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Migrants in the Mistress's House: Other Voices in the "Trafficking" Debate
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Migrants in the Mistress's House:
Other Voices in the “Trafficking” Debate

The debate over "prostitution" in Western feminism has been going on for many years,1 but recent demographic developments in Europe, notably the increase in migrant women from outside Europe, have led to its intensification, giving rise to an enormous production of writings, conferences, demonstrations, and policy recommendations. The situation being complex, the "debate" form is no longer adequate. On one hand, advocates emphasize the violence and danger to women who sell sex, reject the idea that it can ever be a "job," and deny that migrant women may sometimes be independent agents who decide to use commercial sex for instrumental ends. On the other hand, advocates who wish to recognize migrant women's agency attempt to normalize "sex work" to make this employment less risky and more socially acceptable but ignore the particular obstacles to agency posed by the illegality of most migrations. The first side tends to rely on feminist concepts, especially that of "violence against women," whereas the second tends to take pragmatic, "harm-reduction" stances. Discussions focus on abstract questions, such as the degree of consent, obligation, or force experienced by migrant women, the "systems to control prostitution," and the normalization of "sex work" as a whole, rather than on the practical issues of survival and success that women migrants negotiate. Because migrants are now the majority of those selling sex in Europe, the failure to represent their issues seriously compromises this debate. Instead, much energy goes [End Page 96] into attempting to prove that one or the other of these visions is "truer."

Neither of these visions addresses or sufficiently describes the situation as articulated by migrants themselves, despite the fact that their voices are available through myriad research projects. In these testimonies, women describe how they make decisions to change their lives by traveling abroad to work, weighing their options, talking with friends and family, taking advantage of opportunities offered, and continuing to exercise judgment along the way. The range of experiences, both good and bad, is wider than the two-sided debate expresses. Understanding the status of women in Europe demands consideration of the perspectives of these typically illegal workers.

My perspective comes from data I have collected since 1994 in several Latin American countries and from migrants in Europe, including men, transsexuals, and women who are paid for domestic, "caring," and sexual services. Because migrants often move between these sectors or work in two at once, and because a separation into two groups reproduces a scheme of "good" versus "bad" girls, I do not divide them into "domestic workers" versus "sex workers." Since 1997 I also have studied social agents who try to assist these migrants (governmental, nongovernmental, academic, religious, and medical individuals and groups) (Agustín 2005). At the local level, I focus on Spain (Agustín 2001), but the migrant subjects of my research come from Eastern Europe, countries of the former Soviet Union, West Africa, and Latin America, and the social-agent subjects come from all countries of the European Union. For the past two and a half years, I have moderated an email discussion list that brings together people selling sex and others interested in commercial sex from Latin America and Europe, including migrant support groups.2 My own research findings are complemented by research carried out in many parts of the world and all over Europe.3

In this article, I alternate feminist and other theory with comments from migrants themselves. I cite only women's testimonies, not because there are not many migrant transsexuals and men selling sex in Europe but because the deeply gendered discourse about abuse and agency is applied only to women. My purpose is not to participate in either side of the debate but to destabilize the two-sided tension by foregrounding how the women who are being discussed talk about themselves and their projects. These testimonies are not academic discourse, lend themselves to diverse interpretations, and should not be taken as representing all migrant women, all women of a particular nationality, or any other generalized group. There are some important commonalities, however. Although the cultural...