American Sexuality Magazine

Why Do Migrant Sex Workers Need Saving?

I don’t believe that there are national sexualities. But our language reflects vague impressions of how people in other cultures do sex—a tongue-kiss, “French”; anal penetration, “Greek”; penis-between-the-breasts, “Cuban.” They are stereotypes most of us don’t take seriously, and the national tags vary according to what country we’re standing in. But everywhere we have notions that out there somewhere are strange, wonderful, and exotic kinds of sex waiting for us to try.

But what about “sex trafficking,” denounced in the media as a rampant crime linked to global gangs and insecurity at borders? The U.S. government, claiming to be the world’s moral arbiter, spends millions issuing an annual report card rating other countries’ efforts to combat this crime and trying to rescue victims around the world. The implication is clear: “American” ideas about sex and morality are the right ones for the planet. In other words, if the ideal of “American” sexual relationships is accepted everywhere, the enslavement of women and children will end.

In the West, in the present, many people believe that sex should express love. This “good” sex is also said to provide a key way to discover personal identity -- who we really are, our innermost selves. It is assumed that feelings of love increase pleasure (quantitatively) and intensify it (qualitatively), resulting in meaningful passion that is expressed through long term, emotionally committed relationships. Other sexual relations then seem wrong, among them anonymous, public, and “promiscuous” sex. Above all, “real” love and sex are said to be incompatible with rationality and work -- at least that is the way many wish it to be.

At the same time, people wonder: Is there a boom underway in the buying and selling of sex, part of a general sexualization of contemporary culture? Since objective data is impossible to gather when businesses operate outside the law, we cannot know whether sex-and-money transactions are going on more than ever, but we certainly know we see and hear about them more. So although we tell a powerful story about sex and love belonging together, we also understand that people want other kinds of sex. We hear about people who buy and sell sex from our friends, acquaintances, the media, and sometimes through reporting on migration -- which is where “sex trafficking” comes in.

In a context of increasing hostility toward migrants, it grates on people’s nerves to think that many might prefer to use sex to earn money instead of washing dishes, babysitting, working in a sweatshop, or picking fruit -- for much less money. But migrants -- who come in all sizes, shapes and colors, and from infinitely varying backgrounds -- are just trying to get by as best they can on what can be a very rocky path. Migrants who cross borders to work need to be flexible and adaptable to succeed. They often do not know beforehand how they will be living, and they may not know the language. They may not find the food, music, or films they like, or the mosque, temple, or church. Everything looks different; they feel lonely. They may feel enormous pressure to pay back debts contracted to undertake their journey, and they may fear being picked up by the police. But they have arrived with a plan, some names and addresses, and some amount of money.

When migration policy is tightened at the same time that low-status jobs are abundantly available, a market opens up to help migrants cross borders. Some of this looks just like legal travel, but much of it involves bigger risks and higher costs, and some entails egregious exploitation -- whether migrants are destined to work in mines, private homes, sweatshops, agriculture, or the sex industry.

Some migrants prefer to do anything rather than sell sex -- for instance, “mules” who take on the job of carrying drugs inside their bodies. Once across a border, past work experience and diplomas, whether white-collar or blue, are usually not recognized. Migrant schoolteachers, engineers, nurses, hairdressers and a range of others find only low-status, low-paying jobs open to them. Many of them, from everywhere on the social spectrum, would rather work in the sex industry -- in one or the other of a huge variety of jobs.

Bars, restaurants, cabarets, private clubs, brothels, discotheques, saunas, massage parlors, sex shops, peep shows, hotel rooms, homes, bookshops, strip and lap-dance venues, dungeons, Internet sites, beauty parlors, clubhouses, cinemas, public toilets, phone lines, shipboard festivities, as well as modelling, swinging, stag and fetish parties -- sex is sold practically everywhere. Where these are businesses operating without licences, undocumented workers can easily be employed: the paradox of prohibition. For migrants who are already working without official permission, these jobs may well seem no riskier than any other.

To understand why headlines insist that all migrant women who sell sex are “trafficked,” we need to go back to the popular idea that the proper place of sex is at home, between “committed” lovers and family. When only this kind of relationship is imagined to be equitable and valid, it becomes easier to think that women from other cultures are poor, backward, vulnerable objects passively waiting for exploitation by rapacious men. With these notions, from the point of view of the comfortably sheltered, no one would opt to sell sex and migrants must be forced to do it.

What can we know about the actual sex involved in this moral conflict? We know all “sex acts” are not the same in the context of loving relationships, and they are not all the same just because money is exchanged for them. Migrant workers sell millions of sexual experiences every day around the world to customers from different cultures, learning and teaching through experience how physicality mixes with skill, sophistication, hostility, tenderness, insecurity, respect.

When we have sex with others we influence each other, and although a single interaction may not have a lasting impact, many sexual agreements are complex or often repeated. Occasionally, a single experience can change the course of a life. In a commercial relationship, on one side are people flexible about how they make money, on the other are people wanting to fulfill a desire or experiment. These relationships take place in actual social contexts -- indeed, sex itself is often subsidiary to the conspicuous consumption of alcohol or entertainment, to cruising or just to men “being men” together. Since everywhere men are granted more permission to experiment with sex and have more money to spend, their tastes help determine what’s offered and with whom, whether they be women, men, or transsexuals.

These millions of relationships, which take place every day, cannot be reduced to undifferentiated “sex acts” or eliminated from cultural consideration just because they entail money. Both client and sex worker may be acting seduction, flirtation, and affection when they are together, but camaraderie, friendship, love, and marriage also occur. And both sides are fascinated by sexual differences, imagined to be “national,” exotic, and real.

How we perform sex, what we feel when we do particular things, depends on our cultural (not national) contexts: How we were taught to do them and by whom, what we were permitted to try out, whether we talked to others about what we were doing and what we wanted. When we engage sexually with others, we learn and teach, we influence each other and change how we do things -- often without knowing it. Because people are poor, or have left their countries to work abroad, or take money in exchange for sex does not change their humanity, their capacity to feel, respond, learn, or teach, whether sex is at issue or not.

“Sex trafficking” headlines claim that all migrant women who sell sex are invariably being abused, without regard to their diverse backgrounds and without asking them how they feel. But many reject being defined as sexually vulnerable and in need of “rescuing” and protection. Everyone does not feel the same way about sex -- in rich countries like the United States, or in any other country. Nationality is a poor way to understand human beings and their sexualities.

Family Matters

Sixteen-year-old Karina Flores knew something was wrong when she couldn’t button her size five jeans. She wiggled to peel them off her body and threw them on her bed, and opted for her size seven pair instead. As she finished getting ready for another day at school, she stared at her reflection in the mirror. Her face was rounder and less defined, and her stomach was slightly bulging. When she met her friend on campus that day, she was greeted by a question: “Have you gotten your period yet?” “No, I haven’t, but I am sure I am going to get it soon enough,” she replied.

Two weeks later she found out she was pregnant.

Growing up, Karina had long and frequent talks with her mother. One particular phrase stuck with her and replayed in her mind over and over again. “A girl is like a flower, very pretty, but once touched, it becomes wilted.” Karina felt wilted. This baby would ruin her life, she thought. She knew her parents would be mad at her but didn’t know to what extent. Having an abortion crossed her mind, but when she vocalized it people encouraged her to keep the baby.

Karina’s story sounds all too familiar. One in two Latinas becomes pregnant at least once by the age of twenty. Although overall teen pregnancy has gone down within the last few years, the rate of Latina pregnancy is decreasing half as fast as the national average. Is the lack of comprehensive sex education in schools and homes contributing to this trend?

“We need to get the communication about sex out and we have to talk about it on a consistent basis,” said Ruthie Flores, senior manager for Latino Initiative, a campaign focused on helping reduce the high rates of pregnancy and childbearing in the Latino community. “But how can we do that if the parents don’t know where to turn for help?”

Fast Track

Karina remembered her doctor had told her that when she turned sixteen, she would be able to make visits by herself. She took advantage of that and scheduled an appointment without her mother’s knowledge. Karina sat anxiously in the waiting room, tapping her foot against the floor to shake off her nerves. After a long stressful wait the receptionist called her name and she proceeded to the doctor’s office. She sat down on the ivory colored chair and glanced at the pamphlets displayed against the walls that varied in topics: substance abuse, menopause, sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy.

Soon enough her doctor walked through the door and handed her a cup for a urine sample. She came out of the bathroom and waited for the results.

“You are four months pregnant,” the doctor said. “Are you going to keep the baby, have an abortion, or give it up for adoption?”

In shock, Karina muttered, “I don’t know.”

The doctor took Karina by the hand and walked her to the office of a social worker. The social worker explained to her all the options she had and even set her up for an appointment at a clinic in Oakland to have an abortion.

The next day Karina received three calls from the social worker. She did not know what to do and hated feeling pressured to make such a hard decision so soon. She never answered her calls.

Karina was going through a mixture of emotions, and her biggest concern was telling her parents. Being the oldest of six children, every one of her siblings looked up to her as a sister—and a mother-figure. Now she faced the possibility of being a real mother. Her parents, who were born in Mexico, raised her in a traditional Mexican household, where abstaining from sex was the best—and only—thing to do. When Maria Flores, Karina’s mother, lived in Mexico, girls had to carry themselves with dignity. If a young lady innocently talked to a man who was not a family member, her boyfriend would leave her. There was no room for games. The church and the Virgen de Guadalupe played a big role in Maria’s life, something that she wished would have carried on to her own family in the United States.

The Latino population, which makes up 13 percent of the U.S. population, is the fastest growing and largest minority group in the United States. By 2015, an estimated one-in-five teens will be Latino. Many people in the Latino population have assimilated into the mainstream culture of the United States but have kept with them old traditions and customs of their native countries. To an extent, young men are still encouraged to have sex as an initiation into manhood, whereas girls are told to remain abstinent until marriage. This double standard leads many girls to rebel and lie to their parents in order to gain some sense of freedom.

One of Karina’s classmates had gotten pregnant, and a month later she was kicked out of her house and had to move in with her boyfriend. Another classmate became pregnant as well, and terrified of what her parents were going to do to her, she tried to give herself an abortion. Karina did not want to end up like them. Her relationship with her family was strong. She spent most of her free time caring for and playing with her siblings and helped as much around the home as she could so her mother wouldn’t have to work so hard. And when she had free time she took care of many of the tasks parents normally do, like going to the bank and helping her siblings with their homework.

How much longer could she wait before she told them? Her stomach was growing and her conscience was killing her. “My parents had trust in me and I let them down,” she says, recalling that time in her life.

Two weeks after finding out she was pregnant, Karina sat her mother and father down on the couch. As her two little sisters ran up to her wanting attention, she broke the news. Tears filled the eyes of Maria Flores and slowly dripped down the apples of her cheeks. Anger and frustration built up in her father. It was as if the three of them had nothing to say. Karina looked around at the walls, which displayed pictures of her as a young girl, playing soccer with two of her brothers. The pictures were taken only two years ago. Her two little sisters continued to play on the carpet without any knowledge of what had just happened.

“Before, I would offer my children advice and they would take it,” Maria Flores now says as she reviews all the changes in her family. “But now, they have their own beliefs and I can’t control that.”

Even though Karina accomplished the difficult task of telling her parent’s about her pregnancy, things were still tense. Her father did not talk to her for almost two weeks, feeling embarrassed of the situation his family was in.

“Parents care too much about what other people say,” Karina says. “They think people are going to judge them because of what their kids do. I made a mistake and I can’t take it back.”

However, her mother came around quickly and offered her support. “If my husband wants to kick Karina out from our home, he would have to kick both of us out,” Maria remembers thinking.

Karina began to view her mother not only as a mother, but as a friend as well.

To the Flores’ surprise, there was not going to be one new family member but two. Maria was going to be a mother for the seventh time—and a grandmother for the first time—all within a month. “How many people can say that they are pregnant at the same time as their mother?” says Karina.

Not only do she and her mother attend their doctors’ appointments together, but they also go on daily walks to stay healthy. “Motherhood is nothing easy, but I know my daughter is going to do a great job,” says Maria. “Her life is not over. This is only the beginning.”

The End of Natural Beauty?

This article is reprinted from American Sexuality magazine.

Sixteen was a particularly hard year for me. And not because I was still almost five feet tall, stuck in an Elita, my mouth paying eerie homage to a small cityscape during the industrial revolution. It was because sixteen was the year my mother's daily suggestion to remove the make-up off my moustache, the unkind effect of stale Covergirl foundation atop adolescent peach fuzz, finally got to me. So began our monthly mother-daughter appointments at the aesthetician's house, my upper lip swathed in Emla and Saran Wrap (an unlikely pairing only for the most naïve and hairless) to rid via electrocution every single follicle comprising my hateful orange stache.

A decade later, I couldn't be more thankful. Nor can I help but speculate the impact whiskers might have had on my life thus far. Would I be as successful? As happy? What about my love life? Would my husband have fallen in love with the original, mustached me?

Not a freakin' chance.

Which makes me wonder: Have our standards become too high? Is natural beauty a thing of the past?

"We are beginning to expect to see bodies that have been modified in significant ways, and we are less surprised by bodies that look explicitly manufactured," said Dr. Victoria Pitts-Taylor, associate professor of sociology at City University of New York and author of Surgery Junkies: Wellness and Pathology in Cosmetic Culture. According to Pitts-Taylor, over the past twenty odd years, Western notions of beauty have made a decisive shift toward a new "technological aesthetic."

"What counts as natural changes in every culture and epoch," she explained. "I believe we are now undergoing a transformation in our conception of the natural to accommodate high-tech surgery and continual, life-long regimens of cosmetic surgery (and beauty procedures)."

In other words, my husband is either blissfully unaware of my Sasquatch past, or merrily saving for the day we have a daughter of our own.

This prickly dose of reality should come as no surprise; altering our physical appearances to fit the style of the day, or more tellingly, to attract a mate, is a hallmark of Western beauty. Add a slew of plastic surgery makeover shows to the fray (The Swan, Extreme Makeover, and Dr. 90210), and it's a wonder women haven't all shorn their labia yet.

The advent of cosmetic procedures and plastic surgery, while raising our standards of what is (and is not) considered attractive, certainly didn't create them in the first place. Birmingham-based plastic surgeon and blogger Dr. Rob Oliver is quick to point out that "Baywatch Breasts" are not necessarily a new look.

"The 'mature' ptotic female breast (read: droopy boobs) has never been really celebrated ... Corsets and bras dating back to the French courts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were all designed to push up and augment the breast the same way a Wonderbra or implants do now."

To be sure, certain physical qualities in women -- rounded breasts, ample bottoms, small feet, and pouting lips -- have been consistently prized over the centuries. From an evolutionary perspective, such essentially female traits serve as markers of gender, differentiating the sexes and providing a mechanism to allure potential mates. Ergo, by exaggerating what is essentially feminine (or decidedly unmasculine) women can up their attractiveness ante.

Consider the ante officially upped. Today, women across the country (and to a lesser degree men) are approaching their beauty goals with a manic fervor once reserved for Tom Cruise, a couch, and Oprah.

"People judge you by the way you look, and looking well put together gives the impression that you know what you are doing," said *Lesley Jacobs, a fashion merchandiser from Montreal who is seemingly bent on erasing every last hirsute trace of Israeli ancestry from her lithe, twenty-seven-year-old frame. "Plus, guys talk to beautiful girls more."

Apparently for Jacobs, "beautiful girls" loosely translates to "girls without pit hair."

"I was so embarrassed of my underarms that I would never lift my arms up. Even if I shaved, you could still see the black under my arms."

With a salary falling well beneath $50K a year, and approximately nineteen rounds of laser treatments averaging around $500 per treatment, Jacobs is a conspicuous example of just how much women sacrifice to achieve what Pitts-Taylor calls the "technological asthetic." And while it may be hard for some to imagine spending a quarter of their annual income on "bettering" themselves, for many it's a logical choice.

"Once it was necessary to feel stigmatized, ugly, or abnormal to justify getting cosmetic surgery," explained Pitts-Taylor. "Now in the United States there is a rhetoric of empowerment surrounding surgeries. One does it to 'improve' oneself, for example. People express an interest in using cosmetic surgery as a way to take care of themselves."

Take *Amanda Scott, a sales rep from Houston. "I lost a lot of weight years ago and ended up with extremely droopy, small boobs," said Scott, who despite earning less than $50K a year recently had her breasts done to "even out" her proportions.

Tall, fit, and perpetually bronze, Scott, twenty-eight, said her maintenance routine also includes regular mani/pedis, monthly waxes, hair cuts and color as needed, and frequent splurges at the cosmetic counter, a regimen she considers fundamental to her life and career. "As a single woman approaching thirty, I definitely feel a lot of pressure to look a certain way. But I've always known that being attractive helps out career wise as well as romantically."

Whether cosmetic procedures and plastic surgery can actually level the playing field is hard to say. For years, only the wealthiest could afford the hefty costs and downtime demanded by pealing skin, draining tubes, and compression garments. Remarked Pitts-Taylor, "Plastic surgery stratifies our bodies in economic and class-based ways; those who can afford it will wear their financial resources on their bodies."

Could it be that American society is on the cusp of a new class of sorts? One comprised solely of "beautiful" people who have the money to sustain their youth or become "beautiful" in the first place? Forget about the dwindling middle-income earners and the burgeoning, stratospheric division between the rich and poor. There's a new kid in town, and she looks a lot like LA. Call her Class Fab.

And she could be you: "I really don't think there's a danger of have and have-nots," said Oliver.

"Cosmetic surgery has really been 'democratized' between classes as compared to say, twenty, thirty years ago, because it's much easier to find a way to borrow money for it. The financing industry has gone heavy into cosmetic surgery, dentistry, and laser corrective vision surgery.

"All the major banks like Capital One have divisions that are in on this market. It has really made cosmetic surgery and nonsurgical things like laser hair removal available to the masses."

And regarding the long recuperation time once required by traditional surgery, well, that's gone by the wayside too. The emergence of Botox, longer acting injectables (Restylane, Juvederm, Scultptura), and nonablative skin rejuvenation (intense pulsed light, radiofrequency devices, a number of lasers) has enabled a number of treatments to be performed without the traditional downtime of surgery.

How this bodes for women is anyone's guess.

"It was easier to look good ten years ago," said *Daphne Mayfield, a physiotherapist who, despite promised anonymity, still does not want her whereabouts known.

Mayfield has yet to undergo any permanent surgeries or procedures but doesn't rule them out in the future. "Even if I don't agree with it, I want to age as gracefully as possible." Lucky for Mayfield, her husband assures her that by the time her looks fade, so will have his eye sight.

Even so, at fifty-five, it's taking an increasing amount of time each morning for her to paint on that youthful glow. A permanent solution might not be far behind.

*Names have been changed.
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