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“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. 

Top Six Reasons Melania Trump Should Get Involved In Anti-Trafficking Campaigning

With every new presidency comes the expectation that the First Spouse will adopt a cause that is considered sufficiently non-controversial in nature. So as the doomsday clock ticked ever faster towards the Trump inauguration at the end of 2016, people not only speculated about which nightmarish regressive agendas Donald would make a waking reality while in office, but also about which one First Lady Melania would take on as her own.

The Slovenian former model has faced a barrage of accusations about her patchy immigration record, leaked nude photo spreads, and most salacious of all (and most relevant to our interests at Tits and Sass), suggestions that she once worked as a “high-end escort” in New York. For all these reasons and because it is the issue du jour with celebrities, suburban moms, and religious zealots alike, the anti-trafficking movement is just the ticket for Melania’s pet project. But before I explain exactly why that is, let’s get to know centerfold-posing, married-to-a-repulsive-billionaire, definitely-not-a-prostitute Melania Trump a little bit better.

For the past 24 years, each prospective First Lady has submitted a personal cookie recipe to Family Circle magazine, which readers then vote on to determine who will make the best wife and mother to the Nation, because patriarchy. If her pre-election baking skills are any indication, the current First Lady is a woman who does not give a single shit about political life. “Melania Trump’s Star Cookies” even look sad in their professional photographs online. In essence, the recipe is for a needlessly complicated sugar cookie which calls for two egg yolks but only one egg white. Why does she hate us? There’s a half-hearted dollop of sour cream at the very end which, I imagine, is supposed to be a feeble wink at her Slavic roots. Then, in some sort of lazy nod toward patriotism, she instructs us to “use a 2 ½ inch star-shaped cookie cutter.” If you don’t own one, you’ve already let the terrorists win. After you “heat oven to 350F”, the last instruction is, “Can I go home now?” To put this in perspective, Michelle Obama made “White and Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies.” See what she did there? Because Michelle Obama is always in it to win it.

But the unfortunate cookie recipe dates back to September of last year, and it was only the early days of the robust compendium of sad Melania anecdotes we would accrue. Her mood on Inauguration Day matched that of the rest of the world, at least when she thought a certain someone wasn’t watching. If Melania has ever been a sex worker—which she absolutely has not been and feel free to check with her lawyer about that—this is exactly what she would have looked like during those rare moments of solitude when her client was in the bathroom and she no longer had to emote. It’s the facial expression that goes along with that glorious freedom at the end of a call when you step back into the hotel hallway and can finally fart in peace and the sublime pleasure of leaving your armpits unshaven for the whole week you’re on a break from work. Oh sweet relief! Unfortunately, that brief moment caught on camera was but one of many things that fueled dark speculations that there might be trouble in paradise for Mrs.Trump.

At this point it seems like her passion project is avoiding her husband as much as possible (she is excelling at this) so it’s unclear if she’s ready to put much more on her plate right now. If her enthusiasm for public life and antiquated feminine kitchen tasks are any sign of her ambitions to come, then Melania will likely take a path similar to the more apathetic first ladies who came before her, such as Jackie Kennedy, who dedicated her Vassar education and fluency in French to redecorating the White House. Or Lady Bird Johnson shortly thereafter, who believed that planting flowers up and down America’s highways would add some much-needed cheer to hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veteran funeral processions.

But to take the easy way out like these women did would be a grave loss for an anti-trafficking movement that relies heavily on key endorsements from celebrities who have literally no idea what they’re talking about. It would be a loss for the Trump administration which could capitalize on the conservative agenda espoused by most anti-trafficking groups, just as many American governments before it have done. And most of all, it would be a public relations loss for Melania herself, because nothing says “I hate prostitutes and am definitely not one” louder and prouder than mainstream anti-trafficking work.

Here are the top six reasons Melania Trump should support the anti-trafficking industry as First Lady:

We Deserve Better: Reflections On The War On Backpage

An image chronicling the history of the multi-year war on Backpage. (Photo by PJ Starr, 2012)
An image chronicling the history of the multi-year war on Backpage. (Photo by PJ Starr, 2012)

It’s happening again.

I remember the drop in my stomach as my browser opened on the homepage of MyRedBook in 2014 and I saw the emblems of the FBI, DOJ, and the IRS occupying a page which used to host an escort ad, review, and forum website used by thousands of providers across the West Coast. It was at that moment when I realized what the stakes in the war on sex trafficking truly were. Two years after Prop 35 passed in California, broadening the definition of trafficker to anyone “who is supported in part or in whole from the earnings of a prostitute”, and four years after the multi-year battle against Craigslist resulted in its Adult section being taken down, it was clear: sex workers’ ability to advertise online was going to be taken out from under us.

At the time, I worked at St. James Infirmary providing healthcare services to current and former sex workers. Over the next several months, I witnessed people being flung into economic turmoil. A lot of the community talked to me about going back into the street or going there for the first time. Others tried to pack into strip clubs, where their money was split by management, or focus on porn—also under attack by the state through Prop 60. Some people successfully moved their business onto other more costly or exclusive advertising platforms. And some people left the business altogether, either to new forms of income or to try to exist on the scraps of government support available to the unemployed.

I saw the closure of MyRedBook increase stratification within the industry, widening the gap between those sex workers able to appeal to the more elite clientele of other websites and those who had to move onto the street and deal with the violence of being outside.

Eventually, Backpage, relatively unused in the Bay Area prior to the RedBook seizure, garnered enough web traffic that it became the website for those of us who want to work independently and inside, but don’t have the body, gender, or class presentation desired by the majority of clients looking at websites such as Eros, Slixa, and Seeking Arrangements. It is especially utilized by folks living outside urban metropolises, where other advertising platforms, if they exist, are largely unused. TS Blair, a friend of mine who works in the South, says:

As a transgender woman working in a small city, BackPage is the only resource for sex work outside of the street for so many bodies. You go on Eros, it’s exclusively white cis women on there. If BackPage shuts down, so many of us will have nowhere else to go.

And now, in the wake of Backpage’s CEO Carl Ferrer being arrested Thursday on felony pimping charges, what does the future hold for sex workers dependent on Backpage for survival? While some are already established on other sites and venues or are able to float on their savings for a while, many are left waiting to see if their only source of income will disappear, eliminated by law enforcement hell bent on “rescuing” them.

The specifics of if, when, and how Backpage will be stripped of its erotic services section are unclear. Unlike MyRedBook and, more recently, Rentboy, Backpage has not been seized as a company. The company that owns the website, Atlantische Bedrijven CV, is based in the Netherlands, where prostitution is legalized. Civil liberties experts agree that in the US, the Communications Decency Act protects online service providers from being held liable for third party posts, and Backpage’s legal counsel told the Guardian that the site intends to fight what it calls “frivolous prosecution.”

Still, there is currently no substantial information available on the future of the website, so all there is to do is wait. The political landscape seems unfavorable, especially considering this week’s news about Rentboy CEO Jeffrey Hurant pleading guilty to charges of promoting prostitution. Many of us question what comes next.

Attention Celebrity White Knights

Hi there, American Celebrity! As someone with a lot of money and influence, there are many causes to which you could dedicate your considerable resources: adopting children, having children, saving children—ah, that’s a good one. No one can ever dispute the value in saving children, particularly when those children are female because everyone knows females are more vulnerable than males. But what do girls most need saving from?

There’s the much-discussed issue of eating disorders, which your industry contributes to substantially, but that’s not very glamorous and sounds vaguely feminist so, moving on. There’s also the shameless, repeated attacks coming from the Republican party on all American girls‘ rights to medical care and, of corse, sex education, but that’s awfully political. You’re just trying to change the world, not ruffle a bunch of feathers. Let’s think bigger.

What the hell is going on with Backpage? Part II

(Screenshot of Backpage's July 10th email to users)
(Screenshot of Backpage’s July 10th e-mail to users)

Update: Backpage filed a federal suit today against Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart for violating its free speech and equal protection rights after the Sheriff successfully pressured credit card companies to break with the company this month. In the suit, Backpage requests a preliminary injury, so that credit card processing will be restored to the site immediately; compensation for loss of revenue from credit card transactions this month; and punitive damages.

Free posting

Earlier this month, Backpage responded to American Express, Mastercard, and Visa’s disallowal of charges for adult services ads by offering free posting in that section. In an e-mail to users on July 10th, Backpage informed posters that they can move their ads to the top of the listings for free every 24 hours. Each additional posting within that 24 hours will cost a dollar. A good portion of the mainstream media is characterizing this move as reactionary. An example: “Backpage.com thumbs nose at sheriff [Tom Dart, the Illinois Cook County anti-trafficking zealot who wrote a letter to Mastercard and Visa this month prompting their actions],” as the USA Today headline put it, but many sex workers believe this is the least Backpage can do for them during this difficult time in return for earning $22 million dollars of revenue annually from our escort ads.

However, Katherine Koster of the Sex Worker Outreach Project noted that some sex workers are still having trouble with the new system. For one thing, it seems the free posting is only a privilege granted to those who’d posted a paid ad recently, before the Visa and Mastercard fiasco began. “Other people have shared issues around…not being able to post at all,” Koster told Tits and Sass via a Facebook message.

“Every single day, they [Backpage] keep changing shit, other shit randomly doesn’t work, and it is getting incredibly frustrating to use,” Australian escort Sarah summed up on her tumblr.

Backpage itself specified in its e-mail to users that:

Free and paid ads initially post into the same section and sort by date. After a grace period, free ads change position to the Additional Ads section below the paid ads.

Many adult services posters have found that their free ads become inaccessible to clients quickly after being shunted into the Additional Ads section, far from the top of the ad queue where postings garner the most notice. On July 9th, Sarah wrote that she’d “been having problems all day with some of my Backpage free ads disappearing into the ether, showing as live but not being visible in the category listings.”