The antithesis of love? Dan Allman reviews Sex at the Margins

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Sex at the Margins has now been reviewed 17 times in academic journals! And those journals focus on many different fields: sociology, anthropology, migration, feminism, gender, geography - here’s a full list.  I marvel especially when someone I admire admires my book.  Dan Allman, who wrote M is for mutual, A is for acts, has published a review of Sex at the Margins for the journal Sexualities. To be compared to Clifford Geertz means being understood, and what is better than that? And how about a comparison with Camille Paglia?  Here’s Dan’s review.

Laura María Agustín, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry. London and New York: Zed Books, 2007.

Some books about prostitution and sex trafficking can make for challenging reading. Not because of the subject matter necessarily, but because of the ways contemporary politics and voice give rise to a kind of morally-charged discourse.

What makes Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry so enlightening, is that while it is very much a book about prostitution and sex trafficking and the ways in which societies have evolved to culturally construct the regulation of sex work within free labour market practices, on another level it is a book about how history, modern migration patterns and the marginality of the ‘other’, and the rise of the social have come together to shape European and global sex markets.

For the book’s author, Laura María Agustín, much earlier writings evade ‘experiences and points of view that do not fit, silencing difference and producing unease in those who do not see themselves as included’ (p. 9).

The observations that ground Agustín’s study of sex at the margins began during the 1990s while she worked along the US/Mexican border with those seeking asylum in the USA. Such experiences are supplemented with work to document NGO activities in the Caribbean, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Spain – all of which provide rich loam for Agustín’s analytic replanting of tourism, migration and how women within different sectors of the labour market are routinely conceptualized by a variety of helping social sectors.

Throughout her journeys, Agustín’s ‘position in the field was a mix of insider, outsider, stakeholder, political actor and researcher’ which ‘shifted according to the conditions of the moment’ (p. 141).

In the book, such multifaceted positioning is complimented by an approach to fieldwork which is anthropological in theory and methodology. This is primarily because of the ability of this disciplinary lens to avoid the moralizing frameworks and the labelling of the buying and selling of sex as ‘deviance, victimisation or violence’ (p. 137).

Embracing an ambiguity somewhere between participant, observer and informant such as that promoted by Clifford Geertz as at the heart of successful anthropological research, Agustín describes and justifies her shifting roles and the perspectives they allow as a form of multi-sited ethnography. Part of the work’s success is due to the author’s ability to weave both first and third person narratives in such a way as to maintain the reader’s interest without diverging from the intrinsically academic nature of an argument which positions social programming aimed at helping migrants as a form of social control.

The book succeeds also in its contribution of an outstandingly detailed and researched history of prostitution, which is used to lay the groundwork for a nod to the governmentality school of Michel Foucault and Nikolas Rose, and an emphasis on how the helping professions have developed beyond charitable foundations to a form of bonded solidarity, and in the process have come to label and marginalize the very women they seek to help.

At its core, Agustín’s work takes on the polemic of prostitution and contextualizes it relative to three kinds of professions: domestic work, caring activities and sex services. It then applies changing theories of tourism and migration to help explain how sex work has come to be uniquely positioned at the margins. It describes how rescue industries’ tactics and practices reproduce a prostitute discourse, essentially perpetuating the divide between the morally-sound helpers and the morally-corrupt helped, suggesting that ‘if the definition of the “prostitute” was to change to describe only suffering victims, perhaps the conflict over terms could be resolved’ (p. 181).

While Sex at the Margins is not politically neutral, it does pay homage to its politic through evidence, analysis and canny interpretation. This is in large part why the book manages to triumph over the intelligent but often-lacking literature which has preceded it.

As one might say of the scholarly writings of Geertz or Goffman, were Agustín’s new book to be expanded or elaborated at all, it could well be through further detail of the successes and also challenges of combining a historian’s reading with an objectivist’s ethnography and a participant’s observation.

Yet at the same time, it is through an attention to multiple perspectives and diverse sources that makes Agustín a scholarly storyteller of the best kind. Well travelled, observant, erudite and extremely knowledgeable, she reminds one of Camille Paglia at her most formidable – only dare say sexier, and a touch more caustic.

Sure to be interrogated for her perspective while respected for her scholarship, Agustín and her new work promise to contribute new thoughts to the contentious debates between the growing minority who see migrant sex work as a contextually viable migrant labour practice, and the steadfast majority who declare that prostitution is always, in all situations, the antithesis of love.

Dan Allman
The University of Edinburgh, UK and University of Toronto, Canada

(Posted at Border Thinking on Migration, Trafficking and Commercial Sex)

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