Exploding the myth of trafficking

Controversial author Laura María Agustín tells spiked that those dedicated to combating the sex industry have criminalised migrant workers.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

This review is republished from the April 2008 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here

Laura María Agustín’s provocative new book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, really does what it says on the back cover: ‘[It] explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims, and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest.’

Agustín warns that ‘what we say about any given subject is always constructed, and there are only partial truths’. But you can disregard the book’s many postmodern caveats: this is an honest, complex and certainly convincing read. Agustín knows what she’s talking about – she has researched and worked with people who sell sex for over 10 years, including in Latin America and the Caribbean.

It is precisely the fact that Agustín has complicated the ‘discourse’ around trafficking, migration and sex work that seems to get the backs up of those who volunteer and are employed in what she terms the ‘rescue industry’.

‘I’m considered the devil by people in the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women’ (an international NGO), she tells me. ‘They have actually called me a pimp and have said that I associate with traffickers and that I’m in the pay of the sex industry, and any number of vile things.’

Speaking from her office at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where she is currently a visiting scholar, Agustín tells me that she has, however, also been encouraged by the fact that people from across the world who have doubts about academic debates and policymaking around trafficking, and about the portrayal of sex workers in the mainstream media, have been in touch with her since the book came out.

Agustín is not looking for an academic spat and she doesn’t have any romantic notions about sex work being particularly exotic or ’empowering’. Nor does she deny the existence of forced migration or that, constrained by stringent border controls, many migrants are indeed pushed to take illegal routes across the world.

She does, however, have a clear message for those who insist that all sex work is by definition a form of violence, and that those who choose to be sex workers must be delusional if they don’t think they’re being violated: ‘How dare you come along from the outside and tell people that they are miserable and suffering, that they are being raped every day and need to be rescued? That just seems cruel and disgusting to me.’

‘The point I try to make’, she says, ‘is that whether you are a transsexual, male or female, you may be able to be a sex worker for a while and not feel it is so horrible. I don’t try to argue that becoming a sex worker is always about making a free choice, but I don’t believe that most people who work in offices or service jobs, for example, always necessarily felt they had unlimited options or a vast number of possibilities available to them, either. So among all the messy situations people can find themselves in, some prefer to sell sex.’

Amongst the vast number of social workers, government officials, employees of foundations and NGOs who are dedicated to combating the exploitation of women, few seem to acknowledge that women are, in fact, capable of deciding for themselves what they do with their bodies and their time. Ironically, those ‘fundamentalist feminists’, as Agustín calls them, who are dead set on crushing patriarchy, penalising anyone who pays for sexual services and incarcerating or deporting ‘traffickers’, end up stripping the women they purport to help of any agency. They treat them as hapless souls adrift in the world of brutish and money-hungry exploiters. Ironically, they objectify women as brainless commodities. They also help reinforce stereotypes of dodgy foreign men who treat women like dirt.

Moreover, even though defining ‘people-smuggling’ and ‘trafficking’ has proven a fraught exercise, NGOs and governmental bodies continue to campaign and legislate against these meaningless terms.

The term ‘trafficking’ emerged in the 1990s, and it led to new areas of research and activism, such as investigating and combating ‘modern-day slavery’. Those who have been defined as ‘trafficked’ or ‘enslaved’ have worked in everything from mining to agriculture, in housekeeping, elderly care and, indeed, in the sex industry. (And this includes everything from charging for sex to pole-dancing, providing attentive dinner company and selling erotic lingerie, literature or DVDs.)

Quantifying ‘trafficking victims’ is practically impossible. How do you count those working in the shadow economy? How can you be confident that irregular migrants nervous about their legal status are giving out correct information? How do you define ‘consent’ and ‘choice’ in situations where people have paid for false papers or have been unsure about exactly what form their journeys across the world would take?

As Agustín writes, ‘The lack of a coherent definition of the term “trafficking” has inspired an avalanche of meetings, conferences and reports all over the world’. The result: ever-more confused and contradictory statistics, and a situation where migrant labour is increasingly viewed with suspicion, indeed, seen almost as criminal by definition.

‘Rescuers are simplifying the situation by trying to come up with these definitions’, Agustín tells me. ‘They seem to believe that if we just get it clear that all selling of sex by women to men is always a form of violence and abuse, then we won’t have any doubts, and of course those kinds of black-and-white scenarios are very appealing.’

The problem is not simply a semantic one. ‘Some of us who work on lobbying about issues like migration and sex work in Europe have decided that establishing this term, “trafficking”, was a big mistake. It has caused chaos and damage and we should never have gone along with it.’ New anti-trafficking laws have emerged which in fact restrict international freedom of movement and criminalise migration. Ultimately, those who suffer are those who are already defined as the most vulnerable by rescuers: women selling sex in the streets.

A most disturbing aspect of the rescue industry is the dehumanising view of migrants that permeates its charitable projects to rescue migrants from abusers – and from themselves. As Agustín puts it, migrants are reduced to ‘passive receptacles and mute sufferers who must be saved and helpers become saviours’. This, she says, is ‘a colonialist operation’.

‘There are many individuals in the rescue industry who are very dedicated, who sacrifice their time, who volunteer and care very deeply’, Agustín tells me. ‘But we should remember that a large number of them do this for a living and being a social worker who cares about other human beings is considered, if not prestigious, then certainly a noble thing to do. These individuals have careers in NGOs or in the UK Home Office or in foundations. The job of rescuing certainly brings benefits to the rescuer – there is self-interest here. And it is remarkable that the situation of prostitutes has not improved much in the 200 years since they were defined as victims and as people who need to be rescued.’

Agustín does not wish to promote apathy or defeatism, but she demands more honesty and self-scrutiny amongst ‘rescue workers’, who she compares to those nineteenth-century middle-class women who took it upon themselves to ‘help, control, advise and discipline the unruly poor, including their sexual conduct’.

Agustín demands that we stop seeing migrants as tragic and victimised – once construed as such, the next logical step is, of course, to ‘rescue’ them – and that we pay more attention to their own self-image and to their aspirations. Even for people from poorer parts of the world, migration, says Agustín, is not necessarily a ‘traumatic solution’. She points out that people have diverse reasons for leaving their home countries. Of course many flee from war, poverty and persecution – yet the tendency is always to ‘envision migrants as acted upon, leaving little room for desire, aspiration, anxiety or other states of the soul. In contrast, first-world travellers are imagined to be modern individuals searching for ways to realise themselves.’

As Agustín points out in her book, the ‘trafficking discourse’ is ultimately risk-averse, implying that free movement itself is damaging and dangerous. It relies ‘on the notion that poorer women are better off staying at home than leaving and possibly getting into trouble’.

Leaving home may not always be easy, but difficult decisions are not necessarily tragic. Agustín quotes many migrants throughout the book who, even having gone through tough experiences, don’t ask for pity or to be rescued. ‘I left my job in the Ukraine because it was boring there. I wanted to go abroad and experience the world’, says one woman. A Nigerian woman living in Italy says: ‘I wanted to be independent. I have a big family, but I didn’t get along with them. I wanted to be on my own.’

They don’t sound like tragic victims. But what is truly tragic is that, as Agustín tells me, there seems to be a tendency to see anyone who comes from a Third World country as ‘primitive and miserable, and if you see them all as victimised, then you somehow justify sending them back home. You don’t have to deal with them, you can just get rid of them.’

That is an idea we could certainly do with being rescued from.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, by Laura Maria Agustin is published by Zed Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This review is republished from the April 2008 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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