- Mobile Orientations: An Intimate Autoethnography of Migration, Sex Work, and Humanitarian Borders by Nicola Mai
By Nicola Mai
Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2018. 223 pages. Paper $30.00. https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/M/bo29124067.html
Mobile Orientations: An Intimate Autoethnography of Migration, Sex Work, and Humanitarian Borders sits in the emerging traditions of critical trafficking studies and sex work ethnographies. Yet this book is, at its core, a book about migration, "sex/gendered regimes," and Global North neoliberal governmentality, not a book on sex work per se.
In service of new concepts that support his larger theory of "sexual humanitarianism," author Nicola Mai recounts two decades of diverse data collection, interwoven with strong theoretical grounding. His is a serious intellectual engagement with socio-philosophical questions of sex-gender and the politics of prostitution neo-abolitionism.
Whether hanging out with Moroccan men in the streets of Seville, Spain or hanging out with Albanian and Romanian men in central Rome (who refer to exchanging sex for money as "fucking fags," drawing complex lines around their own sexual selves) or interviewing women in the UK from Moldova and Romania who the government officially declared as victims of trafficking, Mai outlines migrants' varying forms of agentic and errant mobilities—often young migrants, often with dreams of money and success. These narratives are emblematic of how powerful and how problematic the sexual democracy trope is today.
The theory of "sexual humanitarianism" uniquely summarizes a complex web of assistance, ideology, and institutionalization. The theory calls out the ways that mainstream anti-sex trafficking policies and non-profits a) normalize labor exploitation in other jobs, b) unquestionably ascribe to a prostitution supply-demand mythology, c) engage in harmful forms of social control of migrants rather than help them, d) individualize sex trafficking experiences in ways that support Global North nation-states' violent, racist immigration and prostitution policies, e) all while supporting multinational corporations and NGOs rife with their own labor violations but who get a free pass because they support anti-sex trafficking policies and organizations. This book is a macrolevel critique of Global North governments, of anti-trafficking NGOs and ideology, and, implicitly, of academia (of stale methods and of neo-abolitionist scholarship) through Mai's mesolevel analysis emerging from intimate microlevel fieldwork and autoethnography.
Mai's book is a deeply embedded auto-ethnography built on a methodological practice he refers to as "intersubjective intimacy." Mai's own positionality as a multilingual gay man from Italy, who engages in activism and filmmaking, is at the vector of every interaction. His re-tellings are vibrant, funny, and engaging, thoughtful and self-reflective, as well as serious and heavy. For a book that often uses very big words and relies on several concepts of the author's own invention, Mobile Orientations is down-to-earth and bracing.
This book also reflects why the discipline needs diverse sex work scholars because our identities drive our interests and our access. As I read the book, (and I'd be remiss to not refer to myself in reviewing an autoethnography) I, a bi/queer white cis woman whose scholarship is rooted in the U.S., often wondered how people with other identities would fair, how they would be received both in the field and in our discipline. Someone of a different gender or different race and ethnicity may not have been able to conduct the research as Mai has—and, because of our aggressively gendered world, likely would not garner the same reaction from their scholar peers.
Mai's scholarship starkly diverges from neo-abolitionist prostitution studies that conclude that sexual labor must be abolished fully for there ever to be gender equity and equality for women and girls. Poor people's migration is, instead, conceptualized as mobility rather than trafficking, and their decisions to sell sex or steal as reflections of varying levels of agency rather than using the hotly debated language of "choice." They are not "backward immigrants" who need extra help to engage with social services because of cultural deficiencies, or simply not being smart, or...