Sex at the Margins (Book Review)


Agustin’s now eight-year old book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry is perhaps better read as three different angles on the same subject rather than as a unified thesis. The first section is an attempt to critique popular conceptions of sex work as different from other forms of work, or migration as wholly distinct from tourism; the second section offers a genealogical argument of the ‘origins’ of the contemporary social (helper) sector through the enlightenment and industrial revolutionary periods. This leads into the final section: a criticism of the employees of contemporary NGOs that focus on prostitution and human trafficking.

In a rough attempt to unify these three themes, Agustin’s analysis is that contemporary conceptions and policies regarding prostitution serve the interests of state power as well as the individual egos of those who identify with the cause to ‘rescue’ sex workers. The former, which is little developed in the book, is about sovereignty and population ‘control’, the latter is about self-esteem and the exercise of agency of those who find their purpose in helping others. The irony, Agustin argues, is that these helpers achieve their goals but oppress those they (think) they are helping.

If I remember correctly, a few years before Agustin’s book was published I was shocked to read on billboards or online advertisements that there were now ‘more slaves than ever before’ in history. At this time there was a push by NGOs to raise awareness of human trafficking, a serious problem, the scale of which is hard to measure. This situation was, as Agustin points out, exploited and the misuse of statistics utilised in order to exaggerate the phenomenon, to raise its profile and to draw in funds. The fact that in 2007 when Agustin’s book was released she was pushing back against this publicity machine, with much greater resources than herself explains to some extent the angle taken in this book and excuses some of its flaws (Agustin herself is lax in her use of statistics at one point, and aspects of the book feel reactionary).

‘People who desire to travel, see the world, make money and accept whatever jobs are available along the way do not fall into neat categories’ (p2)

The first section of the book is a wonderfully detailed survey of the literature and an overview of the complexities of migration and migrant sex work. This section is nuanced, even-handed, and very well qualified. In outlining the issues confronting ‘illegal’ migrants Agustin is not afraid to paint details which are counter to her agenda in its more pure form (more on this later). It is Agustin’s clear intent to reconceptualise of migrant sex-workers not as victims of pimps or trafficking but as agents who have made meaningful decisions for their life; the best decisions they can given the circumstances, yet she gives voice to migrants whose plans have gone awry and to those who have been swindled, resulting in terrible consequences. For its even-handedness it is hard to fault this section of the book, however, it does lack a sense of perspective. It is not enough to know that different people experience migration/sex-work differently, a sense of proportion of these experiences is essential.

‘People know what they do. They frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.’ Foucault.

The second theme of the book, the genealogical account, referred to as the Rise of the Social (the use of ‘social’ here is characteristically pejorative*; I think a better title would be the ‘bureaucratisation of public morality’). Here the roots of the development of the social sector are traced (according to Agustin) to females of the growing middle class during the enlightenment and industrial revolution periods who sought to express themselves through work; but with most jobs considered unbecoming for women they were compelled to establish a niche in which to operate: rescuing ‘fallen women’. Using the legitimatisation provided by religious culture they could establish a life outside their homes while the prostitutes they tried to reform came to be conceived of as victims. A key point this analysis leads is also one of the common criticisms of social sector bureaucracies: they grow larger and their existence relies on the continuation of problems they are supposed to solve.

‘Telling one’s story, going to protests and marches, chatting to outreach workers and a host of other projects are simply not interesting to many people, whether they are maltreated by society or not’ (p175)

The final theme of the book returns to these ‘helper’ organisations in the form of modern NGOs. Agustin portrays these organisations of educated middle-class women (particularly feminists) who carry ideological notions which they use to lobby government policy with little regard for the desires of those who will be affected, or to be applied on the street by badgering sex-workers to join progressive movement in return for health services. This section of Agustin’s book is by far the weakest because, in stark contrast with the first section, here Agustin’s account is quite one-dimensional. With the exception of a group of pragmatic nuns, most social sector workers are portrayed as ideologues insisting that no prostitution can be consensual, and shouting down or treating with contempt contrary points of view (such as Agustin’s own). While these characterisations ring true, it is hard to believe that these people had no redeeming characteristics and the lack of a sympathetic eye on Agustin’s part sours to some extent the even-handedness of earlier chapters.

Ideology and Utopia

Agustin’s own ideology is revealed through the analyses outlined and in her optimism for one potential solution – an entrepreneurial brothel owner referred to as Don X. The recurrence of notions of agency, freedom, self-determination, desire and risk taking (and the absence of culture, community, and safety) suggest these are the human capacities Agustin considers most valuable. Likewise the analysis of human relations remains at the level of doing rather than being: individuals, actions, responsibility. The partial solution of Don X dovetails neatly into this highly individualized analysis. Don is self-interested and yet disinterested (because his needs have been met). His autonomy and wealth free him to be benevolent with regard to the interests of his staff for whom he applies for working permits. It is worth pointing out that – in tension with the books anti-state DIY thematic – once Don’s staff receive working permits they become the beneficiaries of state regulation and protection.

Overall, Agustin’s book does not read as an attempt to deal with migrant sex work in all its complexity but to humanise sex workers and to establish a narrative in which sex-work is seen as a legitimate profession. Other than the example of Don, Agustin’s main other positive contribution is to implore greater reflexivity of NGO workers and policy creators so that they may become more aware of the real consequences of their actions. I feel, however, that Agustin’s greatest contribution has been the first element of her book where she successfully eschews ideology in favour of an exemplary attempt at portraying the genuine complexity of these issues.

*Agustin has a penchant for redefining common phrases (‘the social’, ‘social agent’, ‘social figures’) with negative connotations.

Agustin, L 2007, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, Zed Books, London.

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