Korean women sex workers have attracted attention from Australian border security, South Korean government officials and Korean-Australian communities. This article considers how the bodies of these women have become the ‘iconic sites’ (Luibhéid, 2002: ix–xxvii) on which the South Korean government and immigrant Korean-Australian communities perform ‘national values’. Within Korean-Australian communities, Korean sex workers have been perceived as threats to the immigrant project of socio-economic mobility and ‘legitimate’ citizenship. We consider the silence that is desired of sex workers within immigrant communities and how this can be co-opted by anti-trafficking discourses that are still predicated on the helpless, voiceless female victim.
Based on ethnographic research in an US military camp town in South Korea, this article examines camp town sexual commerce as a manifestation of shifting global hierarchies amid Asia’s economic ascendance and the decline of US hegemony. Challenging the dichotomous constructions of US GIs as powerful agents and of migrant club hostesses as trafficked victims, the author highlights their shared conditions of “indentured mobility” as constrained subjects bound by migrant labor contracts in their quest for mobility. Revisiting the persisting power asymmetry between US GIs and migrant hostesses, the author’s ethnography reveals the ways in which power differentials are deployed by hostesses and club owners as a resource to incite the discourse of benevolence and rescue that attracts US GI customers to the clubs. By engaging the US military camp town as a space of migrant encounter, this article illuminates how global geopolitics, uneven capitalist development, and transnational migration are entangled with intimacy, power, and emotions to shape intimate labor at a critical juncture of the changing global order.
This article examines the paradoxes of neoliberalism through two migrant sex workers’ negotiation of the transnational disciplinary regimes of morality, national security, and humanitarianism. We take as our point of departure their active resistance to the label of “victims of sex trafficking.” From a close analysis of their migration journey and their experiences in the United States, we come to understand these women as defiant neoliberal subjects. We argue that global anti-trafficking initiatives as they have taken shape in the twenty-first century are part of neoliberal governance. The women’s sexual labor subjects them to the scrutiny and penalty of the state. Yet they see themselves as self-sufficient, self-responsible, and self-enterprising individuals. We locate these tensions within three paradoxes of neoliberalism: the apparent amorality of neoliberalism and its facilitation of a conservative moral agenda; the depoliticization of social risks and the hyperpoliticization of national security; and the continuous creation and ravaging of vulnerable populations coupled with the celebration of humanitarian/philanthropic responses from governmental and NGO sectors. Juxtaposing these women’s self-making projects with the transnational state apparatus to combat “sex trafficking,” we gain insights into how individual pursuits and state practices intersect at this neoliberal moment—despite their different purposes.
We mostly learn about women in prostitution through representation by non-sex-workers: activists, policy-makers, journalists, and academics. What comes through are often hypersexualized and essentialized images of sex workers as either victims or agents. This dichotomy not only essentializes their lives but also undermines women as partners for engagement.
Against this background, what could be learned from photographs taken by women in prostitution of their everyday lives? How do they supplement or challenge existing discourses of prostitution? What do the photographers and viewers get out of such an endeavor? And finally, what do the quotidian aspects of life have to do with research on sex work and sexuality in general?
These are some of the questions this essay raises through the author’s experience of organizing an exhibition of photographs taken by women in a South Korean red-light district in 2009. The project took place at a time when these women’s lives were undergoing dramatic change at the intersection of neoliberal development and anti-trafficking projects, materialized in the demolition of the red-light district and increasing criminalization of prostitution in South Korea. Between October 2009 and April 2010, 40 of these photographs went on a traveling exhibition “Our Lives, Our Space: Views of Women in a Red-Light District” on the east coast of the USA. This article discusses some of the impact that the exhibition has had on its viewers and the photographers. It concludes by suggesting how a study of prostitution “minus the sex” could point to new avenues of sexuality studies.
Sealing Cheng received her doctorate from the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Oxford University. She was then a Rockefeller postdoctoral fellow in Gender, Sexuality, Health, and Human Rights at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University. In January 2005, she began teaching at Wellesley College in the US. Her research is focused on sexuality with reference to sex work, human trafficking, women’s activism, and policy-making. Her book, On the Move for Love: Migrant Entertainers and the U.S. Military in South Korea (University of Pennsylvania Press 2010) received the Distinguished Book Award of the Sexualities Section of the American Sociological Association in 2012.
Areas of Interest: Sex work, human trafficking, women’s activism, and policy-making, HIV/AIDS campaigns and policies, The Vagina Monologues and transnational feminism, the politics of representation in anti-trafficking discourses, pedagogical issues in women’s and gender studies and Asian studies.
Geographical Areas of Research: South Korea, Hong Kong SAR.
The full article is available here.