Self-Empowerment and Professional Performativity in Sex Work
(Or, Why Feminists Are Unable to Read Sex Workers)
Professor and Coordinator
Center for the Study of Sexualities
National Central University, Chungli, Taiwan
Leigh, aka Scarlot Harlot, of prostitutes' rights group COYOTE (Call Off
Your Old Tired Ethics) invented the term "sex work" in 1979 as
a feminist contribution to the English language as well as an
acknowledgement of female subjectivity and agency within the sex
A similar transformation took place in Taiwan with the emergence
of its first prostitutes' rights movement led, ironically, by none other
than the lowest stratum of sex workers.
Taipei's 128 middle-aged, near illiterate sex workers took to the
streets in September of 1997 to protest the city's policy to revoke
their long-held licenses, their presence and uninhibited shouts of
protest in public space not only ripped open the silence and stigma that
had kept them ostracized in dark alleys and back streets, but also
uplifted the morale of sex workers all over Taiwan who continue to put
up fierce resistance against the anti-obscenity campaigns launched by
the government and its desire to reach respectable nation-state status.
Such an atmosphere of contestation and mobilization has also made
it possible for feminists to dialog with and learn from previously
hidden-from-view sex workers in contexts other than the disciplinary
institutions where arrested or rescued sex workers were sent to become
objects for research and rehabilitation.
Instead of “the horrible truths about sex work” exemplified
in most previous research, these new conversations repeatedly tell of
the self-empowering practices that sex workers have developed out of
their professional work, which most feminists continue to misread.
In this lecture, I only have time to tell you a few obvious
obvious example. During the
actual transactions, sex workers often specify the body parts involved
(the penis and the vagina), and the act allowed to be performed on the
vagina (penetration only, no fondling, oral sex at extra cost).
Anti-prostitution feminists believe that it is because "the
integral connection between sexuality and sense of self means that, for
self-protection, a prostitute must distance herself from her sexual
that sense, the boundary setting is taken as the sex worker’s last
line of defense against an act that violates her sacred selfhood through
ravaging her sex. Yet, such
a tragic and horrible scenario probably reflects more the imagination of
non-sex workers than professional sex workers themselves.
For when sexual exchange is limited to penetration—which
actually results in more of a demand on the penis than on the vagina
(something a sex worker realizes quickly through her profession)—it
not only significantly cuts down on the duration of the exchange but
also minimizes the sex workers’ effort, a labor-saving strategy, you
might say. And contrary to
the anti-pornography feminists’ depiction of penetration as a
formidable act of violence which embodies all the power of an aggressive
patriarchy, penetration is merely something that CAN be manipulated and
often becomes well-managed by the sex worker herself.
not all sex workers set up boundaries for their professional services;
for some, thoroughly professionalizing the whole body at work is a
conscious and thoughtful choice. This strategy may go in two completely opposite directions.
One sex worker who is also a lesbian says she does not set any
boundary for her transactions, for her activities with men mean nothing
sexual to her; it’s work, and nothing else.
Thoroughly professionalizing her body for sex at work thus allows
this lesbian sex worker to successfully negotiate the seeming
contradiction between her sexual preference and her sexual occupation.
In an opposite case, another sex worker chooses to be totally
involved in her work, heart and body, but of course not without
professional calculations, as she says with confidence and self-pride:
if sex is simply penetration, and when the man ejaculates, it’s
over—then men can just stay home and do it with their wives.
Why spend money on us? So,
as long as I get money from you, I will do my best to make it worth
your while by giving you a wonderful experience.
But at the same time, as a sex worker, I also have the duty
to send the client home happily without lingering and hoping to have
more than a casual relationship with me.
I will make him miss me, but I will not let him love me.
Every sex worker should know that.
is hard to see how the sexuality of the sex worker could be, as
anti-prostitution feminists claim, “unilaterally at the disposal of
the client” on these occasions. The
professional attitude and the power it generates are obviously helping
the sex worker control the conditions of her work as well as manage
interpersonal relationships in a way that maintains a delicate balance
between intimacy and professionalism.
The anti-prostitution feminists, on the other hand, can only read
such a complicated understanding and management of sex work as either
forced victimization or merely wishful thinking.
sex workers have learned to manage the interaction and exchange with
their clients, things may be a lot harder when they are faced with the
social stereotyping that creates an environment inhospitable to their
profession, evidenced by the popularity of anti-obscenity campaigns
launched by usually much-resented politicians.
Faced with the social branding and discrediting effect of stigma,
today’s Taiwanese sex workers are fortunate enough to be able to learn
from other stigmatized groups already in revolt (e.g. lesbians and gays,
aborigines, the disabled, the transgendered, etc.), whose queering
tendency has demonstrated how to appropriate existing legitimating
discourses to resist the sexual negativity associated with their
identity. Consequently, the
dynamic of humiliation and shame, which was designed to force the sex
workers into withdrawal and vulnerability, now encounters massive
refraction and displacement put up by self-empowered sex workers.
second example has to do with some of the resisting strategies along
this line, put up by the now famous “betel-nut beauties檳榔西施”
in Taiwan. These teenage
girls dress in scanty sexy clothes and sit in transparent booths
well-lit and decorated with mirrors, waiting to serve packages of betel
nuts, beverages or cigarettes to mostly male working-class customers who
drive by in their cars or more commonly in their trucks of all sizes.
When people criticize these girls’ outfits as over-exposing,
the betel nut beauties would turn the arguments around to mock the
critic’s own ignorance by pointing out that they have always worn
“safety panties” especially designed against any kind of peeping.
Yet at the same time, the claim of the existence of the “safety
panties” also function as an imaginary space where flirtations or
fantasies could take place. One
girl dramatized one such typical exchange of discourse for me.
When the betel nut beauty approaches a stopping car to take the
order, the customer may jokingly say: “Look! I can see your panties!” Instead of feeling harassed or humiliated, the betel nut girl
answers also jokingly: “Really?
But what you see may not be what you think!
It may be something else!”
If the customer persists by saying that the panties are of this
color or that color, the betel nut beauty would simply brush it aside by
again jokingly saying, “Oh! You got me!” or “Oh no, how
do you know?” By that
time, the transaction is completed and the customer has to be on his
is a good example where a moment of possible harassment is turned into a
moment of fantasy and flirtation for both the girl and the customer;
where the betel nut girl can brush off unwanted advances without
necessarily crossing or humiliating the customer and thus lose future
business; where the confidence of knowing that “he cannot see
anything” can help the betel nut girl feel at ease with her body even
when she sits on the high stool inside the betel nut booth with her legs
The wisdom accumulated
during professional work is a power that outsiders cannot even begin to
is another example of that power as one girl reflects on her work:
used to lower my head when people stare at me, but now I just stare
back at them until they look the other way. And I used to get speechless when men yell sexual innuendoes
at me, but now I just yell back at them and shut them up.
I have become smarter since I started work as a betel nut
wisdom is often passed on from one betel nut girl to another by word of
mouth, and many of the ideas are quite beyond the common wisdom of
“the good women.” People
often criticize the betel nut girls for being too loose with their
customers as they are often seen openly flirting with various men in
front of their work booths; sometimes even body contacts are observed.
Yet as one betel nut girl tells me, she used to feel too ashamed
to respond to male gazes or other sexual advances from strangers until
she learned a precious lesson from a more experienced co-worker.
The senior betel nut girl offered a profound motto: “I would
rather take the initiative to touch the customer than to have him touch
me.” In other words,
the betel nut girl would take the initiative to jokingly pat the
advancing customer on the shoulder, the face, or any other body part of
her choice to show that she is playing along--but on her own terms.
Usually that moderate gesture of seeming friendliness during this
brief encounter, which carries a note of ambiguous and aggressive
flirtation, will be enough to assuage the customers’ advances and
maintain a cordial relationship between the girl and the customer, to be
concretized into many happy return visits by the latter.
In that sense, contrary to common perception, the seemingly
licentious behavior of the betel nut girls is in fact an active strategy
that helps them manage and control exchanges that could become
unpleasant if handled too rashly. Rather
than feeling angry and yet powerless in being treated as sex objects who
are touched, the girls take action to transform themselves into subjects
who do the touching. When
the senior betel nut girl said “I would rather touch the customer
than to have the customer touch me,” the words were uttered not
out of desperation, but deliberation.
is another example of how sex workers’ efforts to better-manage their
trade are constantly obscured by the effect of social stigma and
prejudice. One massage
parlor girl tells me that she (and her co-workers alike) would usually
do her best to extend the duration of time when the client is lying on
his stomach because that is when the client is least capable of making
aggressive sexual advances. So
the girl would usually do a lot of work on the client’s backside,
giving him the impression that she is leading up to something juicy.
It is only in the last few minutes of the session (usually toward
the end of the hour) that the girl would suggest that the client turn
over to face her.
As the client’s desire is now clearly in view and is understood
to be somehow gratified as part of the service, the girl has developed
sophisticated hand maneuvers that gently move across the sensitive parts
of the client’s body, including between the thighs and on the penis
itself. The girl tells me
that this kind of “light skills輕功”
achieves multiple purposes. For
one thing, unlike regular strenuous massage, the light skills輕功are
less hard work for the massage girl.
Secondly, as the hand maneuvers resemble delicate foreplay, the
client gets more excited more quickly and may end the session sooner due
to uncontrollable ejaculation. More
importantly, the hand movements, without making it explicit, put the
client at the disposal of the message girl as well as keeping him at
arm’s length so as not to interfere with the stimulation process.
Ironically, the client, overjoyed by the seeming tenderness and
extra service of the sex worker, interprets these moves as royal service
and usually ends the session with contentment and sometimes even a
sizable gratuity. Unfortunately,
in the eyes of the anti-sex-work feminists, the hand maneuvers are
nothing but humiliating, degrading services that the girls are “forced
to perform” by the clients.
when penetration does make up part of the deal for a message session
(with much higher fee of course), some message girls have developed
ingenious practices for their own protection.
The message girl tells about one other experienced girl who has
perfected her skills at oral sex so that the penetration segment can be
as short as possible:
feels that doing it with her mouth would finish off the client
faster. You can make him feel very high with your mouth, and only
when he is close to orgasm that you get on top of him--being on top
means you can be in control. He
will ejaculate in maybe a few seconds.
This way, the girls’ vagina would not get hurt easily.
She would not let the client stay inside her for too long to
do all that grinding. That
would hurt her.
oral sex, taking the top position, moving up and down actively to induce
ejaculation, not to mention other special tricks such as giving the
client’s penis a massage with her breasts--all these moves are
considered by anti-sex-work feminists and other righteous women as
horrible humiliating “perversions” that are said to have been
imposed on the sex workers by their clients and bosses.
Yet these moves turn out to be strategies that the sex workers
themselves have developed to avoid possible injuries as well as to
assume more control. They
are in fact quite effective means to ensure that not too much time is
wasted before taking on the next client.
In the eyes of the
feminists, the occupational practices of the sex workers only offer up
more ways for women to be exploited; yet for the sex workers themselves,
they know very well how to protect and benefit themselves--their
“professional wisdom” will ensure that.
may respond that power and agency are not available to all sex workers,
that those who manage to demonstrate power and agency at work are only
the privileged few, that they are not “typical” of sex workers.
While such contentions may seem justified, I would point to the
fact that intellectual capacity or political sense also used to be
considered available to only a select group of women, yet that never
stopped feminists from pushing for more education opportunities and
political participation for women as a whole.
Likewise, if some sex workers have on their own devised ways to
utilize/improvise discourses and practices to fight off domination and
exploitation, then there is no good reason why feminists should withhold
affirming or even whole-heartedly supporting such demonstrations of
power and agency. Rather
than doubting the few who have managed to develop agency, feminists
should take aggressive steps to make that sense of agency a reality for
many more women, other sex workers included.
that in mind, we cannot help but wonder why anti-sex-work feminists
insist on reading all sex workers as nothing but powerless victims whose
work involves so much humiliation and violation that make up men’s
cruel malice toward women that all sex workers need to be rid of their
jobs. We find it puzzling
why these “good women” continue to miss (or choose to ignore) the
power and agency that is so apparent in the professionalized
performances of many sex workers. One
good explanation may be suggested by lesbian writer Joan Nestle:
I know the dreams of only my own, then I will never understand where
my impulse for freedom impinges on another history; where my
interpretation of someone’s life is weakened by my own limits of
language, imagination, or desire.
other words, rather than the sex workers having limited knowledge of the
horrible nature of patriarchy and confused values of female self-respect
so as to stay in sex work, it may be a limitation of personal erotic
experience and a deeply-rooted prejudice against sex work that have
seriously crippled the understanding of anti-sex-work feminists and
prompted them into assuming a position of patronization.
difference in position, experience, stance, and interests that we see
developing between these two groups of women may have another dimension
to it, based on recent developments in Taiwan.
For one thing, anti-obscenity campaigns in Taiwan in these past
years are often fueled by feminist discourses produced by what are now
called the "good-woman feminists良婦女性主義者,"
who are often also self-proclaimed "state-feminists國家女性主義者."
The former term describes the middle-class-based scope of their
general concerns: safety, childcare, sexual harassment and sexual
violence, etc. The latter
term was created in 1996 to mark a transformation in the role of the
feminist as well as in the goal of mainstream women's movement.
According to its leading spokeswoman, Liu Yu-Xiou劉毓秀,
feminist ideals are to be carried out by none other than housewives who
are to be encouraged to become political agents and enter the public
realm of the state apparatus en masse.
The sheer presence and number of women would then swallow up the
public realm with the private realm, thus feminizing the state and
forcing it to take up the job of caring, while the self-professed
feminist "philosophy queen" dethrones the "philosophy
It is with this vision in mind that mainstream feminists devoted
themselves to the project of nation-state-building, which was to
culminate in opposition party candidate Chen Shui-Bian陳水扁’s
triumph in the 2000 presidential election, who, incidentally, was none
other than the Taipei mayor in 1997 who issued the order to revoke the
licenses of the prostitutes. In
that sense, the aggressive measures to abolish all forms of sex work and
to “reform/rescue” the sex workers may be read as another step in a
nation-state building process that aims to construct a state of
middle-class family values through, among other things, eliminating sex
outside the marital transaction—the nightmare of all marriage-bound