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Mobile Orientations

An Intimate Autoethnography of Migration, Sex Work, and Humanitarian Borders

Mobile Orientations

An Intimate Autoethnography of Migration, Sex Work, and Humanitarian Borders

Despite continued public and legislative concern about sex trafficking across international borders, the actual lives of the individuals involved—and, more importantly, the decisions that led them to sex work—are too often overlooked. With Mobile Orientations, Nicola Mai shows that, far from being victims of a system beyond their control, many contemporary sex workers choose their profession as a means to forge a path toward fulfillment.

Using a bold blend of personal narrative and autoethnography, Mai provides intimate portrayals of sex workers from sites including the Balkans, the Maghreb, and West Africa who decided to sell sex as the means to achieve a better life. Mai explores the contrast between how migrants understand themselves and their work and how humanitarian and governmental agencies conceal their stories, often unwittingly, by addressing them all as helpless victims. The culmination of two decades of research, Mobile Orientations sheds new light on the desires and ambitions of migrant sex workers across the world.


Mobile Orientations is a scintillating read. Genuinely interdisciplinary and theoretically astute, it combines autoethnography, interviews, practical organizational experience and ethnofictional filmmaking. . . . Mobile Orientations is exemplary not only of creative interdisciplinarity but of the potential for academic contributions to the community. It is committed scholarship.”

Times Higher Education

“Highly recommended. . . [Mobile Orientations] is conceptually rich, theoretically informed, and empirically grounded. An excellent study on the relations between migration, exploitation, and the liberal forms of governance that shape contemporary times.”


Mobile Orientations is down-to-earth and bracing. . . In going to places where other scholars rarely go, Mai is able to identify contradictions and holes between what is said in an interview and in his observations.”

Social Forces

“Reflecting on twenty years of research with migrants working in the sex industry, this important book introduces new conceptual ideas to help navigate the neoliberal geopolitics that surround the governance of global movement. Harnessing a unique mix of autoethnography, extensive empirical projects across Europe, and detailed stories from sex workers, Mai reveals the deeply flawed strategies, policies, and interventions at play on the global stage to control migration. Daring, revealing, intimate, and effective, Mobile Orientations is a truly timely contribution to political and social understandings of migration—one which will be pulled from the shelves for many years to come.”

Teela Sanders, University of Leicester

“In this brilliant, compelling, and highly innovative book, Mai employs an autoethnographic lens to revisit his own two-decade-long experience of researching the relationship between migration and the sex industry. In so doing, he not only develops a powerful and cogent critique of highly coercive sexual humanitarian interventions and policies but also adds significantly to theoretical understandings of agency, mobility, and exploitation and their complex interrelations. Mobile Orientations is a truly outstanding work.”

Julia O’Connell Davidson, University of Bristol

Mobile Orientations gives voice to overlooked groups of pimps and underage sex workers; brings together Mai’s extensive field work in nearly a dozen European countries to advance our knowledge of sex workers beyond their sexual humanitarian reduction to victims; and foregrounds the varying moral sensibilities of men, women, and youth on sexual labors.”

Rhacel Parreñas, University of Southern California

Table of Contents


One     Intimate Autoethnography
Two     Engaging Albanian (and Romanian) Masculinities
Three   Selling Comidas Rapidas in Seville
Four     Boditarian Inscriptions
Five     Burning for (Mother) Europe
Six       The Trafficking of Migration
Seven  Love, Exploitation, and Trafficking
Eight   Interviewing Agents
Nine    Ethnofictional Counter-Representations

Conclusion: Challenging Sexual Humanitarianism

Appendix: Research Projects and Filmography


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

Sociology of Sexualities section, American Sociological Association: Sociology of Sexualities Section Book Award

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