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Eventually the specks get bigger
1 Jun 2010
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If you do research on sex work and you believe that your work should contribute in a way to improve their situation, you have to give the clients another conceptualization. You believe that what they’re doing is work and not a sin or some other moral judgment.. It also means that you’re accepting that sex is not necessarily vanilla. There are other possibilities that might not be your own cup of tea, but, as long as there’s consent, they are possible and are viable ways of doing things. You can’t be a conservative anymore.”

Lorraine Nencel. American anthropologist, living in the Netherlands for over thirty years. Her most prominent research has been on female sex workers in Lima, Peru and on street prostitution in Latin America. Author of Ethnography and prostitution in Peru; associate professor at VU University Amsterdam on topics of sexuality, gender, and feminism. Interviewed June 2010.

Eventually the specks get bigger

Self-objectifying is agency. I don’t see that sexualizing yourself has to be something that gives you less power. It only gives you less power if you continue to look at gender relationships as having stayed the same all these years. Who’s going to tell me that those gender relationships are still the same?

They haven’t change revolutionarily, but something is going on, so I’m really against just seeing girls dressed very sexually, very feminine, and that’s immediately deemed by an older feminist: “Look at these girls. They have no self-respect for themselves. They’re objectifying themselves.” I mean, have they talked to this woman? Do they know what this woman thinks?

There’s a lot going on in the gender roles. There’s the idea that “men have the right to be sexually assertive and girls not,” but at the same time, there’s simultaneity of girls doing things differently, which is the way things change. That continuity goes together with these little specks of difference, and eventually the specks get bigger. People are really changing, and power is shifting.

Now, I’m doing research on young people and sexuality in the Netherlands, and about a year ago, there was this amazing sensationalist, discursive explosion that occurred in the news about what they called “Breezer sluts.”

This documentary found out that there were girls exchanging their sexual services in bars for Bacardi Breezers. I thought, what’s going on here? All these pieces were coming out about young people who were supposedly sexualizing themselves.

What I wanted to do was look at the discourse and what was going on. I wanted to try to take off these blinders. What if we don’t look at sexualization as bad, objectification as bad? What if we don’t look at it as girls still being submissive to boys? If we don’t look at it like that from the starting point, let’s see what comes out of it.

It’s interesting because I hear sixteen-year-old girls in the train and they’re saying, “Did you see him last night on television? God, he’s a real piece,” or “He shouldn’t have taken his shirt off because he really needs to go to the gym.” These sorts of things are sexualizing men. Having objectification does not necessarily mean that things are going wrong. It could all be a form of sexual assertiveness that women haven’t had before.

They’re still much more dependent on what men want, and what men do, that’s another issue, but it’s not the same. You know, there was this fifteen-year-old in this high school who came and looked for me. I’m only a qualitative researcher, doing interviews, and she said, “Who’s the one doing the interviews on sexuality? I want to have an interview.”

If there’s one thing you know when you’re doing research, if someone comes looking for you, they probably have a story to tell. This girl, she might have been fifteen, but, man, the way she talked, the way she did things was absolutely nuts compared to most fifteen-year-olds. First of all, I thought she was a student teacher. She really looked older, and she had an amazing amount of sexual experience and was very proud of it and very energetic about it. I mean, is that bad?

It’s bad when you immediately say, “If you’re too sexual, it means that you’re being objectified, and if you’re objectified, you’re being used by men.” But who says that that’s the formula now? That’s why more research has to be done. What’s the formula now? Where does it coincide and accord with what we as old feminists thought, and where is it taking on different forms? We’re in the middle of finding that out.

The old way is a very Puritan notion of feminism, especially in America. There, it’s a lot of the abolitionist, radical feminism, more than it is perhaps here. When I came here in the 70’s, I was a feminist, and I saw all these women walking around in high heels. I was like, “Oh my god, and they call themselves feminist! How is that possible?” I noticed that feminism did not necessarily mean that you weren’t allowed to be feminine. “Feminine” is not always interpreted as trying to please a man. It’s not false consciousness.

That’s what I’m working on right now, giving food for thought to people. My specialty is looking at things and trying to discuss them and getting them into a flow of discussion. I don’t just take the politically correct way of saying things. I think that’s the most important thing for women working to change things. If they are politically correct, Lady Gaga would only be a self-involved, sexualizing woman who’s bad for women’s images.

But I don’t make everyone into a super hero and make everything into agency. “This is agency and everyone has agency and women are never…” No, it’s not that either. There are many things involved. It has to do with how you see and characterize change.

A very good example of this is Muslim women and the whole thing about the veil. People decide that if women wear a veil, they’re being exploited, subordinate, and nobody listens to them. But if you look at that whole debate, listen to some Muslim women, who are articulate and can tell you what they think of it, how they see it, women have agency, despite the fact that they’re wearing a veil. Respect that. You don’t have to agree. “Oh, I would never do that.” Well, you don’t have to. Let’s see why they do.

It’s trying to deal with what is going on with women’s lives daily, how they experience it, how this confronts the structures and how it sometimes support the structures. Be able to show through your work, no matter what—whether it’s more practical or research—those dimensions, those dynamics, so people can be more aware of them.

Yes, young women still have challenges. In regards to sexuality, I think there’s this tension field. People also expect more from women than women are willing to give. Or, perhaps, the tensions exist between wanting to be a certain way and how it’s being interpreted.

I’ve always been working on these gender issues and sexuality. I also did a lot of research in Peru. At one point, I was doing research on sex workers. I did work on sex workers because a woman from a women’s organization in Peru came to the Netherlands to study, and she did a walking tour of the Red Light district. She said to me, “Wow, we need something like this in Peru because in Peru, it’s taboo to talk about prostitution.”

At that time, in Peru, there was one organization that worked with prostitutes, and that was a fantastic group of religious. One of them was a nun who was more radical than most of us and also an abolitionist. There’s a dichotomy between those who are against prostitution, call for its abolition, and those who support sex workers' rights. The abolitionist side was the only story that was heard. This group's standpoint was the only one in Peru. That is why I felt it was necessary to do research from a different perspective.

When this woman said that it was taboo to talk about prostitution in Peru, I started to fantasize and visualize, and then I got this whole theory. In Latin America there’s a dichotomy between the mother and the whore, and, here, you have whores that are mothers. How does that work? I got the ball rolling for that research.

At that time, it was very important for me. I had the book translated and distributed. It’s still the only book that talks about sex work in Peru. I know in a certain way that I contributed something positive there. I know health workers read the book when they start to work with sex workers all over Peru. I know that some sex workers that were starting to organize there were influenced by things I said at a conference. They spoke out. I know that making sure the right information gets to the right place is a way of opening women’s rights.

The prostitutes I was working with were independent women, and they worked on a regular basis. Some of them worked in the evening on the street, and others were older and poorer, and they worked in a slummified area on the street. I never was standing with them on the street. In one of the situations, I stayed in the place where they took their lunch, and in the other situation, in the evening, I was hanging out at one of the restaurants they stopped at.

Now, if you do research on sex work and you believe that your work should contribute in a way to improve their situation, you have to give the clients another conceptualization. You have to believe that what they’re doing is work and not a sin or some other moral judgment.

Secondly, it also means that you’re accepting that sex is not necessarily vanilla. There are other possibilities that might not be your own cup of tea, but, as long as there’s consent, they are possible and are viable ways of doing things. You can’t be a conservative anymore. You take a step in your research to say, “This is the way I’m seeing prostitution.”

Then, once again, that has effect for your own life and your own kids. Do you say, therefore, that your son cannot look at pornography, if you think that the women doing it are capable? In the majority, the women doing it choose it; of course, there’s always forced.

But if you look at interviews with porno stars, you see how they deal with things. It has nothing to do with objectification. If you read books from sex workers, you see that most of the women have control over the situation. The thing that makes things worse for them is that they have to deal with stigma and marginalization, and therefore by dealing with that, it’s getting them into a worse situation.

I’m not saying everyone should be a sex worker. Look, if my daughter came up to me and said, “Hey, mom, I want to be a sex worker,” I don’t think I’d be that happy. But it’s not so simple. To understand it more, you have to start looking at the relationships they’re proposing about gender, and I think that’s important to any research on sexuality.

Looking at certain viewpoints, whether it’s sexualization of society, objectification of women, can you accord with these gender relationships? Can you see politically for yourself a gender relationship of man always being the perpetrator and women always being submissive? If you can, then you’re much more closely linked to that way of looking at pornography and prostitution as violence against women. If you can’t, if you see women having agency and not false agency, then you need another model.

I’ve also done research on secretaries working for the ministries in Peru, also on identity, sexuality, ethnicity, and how those things intersect. There, too, there was a reason I did it. I wanted easier research. At the same time, there was something that was gnawing at me, which was that in Peru, there are all these old myths about secretaries wanting to climb the social ladder, marrying the boss, wearing too-tight clothing. I wanted to look at that sexualized image.

When I finished that research, I gave a lecture series to secretaries that were getting a degree, and I had one of the experts from the feminist organization come and talk about the new laws for sexual harassment. So there’s always a translation for my research into breaking certain myths.

I’ve been working on Latin America, but recently I’ve been more involved in doing stories on the Netherlands. As a part of my conviction of translating to other areas, I’m a member of the advisory board of Mama Cash, a sister organization of the Global Fund for Women, since early 2000. It’s become less of a function that’s really needed, but in the beginning, it was wonderful. You were getting these projects in from all over the world and seeing what was going on.

Being a feminist anthropologist for so long and knowing that your work has to contribute to things, you look for ways to do that. There’s also a creativeness in me that wants to discover new things and continue. That's one of the reasons why I applied to be an advisory board member of Mama Cash. I just thought that’s something I should be doing. 

There was also a discouraging period of time when, if I said that I was doing gender research, I was put into a corner. I was not doing “real research.” I think that inhibited me in the mainstream to really come out with what I am or what I did.

It’s changed a bit now because there are more scholars that use gender, and they do realize the importance of the difference between men and women. Although, things have changed in that sense, I don’t know how much they’ve changed.

For me, an eye-opener—because I did think that things had changed—was that I went to a conference on ethnography, a very small select conference in Leiden. There were big names there from the United States. Except, the only questions I got were from other women that working on gender or sexuality. The men, they all just asked the men questions. It was a bit of a shock because I think in the last years I’ve been feeling very much more like there’s a place for women, but in practice, you see that things can still go differently.

Definitely thing are changing all over the world. That’s what’s so beautiful. But it will always be slow. If you would do this in an African country, you would see change also. It's always slow change but change all the same.

There are different dimensions to the change. One is that gender in general has become more accepted as a concept. There has been some mainstreaming in academia. Therefore, you will find more critical academics, in general, talk about race, ethnicity, gender, which years ago that was not the case. Gender was just for women.

Then again, there is also the challenging anti-feeling for the word “feminism." You can talk about gender but don’t talk about feminist anthropology. To a certain extent, there’s a liberalized form of thinking we’re there. We’re equal. Therefore, let’s not politicize it. I’m doing it, I can do it, all my friends are doing it, we’re getting there, we’re getting where we want to. People also say, as long as you’re not hurting anyone, everything is fine, the whole tolerance thing.

Nonetheless, Holland is the place where it’s still one of the lowest participation of women on the labor market. In academia, it’s still one of the countries with the lowest amount of women full professors. If you go to the head of the department meeting here, you’ll only see one woman sitting there. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done.

There’s more resistance than there used to be, but the anti-feeling to that is resilience. So it’s very important to be critical. Look at the underlying things. Do you want to live in a society like this? If not, take steps. 

I’ve decided to be a theoretical researcher, but I have to help promote change. How will I do that? I love adventure, so I like things that are creative and use my abilities in places where they are needed. 

For example, since 2002, I've taught in South Africa in a program that trains PhD students from previously disadvantaged minorities. I go once a year. That’s something adventurous, maybe. I don’t think I’m satisfied very easily.

I think there is something in me that wants to have more. Here, most people can stand until they’re sixty-five as an assistant professor and that’s just the way the system has been. So female associate professors are very few. My goal was to be associate professor. Then, once I got to be associate professor, there starts this inkling. What can I do now to go on to special professor or a full professor?

There’s always something in me that doesn’t just say that it’s enough with what I have. Therefore I find these things to pursue. Of course, if you want to be political, if you want to change things, you have to be committed. For me, I’m just trying to imagine, what would I want for my daughter?


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