If you picked up, moved to Paris, and landed a job, what would you call yourself? Chances are, if you’re an American, you’d soon find yourself part of a colorful community of “expats.” If, while there, you hired an Algerian nanny—a woman who had picked up, moved abroad, and landed a job—how would you refer to him or her? Expat probably isn’t the first word that springs to mind. Yet almost no one refers to herself as a “migrant worker.”
Laura María Agustín’s Sex at the Margins catalogues the many ways in which wealthy Westerners cast immigrants as The Other, and for this reason it is a profoundly uncomfortable read. Having spent many years as an educator working with expatriate sex workers, Agustín turns her attention to the “rescue industry” and the way those who would help describe the migrants they’ve pledged to assist.
Comparing the ways immigrants describe their experiences and the ways NGO personnel and theorists describe immigrants, she writes, “The crux of the difference concerns autonomy; whether travellers are perceived to have quite a lot versus little or none at all.” Theories of migration portray migrants as unsophisticated and desperate people who are “pushed” and “pulled” along a variety of dimensions. “The tourism and pleasure seeking of people from ‘developing societies’, rarely figures, as though migration and tourism were mutually exclusive,” she writes, “Why should the travels to work of people from less wealthy countries be supposed to differ fundamentally from those of Europeans?” Supposedly, “migrants” travel because they are poor and desperate and “expatriates” travel because they are curious, self-actualizing cosmopolites. But Agustín searches in vain for an immigrant whose self-identity reflects the wretched portrait of the model migrant drawn by those who would help.
As Agustín shows, nowhere are these human caricatures more exaggerated than in the contemporary conversation about human trafficking, or—to use a term Agustín detests—“sex trafficking.” While selling sex may be a rational choice for some, governmental and charitable anti-trafficking initiatives rarely discriminate between those who would prefer sex work to the relevant alternatives and those who have been wronged. Sex slavery statistics are so tenuous that debunking them is a sport for skeptical journalists, while genuine labor abuses go ignored.
Collective anxiety about women who traverse sexual and spatial boundaries is anything but new. As Agustín writes, “Women who cross borders have long been viewed as deviant, so perhaps the present-day panic about the sexuality of women is not surprising.” Immigrants are human beings with the courage to leave the comforts of home. In Sex at the Margins, Agustín asks readers to leave behind easy stereotypes about migrants and welcome the overlooked expats among us.
reason spoke with Agustín in December.
reason: What experiences led you to write Sex at the Margins?
Laura María Agustín: I was working in NGOs and social projects on the Mexico/US Border, the Caribbean, and in South America. I worked with people who called themselves sex workers and gays having sex with tourists. To us, this was normal, conventional. Everyone talked about it. Obviously many of these people didn't have many options. Some of them had the guts to travel, and I felt I understood that.
In '94 I hadn't heard the word the work trafficking in this context. In the sex context, it's a creation of the past 10 years. I started running into the term when I came to Europe and saw what people who were trying to help migrants were doing and saying. The whole idea of migrants who sell sex being victims was so different from what I knew. My original research question was, why is there such a big difference between what people in Europe say about people who sell sex, and what those people say about themselves? It took a while for me to answer that question.
reason: You write that migrants are considered "separate, uncreative, and unsophisticated" in theories of tourism and migration. What are we missing when we assume all migrants are simply desperate?
Agustín: People may feel under the gun, but people who end up leaving home to work abroad have mixed motives. They may be poor and without many choices. But they also are normal human beings who have desires and fantasies. They daydream about all the same pleasurable things that richer people do. The human ability to imagine that things can be better, that getting ahead is possible, is in play. These motivations mix together in the project of leaving home—legally or not—to go somewhere else.
And it's not the most desperate, like famine sufferers, who manage to undertake a migration. In order to go abroad you have to be healthy and you have to have social capital, including a network that will get you information on how to travel and work. You need some money and some names and addresses; you have to have at least some official papers, even if they're false. You need at least a minimal safety net. People at the most disadvantaged social level rarely get into this situation.
reason: How are attitudes about trafficking related to the idea that women shouldn't be leaving home in the first place?
Agustín: Women are sometimes called “boundary markers”: When States feel threatened, women's bodies become symbols of home and the nation. This is a common sexist idea in patriarchal societies. The idea that women are domestic and symbolize home and hearth —but also that they should stay home and be home—is deeply entrenched all over the world. And while richer countries might favour gender equity for their own women, they often “domesticate” women from poorer contexts.
The U.N. protocols on trafficking and smuggling of human beings are gendered. The trafficking protocol mentions women and children, and mentions sexual exploitation, but doesn't say anything about voluntary leaving. The smuggling protocol talks about men who want to travel but have crossed a border in a less than kosher way—and sex is not mentioned.