Third Panel – Sexuality and Economics: visibilities and invisibilities
Morning – August 25, 2009
The panel that followed was chaired by Lucila Esquivel, coordinator of the Paraguayan Association of Sex Workers and had as presenters: Ofélia Becerril, professor at the Colégio de Michoacán, in México; Adriana Piscitelli, professor and researcher at the Núcleo de Estudos de gênero PAGU in UNICAMP (Brazil); Maria Elvira Benítez, Anthropology PHD student at the Museu Nacional and program assistant at the Centro Latino Americano em Sexualidade e Direitos Humanos (CLAM), in Rio de Janeiro; and Bruno Zilli, anthropologist and also researcher at CLAM. Comments were made by Lohana Berkins, president of the Associação de Luta pela Identidade Travesti e Transsexual (ALITT) in Argentina and Miguel Muñoz Laboy, professor at the Department of Sociomedical Sciences at the University of Columbia and a member of the SPW team.
Ofélia Becerril presented findings of a study on sexuality and migration, which examined the case of migration trends between México and Canada whose rules are determined by a bi-lateral agreement known as PETA (Programa de Trabajadores Agrícolas Temporeros). Through this agreement, male and female migrants spent a number of weeks every year in Canada working in agro-business during the harvest period. The research revealed that these migrants are often subjected to sexuality control mechanisms such as time schedules for intimate encounters, systematic video surveillance of dorms and working areas, and strict regulation of sociability spaces.
Becerril explained that if these rules are broken, migrants can be deported back home. Women and those whose sexuality differs from the heterosexual norm is controlled by both the employers and the migrant community itself, whose moral parameters are also highly sexist and heteronormative. One key finding of the research, however, is that people systematically resist to this disciplinary logic, reaffirming their sexual desires and challenging rules of control, for example, by having sexual intercourse in forbidden areas and at forbidden time. Becerril also observed that despite the strict sexual norms that prevail in the work place, the arrival of Mexican male migrants triggers the internal migration of sex workers who come from Toronto and Montreal to provide services during harvest each and every year.
Adriana Piscitelli analyzed the migration flow of Brazilian women to Spain to work in the commercial sex industry. Women included in the sample were by and large young; however, they were neither extremely poor nor completely uneducated. They came from low middle income sectors and their levels of education were equal or even higher than the Brazilian average. While few of them were black, the large majority defined themselves as white. Many had never worked as prostitutes in Brazil. However, in her study, Piscitelli also found older prostitutes that because of age were “losing their market” and decided to migrate in search of new alternatives. The research looked into three correlated dimensions: Why they have decided to migrate? What are the limits and possibilities of their integration in the Spanish market of sexual services? How does this decision and experience affect their personal trajectories?
Life stories collected in this research explain that the decision to migrate is inspired by the aspiration of social mobility, because sex work pays better in Spain than in Brazil, and also the imaginary notion of glamour that surrounds the idea of living in Europe. Piscitelli also analyzed the context of migration control, the new rules aimed at regulating sex work and the 2008 economic crisis and its affect on the lives of these women. She found systematic violence perpetrated by migration authorities, increasing police abuse at street level and, since last year, financial losses that led some of the women to return – or at least to think about returning – to Brazil.
The research findings also demonstrate that despite these and other difficulties, one third of women who had been interviewed consider that their decision to migrate to Spain was successful. They earned much more than if they had remained in Brazil. Most of them send remittances back home, either to support their families or as investments. One of them, for instance, currently owns a piece of land in Rondonia and uses the money she earns as a prostitute to pay male workers in the farm. Therefore, Piscitelli concluded that the international flow of persons that is connected with the sex market should be understood and analyzed as one component of broader international migration dynamics, whose motivations and effects do not substantially differs from other transnational movements of people.
Maria Elvira Benítez presented a study about the pornography market in Brazil, which is part of her PHD thesis. She started her presentation by recalling that pornography is not a recent phenomenon, instead it has along history closely associated with the surge and expansion of mass culture and the entertainment industry. Her investigation focused on the configuration and logic of the pornographic movie production in São Paulo, which is the biggest production center in Brazil. In her analysis the pornographic video industry encompasses a complex production in which:
“The rhythm and functioning of operations is determined by money: cast recruitment, negotiation of honorarium, shooting budgets, the modalities of sexual performances, quality and trajectory of actresses and actors, types of bodies, locations…”
It also implies a high degree of rotation of the people involved, in particular actresses and actors. “Renovation” is a particularly strong requirement in the case of women, transvestites and transsexuals, while heterosexual men tend to remain longer in the market. While heterosexual pornography is dominant both in the domestic and global markets, the Brazilian industry detains an important slice of the international market of transvestite pornographic movies and well as the export of bizarre or fetish pornography, as it the case of sex with obese people or animals.
María Elvira finally remarked that the pornographic market and production are not exempt from sexual morality or sharp hierarchies. Very clearly actors and actresses who perform in bizarre porno movies are less paid and highly stigmatized in the production circuits. In contrast, men who can keep longer erections, celebrities, and new female faces and bodies, particularly those who mimic well behaving girls, are respected and valued. She concluded by explaining that as it happens in biomedicine and sexology, pornography also deploys classifications, taxonomies, notions of normality and perversity.
Bruno Zilli closed the panel sharing reflections inspired by his master degree research on virtual BDVSM communities and highly preliminary findings of a study on regulation of sexuality and Internet in Brazil. He provided data about Internet use in Brazil where 38.2 millions of people access the web from home and 87 percent of them use a DSL connection. In addition 75 percent of Internet users are also MSM users and in 2008 Orkut had more than 23 million registered members, which corresponds to 53 percent of all Orkut users in the world.
Quoting Pierre Lévy, who interprets the virtual as a “new modality of being,” Bruno enphazised that cybernauts experience the web as a real space. The use of expressions such as to navigate, to go, and to access suggest that this space is also perceived as a moving place where people are always on the move as well. These conditions totally alter our conventional notions of time and presence and require us to problematize the classical opposition between real and virtual. He also reminded us that Internet plays a crucial role in terms of new forms of political connectivity, sociability and self expression. It has enormously contributed to enhance communication within and across sexual politics of communities and to the proliferation of virtual communities constructed on the basis of sexual identities and practices as in the case of BDVSM persons.
Sexual exchanges are a core component of Internet dynamics today, which range from virtual sex to conventional dating and marriage, also including arranged marriages. Concurrently, the Internet has also become a dangerous place that “must be controlled or regulated,” particularly in the case of children, who as we know, have been subjected to various forms of tutelage and discipline for a long time.
:: COMMENTS ::
Lohana Berkins started her comments by underlining that she and her colleagues at ALLIT do not recognize prostitution as work. Therefore, they prefer to use the terminology of persons living in prostitution because they see prostitution as a transitional situation that can be experienced by any person in the course of her life. They also believe that it is always necessary to offer people ways out of prostitution. As a feminist who has been in a situation of prostitution, she considers it to be one specific form of regulation of sexuality. Prostitution exists because the activity is legitimized in society and also because states, either socialist or capitalist, benefit from the income resulting from the sex market. However, persons in situation of prostitution do not benefit from these same colossal earnings. In Berkins’ view, a prostitute will never be wealthy.
She also remarked that there are substantial differences between the conditions experienced by women and the conditions experienced by transvestites and transsexuals living in situations of prostitution. She explained that this is because societies and states impose prostitution on these persons as their only possible way to earn a living. She believes we should ask why the bodies of transvestites, even when they are famous, are just recognized and valued in the sex industry. In her view, the absence of an analysis of transvestites in prostitution is a key invisibility in the overview paper. Lastly, she suggested that when researching and reflecting on prostitution, it is crucial to incorporate a debate about embodiment in order to problematize the dominant view that likeness and uniformity are found across female bodies.
Miguel Muñoz-Laboy, resorted to four characters to illustrate his comments on the panel. He spoke of Angelika, a transvestite who is making a movie in Rio de Janeiro to be posted in the Internet; of Camila, the Brazilian sex worker living in Barcelona; of Oliver, a porno actor who is participating in his first movie in São Paulo; of Isabel, the Mexican temporary worker who is in Ontario to work in a farm. Through the trajectory of these four persons, Miguel explored the multiplicity and the complexities of contemporary sexual markets.
He called attention to the fact that local sex markets must engage with and respond to global demands. On the other hand, the industry must fulfill the expectation of highly heterogeneous consumers. Consequently, flexibility is a core requirement of the new economy of sex. These situations evoke current academic debates about time condensation in post industrial societies. They also confirm that the turn-out is a rule of labor markets and workers are becoming easily disposable today. A last key element is related to circulation. People circulate in both sexual and labor migration flows and images circulate in spaces that are simultaneously virtual and real. To summarize sexualities, the markets of sex seem to be definitely intersected by the broader and deeper logic that fuels late capitalism.
In closing the debates, Gabriela Leite suggested the meaning of the term wealth should be deconstructed. She said:
“I did not become rich working as a prostitute. But wealth is more than money. I never received much money but I became enriched by experience. The experience of knowing men more closely, of admiring them but also watching their frailties in the realm of sexuality. Men who have given me the great pleasure of knowing an ‘other’ without prejudice.”
For that reason, she thinks that although it is important to analyze prostitution as a sector of the global economy, it is also crucial to contest the stigma that stills prevails in respect to the open association between sex and money. A she see it, the debate about prostitution should be guided by the critique of this stigma, a sexual rights framework and a fundamental premise of freedom.