Friday, March 29, 2013

Laura Agustín

If you wish to rescue them, then the idea would be, to talk to that person and ask, you know, (...) are you happy, do you need anything or should I leave you alone, is there any way I can help you, this is completely absent.Laura Agustín

I receive requests from clients asking how they can distinguish between coerced or trafficked sex workers and those more or less freely on the game. (...) I’m wondering what other working people advise, since I tend to think that any client genuinely worried about this should stop paying human beings for sex and move onto some other form of commercial pleasure. Why? Because, as I write ad infinitum, it is vexingly difficult to distinguish levels of will and choice, except at the extremes of the continuum where pure freedom and pure slavery supposedly exist. – Laura Agustín

This post is all about Laura Agustín!

She has a very good blog which I have followed for years! It is here:

Yes, I abandoned my own blog more or less. Why? It is rarely visited. I have 150 pageviews a day, which seems like quite a lot, but now since I have google-analytics on my blog I know that 85% of the visitors leave within 10 seconds. 7% stay longer than 3 minutes, and 3% stay longer than 10 minutes. If I only count those who stay longer than 3 minutes I have only about 10 visitors a day. Wow. But it has seriously removed my motivation to write on this blog. I discovered that certain very long post in which I have put a lot of effort, and which I deem very important, are actually visited a lot, but the average time that people dwell on it is only a couple of seconds…

Anyway Laura Agustín seems to have banned me, but I want to post my comment anyway, so I simply do it on my blog (I commented under the name Kris on her blog). Laura Agustín complains that many academic people and students ask silly questions to her, so some people advised her to write a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) on her blog. But she doesn’t like that because her views are not that simple enough to put on several pages or catch in several bullet point. A FAQ would oversimplify her ideas. You can find her complaint here:

But, I also long for a very clear list of statements by Laura. I have read a lot of blog posts written by Laura, and I read her book. But I wondered many times what actually her message is. But I think I figured it out. I think Laura Agustín’s ideas actually can be written down very concisely.

I think bullet point would be (what is a bullet point by the way?):

1.       Don’t help people who do not specifically ask for help. The rescue industry all too often forces itself upon people without questioning these very people if they actually desire their help.
2.       Governments, nongovernmental organizations and the general public should always accept the choice of people regarding their form or place of work, no matter how dangerous or humiliating this work might seem from the point of view of an outsider, or how limited the choices of a person are. Labour conditions are solely private matters that should be dealt with by the employee and the employer involved, without outside interference, except when the employee and employer ask specifically for outside help.
3.       Do not criticize or attack abuses in prostitutes without being aware of abuses in forms of labour other than prostitution, or in relationships where the persons involved don’t work in prostitution. Lots of abuse is not specifically related to prostitution per se, but to labour and relationships in general.

I have a fourth bullet point, but this would be very controversial. I think this is the most controversial idea of Laura:

4.       Respect the children’s sexual autonomy. Children must not be forced into sexual acts, but they should also not be prohibited from engaging into sexual acts voluntarily. The age of consent is arbitrary and what defines a child is culturally determined.

And one final bullet point:

5.       There should be more accurate research regarding prostitution. This research should not be prejudiced by the cultural norms and values of the researchers. Prostitutes should be taken seriously and not be belittled.

I agree with her on some points, but I think she overlooks the fact that many forced prostitutes tell the police and social workers that they work voluntarily in prostitution, while evidently it is not (by listening to wiretapped telephone conversations for instance). If you only help people who specifically ask for it then a lot of people who need help are abandoned. Sometimes you have to venture out as a police officer or social worker. But she has a point that the police and social workers overdo things sometimes. I think about the worthless raids on brothels you see all over the world. That won’t help. Usually the victims need to gain the trust of the social workers and police officers over a long period of time. Sometimes many months or years. One big raid won’t solve it. Laura Agustín is very upset about these raids and she writes and talks about it a lot.

And I indeed believe that people should have the right to chose their occupation, but the employer has also certain responsibilities. Dangerous or humiliating conditions are the responsibility of the employer in my opinion, and it is irrelevant if the employee has initially accepted the job. That doesn’t mean that the employees automatically have the right to be subjected to all kinds of abuses after they have made their choice to work there, abuses like: extortion or sexual harassment. I think she overlooks that. Do we have the right to be tortured by the boss and his/her clients after we consented to work for him/her? Perhaps, but I do think the boss and his/her client don’t have the right to torture or sexually harass his/her workers, even when they consented to work for him/her and were aware beforehand that this employer treats his/her employees badly.

I have difficulties with Laura Agustín’s opinions about child prostitution. She wants people to respect the sexual desires of children, and believes that what defines a child is culturally determined. It sometimes seems if she wants to abolish the age of consent altogether, although she has never explicitly stated that. It would mean that practically child porn would become legal, and 10-years-old children would appear in the Dutch window brothels (if the age of consent would be abolished in the Netherlands). But I think in reality nearly all people younger than say 15 years old, and most people younger than 18, who work in prostitution are forced to work in prostitution. The justice system has to go through the hassle of proving in each case that the person younger than 18 was forced.

I also criticize Laura Agustín in that she never speaks about actual cases of forced prostitution or blatant exploitation. It seems as if she wants to avoid the issue, as if it is too difficult for her. It is always like: bad state wants to harass prostitutes who want to be left alone, and the human traffickers are merely nice people who want to help other people out, and they should be left alone too. I don’t believe she is evil or something. I think she’s just so upset about the awful brothel raids by the police that she overlooks the abuse that takes place. Perhaps I’m diverting my feelings of guilt to her. I feel that I am evil because I actually visit prostitutes, some of whom I suspected beforehand they could be forced prostitutes (like young window prostitutes). But there’s hope: I haven’t visited a prostitute in four months. I just lost interest.

I believe it would be unfair to put things into her mouth, but I want to sum up some quotes (with the link first, then followed by the quote from that link). It is funny to see that she says the most unambiguous things in the comment sections (I moved some links within the texts by the way):
I receive requests from clients asking how they can distinguish between coerced or trafficked sex workers and those more or less freely on the game. Given all the anti-demand and hate-men projects around, it’s a fair question. And, obviously, sensible clients don’t want to be told to just ask the sex workers themselves. Some say that they have met women they believed worked voluntarily, but afterwards it turned out they had been forced into it. (...) In this context, I would like to come up with some advice to clients. I’m wondering what other working people advise, since I tend to think that any client genuinely worried about this should stop paying human beings for sex and move onto some other form of commercial pleasure. Why? Because, as I write ad infinitum, it is vexingly difficult to distinguish levels of will and choice, except at the extremes of the continuum where pure freedom and pure slavery supposedly exist. (...) And it is perfectly true that sex workers may lie about or exaggerate their happiness in their work in order to get custom, or be afraid of telling anyone the truth, since that might lead them into trouble if they are found out.
apart from dragons and giants, i don’t disbelieve in the existence then and now of nasty men who take advantage of weaker women. i wish women wouldn’t feel so weak, and don’t believe as many are as think they are.
no, that was the comment of one of the women themselves, and I meet plenty of workers that say the same: they don’t like the work or don’t think it’s real work but rather sin and degradation. But – And – they prefer to do it. A more powerful argument in my view than lots of others.
As for the idea that sex work is different because of the physical contact: what about dentists and surgeons, if you think that one person inserting part of their body into another’s is so special? There is no difference, unless you are going to repeat the claim that the sexual organs are different, that they have some spiritual significance that mouths don’t. As I’ve often said, that is a quasi-religious belief everyone is entitled to, but assuming everyone sees things that way and imposing the view is fundamentalism.
Most activists are eager to condemn and exclude ‘children’ from their demands, but childhood means different things to different people and in different places. And younger people who make their own decisions need to be respected. This is why blanket declarations against some activities based on age are questionable. I know it’s a fraught topic, but I think we should be thinking about it.
The issue of young people on the street who have a home somewhere they don’t want to live in – runaways – is always charged because of a widespread refusal to accept that everyone has a sexuality – babies, toddlers, children, teenagers, old people.
Recently I wrote about how the term debt bondage is often used to imply there is something peculiarly primitive and unjust about migrants’ agreeing to pay off smugglers by doing jobs not of their choosing for which they receive little pay until debts are paid off. The example was Vietnamese nail salons. But in a non-migrant example, students often comment on the horrendous loans they are forced to take in order to get degrees; a report from late last year said about the US: Seniors who graduated last year carried an average of $24,000 in student loan debt. . . an approximately 6 percent rise in debt over the previous year. Many in the mainstream lament this debt without talking about it as demonic or enslaving. The point isn’t that debt is all good or all bad but that it exists everywhere, and its bondage is often seen as lamentable, yes, but as acceptable – something people are meant to struggle to pay off as part of normal life. Which is what most migrants think about the debts they incur to travel and work abroad.
The UN recently released yet another report on trafficking which says:
a disproportionate number of women are involved in human trafficking, not only as victims (which we knew), but also as traffickers (first documented here). Female offenders have a more prominent role in present-day slavery than in most other forms of crime.
Sillies . . . if they only had listened to what some of us were saying from the beginning, they wouldn’t find themselves so surprised now. By which I mean that those who help move people around in informal networks are very often friends and relations of the people doing the moving, so why shouldn’t they be women as often as men? If you take away Crime as the framing of this sort of movement, then you don’t have to expect the criminals to be men. The work of smuggling does not require particular physical strength. As an article about coyotes on the Mexico-US border shows, women can be highly adept at people smuggling and trafficking.
Jason Collier on 12 March 2012 at 19:59
I am not going to feign expertise in this field, however I do have a simple question. If I am not mistaken, you are generally advocating against this idea that people who live in the margins of society are devoid of agency. While I don’t disagree with this assessment at all, it does seem to trivialize the concept that there are people, perhaps a significant portion of people, who experience sex trafficking in its worst, made for a hollywood motion picture form.
Am I to understand that you believe that morality or moral authority should be absent this discussion? Or do you make room for the possibility that there are people who believe that there is something morally* wrong with sex work, and can advocate for social changes that make it at the very least unnecessary, while still respecting the dignity of those involved?

Laura Agustín on 13 March 2012 at 00:48
Well, this is my field, and has been for nearly 20 years now. You’ve asked some huge questions, too many to answer properly here, and I can see why you’d have them, dropping in like this. In brief, first there is not evidence of very many of the extreme cases you have heard about. They exist but are not the norm (I’ve been researching and reading others’ research all these years.) On the other hand, there are vast numbers of people who are in less dramatic trouble, whose other kinds of situations should be brought out. It is far easier to whip up indignation about the extreme cases, however.
On the contrary to what you say, I believe that there are a number of moral positions to be taken here. Not the ‘moral’ one that says selling sex is ‘immoral’ – no I don’t think anyone should be generalising about all the millions of people who sell sex, there is far too much variation around the world and according to class, gender, ethnicity, culture. The moral position I like is the one that values listening to what individuals (in the margins or not) say, themselves, about what they want. There are way too many cases of people who’ve been ‘rescued’ against their will.
If you are interested, look around on the website – there are lots of resources here.
Leaving aside adults, child sex trafficking surely constitutes the most vibrant panic of the last few years, despite a lack of evidence that it actually exists (what does exist are teens who leave home). When the runaway child is a male teenager, the predator usually imagined to be exploiting him is likely the gay white man Lancaster describes. But when the runaway is a female teenager, the predator is likely to be imagined as a black man or youth–the classic pimp figure.
The other day I said no one should be making decisions about other people’s degree of will or acceptance of their situations and then generalising to huge groups of people. One response was: No one should be making any assumptions about the degree of will for a 10- year-old girl or boy in the sex trades? After pointing out the rhetoric (used by abolitionists and anti-trafficking people all the time), I answered yes, no one should be making assumptions about 10-year-olds either. How do we know what led to her selling sex? What choices was she faced with? What might happen if she were suddenly extracted from her situation? It is easy to take heroic positions at the extreme of a continuum, but the vast majority of cases lie along its middle, whether people are young or old. To make the extreme the case all policy should be based on – as well as all emotion and compassion – is irresponsible, an infantilising Rescue Industry strategy to be avoided whether you like the idea of kids selling sex or not.
To clarify certain terms: The UN Convention on Rights of the Child (1989) defines everyone under 18 as a child. Some people therefore have only two terms in their vocabulary: adult and child. Other people continue to use other terms that aid understanding of particular situations, such as adolescent, teenager, pubescent, young adult and so on. In many countries where child labour of all kinds is a mainstay of family existence, even very young children’s working for money is felt to be necessary and a right. The ILO itself backed off from campaigning against all ‘child labour’ for this reason and focuses on the most dangerous jobs as defined by themselves. Furthermore, in many countries people are considered sexually mature at 13, 14, 15, and they may have sex with others their age or younger or older. That’s a description of what happens, whether money or benefits come into it or not.
At one point, attempting to pin me down, he said, Philosophically you could be called a libertarian -and I cut him off right there. No, I said, I am not a libertarian, I rarely talk about rights and freedoms. I also am not a neoliberal proponent of the happiness of making money in a free marketplace. What I am is a believer in human agency. I believe that disadvantaged persons with limited options of how to proceed in life have, until they are actually put in chains, some space to move, negotiate, prefer one option to another. This position hardly seems philosophical to me, and I am not going to get credit for inventing a new theory with it. Yet time and again it turns conversations upside down.
Similarly, I handle the endlessly tedious conversation about whether selling sex can ever ‘be work’ like this: If one person tells me they experience it as rape and exploitation, I believe them. If another person tells me they experience it as a profession, I believe them. The other day sex workers in Santo Domingo, faced with a government proposing to criminalise their clients, reminded the state attorney that muchas de ellas mantienen a sus familias de este trabajo – many of them maintain their families with this work. (You’d think that would be punto final, wouldn’t you, especially in a poor country where any jobs at all are scarce – but it never is). Why this difference of perception and emotion should lead to such a hullaballoo is really beyond explanation.

A quote from: Sex and the Limits of Enlightenment: The Irrationality of Legal Regimes to Control Prostitution (Sexuality research and social policy, December 8, Vol. 5, No. 4, download here):

Perhaps one of these regimes works better in some times and places; Germany’s present regulatory system may well  be the best example, but German sex worker rights activists have plentiful criticisms about the system so far (Klee, 2005).

(Okay, here I speak again here, you know: Kris/Donkey. There are also some very illuminating videos where Laura Agustín explains many of her views, especially regarding the violent raids of brothels by the police all over the world:)

At New Slave Trade or Moral Panic? a panel on trafficking at London’s Battle of Ideas in 2010:

at the AWID conference in Istanbul:

Quote from last video (between 11:57-12:15 minutes): “If you wish to rescue them, then the idea would be, to talk to that person and ask, you know, are you, is there, are you happy, do you need anything or should I leave you alone, is there any way I can help you, this is completely absent.”