Mobile Orientations: An Intimate Autoethnography of Migration, Sex Work, and Humanitarian Borders, by Nicola Mai

Barry Reay praises an interdisciplinary study that demolishes stereotypes of slavery, trafficking and exploitation

January 17, 2019
Source: Alamy

Sex trafficking is a powerful stereotype in Western culture. With its emotional ingredients of victimhood and exploitation, simple binary of agency versus control, and equation of migrant sex work with sexual slavery, it is a worldview that has proved impossible to dislodge – despite the critiques of many academic studies.

Mobile Orientations provides an effective demolition of the assumed simplicities. Nicola Mai does not deny the existence of trafficking and coercion – he demonstrates both in post-communist Albania in the 1990s and in contemporary Nigeria – but he challenges the prevalence of trafficking and interrogates the complexities of coercion: “most migrants working in the sex industry are not trafficked”. He is alert to the fact that migrants’ own concepts of exploitation and agency are different from the labels of those in power, even if the former may sometimes have to rehearse those narratives in order to get what they want from the latter. At the heart of the book is what its author calls “the dissonance between the complexity of migrant sex workers’ experiences of agency and the ways in which that complexity tends to be ignored by antitrafficking policies and interventions”.

Mobile Orientations is a scintillating read. Genuinely interdisciplinary and theoretically astute, it combines autoethnography, interviews, practical organisational experience and ethno-fictional film-making (with actors standing in for the interviewed migrants). The title of the book refers to shifting sexualities as well as geographical mobility. And Mai establishes this for a variety of locations and scenarios: female European sex tourists in Tunisia, with their “professional fiancés”; Moroccans and Romanians selling sex at a Seville bus station (“fast food”); young men and trans women from the Balkans and the Maghreb surviving in Amsterdam. Mai is an honest researcher, outlining both his ethical dilemmas – should he warn a Polish woman that her professional fiancé is manipulating her? – and his feelings, freely discussing his disgust at the misogyny of an Albanian pimp.

The majority of sex workers see what they do as work rather than sex work, and vastly preferable to some of the other labour alternatives open to migrants in the economies of Europe. As one of Mai’s informants puts it, “Why do I have to work all day like a slave for fifty euros when I can get them in ten minutes by fucking a queer?” The professional fiancés in Tunisia who hope to use their relationships with Europeans as an entry to Europe refer to “bezness”, a combination of baiser (French for “fucking”) and the English word “business”.

The book is not beyond criticism. Mai is in danger of replicating his despised binaries when he contrasts the heteronormativity in migrants’ countries of origin with more transgressive lives in Europe. Mobile orientations are surely not so demarcated. Life back home does not get the nuanced consideration afforded to life in Paris, London or Amsterdam.

Yet Mobile Orientations is exemplary not only of creative interdisciplinarity but of the potential for academic contributions to the community. It is committed scholarship. Mai also seems like an interesting person to spend time with. It might be fun. In his own words, it would be “a sad kind of fun most of the time, but fun nevertheless”.

Barry Reay is Keith Sinclair professor of history at the University of Auckland and the author, most recently, of Sex in the Archives: Writing the Histories of American Sex (2018).

Mobile Orientations: An Intimate Autoethnography of Migration, Sex Work, and Humanitarian Borders
By Nicola Mai
University of Chicago Press
256pp, £67.50 and £22.50
ISBN 9780226584959 and 85000
Published 15 January 2019

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