Sex at the Margins: Interview with Laura Agustín

Laura Agustín is renowned for her ground-breaking research, writing and advocacy on migration, sex work and trafficking. Her writing is available on her blog The Naked Anthropologist and in her highly acclaimed book Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry. Writing frequently about the sex workers she has worked with, she has attracted controversy from those who would rather see sex work and prostitution completely abolished. Interview with Stephanie Lord. Dr Laura Agustín will be speaking in the John Hume Institute for Global Irish Studies in UCD, Dublin 4 on Thursday April 4, from 4-6.30pm.

SL: How did you get in to writing about sex worker issues?

LA: When I lived in the Caribbean people talked about migrating to Spain for sex work and we accepted that there were no jobs and that this was a pragmatic solution. It was harm reduction and no one would ever have tried to keep people at home. I didn’t know the word “trafficking”. During 1994, I realised that people were coming from other countries--Canada, and the US and Europe—and were talking about stopping people from migrating. I began to do this work because I didn’t understand why privileged people in the North didn’t understand the reasons for what people from the South were doing.

SL: Do you see this lack of understanding as connected to the debate on sex work in Ireland?

LA: Of course. Historically prostitutes had been thought of as bad women, women who took advantage of men, until the Enlightenment when they came to be seen as victims – if they were victims they could be saved. The bourgeoisie believed they knew the right way to live and  people who lived outside those norms had to be brought inside. When a prostitute in Ireland was brought in to the Magdalene Laundry it wasn’t to enslave her but to teach her to be a proper, good girl. The same logic and preconceptions are at work in what I call the ‘rescue industry’. So many of today’s outreach workers and social workers have no idea of the reality of the people they are working with.

SL: What are the connections between debates about sex work and debates about migration policies in general?

LA: Well, there are people who believe that migrant women who sell sex need to be saved; that they must want to go home; that they must want another job and they have 200-year-old ideas about what those jobs should be. I use “neo-colonialism” to refer to the migration policies of richer countries who are worried about migrants. It’s very convenient for governments to accept the idea that every single woman selling sex is trafficked because then the problem is crime and this can be used to keep them out.

SL: Would you agree that most governments don’t seem to believe that women have any capacity to make decisions themselves?

LA: If you’re talking about women lacking the capacity to make rational decisions then that’s part of the trafficking narrative. It’s part of the rescue industry idea. The educated white person is the one who knows how to decide what is good and bad. I think those who were running the Magdalene Laundries felt about the women they were “saving” exactly the same way that Ruhama feels about “trafficked” women – these women couldn’t possibly know what’s good for them because they’re so disadvantaged.

SL Do you think that the term “trafficking” is used too broadly?

LA: The word “trafficking” is now applied to vast numbers of things; surrogate mothers in India, women involved inso-called ‘sham’ marriages are being called ‘trafficked’. Most western states have made it so that the only way for many migrants to stay other than illegally is to get married. People are not forced into these marriages; they might be taking money, or they might be just acting in solidarity. Using the term “trafficking” in this case is just another example of how that word is used  for everything.  then  are used, when they say “modern day slavery” they’re not saying that it’s the same as chattel slavery. These terms  undermine our ability to discuss working conditions and whether people who have crappy jobs can try to improve them..

SL: What are your views on the celebrity involvement in  the anti-trafficking campaigns that we see now?

LA: Part of the celebrity thing is that celebrities have to promote themselves. In order to keep your name out there you have to make appearances and say popular things. But they’re allowing themselves to be used as good-looking privileged white people posing with and hugging brown women and children. It’s the most egregious colonialist white man’s burden that you could come up with. It wouldn’t be out of place in the 19th century and you can see pictures like that from then.  Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, made a documentary and live tweeted a brothel raid in the same register that 19th century explorers talked about things, mentioning guns and how he was scared. It’s clear the protagonist is not the person being ‘rescued’ but the person who’s positioned themselves as living well and correctly, the ‘rescuer’.

SL: As you know, the proposed changes to Irish legislation on prostitution seek to ‘end demand’ by criminalizing the purchase of sex – the so-called ‘Nordic’ or ‘Swedish’ model. Do you know much about the effects of the Swedish law on trafficking in Sweden?

LA: Well, they have no count for the numbers of trafficked people before the law was introduced, there’s no baseline. The only thing they know about is people in the street.  Those numbers went down a little but most selling of sex goes on indoors now. We definitely know that criminalizing the ‘buyer’ increases stigma against women who sell sex—it declares that selling sex is wrong. Do people still sell and buy sex? Of course they do. They do it in Saudi Arabia where you could have your head cut off for it. There’s very little evidence that it’s a deterrent. People are just doing it in a way they are less likely to be seen by the police officers that are meant to be looking for it. And in fact, most of the violence that sex workers report isn’t from clients but from police and other authorities.

Dr Laura Agustín will be speaking in the John Hume Institute for Global Irish Studies in UCD, Dublin 4 on Thursday April 4, from 4-6.30pm on ‘Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets, and the Rescue Industry’, followed by a panel discussion with sex workers, activists, health workers and researchers.

She is also speaking at the Dublin Anarchist Bookfair in Liberty Hall on Saturday April 6, from 12.30-1.30pm on ‘Thinking about Sex Work as Work’.