On Thursday, our class lecture covered Amma Darko’s Beyond the Horizon, which tells the story of a Ghanaian villager named Mara and highlights the difficulties she experiences at home and abroad. Although the book was extremely intense and I personally had trouble finishing it, I appreciated its treatment of numerous important topics (especially ones that rarely receive the attention or gravity they deserve). Although Beyond the Horizon is a work of fiction, Darko’s story effectively brought to light many of the issues facing sex workers, particularly those who are transnational migrants. There is certainly a lot to learn from this text, and Dr. Yeboah discussed several of these key themes in class, including consumerism and the contestation of women’s bodies. Her claim that Darko employs “calculated exaggeration to enhance realism” personally struck a chord with me, as I believe it illustrates the ways in which the genre of literature can illuminate personal experiences while simultaneously making broader connections to the outside world. Additionally, her acknowledgment of women’s (albeit forced) complicity in their own subjugation was a valuable and valid perspective.
However, in attempting to unpack “the psyche of the prostitute,” I believe we neglected many of the nuances necessary to have a productive conversation about sex work; therefore, I would like to complicate mainstream understandings of the industry and the way we are generally taught to view sex work. In order to do this, we must dispel some common myths about sex work, primarily the idea that it is inherently exploitative; in fact, it is the way in which worker’s bodies are controlled and their agency and opportunities restricted that ends up causing them harm. The way we assign moral value to sex is different than the way we judge any other type of work or industry, and it is this association with immorality that often stigmatizes workers.
In her book Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, Laura Maria Agustin discusses how, in the Western world, work is seen as something that “realizes personal identity”: in other words, it has some deeper connection to our interests, values, and our very constitution as an individual. This belief, unsurprisingly, is not universal – work is a complicated aspect of life that, while obviously economic, intersects with different aspects of society, culture, politics, race, gender, sexuality, ability, age, and countless other factors. Agustin also outlines how the treatment of sex work in the media contributes to the work’s portrayal as dirty, dangerous, and demeaning. In reality, as she and many other scholars have argued, the lack of proper regulations, access to health care, worker protections and labor unions, and client accountability are what most often contribute to the violence faced by sex workers. Her analysis is valuable for a reader of Beyond the Horizon in many ways, but perhaps especially in the connections Agustin makes to European markets. In outlining how domestic and sex work is largely outsourced to women of color, predominantly immigrant women, she traces the ways that associations of sex work with immorality are constantly racialized. Darko makes this abundantly clear in her treatment of Germany, particularly in reference to the racial dynamics at the brothels.
Similarly, Agustin warns her readers against treating sex workers as purely victims, noting that many workers have diverse experiences that should not and cannot be oversimplified. A crucial part of this conversation is the fact that the often-employed Western approach of attempting to “save” or “rescue” sex workers (especially women) is largely a product of colonialism and is therefore infused with white savior narratives. Rather than attempting to “help” people with little to no understanding of the violence and discrimination they face, those who do not perform sex work should instead listen to workers and act as responsible advocates for and accomplices in their own activism. The issue of sex workers’ rights is a global one, but that does not mean we should feel isolated from it. On the contrary, sex work almost certainly plays a key role in each of our communities: for example, a growing number of college students in the US rely on sex work to support themselves. None of this is to say that Mara’s experiences are unrealistic, because the violence she faces is very real for many people across the world; instead, I simply want to illustrate some of the ways that we should work to strike a balance between individual narratives and global patterns, as well as how we can interrogate our own interpretations when it comes to complicated issues like sex work.
Agustin, Laura Maria. Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industries. Zed Books, 2007.
Darko, Amma. Beyond the Horizon. Heinemann, 1995.