Naked Anthropologist Laura Agustin claims antislavery movement harms sex workers

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      An author and scholar who likes to refer to herself as the “Naked Anthropologist” has compared the current climate against human trafficking to the panic over white slavery in the late 19th century. Laura Agustin, author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry (Zed Books, 2007), told the Georgia Straight by phone that in the earlier case, there was an uproar over whether Caucasian and Jewish women moving to New York or Buenos Aires, Argentina, were being traded as slaves.

      While she won’t use the word “panic” to describe the current situation (“I try to avoid these labels,” she said), Agustin suggested that there is a widespread “rescue movement”, led by governments and the United Nations, which is trying to characterize a range of issues—migrant sex workers, child labourers overseas, and people who pay huge fees to immigrate—as “slavery”. Using this terminology gives a growing “antislavery” movement, largely based in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, the moral justification to launch interdiction programs as part of an international justice movement.

      “I don’t think anyone cares about the women or about sex,” Agustin claimed from a hotel room in Toronto. “This is some kind of enormously funded thing about organized crime…men in government, feeling threatened by other men who aren’t participating and are having parallel societies. It’s up in the cultural stratosphere with terrorism.”

      Agustin, an advocate for sex workers’ rights based in Sweden, has a PhD from The Open University in the United Kingdom. She said that the words “human trafficking” started entering the lexicon in a serious way around 2003 and 2004. Now, she maintained that the language is shifting to emphasize slavery. She bluntly described this movement as a colonial initiative.

      “The protagonists to end slavery are the same Anglo-Saxon people that were in the 19th century, so you get the trafficking ambassador for the U.S. government invoking [British antislavery crusader] William Wilberforce and arguing that the U.S. and the U.K. have a special mission to go out to other people’s countries and save people,” Agustin said.

      Most people don’t have an issue with this. Agustin, on the other hand, said the problem with the rescue industry, which involves many nongovernmental organizations, is that it doesn’t pay nearly enough attention to the choices that people are making to improve their lives. While researching migration in the 1990s, she spent time on a Caribbean island where there was a tradition of large numbers of women moving to Europe, where they would work in one of two jobs: as a maid or selling sex.

      “People tried to decide which they wanted to do, and they weighed their options,” she said.

      Later in Madrid, Agustin spent time studying people who helped these migrants and who felt sorry for them. She said these rescuers didn’t weigh the downside for women who are forced out of prostitution against their will. “I asked the question: why is selling sex not considered a service?”

      The answer, which arose out of her anthropological research, was that there was no rescue industry until the rise of the European bourgeoisie. “They positioned themselves as the ones who knew best about how to live and designated a number of people to be victims,” she said. “And prostitutes were high on the list. They had not been considered victims before that.”

      Agustin accused Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times of indulging in a similar attitude by cheering the closure of brothels in the developing world without asking what happens to these workers. “He’s an egregious example of a white person who assumes that he’s doing good, who assumes that he knows how other people should live,” she alleged.

      Laura Agustin will speak at 7 p.m. on Sunday (November 27) at the Vancouver Public Library central branch. Admission is by donation.

      Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at



      Anonymous Male Sex Worker

      Nov 24, 2011 at 9:47am

      Thanks to the Straight for some thoughtful reporting on a complex issue.

      More info about Laura Agustin

      And info about her event this Sunday at the Vancouver Public Library central branch at

      Suzanne Baustad

      Nov 24, 2011 at 11:17am

      First, beware moral panics about moral panics. Anti-trafficking opponents are a diverse crowd – but no version has the hegemonic power presumed by Smith or Agustin. No anti-trafficking group has the ideological monopoly which underlay the 19th century ‘white slavery’ panic which has so captured the imaginations of postmodernist feminists.

      On the other hand, in more recent neoliberal times, the idea that ‘migrant sex workers’ chose to work within and across borders has been championed for decades by the IMF and World Bank. These international institutions have promoted the development of sex tourism industries in countries such as Thailand and the Philippines arguing not only that women living in feudal conditions actively choose to sell sex, but their nations have developed a ‘comparative advantage’ in such arts of hospitality - based often on their histories of hosting US military bases. Today the World Health Organization and other international institutions continue to work with colonial institutions such as the US military to ensure clean female body cavities for visiting US forces.

      Second, Smith does not mention that Agustin is also critical of the colonialist attitudes underlying decriminalization of prostitution, including that of the New Zealand model of decriminalization which FIRST and PIVOT advocate for Canada. In New Zealand, those who work in the sex trade must be NZ citizens or permanent residents. In other words, ‘foreign’ sex workers remain criminalized in NZ – a fact that many have mentioned as a factor in trafficking in that country. Agustin is also critical of NZ’s “brothel-centric” approach to decriminalization which “favors middle-class cultural norms”, has “kept the industry racially and culturally homogeneous”, and does nothing for street workers. It would appear that FIRST and others, in its promotion of full decriminalization, may have fallen into the very colonialist panic that Agustin and Smith have invoked.

      Third, I also heard Smith promoting this position on Co-op radio this morning. If the Straight is going to take public positions on prostitution or trafficking, I would challenge the paper to disclose how much of their annual revenues are gained through backpage advertisements for “sexual services” – ads which clearly continue to promote explicitly racist and colonialist stereotypes.

      Charlie Smith

      Nov 24, 2011 at 12:06pm


      I think I said two sentences on Co-op Radio this morning, if that, about Laura Agustin's visit. At the end of the interview, Irwin asked me what else is in the Straight. I mentioned the story about environmental assessments. Gwynne Dyer's column on Burma, and this visit by Laura Agustin to the Vancouver Public Library.


      Jenny Heineman

      Nov 24, 2011 at 12:25pm

      Fantastic article! Although I tend to think of our current situation as a global panic, Laura's perspective is quite enlightening. Thanks!

      Anonymous Male Sex Worker

      Nov 24, 2011 at 1:35pm


      Your first point. "No anti-trafficking group has the ideological monopoly which underlay the 19th century ‘white slavery’ panic"

      True. But the trend, and what mostly gets published in the popular media, reinforces the panic ideology which conflates all sex workers as victims and all migrant sex workers as trafficked sex slaves. This is a gross misrepresentation of the diversity of experiences of sex workers. Also there are good anti-trafficking organizations and one of them is a sponsor for Laura's event -

      Sex workers exist within a globalized, capitalist economy which leaves many people with very few good choices for survival. That is wrong and needs to change. No disagreement here. But busting brothels and criminalizing sex workers, migrant or not, for making the albeit limited choices they have for survival, adds insult to injury.

      Onto point 2 - "Agustin is also critical of the colonialist attitudes underlying decriminalization of prostitution, including that of the New Zealand model of decriminalization"

      I don't know where you get all those quotes from. Ms Agustin is clearly not critical of decriminalization of prostitution in New Zealand just that migrant undocumented workers were excluded from the law reform - she claims it was a sop given to the anti-traffickers. Decriminalization has clearly led to a increase in sex worker safety and health in NZ - at least if you are a NZ resident sex worker. The New Zealand Prostitute Collective, a sex worker group that was instrumental in bringing about decrim in that country, was also critical of the law reform which excluded migrant, undocumented sex workers. Perhaps Canada, when decriminalizing prostitution, can learn from NZ and do a better job by also extending rights to migrant sex workers.

      Onto your final point about the Strait's advertising revenue. Personally I want to thank all of the sex workers who advertise in the Strait which helps keep them in business giving us quality media like this article - something we wouldn't ever get in the Province and the Vancouver Sun. And I want to thank the Strait for giving all of us sex workers a place to advertise and sell our services safely. It sucks that the prohibitionists, in the name of rescuing us poor victim sex workers, actually harm us by shutting down our venues for advertising - like Craigslist erotic services.


      Nov 24, 2011 at 11:50pm

      Please help, your support is needed! Canada has been identified as both a transit and a destination point for human trafficking, and Vancouver (located in British Columbia) has been singled out by the U.S. State Department as a port of major concern. However, British Columbia’s Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, Shirley Bond, drastically cut funding to the province’s Office To Combat Trafficking In Persons. This occurred in July of 2011, and resulted in the termination of the Executive Director, Robin Pike. There is no longer an Executive Director position, and as it stands there are only 2 employees working in this office, period. Please join me in telling my province’s Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General and Premier, that this is unacceptable.


      Nov 25, 2011 at 11:19am

      Does this though not tend to dilute the issues of what at its core: prevention of human smuggling and trafficking is all about: and that is, sexploitation of women? And I mean to refer to eastern european gangs and asia.


      Sep 14, 2012 at 8:41pm

      The article may be interesting but the reality is that no girl grows up dreaming of being a prostitute. Yes, some may do it out of their own will and guess what? Those that do will work on their own or with an escort service but NOT on the streets. For the most part those women have been trafficked.