Q&A with Laura Agustin: sex work, migration in The Three-Headed Dog

For anyone interested in the politics of sex work and migration, Laura Agustin’s Sex at the Margins is a cornerstone text, exploring the way sex is sold, particularly for the undocumented, as people move around the world. Known for her criticism of grossly well-funded, largely ineffective anti-trafficking NGOs, Agustin coined the phrase “rescue industry” and, of this sector, she’s remained outspoken in her condemnation.

A decade on and Agustin has published another take on prostitution and diaspora – The Three-Headed Dog – using fiction to explore the same themes. The Three-Headed Dog tells the tale of Eddie, a boy from the Dominican Republic, who goes missing on his way to Spain. Searching for him is an unsentimental detective, Félix, who realises Eddie has become tangled in the web of a smuggler’s feud.

SWARM caught up with Agustin for a chat about her novel.

SWARM: The Three Headed Dog refuses to take a moral position on selling sex. Some of your sex working characters are having a terrible time, some are ambivalent. In Sex at the Margins, you point out that "within discourse on services, cleaning and caring are treated with some subtlety, but debate on the sale of sex focuses on ideologies and moralising." Getting the same level of subtlety into conversations about prostitution sometimes feels impossible. Do you think it is?

LA: In my public talks, I present loads of nuanced, unsettling information, and the questions afterwards are calm and interested. But I’ve rarely succeeded in diverting ‘debates’ from the ideological level, because they are where Rescuers seek to manifest their moral indignation loudly and clearly. And anti-prostitution crusaders behave as if we were at war over a symbol rather than discussing possible and partial solutions.

But in normal, daily-life conversations, it’s usually easy. Everyone knows someone who is selling sex or considering it, and they’ve listened and understand it can be that person’s best option.

SWARM: For migrants, what are the real life effects of this clumsy, ideology-fuelled discourse?

LA: A documented migrant living and working legally in a place where it’s legal to sell sex as an individual occupies a similar space to regular citizens and so may be interested in activism and rights or not. But an undocumented migrant has no permission to even be, live or work where they are, so even if better prostitution law were instated it wouldn’t apply to them. A major goal of undocumented migrants is to stay below the radar, not cross paths with authorities, not ask for anything from the state. Even participating in a demonstration can be seen as undesirably risky. The stigma is understood to be an unmovable feature of life.

SWARM: The most controversial narrative in The Three Headed Dog is Eddie's. He's underage and starts selling sex. If you knew a real life Eddie, how would you respond to his situation?

LA: I have known real-life Eddies, if we mean kids in their mid-teens who fall into selling sex when they leave home, need money and don’t have much education or many options. The detective Félix’s response is my response: Is he crying out for help? No. Would forcing him to return to his family really protect him? No. He’s decided to strike out on his own; it’s a life-stage; he wants to learn about the world. Do I have a situation to offer him instead? No. Is selling sex a fate worse than death? No.

SWARM: You’ve said: "I've seen everything that happens in this book. I've known people who thought and acted these ways." Are there any particularly memorable real life characters who inspired The Three Headed Dog?

LA: In the early 1990s I lived in the Dominican Republic, doing HIV-AIDS prevention with gay men, sex workers and tourists. I was sent around the island to talk with groups of poorer women who were thinking about travelling abroad. They knew that two jobs were available to them: prostitute and live-in maid. I listened to them discuss the pros and cons of both. In one town few women under 40 were left, because they’d all migrated, in family chains. Later, I met them again in Amsterdam and Madrid and heard the same arguments, the difference being that now a lot of them did both jobs.

SWARM: While you don't enter into moralising about sex work, what you do take a position on is immigration. You've described European borders as "the gates of hell". Would you say that's a view held by a lot of migrants?

LA: Potential migrants see the news of capsized boats, armed border guards and barbed-wire fences. But they all know someone who has made it through, and to undertake the voyage is to believe it can be done. Many migrants feel nothing could be worse than the place where they are stuck. But anyone who studies over time, like me, what goes on at borders, along with the dysfunctional policies, may well agree that Gates of Hell describes it.

SWARM: The Three Headed Dog fleshes out an idea you push in Sex at the Margins: that the depiction of all migrants as vulnerable and victimized is problematic. Travellers from rich countries are positioned as courageous and in control; less wealthy migrants as pitiful. Is there a danger that this stance glosses over genuine inequalities?

LA: Why should acknowledgement of structural inequalities mean victimising those less equal? I’ve never understood that. Unequal in terms of money and power does not mean unequal in agency, connections, street-smarts or guts. From the standpoint of a privileged first-world person, the most important thing about ‘economic migrants’ may be their abject inequality. Move over to the migrants’ standpoint and you hear something else, and it’s not pitiful. The focus on inequality leads logically to self-positioning as a helper – the Rescue Industry. And if helpers believe everyone must want to be in their original homes, it leads to deportation.

SWARM: You point out in Sex at the Margins that for many migrants selling sex, getting a secure place to live and documents is more important that joining a sex worker rights movement. In The Three Headed Dog, the only character who's an outreach worker is ineffective and silly. What's your opinion on the way sex worker rights organisations are heading?

LA: Aw, you’re being a bit mean to outreach-woman. She works on a health project, and although she’s not a sex worker she obviously feels solidarity with them. But she is very frustrated, which is understandable. Trying to help undocumented migrants and sex workers can be a thankless task, because there’s almost no way around laws that make them deportable. The obstacle for sex worker rights organisations is the same: demanding rights for workers who are legal is hard enough without trying to claim rights for migrants without permission to be work. And on top of that, moral crusaders are calling all migrant women who sell sex victims of trafficking. It’s uphill work.

Laura Agustin’s books are available on Amazon: The Three-Headed Dog; Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

You can find Agustin’s blog here: http://www.lauraagustin.com/

And follow her on Twitter: @LauraAgustin