By Raven Bowen

Nic Mai

Q: So, what do you do?
I’m an ethnographer and a film-maker. I said that I’m an ethnographer first, because that’s what characterizes my work. I understand the world by engaging with people directly and spending time with people so that I understand the complexity of what’s going on and then the reality behind the self-presentations that people don’t necessarily provide you with the first time you meet them. And then I theorize data and observations by using different disciplinary repertoires like sociology or anthropology, depending on what’s more relevant. And in terms of film making, I wanted to make films all my life and so I started to use film to illustrate my research, and later I integrated it into the research process, so film has become part of data gathering and dissemination.

Q: And your favourite colour?
Blue, without hesitation! I like light blues and darker blues. I like to wear darker blue but blue is my color, I love the sea above all things, so it gives me that feeling of looking at the sea!

Q: What are you most proud of?
I’m proud of what I was able to achieve because I come from a little town in Northern Italy and considering what I was able to do with my life professionally and personally it was not obvious. I’m proud of being able to be myself. I think I live a life that is very true to myself in everything that I do and that is a very privileged thing. Q: You’re doing something completely different than your cohort? A: Yes, plenty of people in my peer group as an adolescent found their way and are established but I went to another country and it was a long journey and sometimes an adventurous one. I lived in Albania for 2-3 years and I’ve been very driven by my intellectual curiosity. I’m very proud of the fact that sex workers seem to recognize themselves in my work. That for me is the most important thing. It’s important to be recognized by academia but it’s more important to be recognized by the people you’re trying to understand and represent in your own work. So, when people use my films to advance their own rights, I’m very proud of it and it feels like I’ve done something good. My films are used by sex work support groups to deliver key messages to different audiences that they want to reach. Films allow the public to feel and to get talking about difficult issues.

Q: What drew you to sex industry related work?
 There are different parts to it. I belong to a stigmatized group which is gay people and I grew up in a small place and I can see what it is to be stigmatized for who you are and how unfair and how painful it can be even though I didn’t have a particularly difficult experience but it was very significant. And then I think I’ve always been interested in very stigmatized populations who were also involved in migration. I started with Albanian migrants in Italy and then Romanian migrants because they were very stigmatized and treated unfairly and I think that I was drawn to that because I could understand it. There is a relationship between your own life and what you come to research. So, going to sex work, it was bringing the two aspects of stigmatization (according to gender and sexuality) and migration that led me to working with sex workers. Sex workers were a group who were viciously stigmatized and misunderstood. Q: The idea that no one wants them to be located anywhere even though they come from everywhere? A: Everybody wants them but no one wants to acknowledge that they do [laughter]! Q: Touché!
A: Migrants are always employed because they are exploited in different sectors so the sex industry becomes…paradoxically a place where they feel they are less exploited. This is what workers tell me, in a way my interest in sex work followed an interest in stigmatization and migrant groups and the exploitation of their labour. When I started researching labour migration I saw that there was a lack there because the sex industry was something that migrants were bringing up saying that this is work, but it was not addressed as labour in migration studies. So, I came to study prostitution as employment for migrants and that is the perspective I hope I’m bringing. The majority of people selling sex don’t have a political agenda and they might not adopt key words like ‘sex work’ but they definitely talk about work, including people who are trafficked. They say that people who trafficked them ‘exploited my work.’ Q: Yes. They are exploited because they can’t exercise their rights in the jobs that they get. A: Yes, often because they are undocumented. So just like other people in other sectors they are taken advantage of. That’s why it’s always important to address the sex industry in terms of policy-making in relation to the specificity of sex work AND migration. In many places around the world the majority of sex workers are migrants, so if you just address the population as if they are permanent residents then you miss the point, that there are whole populations of people who need targeted initiatives like regularization of their migrant status which would then provide them with rights to improve their working conditions in the sex industry or in other sectors.

Q: The last thing you laughed about?
A: I think it was something on Facebook. I posted a comment about the royal wedding and there were some very funny answers. I just thought it was very comical that the Queen would pay for the marriage but we ended up paying for it with our own taxes!

Q: What’s your favorite food?
My favorite food is Italian. Q: Ah you’re loyal! A: [Laughter] I’ve tried everything but in the end, I think that Italian food is the best!

Q: Your current project or pursuit?
At the moment, I’m working on a ERC grant funded by the European Union. The project builds on my previous work. It compares the realities of Australia, France, New Zealand and the United States and focuses on the contrast between the way is which sex workers understand their priorities and needs and how these are understood by the actors and policies targeting them. The Project is called SexHum: Migration, Sex Work and Trafficking. It is based on long-term participant observation and there are eight people working in different countries. We are gathering semi-structured interviews and of course there is an embedded film that I’m working on right now. The film that will come as a result of the project which will be based on participatory methodologies with sex workers involved in writing, acting and editing. Q: Yes, it’s a monster of a project!
A: Yes, it’s big and very challenging to set up across multiple countries. The participatory methodologies need to be based in the different countries so that we can have a longer span of observation. And now the project is up and running so we can concentrate more on data gathering and we’re starting to analyze, so that’s exciting.

Q: What’s your biggest regret?
Well there’s many but my biggest regret is that I should have started my academic career earlier, because between my BA and my PhD, I spent some time which I could have used focusing on my PhD. But then you know, things happen when they do and I don’t consider that time as wasted but being retrospective, I wish I had started it earlier. That’s it, I don’t have many regrets. I can’t stand having regrets. Q: We share this regret, but we only realize how much work there is to do in academia once we’ get here!
Absolutely. I wish I had started earlier. I was 27, I guess the self-confidence and determination to act on our desires come from life experiences… I only got to decide then.
Q: 27, that’s young! A: Well I tell myself in life when I have to make a decision, can I live with myself if I hadn’t made the decision. That is unbearable for me to think that one day I would look back on something I wanted to do but that I didn’t have the courage to do, so this is why I err on the side of courage, because I can’t deal with the consequences of not being brave. Q: Beautiful!

Q: Facebook or Twitter?
Oh, Facebook absolutely, but mostly for friends and family as I have a life scattered between different countries! I also use Twitter just to post events to reach a wider audience as it’s an open platform but I can relate to Facebook more. The 280 characters now on Twitter is a good improvement, so I might use it more.

Q: What challenges you the most about your sex industry or related work?
Intellectual dishonesty. I think that we live in a political and media environment which privileges sensational headlines and dramatic stories and I am very disheartened when I see the prevailing of neo-abolitionist rhetoric over the scientific and scholarly observation of reality. I find it challenging because neo-abolitionist people have got history on their side in terms of being able to use mainstream narratives of gender exploitation that they can easily manipulate in their favor. As a result, in the name of the fight against the exploitation of sex workers, sex workers are actually getting more and more exploited and less in a condition to defend themselves because their neo-abolitionist rhetoric changes the way we understand the world. This is why I’m using the term ‘sexual humanitarianism.’ It’s a way to talk about the narratives of sex workers that are not linked with trafficking. Now this conflation is becoming so hegemonic that people equate sex slaves to prostitutes and sex workers, so we have to unpack this because it’s been normalized, particularly in the United States and increasingly in the UK. It is this conflation that is intellectually dishonest as many sex workers and victims of trafficking told me again and again that sex work and trafficking were very different issues. People who make a career out of sensationalist headlines and the instrumentalization of truth, they end up legitimizing (in the name of good intentions) policies that are very dangerous. Q: And the institutional support that some receive. They have long established channels for propaganda. A: They have unfair access to the mainstream because they are comrades of politicians, the media and those in positions of power, although they present themselves as marginalized and downtrodden. So, it’s a very difficult environment in which the discovery of truth through scholarship becomes more challenging. Sex workers and academics who have a rigorous approach to these issues are silenced and only people who know fuck all about it are invited to speak in media and public debates. I also think that this very horizontal and pseudo-democratic culture within which everybody is now an authority is really problematic in the discipline of social sciences. I don’t think that if we were talking about neuroscience everyone would express their opinions, but why do they think they can about sex work? Q: Yes, with neuroscience, lay-people wouldn’t feel that they have a right to speak because of a lack of background knowledge. A: Exactly, they don’t have a background to talk about migration or sex work either but somehow they do feel that they can express an opinion, and while this can be seen as a democratic access to culture and to expression, I think it has legitimized a lot of stupidity, lies and bias. So, you get invited to a panel and the panel includes an ‘opposing view’ but there shouldn’t be an opposing view just for the sake of having one, only scholarship-informed views should be included in the debate. Everything else is just an opinion. Why do we have to be confronted on equal grounds with opinions when we can offer facts?

Q: Favorite Movie?
I have two favorite movies and they are about the same thing and from the same phase in my life. One is called Another Country and was released in the 80’s with Rupert Everett. The film was based on the true story of Guy Burgess, a gay young man who belonged to the Cambridge University élite and became a Russian spy. So, as an adolescent trying to figure out what the heck was going on with my sexuality while I was in Italy, this film was something that made me understand that homosexuality could be romantic and beyond sexuality. And that it was possible for people to chose to live in another country to become themselves. The other film is called Maurice and I like it for the similar reasons. What I really liked about this movie was that it doesn’t end badly, so the two gay characters do not die. The author of the book [E.M. Forster] decided that it should be published posthumously because the world was not ready for it because the two gay characters were not banished symbolically by death. And he was right because it would have created a scandal. Q: This was in the 80’s, the beginning of the HIV epidemic in the West, so the world wouldn’t have been ready. A: Yeah! That was the main narrative. I think that the superimposition of the HIV/AIDS crisis acted as a moral condemnation of homosexuality. It reinforced many people’s belief that there was something wrong with being gay. But those two films, they had a more life-affirming attitude to homosexuality and they related it to the expression of love and the realization of the self, so this is why I identified with them back then.

Q: And the last time you cried?
The last time I cried was when I went to the cinema recently and I saw a film called Call Me by Your Name. It was just released in the UK and may be an Oscar winner! It’s a story about a very precocious gay guy who meets a young academic, but again it is about love. It’s about the life-affirming power of love associated with being gay. The film is very beautiful and moving about someone finding himself through love.

Q: Cat or dog person?
Dog! I’m allergic to cats and I also like ‘real’ company! Otherwise I’d rather be alone [laughter]. Q: Cats don’t care about you anyway! A: I like cats but they’re really indifferent because they are very independent.

Q: Who understands you?
My partner. Our understanding is a very important and real basis for a relationship because I don’t have to explain much.

Q: What’s the last book or article you read?
A book called Sous la Colline or ‘Under the Hill’ in English. It’s by David Calvo and it’s only available in French. It was a Sci-Fi novel based on the ‘Cité Radieuse’ Le Corbusier building in Marseilles. I was interested because the author is a friend and I really liked it a lot.

Q: Childhood Fear?
Blood! There was a childhood incident involving other people at a beach and I got shocked at the time, but I’m over it now.

Q: What did your last text message say?
“Goodnight my love.”

Q: One thing that your work or existence is aimed to do for the sex industry?
I would like my work and my films to make sense for policy-makers and for the general public so that they can see the complexities of sex workers’ situations and so that they can identify themselves with the normality of it rather than the ‘exceptionality’ of it. Ultimately, I hope it will make people understand that decriminalization is the best way to improve the rights and lives of sex workers.

Q: The meaning of life in one word?
Life is bigger than anything so my word: Everything!

Q: What do you want to be when you grow up?
When I was child I wanted to be an explorer of nature and as an adolescent I wanted to be a film director. Now I would like to develop my filming and make fiction movies, as well as documentaries.

Q: Three portable items that you would want with you while stranded on a desert island?
So not people…well:
1. A bottle of Prosecco;
2. A few books;
3. A cell phone to call everybody!
Q: You’re not planning to be there very long [laughter]? No one else said a phone!
Well I can be very pragmatic! I could have said water but I will enjoy myself with the Prosecco and the book while the sun sets and then use the mobile to call for help in the morning to get me the fuck out of there [laughter]! You could only like a desert island for a couple of days. After that you want to be in central London!


21 Questions will be back in 2018 with a new crop of sex industry folks and researchers.

Season’s Greetings!

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