The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

WoWasis book review: ‘Sex at the Margins’ by Laura María Agustín

Written By: herbrunbridge - Jul• 18•12

The author of this book on the prostitution “rescue industry” caught our eye here on a WoWasis blog post earlier this year, when we reported this comment in her own blog, quoted from a Thai women’s organization: We have now reached a point in history where there are more women in the Thai sex industry being abused by anti-trafficking practices than there are women exploited by traffickers.” Strong words and opinions, so we read the book to see what it was all about.

Laura María Augustín’s Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labor Markets, and the Rescue Industry (2007, ISBN 978-1-84277-860-9) explores the professional sex industry from several historical and social perspectives.  One fascinating chapter addresses the historical concepts of “work” and “travel,” suggesting migration patterns of today’s international sex workers are no different than any other itinerate trade.  While acknowledging that trafficking of women against their wills does exist, it is, in fact, a minuscule drop in the vast sea of male, female, and transsexual sex workers, yet fuels the fire of NGO outrage to the extent that it has radically changed the discourse over the international sex trade.

Augustín here is emphatic that the vast majority of sex workers don’t see themselves as victims, but rather consider their work to be a choice, primarily to better themselves financially. Her own travels investigating the business occur primarily in Spain, but her findings would not be out of place in Asia. And increasingly, she views NGO-based “rescue operations” as neo-colonialist in nature in attempting to impart a western, quasi-religious  world view to those they would attempt to “save.”

There’s lots to consider in this 248 page book, including interesting pages on the differing ways 18th century France and England handled the prostitution industry.  From denunciation of hedonism to the Evangelical protestant movement, she posits that centuries-old western beliefs color the world of those attempting to regulate or abolish prostitution today, contrary to the desires of individuals that have chosen the selling of sexual favors as their preferred method of deriving money.

Among our favorite passages were those on the subject of a conference the author attended, run by radical feminists, who brooked no dissention or contrary discussion with regard to audience members. Prostitution, for them, was a crime against women, regardless of what the women engaged in the trade thought. Here is a thought-provoking element, voiced by the author:

The many research projects referred to in Note 60 of this chapter show that many women do achieve the goal of earning a large amount of money in a short time and are glad of it. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), an international NGO, agitates for a discursive change that would make ‘prostitution’ by definition a form of violence against women, eliminating any notion that women who sell sex can consent. CATW also proposes that the word ‘prostitution’ be made to mean the same thing as the word ‘trafficking,’ so that

‘all children and the majority of women in the sex trade would be considered victims of trafficking … Unless compelled by poverty, past trauma, or substance addictions, few women will voluntarily engage in prostitution. Where the demand for prostitution is high, insufficient numbers of local women can be recruited. Therefore, brothel owners and pimps place orders with traffickers for the number of women and children they need.’

The movement against ‘trafficking’ (and ‘prostitution’) uses the theory of violence against women, conceived as a ‘manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women’.  The feminist project to reveal the routine nature of violence against women has led to widespread understanding of the insidious workings of patriarchy; the problem comes about when the roles of ‘perpetrator’ and ‘victim’ are Created as identities rather than temporary conditions. But services that want victims to become ‘survivors’ sometimes reinforce passivity, particularly in therapeutic contexts, diagnosing syndromes and disorders and emphasising damage over coping. Ratna Kapur explains that in the legal context

‘it is invariably the abject victim subject who seeks rights, primarily because she is the one who has had the worst happen to her. The victim subject has allowed women to speak out about abuses that have remained hidden or invisible in human rights discourse.’

Victims become passive receptacles and mute sufferers who must be saved, and helpers become saviours, a colonialist operation warned against in discussions of western feminism’s treatment of third-world women and now common in discussions of migrant women who sell sex.

The ‘trafficking’ discourse relies on the notion that poorer women »re better off slaying at home than leaving and possibly getting into trouble; men are routinely expected to encounter and overcome trouble, but women may be irreparably damaged by it. The lack of a coherent definition of the term ‘trafficking’ has inspired an avalanche of meetings, conferences and reports all over the world.

As the author suggests, it’s clearly time for rethinking. And Agustín is most assuredly a thinking person’s writer. The book is highly recommended for all persons interested in international commerce, the business of commercial sex, and the often questionable veracity of NGOs involved in “saving” allegedly fallen women. Buy the book here at the WoWasis eStore.

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  1. A big thank you for your blog post.Really looking forward to read more.

  2. tom selig says:

    The pressure on the sex worker group that posted the 2 youtube video clips that i referred to on july 28 here, must have been enormous since they have been forced to remove the clips from youtube. That is direct proof that these people (sex workers) have absolutely no voice. Instead they are forced into 60$ a month slave jobs to produce for the worlds sportsware/shoe brands.

  3. Tom Selig’s comment of July 28,2012 makes reference to two videos found on YouTube. They are Parts I and II of a documentary film described as follows:

    This mini-documentary, by the WNU Sex Workers Union of Cambodia and NGO Journalist Paula Stromberg, outlines harms caused by the Rescue Industry which claims to be ‘rescuing’ women in the sex trade.

    The world-wide Rescue Industry includes many Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), international churches, government/bi-lateral donors, some women’s groups, fundamentalists and charities which receive millions of dollars each year based on the number of victims they rescue. The Rescue Industry ignores adult, freelance sex workers’ demands to earn a living — thus disenfranchising impoverished people around the world — not just those in Cambodia.

    Since 2008, WNU Sex Workers have lobbied the Cambodian government to amend the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation. This mini-doc is an attempt to take the dialogue to another level, engaging the Cambodian government and international stakeholders.

    Because of the Rescue Industry’s contributions in bringing about the anti-trafficking and Police Raid & Rescue policies, WNU Sex Workers ask that these international stakeholders also be accountable for the impact of these policies.

  4. tom selig says:

    good book indeed. To get a recent picture of how things are in Cambodia check out:

  5. Diane Korfield says:

    Thanks for reviewing this book. Laura’s insights really should be more well known! as a sex trade worker for 12 years, I admit, I was molested as a child and raped at 18. But I did more healing work than anyone I know. I stopped all drinking and drugs by age 24, and continued with plenty of therapy. I married raised 2 children and at 41 entered the sex trade industry. It has been the most rewarding and entertaining career, after being a dental hygienest, a tax professional and a yoga therapist. You might think I am different from a young woman from a poor country, but having traveled to work in the industry, I can tell you, men have treated me no differently. Some men are generous and kind, some anxious, some rude. It’s a remarkable business that relies on psychology smarts and people skills. The pay is good and the experience even better. For all those out there trying to save the ‘victims’, to us, you are ill-informed and invading our life choices that are quite frankly, none of your business.

  6. Charlie says:

    Too much money and too many jobs at stake for immediate open debate. Simple common sense solutions do not create complex problems that need expensive resolutions. Vested interest always gets in the way of humanity resolving it’s problems.

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