Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

In the New Statesman, Brendan O’Neill writes:

Most migrant women, including those in the sex industry, have made a clear decision, says a new study, to leave home and take their chances abroad. They are not "passive victims" in need of "saving" or sending back by western campaigners.

It is always refreshing to read a book that turns an issue on its head. Laura María Agustín’s trenchant and controversial critique of the anti-trafficking crusade goes a step further: it lays out the matter – in this case, "human trafficking" – on the operating table, dissects it, unravels its innards, and shows the reader, in gory, sometimes eye-watering detail, why everything we think about it is Wrong with a capital W. It’s a jarring read; I imagine that those who make a living from campaigning against the scourge of human trafficking will throw it violently across the room, if not into an incinerator. Yet it may also be one of the most important books on migration published in recent years.

Most of us recognise the ideological under pinnings of old-style baiting of migrants. When newspaper hacks or populist politicians talk about evil Johnny Foreigners coming here and stealing our jobs or eating our swans, it does not take much effort to sniff out their xenophobic leanings. Agustín’s contention is that the new "discourse" on migrants (in which many of them, especially the women and children, are seen as "victims of trafficking" in need of rescue) is also built on ideological foundations. Like its demented cousin – tabloid hysteria about foreign scroungers – the trafficking scare is based on a deeply patronising view of migrants, rather than any hard statistical evidence that human trafficking is rife.

Agustín begins by challenging the idea that there is a "new slave trade" in which hundreds of thousands of women and children are sold like chattels across borders. The US state department claims that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked for forced labour or sex worldwide every year; Unicef says a million children and young people are trafficked each year. Upmarket newspapers – which have embraced the seemingly PC "trafficking discourse" with the same fervour as the tabloid newspapers screech about fence-leaping job-stealers from Sangatte – tell us that "thousands" of women and children have been trafficked into Britain and "traded for tawdry sex", and that some of them (the African ones) "live under fear of voodoo".

Agustín says the numbers are "mostly fantasies". She does not doubt that there are instances of forced migration, or that, in a world where freedom of movement is restricted by stiff laws and stringent border controls, many aspiring migrants have little choice but to seek assistance from dodgy middlemen. Yet, having researched trafficking and sex workers’ experiences for the past five years, both academically and through fieldwork in Latin America and Asia, she concludes that the figures are based on "sweeping generalisations" and frequently on "wild speculation". "Most of the writing and activism [on trafficking] does not seem to be based on empirical research, even when produced by academics," she notes. Many of the authors rely on "media reports" and "statistics published with little explanation of methodology or clarity about definitions".

Agustín points out that some anti-trafficking activists depend on numbers produced by the CIA (not normally considered a reliable or neutral font of information when it comes to inter national issues), even though the CIA refuses to "divulge its research methods". The reason why the "new slavery" statistics are so high is, in part, that the category of trafficking is promiscuously defined, sometimes disingenuously so. Some researchers automatically label migrant women who work as prostitutes "trafficked persons", basing their rationale on the notion that no woman could seriously want to work in the sex industry. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women argues that "all children and the majority of women in the sex trade" should be considered "victims of trafficking". As Agustín says, such an approach "infantilises" migrant women, "eliminating any notion that women who sell sex can consent". Ironically, it objectifies them, treating them as unthinking things that are moved around the world against their will.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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