Naked Anthropologist Laura Agustin claims antislavery movement harms sex workers

By Charlie Smith, November 24, 2011

An author and scholar who likes to refer to herself as the “Naked Anthropologist” has compared the current climate against human trafficking to the panic over white slavery in the late 19th century. Laura Agustin, author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry (Zed Books, 2007), told the Georgia Straight by phone that in the earlier case, there was an uproar over whether Caucasian and Jewish women moving to New York or Buenos Aires, Argentina, were being traded as slaves.

While she won’t use the word “panic” to describe the current situation (“I try to avoid these labels,” she said), Agustin suggested that there is a widespread “rescue movement”, led by governments and the United Nations, which is trying to characterize a range of issues—migrant sex workers, child labourers overseas, and people who pay huge fees to immigrate—as “slavery”. Using this terminology gives a growing “antislavery” movement, largely based in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, the moral justification to launch interdiction programs as part of an international justice movement.

“I don’t think anyone cares about the women or about sex,” Agustin claimed from a hotel room in Toronto. “This is some kind of enormously funded thing about organized crime…men in government, feeling threatened by other men who aren’t participating and are having parallel societies. It’s up in the cultural stratosphere with terrorism.”

Agustin, an advocate for sex workers’ rights based in Sweden, has a PhD from The Open University in the United Kingdom. She said that the words “human trafficking” started entering the lexicon in a serious way around 2003 and 2004. Now, she maintained that the language is shifting to emphasize slavery. She bluntly described this movement as a colonial initiative.

“The protagonists to end slavery are the same Anglo-Saxon people that were in the 19th century, so you get the trafficking ambassador for the U.S. government invoking [British antislavery crusader] William Wilberforce and arguing that the U.S. and the U.K. have a special mission to go out to other people’s countries and save people,” Agustin said.

Most people don’t have an issue with this. Agustin, on the other hand, said the problem with the rescue industry, which involves many nongovernmental organizations, is that it doesn’t pay nearly enough attention to the choices that people are making to improve their lives. While researching migration in the 1990s, she spent time on a Caribbean island where there was a tradition of large numbers of women moving to Europe, where they would work in one of two jobs: as a maid or selling sex.

“People tried to decide which they wanted to do, and they weighed their options,” she said.

Later in Madrid, Agustin spent time studying people who helped these migrants and who felt sorry for them. She said these rescuers didn’t weigh the downside for women who are forced out of prostitution against their will. “I asked the question: why is selling sex not considered a service?”

The answer, which arose out of her anthropological research, was that there was no rescue industry until the rise of the European bourgeoisie. “They positioned themselves as the ones who knew best about how to live and designated a number of people to be victims,” she said. “And prostitutes were high on the list. They had not been considered victims before that.”

Agustin accused Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times of indulging in a similar attitude by cheering the closure of brothels in the developing world without asking what happens to these workers. “He’s an egregious example of a white person who assumes that he’s doing good, who assumes that he knows how other people should live,” she alleged.