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

by Charlotte Shane on August 2, 2011 · 5 comments

in Books, Interviews, Politics, Trafficking

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. 

How have other scholars responded to your work? Do you find that your book is incorporated into university syllabi?

Sex at the Margins has been taught in dozens of university courses in many countries; I know because people write to me, but there is no database with the details to show you. My academic articles are certainly cited often, too, and have made it possible for a generation of young scholars to have someone to cite (although my respectability is questionable!) My first articles were only published with great difficulty, as journals couldn’t find peer reviewers to accept them. The first thing I submitted was to a sympathetic migration journal which took two and a half years to publish the article because they couldn’t find people to read it without flipping out on ideological grounds. But I have fanatical academics to thank for some of my sales, I’m sure of it. Sheila Jeffreys cites my work repeatedly in The Industrial Vagina (as the epitome of wrongness, of course). Melissa Farley’s given me the best moniker so far – the Postmodern Nadir.

Do you agree that the constant debate about numbers is not the best way to determine constructive responses to the issue? (Or that thinking one could ever find definitive numbers is in itself a misunderstanding of the issue?) Do you think articles like The Village Voice‘s on Ashton Kutcher’s incorrect statistics have a positive effect?

It’s not that Kutcher’s statistics are wrong and the Village Voice’s are better: the point is that there can’t be numbers for the people being talked about here, who don’t register anywhere when they cross borders and who work off the books. I don’t think the Voice’s article will affect anything because previous ones didn’t – the Voice was not the first – or perhaps in the US but not elsewhere: been there, done that.

Shortly after I began to do formal research I understood that numbers are not obtainable for undocumented migration. I have reviewed several statistical methods that claim to make realistic estimates but am unconvinced, like many other scholars. However, the belief in numbers is a tenet of our time, and people can’t be persuaded that the correct data do not exist somewhere. The idea is that if we could know how many of every type of person there is we could somehow achieve justice for everyone – well, I don’t believe that, either.

But I also think it’s not useful to take debunking-talk to the point of talking about myths, as though there were no serious problems with migration. The conversations that are avoided through arguments about numbers are much harder: finding new kinds of migration policies and new visions of the so-called formal-informal economy divide.

Is the US one of the worst offenders when it comes to responding to sex trafficking in counterproductive ways? From what I’ve read, some countries, like Australia, are more measured and reasonable when trying to determine their approach.

I prefer not to make national governments the most important players on the world stage and I avoid making generalisations about whole countries. Australia is as anti-migration as the next place. New Zealand, the Netherlands and Germany regulate aspects of the sex industry and exclude migrants from getting work permits. Everyone uses trafficking as an excuse to close borders. The difference with the US is the arrogance, the exportation of values and the interference in other countries’ business. But I also don’t accept “sex trafficking” as a viable topic or category of life that we need to Do Something About.

Part Two of our interview with Laura includes her thoughts about sex worker cynicism towards the Rescue Industry and the notion that legalizing prostitution increases “sex trafficking.” 

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jessica Land August 3, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Thank you for doing this interview. Laura is at the top of my ‘must meet in person’ list.


Nyongesa July 29, 2012 at 4:31 am

Very insightfull


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