Tag Archives: Asia-Pacific

Xiaojie: no sexworker identity

I know many folks who relate to the idea of sex work as one of their jobs and to sexworker as one of their identities. But I have known many more who sell sex and don’t feel like this. Of course it’s possible to ask questions that appear to prove interviewees always feel it’s a job: many social scientists study occupations and need everyone to have a clear label. Those of us who’ve sat and listened at length to people’s stories know things are a lot muddier than that. But, you might say, hold on, look at what are captioned ‘tools of the trade’ in the photo here: don’t they prove it’s a job for the woman using them?

I think back to most of my own jobs: Did I ever feel secretary was my identity? Or dogwalker? (That could be me in the 1967 photo in Central Park though I don’t ever remember walking so few dogs at once.) Even when I had the title Managing Editor I never felt it was who I was.

In China the word xiaojie means Miss or young lady. Many women who sell sex prefer to be called xiaojie to sex worker (with the result that non-sexworking misses don’t want to be called that anymore). Ding Yu, sociologist, talks about why:

Many academics feel that it’s important to respect this community by using a term that classifies what they do as a profession. But in fact many xiaojie don’t really understand or like this name because they feel the term emphasizes sex. The term “sex worker” reduces all their work to sex, which doesn’t reflect the reality of what they do. It doesn’t accurately represent the diverse forms of emotional work and entertainment that they’re engaged in; rather, it highlights the one part that’s stigmatized.

There’s an important class dimension. As migrants coming from the country to the city, they want to be part of this modern, developed world. They want to shed the kind of coarseness that’s associated with the countryside. Most ‘xiaojie’ are very well-informed about the conditions of factory work, and they know they’re not interested. They know other women from their hometowns who are factory laborers, and there are plenty of media reports that show how it is tedious, repetitive, and arduous, how the worker is treated like a machine. They know you’re stuck in dorm accommodation, far from the city center, producing luxury items you can’t afford to buy yourself. They know you are outside the modernity and development as a handmaiden to it. Other options, such as being a waitress or nanny or shop assistant — these positions generally see lower income and worse working conditions than being a xiaojie, which is thus not a particularly poor option.

In The Three-Headed Dog several migrants are selling sex. Marina lives and works in flats with other women and a manager but decides to go onto the club circuit. Promise sells in the street. Eddy is keeping company with a tourist. Isabel tried prostitution and prefers being a cleaner. The detective, Félix, once worked in spas. None call themselves or the work by a professional word. Of course, some activists think this is a problem, that there’d be more chance of successful organising if more women were willing to stand up and call themselves by the term that now sounds more like a worker title than other options. This is possible. The catch is in the stigma.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Sex work in fiction: Gorky Park, Moscow prostitution doesn’t exist

Militia detectives are at Kazansky Station in Komsomol Square, in Martin Cruz Smith’s novel Gorky Park. Cartier-Bresson’s 1954 photo shows the station at the left and surrounding traffic. Moscow prostitution may not have existed officially in 1977, when the story takes place, but sex work certainly did.

At 6 am entire Turkman families lay head to feet on benches. Babies with felt skullcaps nestled on soft bundles. Soldiers leaned slackly against the wall in a sleep so tangibly deep that the heroic mosaics of the ceiling overhead could have been their communal dream. Bronze fixtures glowed fully. At the one refreshment stand open, a girl in a rabbit-skin coat confided in Pasha Pavlovich…

A young soldier took Pasha’s place with the girl. She smiled through a rouge of vaseline and lipstick while the boy read the price chalked on the toe of her shoe; then, hand in hand, they walked out the station’s main door… Komsomol Square was blue before the dawn, the clicking candles of trams the only movement. The lovemakers slipped into a taxi. ‘Five rubles.’ Pasha watched the taxi pull out.

The driver would swing into the nearest side street and get out to watch for militia while the girl and boy went at it in the back seat. Of the five rubles the driver would get half and the chance to sell a congratulatory bottle of vodka to the soldier afterward; the vodka was a lot more expensive than the girl. The girl would get some sips, too. Then a return to the station, a tip to the washroom attendant for a fast douche, and overheated and giddy, she’d start all over. By definition prostitutes did not exist, because prostitution has been eliminated by the Revolution. Charges could be brought against them for spreading venereal disease, performing depraved acts or leading a nonproductive life, but by law there were no whores. – Gorky Park, 1981, p 151

Note there was no street uniform to indicate which women were selling sex: anyone in photos from the period could have been. The shoe marking was new to me. A website purporting to cover ‘sex in the Soviet Union‘ (before 1992) goes on about such identifying marks:

Prostitutes waited on the platforms of large suburban train stations. They sat with their legs stretched out and their prices written on the soles of their shoes, so that any passerby could check it out. There were two price levels for prostitutes in Moscow: either three or five rubles.

The girls usually could be found near the Prospect Mira subway station. They wore rings made of three-ruble or five-ruble bills. One was green, the other was blue, and it was easy to tell the price the girls were asking.

Prostitution politics are symbolic rather than functional: the laws as written do not ever reflect the presence, absence or predominance of commercial sex. This means looking at sex work’s mores (or habitus) can reveal much more. You learn more from good portrayals in fiction than from rote news items. Gorky Park is a perfect example of a book not about prostitution in which sex workers and clients express agency in the face of the law. Another way to think about this is what I call the Cultural Study of Commercial Sex. In this case, a culture of prohibition, secrecy and resistance through codes is shown: perfectly apt for Soviet times.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Cry with trafficked women: Colonial prurience and 3-star hotels

I’ve been ill a great deal this year and for the past month bowed down by a death, but the imminence of August cranked me up sufficiently to vent my now annual disgust at tours from the US that take well-paying travellers to gawk at and pity poorer people in Other Countries (who always smile in the photos taken, of course). If there is anything I hate it’s this. In 2011 I wrote Have fun, take a tour to meet victims of sex trafficking, learn to be a saviour, illustrating it with the egregious Kristof, who has not a jot of shame about looking like a Teddy Roosevelt Rough Rider. Given the sexual aspect, the word prurience came to mind: socially-sanctioned permission to be a voyeur, to go to bars abroad you wouldn’t set foot in at home as part of a do-gooding ‘social justice’ trip. To my mind, this is sex tourism.

This year’s tour to Thailand Delegation to End Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking is aimed at aspiring individuals. What might they mean by that? And why do they call this a delegation to end trafficking rather than, if not pure tourism, a first step towards understanding trafficking? The pretension is obviously meant to provide something to add to CVs, the way internships in impressive-sounding organisations do, though at least those last some months, whereas this tour takes a week (5 -12 August). Look at the rhetoric:

Global Exchange Reality Tours is facilitating this delegation to Thailand geared specifically to confronting the realities of the global trade in human beings. Participants will receive a comprehensive education in the mechanics of human trafficking, as well an understanding of its underlying causes. Participants will meet with those who have been freed from slavery and learn what it means to rebuild one’s life after having been a victim of trafficking, and will also engage directly with groups and individuals on the frontlines of the struggle to expose and ultimately end the trade in human lives.

This is B-movie-type public-relations prose: facilitating – delegation – geared – confronting – realities – global trade – human beings – comprehensive education – mechanics – human trafficking – participants – comprehensive education – mechanics – underlying causes – freed from slavery – rebuild one’s life – frontlines of the struggle – expose – end the trade – human lives. Nothing concrete, nothing real.

For those who aren’t clear as to why I call this colonialism, note the clear differentiation between Subject (tourist) and Object (exotic other). I believe this is the first time they claim tourists will talk with people who have been freed from slavery – an obvious pitch to the cheapest of sentiments. I am appalled that Global Exchange maintains any credibility. Last year I wrote the following in Summertime Imperialism: Meet sex-trafficking victims and other sad folk, because online sales of folkloric and supposedly authentic third-worldish objects is how GE started:

Gift-buying and helping projects wrapped together: One can see how the founders leapt to the idea of taking people on tours. Global Exchange says We are an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world. Easily said. A list of current tours includes Caring for Cuba’s Cats and New Journey of a Lifetime to India with Vandana Shiva. Sound harmless?

I had doubts back then and still do, but those in favour argue the tours are a way for folks who know something is wrong with what they read in the media to see the truth. That’s in theory; the question is how easy is it to provide the truth with anything called a tour? Who decides where to go, what the focus of tours will be and which natives will provide entertainment? Is the idea that all middle-class people have to do is arrive in a poor country and set their eyes upon poverty and suffering in order to experience enlightenment? It’s a short jump from that lack of politics to becoming an Expert who knows What To Do about other people’s lives. Imperialist projects to interfere follow quickly.

Although individual tourists may learn good things from conscientious tour guides, a tour is a holiday, a vacation, whether you set out to see the temples of Bangkok or the bargirls or the trafficking victims. You take a tour for your own benefit and pleasure, even if your pleasure consists in feeling angry and sorry and guilty about what your own government does to people in poorer countries. You go to look at exotic others, and you can’t help drawing conclusions about whole cultures based on what you see – just as tourists and business travellers do. If you happen to talk with someone not on the tour agenda – on a bus, in a bar – then you probably feel chuffed that you saw real people and experienced authentic culture. This is all relatively harmless unless you happen to add this experience to your CV, claiming temples, bar girls or sex trafficking are subjects you are expert in.

This year they provide an itinerary, which includes:

In the morning drive to Chiang Mai: Check into Guesthouse
Visit local project
At night visit nightclubs and bars to observe night activities

It’s been made clear to me that ordinary people in the US have no understanding of what colonialism means and how they themselves perpetuate it. That needs work. Perhaps having broken the spell of not writing I’ll begin again now, even if it is August.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Rescuing a sex slave/worker in a novel: The Darkest Little Room

Numerous novels tell the story of attempts to rescue sad prostitutes or fallen women unconscious of their own degradation. It is a classic theme that took shape in the 19th century, signalling new beliefs in social reform: the possibility that those at the bottom of the social heap were not doomed to stay there but with help could rise up and better themselves. William Holman Hunt’s 1853 The Awakening Conscience, which depicts a fallen woman‘s moment of epiphany, is unusual in omitting any Rescue person showing the way, lifting her up, teaching her how to live.

One version of the prostitute’s saviour is a confused, melancholic man who ‘loves’ her and aims to remove her from the life. In Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a naive meddler in Vietnamese politics also sets out to rescue Phuong, the young mistress of a jaded older journalist. This book from 1955 is recommended reading for those interested in the Rescue Industry, and I bring it up because the review of another book relates it to Greene’s work.The novel is Patrick Holland’s The Darkest Little Room, the setting is also Saigon and the reviewer’s insights into the main character’s Rescue complex are pointed.

The only off-note in the review is the cliché murky in the headline, as if every time sex goes on sale the moral lights have to go out.

Flawed saviour sucked into Saigon’s murky sex trade

Emily Maguire, The Australian 6 October 2012

“The nights I have spent with prostitutes have been some of the saddest nights of my life,” Joseph reveals near the beginning of the book. He goes on to explain that the sadness comes when the sex is done and he must see the “deep unfeeling blankness” on the face of the “pretty young prostitute”. It’s a telling moment; Joseph is terribly sentimental about sex work, and so unable to see the women who do it as anything other than more or less useful accomplices in his project to redeem himself via loving, and thereby saving, a fallen woman. . .

Joseph cannot see sex workers as fully human lest he be forced to admit that some don’t want saving and, thus, he cannot be the hero he so desperately needs to be.

Emily Maguire’s understanding of Joseph tallies with what I concluded much of Rescue is about after a long time wondering why people saying they wanted to help prostitutes did not listen to what they had to say. In Helping Women Who Sell Sex: The Construction of Benevolent Identities I laid out the foundation for theorising about a Rescue Industry.

Real-life characters like Nicholas Kristof and Siddharth Kara belong to the sentimental tradition of men who want to rescue fallen women and thereby construct for themselves an identity as virtuous Knights in Shining Armour – which is also a path to prestige and power.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropology

Wannabe Special Agents act out fantasies about sex slaves

A National Geographic television special called 21st Century Sex Slaves employs the melodramatic voiceover common to all trite police documentaries, but it goes further. The ever-evolving Rescue Industry now has a large media branch, where camera crews film undercover operations and men act out hero fantasies (women get subordinate roles, usually as faceless victims).

The wannabe Special Agent in this story is Steve Galster, head of something called Freeland Foundation, which bizarrely seems to have been dedicated to preventing wildlife trafficking before jumping on the human gravytrain. I wonder if they found it an easy mental shift from pangolins to young women; the rhetoric is the same:

Freeland is dedicated to making the world free of human slavery and wildlife trafficking by increasing law enforcement capacity, supporting vulnerable communities and raising awareness.

Law enforcement is a Man’s game, right? So these men otherwise associated with saving animals and running NGOs now have an excuse not only to hobnob with real cops but also to play cops themselves. The camera spends a lot of time on Galster, whose features recall pretty-man Special Agents Gibbs and DiNozzo in NCIS, but Galster is a weak, non-charismatic character. National Geographic has taken television shows like NCIS as inspiration in all sorts of ways – but the excitement is conspicuously absent.

Notice the technique: the camera records crowded streets where lots of young women mill about. The narration mentions that many have gone into sex work on their own, but as the camera pans past, the voiceover talks about willing and unwilling women in the same breath, implying that everyone you see is a potential slave.

In this attempt at a thriller the Bad Guys are Uzbeks, in just the same way that Law & Order often singles out an ethnic group’s misbehaviour: Russians in Brighton Beach is a popular one. Here a Thai police chief laments how his country is being abused by foreigners (the trafficking Uzbeks). But it’s wildlife-saviour Galster who gets the main role, despite his inability to convey drama. The whole thing is, like the BBC series on Mexican sex slaves, infotainment, a misleading blend of facts, factoids and fantasies.

Unsurprisingly, Pattaya is one of the locations chosen for this cliché-ridden show, where one place offers Only European Girls. I doubt they pick up any of the irony.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist