Feministing Reads: Chi Adanna Mgbako’s To Live Freely in the World

Until now, there has not been extensive research published on sex worker activism on the African continent. Chi Adanna Mgbako’s To Live Freely in this World (January 2016, NYU Press) compiles data during nine years from over 200 interviews with sex workers across Africa to detail the histories and current realities of sex worker activism.

Like all good feminist researchers, Mgbako declares her social identities and positionality: a Black woman human rights legal professor and advocate who works in solidarity with sex worker activists. This allows readers to understand from the get-go that she herself is not a sex worker, and therefore her research is limited by personal inexperience. However, to bridge that gap, she does the work of centering the voices of sex workers to guide her research.

9781479817566_FullSex work is often framed as a situation from which laborers need to be “rescued.” While there some people are trafficked and forced into sex work, advocacy organizations too often hold up those experiences as universal within the industry. Part of why this myth is so persistent is because sex workers are largely left absent from the discourses about them. Instead of hearing directly from the voices of sex workers, national and international discourses quickly jump to policy level analysis, overlooking the critical work that is already being done on the ground by sex worker activists.

Mgbako noticed this phenomenon when she took a class on prostitution and the class readings were mostly articles written by men at the New York Times spewing the narrative that sex workers need to be saved. Rather than impose outside perceptions of the experiences of sex workers in her research, Mgbako gets the story from the voices of those most embedded in the movements to reveal the ways criminalization, abusive police officers, and broken social safety nets – not the labor itself –harm sex workers.

With a background in legal scholarship, Mgbako’s writing and argument is very clear. Using her training as a Western academic, Mgbako does the work of collecting narratives from sex workers themselves to let them speak for themselves. She writes: “[The sex worker activists’] collective agency will pour through the pages of this book. And I hope in the face of that agency, policymakers, scholars, activists, students, and concerned readers will choose to engage as partners in the struggle for sex workers’ rights and not as would-be saviors.”

Through the research, a counter-narrative to the rescue myth appears. By taking the sex workers’ narratives as data, Mgbako paints a picture of a more layered landscape to sex work activism than what we normally hear about on an international level.

Conversations about sex worker activism tend to focus on the US, Europe, Asia and Asian-Pacific. Mgbako argues that this gap in the canon does not mean that activism and solidarity building is not taking place in Africa, but rather that it is a story that has not been largely told. For reasons such as massive anti-prostitution propaganda and what Mgbako calls “political whore-phobia” within Africa, the laboratory work of sex workers has been largely ignored or downplayed. That’s a serious problem, especially given the number of foreign NGOs in Africa that offer often misguided services.

By quoting directly from over 200 transcribed interviews and numerous legal and social frameworks to cover, it seems miraculous that she was able to narrow it all down into one book. But on the other hand, that Mgbako writes about only seven out of over 50 African countries make the title’s claim “Sex Worker Activism in Africa” a bit of a stretch.

However, that doesn’t and shouldn’t discredit the book’s impact. The narrative style switches between ten or so pages of Mgbako’s scholarly analysis and another ten pages of straight-from-the-source first-hand narratives from sex work activists.  This jumping back and forth between narrative voices can be clunky to read at first, but eventually becomes part of the rhythm of the book. I found myself reading the narratives first and then going back to the chapters. In that sense, I wish more of the sex worker voices were foregrounded in each chapter, rather than woven throughout.

Somehow, Mgbako balances the specific details of personal narratives and trans-national comparisons well between the seven different countries she chose to study. Painting broad strokes across Botswana, Kenya, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda glosses over a closer reading of each the unique social landscapes of each country. Sometimes, as a reader, I felt that each location deserved more unique attention and response. But given Mgbako’s goal to give a comparative analysis between research sites, I finished the book feeling that the lack of depth in some sections was less problematic than pragmatic.

Ironically, it becomes these potent vignettes that allow Mgbako to argue that there is not just one solution towards liberation, and that international organizing needs to give resources that empower sex worker led local organizing in both rural and city locations.

The later chapters outline “key strategies” on sex worker organizing, documenting the histories of those . She outlines tradeoffs, autonomy, donors—the sticky issues. Mgbako also presents a model charting stages of activism. While a helpful exercise, she disappointingly emphasizes structure and nationalization as signs of progress, overlooking the power of more local, informal solidarity.

Mgbako’s analysis is important for many reasons. In addition to the book’s substantive argument – much of which will be familiar to those who share her political commitment – Mgbako’s work makes a quieter ethical argument about how research should be done. Mgbako writes against the grain, and I read the book with appreciation that she is recording overlooked activist knowledge into the academic cannon.


Chanelle Adams is researcher, artist and writer. Follow Chanelle on Twitter.

Chanelle Adams is researcher, artist and writer. Find Chanelle on Twitter @nellienooks.

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