Sex rights worker Laura Agustín has dared say the unsayable: that prostitution is a rational career choice by millions of women the world over. She explains why claims that women are being ‘trafficked’ against their will are wildly overstated and speaks of her fears that she may encounter violent opposition when she speaks in Dublin shortly ... photo: Orlando G. Boström
“Don’t listen to those awful liberal-minded, fatty feminist-flag-waving doom-mongers who say prostitution is evil. Who are we to tell someone what parts they can and cannot sell of themselves? If we make a choice to sell our minds and souls to the highest bidder, but give our bodies away for free, why should we think it wrong if someone did the opposite? Sex is one of the most wholesome, spiritual and natural things that money can buy.” – Sebastian Horsley
Dr. Laura Maria Agustín might possibly have a problem with the wording of the late English dandy’s typically provocative statement, but the self-styled ‘Naked Anthropologist’ would definitely concur with Horsley’s sentiment. Who has the moral right to condemn anybody else for choosing to make their living from sex work?
Unfortunately, lots of people seem to feel that they have exactly that right – not only to condemn people, but also to presume to somehow “rescue” them from their lives of sin and vice. Agustín is the outspoken 67-year-old author of 2007’s highly acclaimed Sex at the Margins, and the first person to coin the now widely used phrase ‘rescue industry’ to describe those highly suspect NGOs which claim to do just that.
Although widely praised by the critics, Agustín’s groundbreaking book – which torpedoed many widely-held assumptions about prostitution, trafficking and the sex industry – didn’t go down well in most official do-gooder quarters. While she considers herself a feminist, her contention that the vast majority of so-called ‘trafficked’ women voluntarily choose to work in the sex industry also had much of the so-called sisterhood up in arms.
“There’s not one feminism, there’s obviously lots of them,” Agustín reasons. “I long ago accepted that different kinds of feminisms will never agree. They just won’t. It’s like a religious question. If you think that sex is the most sacred thing that should occur in a certain context, with love and whatever, then that’s what you think. And I’m not going to convince you that that’s not true.
“And if you think that sex is only one of a lot of stuff – an activity that sometimes means something and sometimes doesn’t – then you don’t understand the first position, and you’ll never understand why it’s sacred.” Six years on from its original publication, the shockwaves from her book are still being felt. She’s talking to Hot Press down the line from her office in Sweden, in advance of a visit to Dublin for two separate speaking engagements - at UCD and at the Anarchist Bookfair - in early April. Judging by some of the reactions on social media, there’s a lot of hostility to her before she has even set foot in Ireland.
Agustín laughs. “If you look at the comments on the Dublin Anarchists Bookfair’s Facebook page,” she says, “there are 208 angry messages accusing me of everything!”
However objectionable some people might find them, her arguments are based on a lifetime of personal migration – and two decades of solid research into the sex industry. A relative latecomer to academia following years of working for NGOs, her interest in the subject stemmed from her own experiences.
“I suppose the interest in migration has to do with my own life originally because we moved around a lot as a family,” she explains, in an unplaceable accent. “We wouldn’t have called it ‘migration’ at the time, but I lived in many different countries. I thought that people going to different places to look for work was normal. So I don’t identify with any nationality. I’ve had lots of different passports, and I’ll probably get a Swedish one later this year.”
In 1999 Sweden famously passed legislation that criminalized the purchase of prostitution. Loudly trumpeted as a resounding success by the Swedish government, a number of other European countries, including Ireland, are currently considering following suit (Norway already has). Agustín sees the policy as totally misguided.
“I moved to Sweden [from Switzerland] to be with someone, but I did it at a point at which the Swedish law criminalising the purchase of sex was already very hotly debated and causing conflict. It is the bête noir amongst the activists for sex worker rights and for a lot of legal scholars. So it was quite interesting to
“Sweden is a country with a very high level of gender equality,” she continues. “So that has to do with salaries, maternity leave and all of that: it’s a very important part of the Swedish government identity. There are ministers – and the women who have reached those positions are like me, older women, only they’ve had careers as civil servants and lawyers and whatever. Anyway, they have a certain amount of power and they happen to believe that prostitution is complete violence against women, and they are opposed to it in a zero tolerance way.”
Whatever about the official statistics, for a start Agustín maintains that the law hasn’t really made much difference to the underground reality.
“I am a member of the Swedish Sex Worker Association, and we think the main result of the law is not reducing the violence by clients: it just increases the stigma for the women who sell sex. It all still goes on. I’ve never seen a country whose sex industry looks very different. They all look the same, whether you’re in India or Mexico or New York. And it doesn’t really matter what the law is, everyone still manages to do what they do.”
Over the course of her research, Agustín has danced with hustlers in Miami and strippers in San Francisco, learned safe-sex techniques from brothel workers in the Dominican Republic, roomed with an escort and her family in Melbourne, and visited bar girls and jailed migrants in Bangkok. Having talked to sex workers all over the globe, she is utterly convinced that the vast majority of them sell their bodies voluntarily. Needless to say, this simple home truth flies in the face of all official wisdom and statistics.
“The key thing that I’ve achieved in my work, and that I continue to talk about, is the idea of the rescuing industry, the idea of people who believe that they know best how everyone else should live, and who have defined selling sex as beyond the pale, as something that no woman should ever do. Incidentally, they don’t really care about all the men doing it.”
As detailed in her book, the historical roots of the modern rescue industry were largely planted by women. “Women who were wanting meaningful professions for themselves during a period in northern European history – when there were very few respectable jobs for women with any education – began to find them in what we now call social work, and identifying people that needed to be brought into the centre of society. And you can see how it happened, how prostitutes were identified as outcasts that didn’t have to be outcasts, that they could be rescued. So the whole idea of feminism comes to this very late.”
Agustín totally rejects most of the facts and figures offered by massively-funded international aid organizations such as Free The Slaves (which estimates that there’s something in the region of 27 million “trafficked slaves” in the world).
“This is all mythmaking,” she states flatly. “Up until about 1997, I hadn’t heard the word ‘trafficking’. I’d been in Latin America, and I knew there was a problem about migrants going to Europe and selling sex. I knew that the Europeans didn’t want them to come. I didn’t understand what the problem was about selling sex – so that was my original research question. I didn’t find out about the trafficking label buzzword until a couple of years into my study.
“I originally thought, ‘Oh well, they must be talking about other people’, because obviously there’s all these people I’m curious about, and talking to, who don’t have this story.
So I thought originally it might be a small
Having crunched the numbers herself, as well as spending a lot of time out in the field, Agustín concluded that most of the officially accepted stats on the trafficking of women were based on a combination of utter ignorance and bad research – combined inevitably
“I’m totally sure there are not 27 million slaves in the world,” she says. “Those figures come from people in the anti-slavery movement who have done very shoddy, crappy research using investment banking mathematics kind of stuff, based on rubbish statistics. These are people who don’t know about the sex industry.”
Whilst keen to label filth everywhere they see it, many of those working for rescue industry NGOs haven’t ever really gotten their hands dirty. “There are millions of aspects to the sex industry that these people don’t know about. They are very focused on an idea about modern slavery – i.e. that it is back - and so they are redefining many, many different activities to be slavery. It’s an ideological position.”
As ideological positions go, it’s a very popular one, stupidly unquestioned by the majority governments, authorities and bandwagon-jumping celebrities alike.
“Any woman who is selling sex is now being counted as a slave,” she says. “Just as any person under-18 is now being called a slave if they work. Whole industries that have horrible working conditions are being redefined as slavery. I prefer to talk about the actual working conditions that people are in.”
Although many rescue industry NGOs are extremely well-funded by taxpayers and charitable donations, Agustín has yet to see evidence that the money is well-spent.
“For all the millions and millions of euros and dollars that are being spent attempting to rescue people and find ‘traffickers’, it is well-known amongst those of us who look at evidence that very few people have been found in chains. So when you see a raid on a brothel on CNN… did that exist? It must have existed somewhere, I suppose, but this is not common.
“Many times, women are ‘rescued’ from these brothels – and they don’t want to be rescued. They are taken to a police station and they attempt to escape from the police station. Just like those horrible Magdalene Laundries you had in Ireland: it’s exactly the same. People get put into these rehabilitation projects – and they try to jump out the window and try to get out. So was it a good job? Did they enjoy it? Maybe not, but they didn’t want to be rescued from it.”
Is it possible that some of those working within the rescue industry are regarded as useful idiots by governments trying to
“Well, I never use the phrase ‘useful idiots’ – so you make sure you’re the one using it in your article,” she says. “I don’t think the people are idiots but, yeah, I do think that they are very convenient to governments who don’t want to deal with sex industry policy and certainly don’t want more migrants. I think it is jolly nice that it’s all framed this way so they can keep everyone out and not deal with
“To people working in the back of restaurants, or selling a little sex sometimes, and then working on construction sites, you know, those are the people I know. They are people who pick up different kinds of jobs wherever they get them. Most migrants who sell sex have no particular identity about it; they don’t feel like they are sex workers or prostitutes. They might be looking for another job or going somewhere else, but they cannot be employed in Europe, they cannot be employed at anything. To me, that’s the important thing.”
No one is trying to say that prostitutes take on the work because it’s glamorous, fun or sexy – though at the upper end of the scale, certain escorts might disagree. That isn’t the point either way. However demeaning or exhausting the work might be, many sex workers choose to do it in preference to other less tolerable or less well-paying employment.
Agustín sighs wearily when told of Irish NGO Ruhama’s recent anti-trafficking advertising campaign, which featured the slogan, ‘Women sell sex because they have to, not because they want to’.
“Well, these are very reductionist, sloganistic ideas, the usual ones that you hear. Ireland is interesting. It’s occupying only a slightly different position because of the Catholic history. It’s very taboo to discuss these things, which is why I think that Facebook page reacted so ferociously. And those were the anarchists that got so upset.
“If you repress discussion enough, then people become very threatened and ferocious and don’t have lots of information. The usual way this is talked about now is a neo-liberal market way called ‘End Demand’. In which people say there wouldn’t be anyone selling sex if there weren’t anyone who wanted to buy it. In the case of the slogan you just quoted, that’s a much more old-fashioned one. That’s the completely victimizing idea that no-one would do this unless they were completely desperate and forced and had no other option.” The reality, according to Agustín’s own research, is that the vast majority of migrants simply view selling sex as being the best of a bad lot of
“This is what I started looking at in the Dominican Republic in the early 90s,” she says. “Typically someone black and poor in the Dominican Republic can be a live-in maid inside someone’s house, living in a completely feudal position and having no privacy, and maybe an afternoon off a week. You can survive by selling things like oranges in the street. Or you can sell sex.
“Those are the three really basic options. Ok, they are not wonderful choices, we can spend time condemning structural inequality, but people presented with those three choices can have preferences. They will try out one or the other according to their preference. It turns out that a lot of people would rather die than be a maid inside someone’s house. I have no doubt that poor Irish women themselves feel exactly the same way.
“Some people can adapt to selling sex, even if they don’t like it much. You won’t get people talking about how happy or rich it makes them, but they will say ‘it is more flexible, I can see my children more if I do this. You know, it’s terrible about the stigma or I feel guilty or God judges me, it’s a sin – however this works out better for me’.
“Latin Americans are probably similar to the way Catholic brought-up Irish women might talk about it – that ‘yes, it’s wrong, but I’m doing a better job for my children’,” she continues. “So then obviously there’s a sex worker rights movement which is not composed only of elite, white, privileged people because I know all these people in India and Latin America. Lots of them are black and poor. However, they wish to claim that it’s work – and what I always say to people is that if you experience it as work then I accept that that’s what you experienced it as. And if you don’t experience it as work, if you experience it as rape or misery, then I believe you. I can handle that it’s different things for different people.”
Agustín lived for a week with an Australian sex worker and her family in Melbourne. Very much a case of somebody choosing to sell their body rather than being forced, it was a real eye-opener.
“There’s places in New Zealand and Australia, most notably New South Wales, where people who want to sell sex can do it without being criminalised in any way,” she explains. “It doesn’t mean that those laws are perfect and it’s impossible for the police to harass people or cause trouble for them – but yeah. When I was a student, I got the opportunity to go to Australia, a place I had never been, to present a conference paper. I wanted to stay longer and so I already had this very wide network of activist people and one of them said ‘you can stay with me for a week in Melbourne, if you would
“So this is what the rescue industry needs to do, you go and you stay in a place where the woman gets dressed to go out to whatever job she has got in a brothel or a flat or something, and she says goodbye to her husband and her child. I remember she actually sold sex out of her father’s flat. So no-one is talking about stigma or screaming about anything: it’s normalised. So that was very helpful to me to see that. Plenty of stigma still exists in Australia, but that was very helpful to me to go to a place where there were no arguments
What’s the most extreme opposition she has encountered to her book?
“Probably when the BBC invited me to their World Human Trafficking Debate in Egypt in 2010,” she recalls. “Mrs. Mubarak was not disgraced at the time and she was co-funding the whole thing and hosting it in Luxor Temple. I had said to the BBC that, ‘No, I don’t go to things like that, they don’t want me there!’ You could see who was going there; it was all the usual suspects.
“They said, ‘No, you don’t understand, we need to have a diversity of opinion’. They didn’t have diversity so I eventually decided to go because the BBC reached millions of people on television in the rest of the world. In most of the undeveloped world, the BBC debates are
“Anyway, I stipulated that I needed to have a friend with me because I knew it would be horribly hostile. And it was unbelievably hostile. There was armed goons! Mrs. Mubarak had at least 50 of these guys with their guns sticking out of their pockets all over the place. I was the only one that questioned anything. It is extremely interesting to look at [on YouTube]. The thing is 50 minutes long so, in order to keep the viewers’ attention, they have to have drama. So I kept interrupting them saying I was a skeptic. Asking where did they get figures like 27 million?
“The head of Interpol was there, amongst similar types, and there were movie stars there in the front row – like Mira Sorvino and Ashton Kutcher – and they were very upset. They actually interrupted and stood up and complained that I should not be allowed to distract proceedings. They didn’t understand obviously why the BBC was doing this. I remember sitting up there and thinking ‘it would be so easy for any goon to take me out right now’. I was a complete sitting duck up there in a Third World country where I doubt they’d even investigate what happened to me.
“That was probably the worst, but I kept my cool. I don’t scare easily so I do get people who stand up and scream and I suppose that can happen. I did stipulate to the people in Dublin that I wanted a security guard. I think you can always have a fanatic who throws themselves on the stage or whatever. I think at this point there should be security guards there, but I’ve never really been upset myself. It was horrible after this BBC debate because nobody knew who I was before and now they all dramatically turned their backs on me. Mira Sorvino, or someone in her entourage, accused me of being a holocaust denier. It was a very extreme reaction to someone who had a difference of opinion, you know, to be called pro-slavery, pro-Hitler.”
While Laura Agustín’s treatise on trafficking is entirely credible, there’s such moral fervour around the subjects of sex and prostitution that many are reluctant to listen to her. Does she feel like a lone voice of reason?
“Well not completely,” she says. “I feel like I am the kind of leader of the resistance movement and most of the people in the resistance movement have their jobs to worry about. There are plenty of academics who talk and write stuff that is like what I do, but they are not out in public: they don’t want to talk in public because it is an unpopular subject.
“There are also people in Sex Worker Rights movements, so there are thousands who agree. There are journalists who have written about this – there are individual pieces taking down all the statistics that are misused – but I have nothing to lose. I’m an independent person. I live precariously, it’s the way I always did, so nothing has changed. I don’t have a job to lose, and I’m good at speaking in public, so actually I do have the satisfaction of knowing that I have had a big effect.”
For more information, see [link]www.lauraagustin.com[/link] Laura Agustín will speak on the theme: Sex At The Margins (Migration, Trafficking and the Sex Industry), at the John Hume Institute for Global Irish Studies Centre, in the Clinton Auditorium, UCD at 4pm on April 4; and on the theme Thinking About Sex Work As Work, as part of the Anarchist Bookfair, at 12 noon, on April 6, in Liberty Hall, Eden Quay, Dublin.