them while affects, discourses, and relations are still fresh in the memory of the researcher, is an essential requirement at the beginning of fieldwork and a precondition for making knowledge happen. Isn't that the only way to understand things ethnographically? But then again, how deeply should we "hang out" if we are to remain ethically and methodologically appropriate? Where must we draw the line between professional and personal intersubjective investment? I try to respond to these questions through theoretically and methodologically relevant examples throughout this book.

Often I became close to people who were just as intrigued by me as I was by them. Our encounters became pivotal points in the development of my work and punctuate the presentation of my findings in this book. The intimate connection with the people and field under observation sometimes exposed me to completely unexpected affective and intersubjective dynamics, which enabled me to better understand what is being transacted in commercial sex. For example, in July 2004, as I was sitting in a hustler bar in Seville, a sixty-year-old customer approached me, mistaking me for one of the boys. I felt both flattered and embarrassed by the misunderstanding, and tried to find a sensitive way to extricate myself from the situation. In the meantime, he started asking me the "classic" questions about why I was there and suggested he could help me by giving me a job as an assistant in his florist's shop. I could tell he liked me a lot. "This is not a job for a guy like you," he continued with his chat-up routine. "I can see that you are intelligent. Maybe you can complete your studies here in Spain?" I had told him in my broken Spanish that I was Albanian and that I had had to drop out of my university degree in engineering back in Tirana when my father lost his job and I had to support my family. Another hustler-bar classic. Having listened innumerable times to the "survivalist" discourses justifying involvement in sex work exclusively as an "economic necessity" — about which I say more in the next chapter — I knew exactly what to say. So did he: the "rescue narrative" is sometimes part and parcel of a client's intersubjective investment in the transaction. The interesting and surprising thing for me, and the reason I mention it here, was how much I was affected by this seduction dynamic. As I was being addressed as a subject of desire and care, a part of me was excited, titillated, flattered. It worked — or rather, I could see how it worked, revealing what else was on offer besides the obvious money.

Tampering with Preferred Self representations

In many cases, working together with associations, services, and organizations supporting sex workers enabled my introduction into the field as a credible and safe interlocutor — that is, not a client or police officer. Wherever I undertook research, I first liaised with the main associations and organizations intervening in the lives of sex workers and/or young migrants, and then interviewed key practitioners and representatives. Although many of these associations were actively involved in the fight against trafficking, none of them adopted a neo-abolitionist approach toward sex work. This allowed a fruitful critical exchange and synergy between research and practice. In a second phase, I contacted people working in the sex industry directly, in order to allow them to tell me stories they would not expect to tell in a context of social intervention. This has been a key methodological aspect of my research and has allowed me to tap into a wider variety of self representations than is usually accessible through social interventions alone.

Interviews with practitioners were usually conducted at the premises of the organization they worked for, while sex workers were interviewed in discreet public or private places of their choice. In the beginning, I recorded all interviews with practitioners and most interviews with migrants working in the sex industry. With time and experience I decided not to record interviews with migrants, since many people were in irregular and stigmatized situations and felt threatened by being recorded. Instead I took written notes and transcribed them immediately afterwards. This offered the double advantage of allowing participants to feel safe when disclosing intimate details about their private lives (particularly issues regarding their migration status and involvement in sex work), while encouraging me to be more attentive to the content and to the intersubjective and ethnographic context of interviews as they happened.

As an ethnographer trying to elicit and value emic concepts to understand social phenomena, I decided to use the expression sex work for two main reasons. First, it captures how people working in the sex industry understand what they are doing when they sell sex: they are working. Second, it demarcates my research from neo-abolitionist scholarship, which refuses to recognize the possibility that people might consent, and therefore decide to work in the sex industry on the basis that there is no distinction between free and forced prostitution (Barry, 1995; Farley, 2004; Jeffreys, 1997; Raymond, 2004). I also use the term prostitution to refer to the phenomenon of sex work and the way it is framed in public discourse, but I do not use the stigmatizing term prostitute to refer to sex workers. Of course, I did not use the phrase sex work while undertaking fieldwork or interviewing, in order to avoid imposing preexisting terms and categories onto the research relationship and subject. I simply asked research participants how they would describe what they did for a living. Most of them said they worked.

When interviewing or engaging in ethnographic observation, I tried to detect and challenge the foundational, neoliberal dichotomy and moralized narratives that sexual-humanitarian rhetoric applies to people who sell sex: either that they are "forced," or that they have simply "chosen" to do a job "like any other" (Doezema 1998). Both terms of this dichotomy impede a nuanced and emic appraisal of migrants' experiences of migration and sex work. The "forced" discursive strategy is consistent with current sexual-humanitarian hegemonic trends toward the victimization of migration and sex work (i.e., the increasing framing of migrant sex workers as victims). It allows research subjects to self represent in ways that potentially avoid deportation as well as (some of) the stigma associated with voluntary engagement in sex work. On the other hand, the "free" discursive set can be seen as potentially overemphasizing the agentic dimension of people's mobile orientations, which can obfuscate how they may also consider that they have been exploited in relation to specific aspects of their involvement in the sex industry (working conditions, etc.) and/or feel shame and anxiety about what they are doing.

As discussed in the previous chapter, sexual stories are narrative repertoires that allow previously private and stigmatized dynamics to enter the public arena by reproducing specific plots of suffering and survival (Plummer 1995). Stories about coming out, sexual addiction, and sex trafficking can be seen as recasting the intrinsic heterogeneity and complexity of people's mobile orientations, histories, and subjectivities according to teleological and moralized "biographical illusions" (Bourdieu 1986) that reflect and frame hegemonic hierarchies of values and moralities at any given historical moment. The sexual-humanitarian onto-epistemology understands all migrant (and increasingly also nonmigrant) sex workers as victims of trafficking. In doing so, it shapes the hegemonic, sex-gendered self representations that currently frame the relationship between migration and sex work.

These dynamics have methodological relevance. Research subjects often mirrored the "free" or "forced" self representation repertoires in their "narrativization" (Najmabadi 2013, 268) of themselves in interviews, which was often contradicted by the way they embodied those narratives during ethnographic observation. While listening to participants' self representations in interviews, I was frequently reminded of Judith Butler's (1999) theories of performativity and Stuart Hall's (1996) conceptualization of subjectivity as relational, performative, and contextual. Particularly at the beginning of an interview, I could hear strong echoes of the fixed, normative biographical borders circulated by sexual humanitarianism in the ways people self represented according to stereotypical notions of freedom, necessity, and constraint. These became much more nuanced after intimate, intersubjective rapport had been established.

During interviewing and ethnography, I would often start by working with the preferred self representations offered by subjects and would then try to critically challenge them in order to elicit more complex understandings and interpretations. For instance, early on during my very first fieldwork with male sex workers, I became aware of the need to be careful with the explanations and narrations given by subjects, as these were usually consistent with psychological defensive strategies. I only tried to challenge people's preferred self representations when I felt that our intersubjective relationship and their self-confidence made it viable and appropriate. In the few circumstances where people became uncomfortable or anxious in the process, I apologized for the provocation and repeated that the interview could be interrupted at any moment and that consent for my use of interview material was entirely at their discretion. In other situations, I encouraged interviewees to continue talking freely about themselves in whatever way they felt appropriate, and apologized for having interfered. More rarely, I decided unilaterally to stop the interview by initiating a casual conversation on different and less sensitive topics.


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Table of Contents


One     Intimate Autoethnography
Two     Engaging Albanian (and Romanian) Masculinities
Three   Selling Comidas Rapidas in Seville
Four     Boditarian Inscriptions
Five     Burning for (Mother) Europe
Six       The Trafficking of Migration
Seven  Love, Exploitation, and Trafficking
Eight   Interviewing Agents
Nine    Ethnofictional Counter-Representations

Conclusion: Challenging Sexual Humanitarianism

Appendix: Research Projects and Filmography

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