Books

Home Books

“There Can’t Be Numbers:” An Interview With Laura Agustín, Part 1

Upon the publication of her book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labor Markets and the Rescue Industryanthropologist Laura Agustín became a hero to many sex worker activists. Her research cuts through the usual moral hysteria and emotionality invoked by the idea of trafficking to radically revise discussions about migration and sexual labor. Both her blog (linked above) and her book contain rational assessments of an unfair world in which people exercise choice even when they have limited options; where citizens of developing countries, like citizens of developed countries, have an urge to see more of the world; and where a single story cannot usefully articulate the experience of multiple, diverse human beings. When it comes to her approach, she explains, “I am disposed to accept what people tell me, and believe in their ability to interpret their own lives.” She kindly agreed to answer some questions for us about the current state of trafficking laws, what she calls the Rescue Industry, and public (mis)conceptions.

How did you first become interested in the sex industry?

My interest was in the experiences of friends and colleagues in Latin America who wanted to work in Europe. Travelling outside the formal economy meant having very limited choices, and, for women, selling sex and working as live-in maids were practically the only choices. People I knew conversed in a normal way about how to get to Europe and which of the jobs seemed better for them personally. I saw how certain outsiders were focussing on something they called prostitution, but I didn’t understand their anxiety about it. My original question wasn’t about migrants at all but about these people, who wanted to stop others from travelling and stop them from taking jobs they were willing to accept – all in the name of saving them. During my studies I decided that thinking in terms of commercial sex and the sex industry were one way to resist this Rescue ideology. 

Sex Criminals (2013)

ajazmine2Two people who stop time when they orgasm team up to rob banks is Sex Criminals’ basic premise. Written by Matt Fraction with art by Chip Zdarsky, it’s a fairly new comic that’s been getting a lot of attention. The book sounds like it will be a fun sci-fi romp. And it really is. There’s chase scenes and puns and a musical sequence, but there’s more to it than that. It’s about sex and all its weirdness. How awkward it is. How if you have really, really compatible sex with someone after years of feeling isolated by your time-stopping superpowers, it can be hard not to feel like maybe you should spend all your time with that person.

The books centers on two characters: Suzi and Jon. Suzi is a librarian who happens to love sex. Masturbation is a way for her to escape her grief following the murder of her father. She refers to the time-stopped world she reaches through having an orgasm as The Quiet and retreats there when things got too loud. In contrast, Jon mostly uses his power to cause mayhem at a local sex store, Cum World, which he names his time-stopped world after.

Since this is a series about sex, with an issue focusing on a teenage boy’s adventures in a sex shop, the narrative naturally touches on sex workers—in this case, a porn star by the name of Jazmine St. Cocaine. And while I do love this series, and have been recommending it like mad to anyone who will listen, issue two offended me enough that I wrote to the creative team when I first read it a few months ago.

“There Can’t Be Numbers:” An Interview With Laura Agustín, Part 2

Yesterday, we posted Part One of an interview with Sex at the Margins author Dr. Laura Agustín. Today we present our second and final segment.

It’s incredibly common now to see abolitionists argue that when prostitution is legal, as it in Amsterdam, trafficking only increases. What does the most current research actually suggest? 

Everyone wants this thing called research to prove one position or another, but it can’t. Even if there were enough funds to do massive studies with a range of methodologies and amazingly objective researchers, the target is impossible to define and pin down. It’s the same problem as with numbers, the fact that the subjects of interest are operating outside formal networks. Of course you can have small ethnographic studies that provide real insight into particular people at a certain time and place, but those studies cannot prove anything in general. And certainly not about legal regimes, as in the quarrel over which causes more exploitation.

Over a very long period we may come to understand the effects of a regime like the Dutch, but it is too early now. I did research in Holland amongst people concerned with how the policy was working in 2006, when it was already clear that offering regulation only brought part of the sex industry into government accounting. Businesspeople interested in operating outside the law continued to do so; many escort agencies and other sex businesses refused to register; migrants not allowed work permits came and worked anyway and so did people facilitating their travel and work, and, in many cases, exploiting them. None of which proves that the whole system ‘increases trafficking’. You cannot even coherently discuss an increase in trafficking when there are no baseline figures to compare with. On top of which agreement about what everyone means by the word trafficking simply does not exist. This goes for both the Dutch situation and the Swedish – claims about trafficking going up or down cannot be proved. 

Maria Coletsis’ Behind The Whip

My ears always prick up when people are talking about fetish or bdsm, because that’s my world and it’s where I earn my living. I am generally struck by how much fantasy is injected into the retelling though. No civilian speaks about bdsm the way another does, because their words are almost always informed by their sexual desires.

Behind The Whip is the first book I have ever read that is honest in that respect. The profiles of the Mistresses featured are just about them, not any projected desires. They are presented to us only as who they are pretending to be.

The book begins with an amazing introduction that reads almost as a sexy history lesson, reminding us how interwoven this world is with the world it exists directly outside of (or beneath, depending on your views).

The stories begin with a woman in London, naturally, but feature women from all over the world. Some very interesting points are made throughout that feel like common knowledge but may not be. Specifically:

All The Lives I Want (2017)

Alana Massey’s new collection, All the Lives I Want: Essays About My Best Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangers, is a fucking love song to sex workers. Yet, Massey’s own erotic labor—both licit and ambiguous—is not the focus of the work. Massey interrogates “our collective ownership” of considerable female figures like Britney Spears, Scarlett Johansson, Amber Rose, Lil’ Kim, and others in 15 brief essays. Throughout the book, her own sex work plays a more subtle role in her analytic critique of what, exactly, it means to be owned. But being metaphorically owned—by the public, by stringent gender roles, by a lack of resources, etc.—sits at the intersection of class and race, and Massey isn’t afraid to have those complicated conversations.

In her examination of 25 female celebrities, from Anna Nicole Smith to Princess Diana, Massey looks at how the public consumption of famous women influences the construction of gender and sexuality more generally. “Britney’s body is everybody’s,” Massey says, before expanding on the public’s “particularly pathological focus on her [Britney’s] claim to be a virgin.” This pathological focus on virginity is of course in stark contrast to Massey’s own erotic labor, where her own virginity is never in question. While Massey does not belabor the point, All the Lives I Want is centrally about the organizing force of the Madonna/Whore complex in the lives of all women, using celebrity culture as its lens.

Notably, Massey writes of listening to Beyonce while dancing as a stripper. She reflects on the “curmudgeonly old-guard feminists” who lampoon Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)” because of claims that “women do not, in fact, run the world.” Standing in seven-inch heels and grinding on a crotch, Massey concludes that “girls run the world in the sense that they perform the invisible and unappreciated labor that keep the world on its axis. That is different from doing what everyone wants to do, which is rule the world.” She is neither overly optimistic about her role as a sex worker under patriarchy nor does she apologize for it. Likewise, she is not seduced by the pretty things of femininity but rather describes them as a necessary force of destruction.

Curiously, however, “sex work” is not Massey’s preferred term when delving into her personal narrative, despite her forthright descriptions of blowing sugar daddies and fucking strip club regulars. Even the dust jacket of All the Lives I Want references the juxtaposition of Massey’s sex work with her opulent cultural critique as, merely, “an exploration into the female economy.” While perhaps this is calculated, linguistic sorcery from the wands of editors, a means by which Massey’s work can be distinguished from the over-saturated genre of white, cis sex worker memoir, I could not help but notice the its omission. Similarly, at times Massey’s class status feels distracting. While I admire her truthfulness, I am admittedly unfamiliar with, for example, “low grade cocaine,” which she references in an essay about attending NYU with Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. As a once seasoned coke user myself, I’ve never heard the expression. My understanding of the drug has always been that it is either “good shit” or “bleach.” To place the drug in a hierarchy of grades is completely foreign to me. This foreignness is just one example of the necessity for critical reflection on lateral whorephobia, a conversation that is thankfully happening more frequently. It is important to acknowledge these socioeconomic differences, even between sex workers. Massey has the choice to exclude “sex worker” from her self-identification, and that is a privilege that is not extended to all of us.

However, I do not wish to discount the ways that Massey clearly struggles. The title—a sorrowful plea from the notoriously melancholy Sylvia Plath—appears on the cover emblazoned in gold glitter. To the untrained, civilian eye, the use of Plath mourning, “I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want […]” seems like a nod to the alleged prettiness of female suffering. But only a sex worker knows that glitter can be as dark as the agony that precedes its application. In reference to a $900 antipsychotic prescription, for example, Massey states, “I knew the shortest distance between me and $900 was the length of a hot-pink nylon-and-spandex minidress covering a quarter of my body.” Indeed, these pretty artifacts of femininity—glitter the reigning objet d’art—are every bit as severe as the crushing insistence, whispered through the winds of patriarchy, that women stick their heads in an oven. And in this book, Massey demands a rearticulation of female suffering through the sparkling lens of sex work and celebrity, two cohorts of women whose lives and bodies are ruthlessly consumed by an unforgiving public.