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Not So Impervious: Borders of Migration and Sexuality

Illustration of a man touching a woman's butt as she climbs a stair a step ahead of him. Over this is drawn a big orange cross. At the bottom is written in small font, "Respect: Women need to be respected, no matter what they wear. This also applies to German men."

“Foreigners, Bachelors, Students Not Allowed.”

Familiar? It doesn’t say, “Fighting, Partying, Sexual Harassment and Assault, Drinking Alcohol in the Garden and Co-habiting Not Allowed.”

It’s a “Families Only” housing society. Our own, local, married, perceived respectability vs migrants’ social and sexual perceived misbehaviour.

An illustration of how this works in my adopted city of Pune where I am a migrant, single woman, who has arrived from North India to the West.

The other day someone stole my parking spot, so I kicked up a ruckus. A neighbour I am quite fond of, who is responsive and helpful, told me it was a foreign woman, single, who has many dangerous foreign men friends who give everybody lots of trouble. She parks her car(s) wherever she pleases and sleeps till noon because she has other things she does in the night that keep her busy. This is what he said. I didn’t engage. If my skin colour were white or black instead of the wheat that it is, if I were a student, if I were young, if I were of one caste or community rather than another, if I were co-habiting, if I were, well, so many options of the things I’m not, or the things I crush (empty cans) and keep out of sight in a bin bag – I’d be in the hot seat, whether or not I had male/female/other friends, or a giraffe breaking down my door.

I trotted up to the foreign woman’s flat, hoping to get her out of bed and move her car without stomping on my head. She wasn’t home. I parked my car elsewhere and went home. Five minutes later, I was called down by the security guards who had found the culprit. He was male, local, Indian, with wheatish complexion like mine, not a migrant foreigner. In my head, I apologised on behalf of my building society to the foreigner who sleeps till noon and has many things that keep her busy at night.

The migrant has come to represent threat on many fronts, with sexuality and sexual behaviours storming the front of fronts. This is because sexuality is in itself so threatening to so many; as a word, as a concept, it is untidy, unknown, uncontainable, like that alien substance bubbling out of its pod in the film Prometheus. Or Alien:

Migrant guide: Borders of migration and sexuality are not that impervious, but at a cost.
Image courtesy (CC-BY-SA)

Add to that the migrant, and instead of two alien unknowns cancelling each other to become a familiar known, we have the mother of all perceived threats – perceived enemies. Unfortunately, the politics of sexuality and migration are both so intense that these threats are used as tools to mobilise mobs. The migrant who commits a sexual offence sticks out for retribution and carries the weight of all such offences on his back. Here, or there, as a student or worker, temporarily or permanently making another country, another city, home. A migrant due to displacement by war and conflict, or a migrant out of a choice, a life decision. Sexuality and the migrant status remains a grey, shadowy set of monsters in the fog, barely studied, highly politicised.

Post the mass attacks and sexual assaults of women during New Year’s eve 2016 celebrations at Cologne in Germany, there is enormous content on the internet on Taharrush, referring to group harassment as experienced in Germany and Sweden, also referred to as ‘the rape game’. Taharrush is a word unheard of before, and apparently, the migrant brought ‘taharrush’ in with him.

The writer of an article about the racism around the phenomenon says,

“While at first the incidents were seen as episodes of criminality involving sexual harassment, assault, and theft, within days a new phrase emerged: ‘taharrush gamea’. In their report on the violence, Cologne police took an Arabic phrase that translates directly to “group harassment”, garbled its pronunciation, and then described it as a “modus operandi” in the Arab world.

“Unsurprisingly, the use of an Arabic phrase to describe what was now being thought of as a supposedly Arabic cultural phenomenon spurred commentators across the political spectrum to begin speculating how Arabs had brought it there.”

Meanwhile, a 2004 Olympics venue in Greece is currently, twelve years later, a camping area for migrants. Their experience of sex and sexuality reported in this news article includes male migrants being forced into sex work to survive and being often cheated by a client who doesn’t pay: “A guide and translator who described himself as an occasional customer at the park, said that if you are willing to negotiate, and wait, you could pay as little as 2 euros. ‘Some of the boys are ashamed to ask for money,’ he added. ‘They’ll only ask you afterwards, and you can pay them if you want to.’”

So the door to cheating a migrant inexperienced in rendering sexual services is wide open.

I know these issues are far more complex than I can unravel alone, ever, or within 2000 words. But I will ask whether a cartoon (below) showing a big red cross on an image of a hand about to pinch a woman’s bottom to indicate that such activity is not okay is only, I repeat, only, required to teach a migrant about acceptable and not acceptable sexual behaviour.

Migrant guide: Borders of migration and sexuality are not that impervious, but at a cost.

I like the cartoons published by Bayerischer Rundfunk, public broadcaster of Bavaria. I think we would do well to have such, and many other such, cartoons and images communicating sexually acceptable/non-acceptable behaviours and attitudes displayed inour institutions of learning, corporate offices, public spaces (and their lifts), our towns small and large, and hung from trees in villages.

Just the way we have images in shops and establishments with a big red cross superimposed on a labouring child. The image may not change the behaviour, but it is a small part of the communication against that behaviour, and it is open.

I call the image below, reproduced by the Gatestone Institute in an online piece, “No Ass-Grab Zone”:

Migrant guide: Borders of migration and sexuality are not that impervious, but at a cost.

I wonder where in the world there is an official image that says, “Yes, Ass-Grab Zone”. I Googled and found porn and romance, seduction and some weird stuff. There’s no national policy that says ass-grabbing is okay, though, in any country.

There is a right and wrong, an acceptable and not acceptable, and this holds across countries and cultures. Also, it is subject to change, as is almost everything we know. A patriarchal disempowerment and devaluation of women may be part of historical socio-cultural tradition, but it is not acceptable today. Is it? One must ask, to whom is it not acceptable? To the patriarch adhering to these traditions, this is the only thing that is acceptable.

Migration and sexuality are in a state of constant engagement that involves learning new things and questioning everything. This would hold true for the migrant as much as it would for a native from the host country. A Canadian migrant in Britain writes, “The most difficult thing about living in Britain for me has been the sexism. I was not used to sexual harassment in public places or sexual ‘banter’ as some sort of acceptable norm, but there are topless women in newspapers, lads mags, the pay gap, lack of promotion, discrimination against pregnant women, as well as high levels of rape and sex assaults. I feel very uncomfortable and unsafe and I am happy to be moving back to Canada soon. Quite simply, I think British men just hate women”.

UN statistics say that in 2015 there were 244 million international migrants in the world of which 20 million are refugees. 244 million is 244,000,000. Migration maps show a rich mix of colours, flowing lines, dots representing people.

Migrant guide: Borders of migration and sexuality are not that impervious, but at a cost.
This map attempts to demonstrate those countries with large inflows of migrants. Obviously notable is the USA which historically has been built on immigration. Not far behind them are the UK, France and Germany which also feature prominently. Image from

I read the abstract of a research article on migration and sexuality where the researchers say, “The relation between migration and sexuality can be considered bidirectional. Migrants bring along with them to the host regions their beliefs, attitudes and sexualities. These sexual cultures intersect with those of the host region and result in a set of newer ‘evolved sexualities’. Factors like anonymity, independence, stress, opportunities, accessibility and affordability are important in this phenomenon. … The multi-culturalism of today may lead to multi-sexualism of tomorrow.”

I do have a second map to overlay upon the earlier one. This is A Map of the Lands of Human Sexuality, created by Franklin Veaux. It is fascinating:

Migrant guide: Borders of migration and sexuality are not that impervious, but at a cost.

I suppose you’d be a sexual migrant if you belonged to one part of this map and migrated to another. It is something that happens to us all to varying degrees, at various points of time in life. The first time you even think about sex and sexuality, you have already moved from one state to another! The first time you do something different, sexually, or think something different, sexually, you’ve migrated again.

Back to geo-political migration with its rich culture-exchange possibilities. Food and music are the most familiar of these. Style, design, fashion, architecture, these are other possibilities, amongst many. Why not add sexuality into this mix? As long as the basics are in place, right, wrong, yes-means-yes, no-means-no and slow means adjusting to the pace of the one who thinks it’s all going too fast. That’s a good place to begin the creation of a multi-sexual culture, where race, romance, relationships and sexuality explore fusion. That’s when you learn new things about yourself and about standing up tall in a society that tries to bully away differences.