Tag Archives: Asia-Pacific

Migrant sex worker in a Thai brothel: Le Carré’s The Secret Pilgrim

I collect well-styled and informative descriptions of sex-industry settings in novels, here John le Carré’s 1990 The Secret Pilgrim. Fiction can transmit far more of the atmosphere and goings-on in sex venues than social-science research, not least because authors get to express their personal feelings. Here the migrant sex worker is Cambodian, girlfriend of a spy being searched for in a Thai brothel called the Sea of Happiness. The voice changes as I’ve cut to include only bits relevant to clients and sex work.

He’d popped up here on a flying visit. One day, that’s all. One day, one night, then back to the missus and a book. Offshore leisure consortium wanted him to buy a hundred acres of prime coastland for them. Did his business, then off they all go to this girlie restaurant, Duffy and a bunch of his traders – Duffy’s not averse to a bit of the other, never has been. Place called The Sea of Happiness, slap in the middle of the red-light quarter. Upmarket sort of establishment, as they go, I’m told. Private rooms, decent food if you like Hunanese, a straight deal and the girls leave you alone unless you tell ‘em not to.

At girlie restaurants, he explained, somehow contriving to suggest he had never personally been to one, young hostesses, dressed or undressed, sat between the guests and fed them food and drink while the men talked high matters of business. In addition, The Sea of Happiness offered a massage parlour, a discotheque and a live theatre on the ground floor.

Duffy clinches the deal with the consortium, a cheque is passed, he’s feeling his oats. So he decides to do himself a favour with one of the girls. Terms agreed, off they go to a cubicle. Girl says she’s thirsty, how about a bottle of champagne to get her going? She’s on commission, naturally…

…First Henry had had a drink at the bar, then he had watched the show. Then he had sent for the Mama San, who hurried over assuming he had a special wish. He had shown the Mama San his translator’s card and said he was writing an article about her establishment – the superb food, the romantic girls, the high standards of sensitivity and hygiene, particularly the hygiene. He said he had a commission from a German travel magazine that recommended only the best places. The Mama San took the bait and offered him the run of the house. She showed him the private dining rooms, the kitchens, cubicles, toilets. She introduced him to the girls and offered him one on the house, which he declined, to the head chef, the doorman and the bouncers.

“But who is your farang who carries the bottles for you?” Henry had cried out with amusement to the Mama San. “Must he stay behind and work because he cannot pay his bill?”

The Mama San laughed also. Against farangs, or Westerners, all Asians feel naturally united. “The farang lives with one of our Cambodian girls,” she replied with contempt, for Cambodians are rated even lower than farangs and Vietnamese in the Thai zoology. “He met her here and fell in love with her, so he tried to buy her and make a lady out of her. But she refused to leave us. So he brings her to work every day and stays until she is free to go home again. She is number nineteen,” said the Mama San, with a shrug. “Her house name is Amanda. Would you like her?”

Henry could not resist taking a look. The girls who were not with clients lounged on plush benches behind a glass wall, wearing numbers round their necks and nothing else, while they chatted to each other or tended their fingernails or stared vacuously at an ill-tuned television set. As Henry watched, number 19 stood up in response to a summons, picked up her little handbag and a wrap and walked from the room. She was very young. Many girls lied about their age in order to defeat the regulations – penniless Cambodians particularly. But this girl, said Henry, had looked no more than fifteen…

…An hour later, I was presenting myself at The Sea of Happiness and buying a ticket for fifty dollars. I removed my shoes, as custom required, and moments later I was standing in a neon-lit cubicle in my stockinged feet, staring into the passive, much painted features of girl number 19.

She wore a cheap silk wrap with tigers on it, but it was open from the neck down. Underneath it she was naked. A heavy Japanese style make-up covered her complexion. She smiled at me and thrust her hand swiftly towards my groin, but I replaced it at her side. She was so slight it seemed a mystery that she was equal to the work. She was longer-legged than most Asian girls and her skin was unusually pale. She threw off her wrap and, before I could stop her, sprang on to the frayed chaise longue, where she arranged herself in what she imagined to be an erotic pose, caressing herself and uttering sighs of desire. She rolled on to her side with her rump thrust out, draping her black hair across her shoulder so that her tiny breasts poked through it. When I did not advance on her, she lay on her back and opened her thighs to me and bucked her pelvis, calling me “darling” and saying “please.

“Sit up,” I said, so she sat up and again waited for me to come to her. “Put on your wrap.”

When she appeared not to understand, I helped her into it. Henry had written the message for me in Khmer. “I want to speak to Hansen,” it read. “I am in a position to obtain Thai papers for yourself and your family.” I handed it to her and watched her study it. Could she read? I had no way of telling. I held out a plain white envelope addressed to Hansen. She took it and opened it. The letter was typed and its tone was not gentle. It contained two thousand baht. — John le Carré, The Secret Pilgrim, 1990

—Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Grid girls and the Presidents Club: Women and sexist jobs

In 1995, my friend’s 17-year-old daughter Ermina was looking for work in Santiago, Chile. The obvious job available to her was posing in a short skirt beside cars or washing machines in public showrooms – standard promotional technique to this day. What made her hesitate? Girls who took those jobs in Santiago were assumed to be loose – no better than they should be. She might ruin her reputation whether she went on to do more than pose or not. There were also jobs in coffee bars, but they carried an even graver stigma. But Ermina didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of her mother and aunt, who had both migrated to Madrid to work as live-in maids. This was the kind of story I ran into everywhere in Latin America amongst poorer people back in the 90s, and is why I ended up writing Sex at the Margins.

Recently jobs like these have been in the news in the context of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment but they also appear in long-running campaigns against prostitution and trafficking. All objections are increasingly positioned as evidence of Gender Inequality. I thought about writing this post after an event called the Presidents Club got undercoverage – a Financial Times reporter got a job as hostess. Scandal was provoked by revelations of the conditions of work for hostesses – conditions that have been conventional for aeons and most people know about. For those interested in labour rights, reports of low pay and a requirement to sign non-disclosure contracts stood out. For those who felt scandalised, it was having to wear skimpy frocks and accept being groped.

These jobs are widespread, because sexism is everywhere, because women without a lot of education and training have few options for work and because some women like hostess or modeling-type jobs better than whatever others are available. I understand why successful middle-class women denounce the existence of this work. I know this is objectification of women’s bodies and appearance, you don’t have to tell me. But what does it mean to call for their abolition except fewer jobs for women? And although the denouncers are appalled, many other women like or don’t much mind this way of making money.

The Presidents Club got much publicity because it’s an event for elite men. A class issue, as though those men ought to be better than others? Consider what happened ‘lower down’ the culture hierarchy.

Formula 1 ended its tradition of using grid girls because ‘it was at odds with modern societal norms‘.

The men drive the cars, they make the cars, they fix the cars and the women handed out drinks, refreshed the buffet… The grid girls would be led out, a bit like prize cattle, just before the race and stand on the grid where the cars are, with an umbrella or a number of which position the car was in. They would have their bottoms pinched by the mechanics, there would be photographers sat on the floor behind them, taking pictures of their bums, or up their skirts. They had to giggle and pretend that was OK. – broadcaster Beverley Turner

But grid girls protested.

Note the numbers for that tweet – and it wasn’t the only one, and Cooper wasn’t the only tweeter.

In the world of competitive darts, before this trend reports could say ‘stunning walk-on girls provide some much-needed glamour… The lovely ladies have the important job… to provide a key element to the festive entertainment.’

But now the Professional Darts Corporation announced it would end using walk-on girls who accompany players to the stage and hold up score cards. Announcing a protest in Birmingham, the owner of Dream Street Models and Events said, “If they’re banning us at F1 and darts, what’s next? Where’s it going to stop? Will it be boxing, Superbikes, the stands at NEC shows? Most of my models do promotional work, for some it’s a part-time job, but for others it’s their full-time living.”

The Women’s Sport Trust said: “We applaud the Professional Darts Corporation moving with the times and deciding to no longer use walk-on girls. Motor racing, boxing and cycling . . . your move.”

In parts of Asia beer girls (or promotion girls) are paid low wages to jolly male customers into ordering a particular brand of beer. Surviving from tips and working long into the night, they too have been named as improperly exploited by a funder.

The mostly young drink promoters are paid low wages — and work for tips, largely from groups of intoxicated men — to push certain beers in bars. Global Fund announced on Thursday in a statement that it was suspending its partnership with Heineken “based on recent reports of the company’s use of female beer promoters in ways that expose them to sexual exploitation and health risks”.

Exposed by hanging around drinking men and possibly having sex with them possibly for money that lifts them from survival-mode? A lot of women consider this a desirable job. Do you want to add ‘are forced to’ consider it desirable? Ok, but desire counts – don’t tell me you Know Better than they how they should feel and act.

Then there was MIPIM, an annual conference for property people that draws sex workers, an unremarkable fact that contributed to demands for more equality for female delegates at the conference.

Tamsie Thomson, the director of the London festival of architecture, said the Presidents Club scandal had “just scratched the surface of the discrimination and harassment that women and other minorities are routinely subjected to in our industry”. Thomson launched the “the elephant in the room” campaign to encourage women and others to challenge any inappropriate or uncomfortable behaviour and distributed pink elephant badges to raise awareness.

The event and sector are obviously mired in sexist practices, including holding events where only male delegates feel fully welcome. But there’s a disquieting tendency to imply that the fact sex workers might be there somewhere is evidence of Something Being Very Wrong. “What other industry on the face of the earth in 2018 needs to remind businessmen that they can’t bring prostitutes to an industry conference,” asked Jane, a 29-year-old delegate from Manchester. “That alone tells you how backward property is.” Do they imagine that getting rid of sex workers helps fix inequality problems? This leap to pointing at prostitution smacks of scapegoating.

As I lamented in The New Abolitionist Model, banning badly paid jobs because they are objectifying and sexist punishes women in contexts where they haven’t got many options.

Is the proposition still that being a servant for pennies and a scant private life is better because it is more dignified? Or is it superior simply because it is not sex work? Either way, to focus always on the moral aspects of sexual labor means forever sidelining projects to improve working conditions and legal protections.

Surely it’s obvious that more kinds of work for better pay need to exist before jobs women prefer are prohibited, even with the disadvantages they entail. There’s where this kind of feminist needs to put her energy, and that goes for richer and poorer countries alike.

Footnote: Nowadays the Santiago coffee bars are called cafés con piernas, cafes with legs, and (of course) are now named as sites of sex exploitation. The photo at the top shows one example.

And, in case anyone thought this phenomenon is always gender-specific, see this photo by Bill Kobrin of the Art Students League Dream Ball, New York, 1953. Yes – the 1950s.

—Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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