Gender, Migration, ‘Trafficking’ and the Troublesome Relationship between Agency and Force

Julia O'Connell Davidson

2010_Agnieszka Rydzik - Life in MotionThough anti-trafficking campaigners often state that men, as well as women and children, can be ‘victims of trafficking,’ the concept of ‘trafficking,’ especially that of ‘sex trafficking,’ actually provides a highly gendered lens through which to view the experience of migrants who are subject to various forms of exploitation, abuse, and violence in the destination country. This is because it hinges on an imagined line between those who’ve actively chosen to move and consented to the type of work they will undertake and the conditions under which it will be undertaken, and those who’ve been tricked, cheated, bullied, and trapped. In other words, it conceives of migrants as either willing selves, acting on the basis of their own freely made choices, or as forced to submit to the will of another. Some campaigners even describe ‘victims of trafficking’ as having ‘lost’ their agency along with their freedom. And here is where we enter territory that’s profoundly gendered and aged because adult men are regarded as almost by definition authors of their own destinies, whereas women and children’s grip on their own wills is understood to be already fragile and tenuous. They are readily imagined in the garb of victimhood.

How can researchers challenge this gendered vision in work on migrants who end up in appalling and highly exploitative conditions? One approach is to question the dominant liberal emphasis on the voluntariness of contract and whether or not violence or its threat is used to prevent a migrant worker from freely ‘walking away’ from an exploitative employment relation. This emphasis reflects a preoccupation with the form of compulsion produced by the exercise of direct, personalistic power, and so a very narrow and distinct understanding of ‘force.’ It reproduces a liberal vision of a world in which people are eitherabject, passive objects and slaves or freely contracting subjects, thereby missing the unseen, structural factors that force fates on men as well as women and children under the social relations of capitalism. It privileges a very particular kind of ‘freedom’―what G.A. Cohen described as the ‘the bare bourgeois freedom which distinguishes the most abject proletarian from the slave.’ We might, then, look to Marxist inspired critiques of neoliberal capitalism for tools with which to uncover how force works upon subaltern men, women, and children alike in the contemporary world.

However, the liberal model of people as either objects or subjects also works to obscure the agency that people (women and children as well as adult men) exercise in choosing between the narrow range of fates available and working them as best they can to meet their own interests and goals. And in this regard, Marxist critiques don’t always provide a clear counterpoint. In fact, there’s sometimes an alarming congruity between the representations of ‘victims of trafficking’ and ‘modern slaves’ in dominant liberal discourse, and representations of exploited workers of the Global South found in some Marxist writings on informalization, labour migration, and oppression under neoliberal capitalism. Likewise, some strands of feminist thought produce a vision of female migrants, especially those working in the sex industry, as non-agential objects, swept along like flotsam and jetsam by structural forces. In reaction against this, other commentators strongly emphasize the agency of such workers and/or construct their action as a form of resistance against patriarchal norms or the exclusionary forces of neoliberal capitalism.

teddybearVincent Brown’s comments on how studies of transatlantic slavery ‘often divide between works that emphasize the overwhelming power of the institution and scholarship that focuses on the resistant efforts of the enslaved’ also speak to a dilemma faced by scholars and activists in relation to many groups of contemporary migrant workers. When writing against contemporary processes of neoliberal economic reform or of gender as a contemporary system of domination, those at the sharp end of these processes can easily (if unwittingly) be worked as figures that stand in for capitalism’s ideally subjugated, precarious workers, or patriarchy’s quintessentially dominated female Other. Their story is told in such a way as to reveal the workings of force, and so to emphasize the overwhelming power of the structures that oppress migrants, workers, and/or women. And a very obvious, and very serious, problem that arises from this, as much as from the depiction of the same people as ‘victims of trafficking,’ is that it encourages policies designed to prevent migration, suppress prostitution, eradicate certain forms of child labour, and so on, thereby further limiting the possible livelihood strategies open to those whose choices are already heavily restricted. And yet to simply invert the discourse and celebrate the self-activity of such workers as either a form of resistance or an expression of their resilience and creativity, runs the danger of reinscribing the liberal association between consent and freedom.

We need research that treads a course between these opposing narratives. We need studies that neither reduce their research subjects to abject victims and suffering bodies, nor romanticize them as ‘heroic subalterns,’ and that don’t insist on a gendered and aged division between willing subjects or will-less objects, or attempt to correct this by seeking liberalism’s rugged individual subject in all alike. Fortunately, there are a number of examples of ethnographies that do just this, including Svati Shah’s recent ethnography of migrant women in Mumbai whose livelihood strategies included both sex work and other forms of paid labour, Mark Johnson’s study of Filipino domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, and the research described in contributions to Tiantian Zheng’s edited volume on sex trafficking.  These and other studies suggest that a different vision of the relation between agency and force is required in order to trace the complicated intersections of gender, race, age, class, and other structural forces in shaping the experience of different groups of migrant workers. We need to simultaneously recognize the workings of force and the inalienability of the human will, and to approach agency as, in Shah’s words, ‘the capacity to act―differential, context specific’ and yet ‘always, in some fashion extant’.

Author affiliation: Julia O’Connell Davidson, Professor of Sociology, University of Nottingham

This post is part of the joint blog series on ‘Gender and Migration’ co-hosted by Border Criminologies and COMPAS. Posts in this series will be published on both blogs every Friday until mid-July.