Fat, Sex Work, Rescue Industries

I'm very interested when other areas of critical engagement and struggle have crossovers with fat activism. I know this is controversial in terms of fat, which is seen by many as a choice and a triviality, but it fits with the earliest fat activist analyses of oppression (not that I think challenging oppression is all there is to fat activism). For example, Judith Stein's pithy two-page mimeographed introduction to fat activism places fat within a matrix of oppression and calls on fat activists to challenge other forms of oppression too. Sometimes this is lost, fat activism has been criticised for its racism, for example, but I think the idea that no one is free until everyone is free is good to bear in mind.

This week I had the pleasure of spending some time with Laura Agustìn. If you have never read Laura's book Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, which she authored in 2007, you must hurry and get a copy now; likewise read her blog, The Naked Anthropologist.

Although Laura is part of a wider movement, for me her book was a paradigm-changer which enabled me to recognise more deeply the agency of people who migrate and sell sex, what selling sex looks like, and how this is thwarted by the rescue industry. Laura's work has helped me unpick hyperbolic rhetoric concerning trafficking discourse, and I am grateful for her rational approach to sex work, particularly in her methodology of sex work research. It also enabled me to reconsider my own personal relationship to sex work and to connect with fat sex workers.

I live in Stratford, close to where the 2012 Olympics will be held. There are discredited reports that major sporting events result in an increase in trafficking and that evening Laura had been invited to be an expert presenter at a meeting at Waltham Forest council which was concerned with this possibility. Waltham Forest is one of the five London boroughs that is connected to the Olympics, though I live in Newham. So on Wednesday I took her to have a look at the Olympic site, and also on a mini-tour of Stratford's more obvious brothels, its sex shop and red light area, active and present long before the Olympics were announced in 2005, and just another part of the area. Fun!

I won't go on too much about the council meeting, which took place in the very formal Chamber. I'm sure minutes will be available in due course if you want to find out more about what was said in detail. Briefly, two police officers working for the Met's anti-trafficking department stated their case, as did four people who work with sex workers and migrant people, including a nun, and two medics. Varying ideological positions on sex work were represented though all could be described as 'rescue industry'. Laura spoke, and people from the council recorded and questioned the speakers. The idea that the Olympics will result in an increase in trafficking was immediately dismissed as soon as evidence to the contrary was produced. So the meeting ended up being an arena for people to state their positions and argue for their own legitimacy. No conclusion was reached, the Chair resolved to have more meetings, though this may be in question because there are local government elections looming. As an observer, I think councillors were expecting one thing but ended up having their minds blown by having to consider alternative paradigms.

As an observer, I found the meeting really interesting in a dull, committee type way. What intrigued me were the crossovers in the way that fat is presented in policymaking. Obviously there were no out sex workers present to offer their expert testimony, just as there are never autonomous fat people present during similar meetings of obesity stakeholders, it's as though the concept Nothing about us without us never existed. These gatherings are about professional management of perceived problematic populations, where there is a moral and medicalised discourse concerning embodiment, and where 'helping' is a euphemism for 'control', and where people routinely rely on duff 'evidence.' In these contexts, sex workers/fat people are talked about, made pitiful, framed as service users, are absent and Othered. Even the language has parallels: 'prostitution' sounds a lot like 'obesity' to me, 'trafficking' is as much a neologism as 'bariatric,' and 'sex work' could be seen as analogous to 'fat'. Professionals pump themselves up as essential to the discourse, medics especially so, yet it's clear that the rescuers need their fodder more than sex workers or fat people need them, for example, what do you do with massively resourced anti-trafficking units when there are no trafficked people?

Of course there are differences between the way that fat and sex work is framed in contexts such as this meeting I went to with Laura. I think fat people are far less organised than sex workers – not that fat people and sex workers are necessarily mutually exclusive groups – partly because shame is much more present. Issues concerning criminalisation and migration are also different.

Despite these differences, acknowledging common ground can be very illuminating. I would love to see broader analyses of how helping industries further marginalise their apparent constituents, for example.

What was exciting about the meeting in Waltham Forest was the way that Laura's testimony was paradigm-shifting for many people in the room. I have experienced this when I start talking about fat with people, or at least in those situations where people are more able to move beyond clichés. It's clear that many people are hungry for more complex and human ways of thinking about things that have been overstated through moral panics, and that trite accounts of trafficked women or obesity epidemics are not enough, and that ethical, grassroots ways of understanding may be possible.

Agustìn, L.M. (2007) Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry. London: Zed Books.