The Myth of the Migrant

Laura Maria Agustin wants frank talk about migration and the sex trade


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.

People talk about a contemporary "feminization" of migration, but the evidence for this is shaky. There have been other waves of women migrating in numbers, as in the late 19th century from Europe to Argentina, where they were often accused of being prostitutes. Europeans didn't want to think these white women would set out on their own like this or end up selling sex, which is where the term "white slavery" derives from. The phenomenon was similar to what we see today, only the direction has shifted.

reason: What do you make of the State Department's claim that 800,000 people are trafficked each year?

Agustín: Numbers like this are fabricated by defining trafficking in an extremely broad way to take in enormous numbers of people. The Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons is using the widest possible definition, which assumes that any woman who sells sex could not really want to, and, if she crossed a national border, she was forced.

The numbers are egregious partly because the research is cross-cultural. The US, calling itself the world's moral arbiter on these issues, uses its embassies in other countries to talk to the police and other local authorities, supposedly to find out how many people were trafficked. There is a language issue —all the words involved don't translate perfectly, and there is a confusion about what trafficking means. People don't all use it the same way. Even leaving aside language issues, we know the data aren't being collected using a standard methodology across countries. 800,000 is a fantasy number.

reason: Is there a legitimate core of abuses that need to be addressed?

Agustín: Some conscientious people talk about trafficking as applicable to men, transsexuals, or anyone you like, no matter what kind of work they do, when things go very wrong during a migration. When migrants are charged egregious amounts of money they can't possibly pay back, for example. However, we've reached the point in this cultural madness where most people mean specifically women who sell sex when they use the word "trafficking." They usually mean women working inside brothels.

reason: So there is an attempt to conflate the terms prostitution and trafficking?

Agustín: There is a definite effort to conflate the terms in a stream of feminism I call "fundamentalist feminism." These feminists believe there is a single definition of Woman, and that sexual experience is key to a woman's life, soul, self-definition. This particular group has tried to say that prostitution is not only by definition exploitation but is trafficking. It's bizarre but they are maintaining that.

reason: What about the fundamentalist fundamentalists?

Agustín: The alliance between fundamentalist feminists and some fundamentalist Christians sees its work as global. So you get the Southern Baptist Convention and some feminists writing to the government of the Czech Republic to urge against legalizing prostitution. Many kinds of fundamentalist thought share values about home, family, sex, and violence.

reason: Are anti-trafficking activists preventing the liberalization of prostitution laws?

Agustín: Probably. But I don't think the obsession with trafficking is solely about women and sex. It's become a cultural phenomenon up in the stratosphere with fears of terrorism. Governments are making it an issue of policing the borders, and I believe they are less concerned about women "victims" than male "perpetrators". The UN protocols on trafficking and smuggling were attached to a convention on organized crime. It's the same as the terrorism story, the idea that bad guys don't respect States and will set up their own societies, go where they want and disobey all laws. The borders will not hold, the martians are invading. Everything is Falling Apart.

reason: Is there a romanticization of home at work here? The idea that it's always best to stay in the place you come from?

Agustín: Immigration procedures still assume that everyone calls some country "home", but many people's situations don't easily fit this idea. They've got more than one home or don't want to call anyplace home. The collective fantasy says home is always a lovely place, but many people have a contrary experience. People who actually want to leave home may feel they have failed—whether they were leaving behind their parents, partner or children.

reason: You write: "Believing Passionately that women must tell their stories is a governmental urge."

Agustín: When I started studying, I thought it would be easy: Why not listen to what migrants themselves say? Then I found an enormous literature, much of it explicitly feminist, urging subjects to speak authentically, to get up and tell their true stories for everyone to hear. With all kinds of marginalized people, the idea was they've been silenced and should be allowed to speak.

Except it turns out that lots of people don't want to tell their stories, they don't want to stand up anywhere, they'd just as soon let someone speak for them. Or they don't care or know they are being talked about, they just want to do whatever they feel like doing. So I had to question my own desire to push people to present themselves in a certain kind of way. It's not enough to say, "we will facilitate people giving voice." No, because also that gives us a job. Then we can see our job as being a virtuous person who is going to help the poor and silenced of the earth speak.

It's also not clear that they would get anything out of speaking, because governments, and most people, don't listen when they do. Those who see themselves as helping believe they Know Best how we should all live and benevolently provide necessary services to us all.

reason: Both the U.N. and the U.S. have promoted the idea that human trafficking is perpetrated by organized crime rings. How accurate is this?

Agustín: The Interpols and FBIs of the world are trying to find out exactly who the bad guys are who are doing the trafficking. They have a terrible time of it, because trafficking in the sense that they mean includes most irregular migration. Millions and millions of people are involved, most of them working on a small scale—petty criminals, not big-time mafiosi. I lived in Spain for five years and at least once every week the media carried a story about the police breaking up a trafficking ring – which means there are always more and more.

But there's no evidence that large-scale organized crime has gone into human trafficking the way they did into heroin trafficking decades ago. What researchers have found is small-scale operations–people who know one person they can call in Berlin and one in Istanbul, who use mobile phones, who move around. Small-time entrepreneurs, some meaner, some acting like regular travel agents.

reason: What policies would you recommend for people concerned about legitimately coercive situations?

Agustín: I'm trying to get people to slow down on the rush to determine a definitive policy. Because the prostitution debate is so limited and moralistic, vast amounts of information that policymakers need is still absent. Research on traffickers themselves is just beginning. The diversity of experience is enormous. There isn't going to be a single social policy that will work for everyone.

Kerry Howley is a senior editor of reason.