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

“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. 

I often see sex worker activists respond to “rescue industry” proponents with cynicism; one assumption is that they’re on a financially profitable moral crusade but not sincerely interested in helping anyone. Do you think that’s a fair or warranted reaction? Why do so many of these “rescuers” ignore the voices of active sex workers?

When I invented the term Rescue Industry I never imagined it would come to describe reality so well, and one of the connotations is size, proliferation and diversity. Just as you don’t want people to generalise about a gigantic general category called sex workers, so it is wrong to generalise about the many thousands of people involved in helping projects all over the world. Are you including all shelters everywhere for women in distress? Clinics? Police raids? Psychological counselling? Clearly many people offering help care at the same time that they are earning their own livings and perhaps gaining social prestige – they aren’t mutually exclusive.

In my opinion, the argument that being a sex worker makes one a potential expert on trafficking isn’t convincing. The framework within which issues are being discussed is Organised Crime (the Palermo protocols on smuggling and trafficking are attached to the UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime). Rights activists want to argue that prostitution policy should be changed, which is a related issue but not the most central one, since no legal model exists that ‘solves’ the trafficking problem. The sex-worker contribution appears confusing or off-point to many involved, and the main actors – government spokespeople and police authorities – do not see any sort of ordinary workers as part of their conversation.

There’s another difficulty: the argument from many activists that it’s important and possible to make a clear distinction between voluntary sex workers and trafficked victims. From the point of view of those who have clearly chosen their work, this distinction seems hugely important, and it is important if the conversation shifts to prostitution policy. But the great majority of migrants or temporary workers cannot similarly be described as actively wanting to become sex professionals, even if they want to be allowed continuing to do the sex work they’ve somehow got into. And beyond that, once activists join a conversation in which trafficking is accepted as a knowable, definable concept, they’re on the slippery slope to becoming rescuers themselves – or to get into confusing contradictions.

You (seem to) write and advocate tirelessly in spite of frequent dismissal, disrespect, and character attacks. How do you keep from getting discouraged and burned out?

I write what I do because I am interested, not to please anyone else or win an argument. I never set out to be important or change the world – I was just trying to answer that original question that nagged away at me all those years ago, about people travelling to work. This was before the word trafficking was used, and when I started describing my ideas in public I had no idea they were going to upset anyone. Over time I’ve learned how to talk in a way that upsets people less. I’m interested in having conversations that allow people to disagree without war breaking out, but I like conversational partners to be well informed, and most of those doing the talking nowadays are not – Hollywood celebrities, for example. But I don’t actually feel dissed; on the contrary I am usually just ignored and left out of conversations – which may be more telling, after all. But the centre of my life isn’t over there, with the men and women in suits, and what they think of me isn’t how I define myself.


  1. bad ass interview! i really believe her when she says she is not out to please anyone since she clearly didn’t answer the questions in complete favor with sexworker activists (i.e. “Just as you don’t want people to generalise about a gigantic general category called sex workers, so it is wrong to generalise about the many thousands of people involved in helping projects all over the world.”)

    smart lady.

    anyways, as we move forward, without any numbers, actions are still going to be made on both/all sides of the trafficking argument. society is not as rational as research. i wonder Dr. Laura Augstin and the others here think the most appropriate action is in a world without numbers…


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