Because the prostitution controversy is about women who sell sex to men, most of male sex work passes unnoticed. And people who do talk about it often slip into the assumption that it’s a phenomenon happening between men, whether you call them gay or MSM. Consider host bars, which welcome female clients to be treated as men are in Japan’s numerous hostess bars.
The basic work is providing company whilst customers sit in the venue: good conversation, graceful flirting, lighting cigarettes and making sure drinks are correctly poured and always full. The relationship takes place in public but has an intimate quality. Venues differ, and sometimes employees are obliged to meet customers outside the clubs. Wages are low, and employees depend on the commissions they earn on promoting the sale of drinks, whose prices can be very high indeed.
I have read good research about Japanese hostess clubs but not about host clubs. You can find a lot of media reports that all say the same thing about how they work. They say that even professional Japanese women are supposed to be passive and submissive. They correlate the rise of host clubs with such women’s desires to have a place where they can be assertive and uninhibited. It is often said that a lot of the customers at host bars are hostesses who arrive after their own wearing shifts.
I’ve been studying the sex industry for 15 years, and I understand that the conflict about prostitution – and therefore about trafficking – derives from the belief that biological women are innately vulnerable to sexual violence. Therefore, information about men who sell sex (or are exploited) is usually marginalised, unless the men are technically boys.
But what about women who buy sex from men? Evidence about that is usually dismissed, too, by those who want to abolish commercial sex. When it’s not dismissed, the women are denounced as ‘acting like men’ – exploitative, objectifying, dominating, selfish. This critique comes up most in treatments of middle-class women tourists in poorer countries, where it’s common for local men to act as guides, advisers, drivers, cultural mediators and lovers. More everyday situations of women paying men are said to be few and exceptional, except for cheerful accounts of places like Chippendales.
At the end of last year I said I want to begin to think more purposefully about where the idea of Gender Equity has taken us. This will not take the form of a statistic war, because, as I always have to explain, there can’t be meaningful statistics where activities are stigmatised, illegal or simply occur in the informal sector of the economy. We don’t know how many of any sort of person buys what kind of sex from whom. What we have is a patchwork of information, a lot of it unreliable. Some of it, like the piece about a Kenyan man I posted the other day, is what’s called anecdotal. So is this piece from Der Spiegel about Bobby, who entertains women in Moscow.
Why aren’t women like those above seen as realising their desires? Why aren’t they seen as victims? Why isn’t this equity? What’s going on?