Back to seminar index

2003-06-18 IGS Evening Seminar, Ochanomizu University, Tokyo, Japan

From Spice Girls to Enjo-Kosai:
Formations of Teenage Girl’s Sexualities in Taiwan[1]

Josephine Ho
Professor and Coordinator
Center for the Study of Sexualities
National Central University, Chungli, Taiwan

http://sex.ncu.edu.tw
 

In the last two lectures I have been describing an emerging female sexual agency, in dealing with sexual images or sex work as a profession, which has created serious challenges to a feminism that maintains a very rigid gender framework.  Although my examples come from Taiwan with which I am more familiar, I believe such an observation may have implications for the rest of East Asia, which is something for you to think about.  Tonight I will move on to a topic that is most relevant for Japan where the thorny term—enjo-kosai—originated.  Yet, instead of going backward to its roots in Japan, I would like to provide one explanation as to why the term took root in Taiwan so quickly and so easily, to the extent that it has come to encompass a wide range of social/sexual intercourse, thus triggering massive fear and worry among the morally righteous.  Furthermore, rather than treating enjo-kosai as an isolated, particularized social phenomenon or “problem,” as many adults have come to regard it, I am proposing that as body and sexuality change their meaning and significance for the new generation of teenagers living in a rapidly changing social world as Taiwan, sex work known as enjo-kosai has also come to signify something very different from what adults would have imagined.  In other words, the significant difference between adults’ and teenagers’ attitudes toward enjo-kosai reflects not necessary a decay in moral values but the changing reality of sexuality in history.

Impressions of teenage girls’ sexuality in Taiwan have always been enveloped in stock descriptions of emerging social problems: unexpected and unwanted pregnancies by careless girls, brutal rapes or molestations of innocent girls by ruthless men or impulsive youths, or the selling of unfortunate girls into prostitution by heartless parents and traffickers.  Within such a social context, the girls who insist on demonstrating some degree of sexual adventurism or sexual self-determination usually end up being labeled as problem girls treading on dangerous grounds and doomed for tragedy.  Still, in the past few years a much more pervasive trend and a much wider range of teenage sexual expressions and activities have forced their way unto the Taiwanese scene.  In fact, such demonstrations of teenage girls’ sexualities have become so clearly in sight and so blatantly “in your face” that adult concerns are raging to rein in such energies.[2]  In this lecture, I would like to trace out some of the most visible formations of teenage girls’ sexualities in present-day Taiwan, enjo-kosai being merely one expression among many, through which teenage girls are exploring and thus forging their own sexualities out of limited social means, as well as groping to construct their own reflexive project of the self.[3]

To begin with a most popular topic, educators and women’s groups in Taiwan have consistently criticized media representations of teenage girls for creating a vanity-based false consciousness that serves to sustain existing gender stereotypes and thus long-standing gender inequality.  Yet we cannot help but notice the fact that teenage girls, through organizing/manipulating such media images and commodities and becoming themselves subjects, rather than objects, of desire, are also beginning to arrive at a new self-consciousness, a new sense of subjectivity, that may prove instrumental for their overall growth and development.

The first inkling of a new image of teenage girls hit the Taiwanese market in 1996 when Vivian Hsu(徐若瑄) released her first semi-nude photo album titled “Venus.”[4]  While the album’s design may be targeting the complex psychology of adult males in East Asia with Vivian’s special blend of innocence and sexuality, it also unwittingly opened a new door to self/sexual-expression for teenage girls.  Henceforth, innocence need not be divorced from sexuality; you can have the cake and eat it too.  The personal photo album(寫真集) industry, where numerous teenage girls had fashioned their own dream stories of beauty out of limited means but unlimited fantasies, began to include more daring sexual images.  In one proud photo album after another, young teenage girls peered into the cameras with their own formulation of seductive looks and experimented with the various seductive postures and images they had long dreamed of assuming.

A subtle combination of innocence and sexuality in looks is further animated by the sexy dance moves of today’s popular performers, from Korea’s S.E.S and Park Ji-Yoon, to Japan’s Nami Amuro and Ayumi Hamasaki, to Taiwan’s own A-Mei and Coco Lee.  As a lateral development, low-cut super tight jeans, jeans that reveal the seductive contours of the girls’ buttocks and thighs, even traces of the G-string or thong underneath, have also become quite popular in Taiwan in these past few years—a style of clothing that mediates between a social context highly suspicious and disdainful of girls wearing over-revealing outfits, and the teenage girls’ own growing desire for sexual expression.[5]  If tight jeans prove to be too challenging for those schoolgirls who lack confidence in their lower body figures, many of them have chosen instead to wear colorful bras inside their white uniform shirts so that the blurry colorful insinuations could highlight their own upper-body figure and announce their sexual restlessness.[6]  Lest people should say that these sexual expressions are merely catering to the desires of males, world-renowned bad-girl Madonna and the UK Spice Girls have already created images of a female sexuality no longer contained within or geared toward a desire to please men, but instead, is highly energetic as well as obnoxiously provocative.[7]  Their rhythm and dancing and, mostly importantly, “attitude” certainly exemplify alternative ways for teenage girls to imagine how their own sexual feelings and attitudes could be conveyed, aside from the usual tame representations in Cosmopolitan or Vogue.

The world of popular culture and commodities may have provided some raw material out of which teenage girls could fashion their own sexual representations and sexual subjectivities, yet their sexual construction of the self at the present moment encompasses much more than mere images and fantasies and commodities.  In fact, for this generation of Taiwanese teenage girls, hands-on experience with sexual intercourse is no longer something totally alien. 

Dramatic increases in sexual activities among teenagers have been well noted in various studies in Taiwan.  A 2001 survey of young internet users reveals that heavy petting of the lower part of the body, which is often considered to be a prelude to actual sexual intercourse, is already practiced by 42.4 % of young women, a four-fold increase since 1988.  Sexual awakening is also taking place much earlier than before.  With better nutrition and the encroachment of Western diets, 80% fifth-grade girls in Taiwan have started to grow breasts; 34% sixth-grade girls have experienced their first period; and 16% sixth-grade girls admit to having had romantic relationships, according to a 2000 survey.[8]  Though still believing that children should be protected from any talk of sex until late puberty, sex educators are now scrambling to distribute sex education materials to fifth and sixth graders.  These measures further accelerate the process that Michel Foucault has termed the “pedagogization of children’s sex,” which seeks to manage, but will more than likely end up further inciting, the sexual potentials of so-called underage youths.[9]

As the tug-of-war rages on between teenage sexual practices and their pedagogization, dramatic changes in teenagers’ sexual attitudes are also becoming visible.[10]  Premarital sex is no longer a taboo.  In a survey with 14,269 of 16- to 25-year-old internet users, at least 60% find sexual relationships acceptable if both parties agree to it, to the dismay of parents and sex educators.  If pregnancy resulted, 38% youths would choose abortion; nearly 40% would choose marriage as a way out of the problem.  Interestingly, the study also shows that the former group consists mainly of females while the marriage group consists of males, signifying that today’s young women, with the help of new products such as RU486 or other improved abortion procedures, would choose freedom over marriage even when faced with the embarrassing situation of unexpected pregnancy.[11]  As to the age-old question of premarital co-habitation, values are changing too.  Those youths who would choose to cohabitate make up 45% of the sample group, yet half of the remaining 55% who are against co-habitation resist living together with their lovers NOT because they think it is wrong but simply because they want to “retain some freedom for themselves” while maintaining such intimate relationships.  In these recent survey results, youths are demonstrating much more calculation than simple willful choice.

Not only are youths more open toward intimate relationships, they are at the same time open to multiplicities in such intimacies.  Television commercials for their favorite commodity—the cell phone—blatantly characterize it as the newest tool for managing multiple relationships.  The ad for one model advocates its new function that can send the same romantic message to up to nine different receiving parties at one press of a button.  Another model emphasizes its new caller-id function, in which the girl in the commercial looks bored when flashing lights of varied colors announce calls from her boyfriend and her best friend, but turns exuberant when a different color light signals a call from the boyfriend of her best friend.  The cliché critique of commodities for their “sexual exploitation” and “sexual objectification” of teenage girls seems feeble in front of such tremendous powers of multiple attraction and aggressive management.[12]

If teenage girls are already living in an environment with plenty of exposure to things sexual, if they are already becoming fluent in the language of desire, if their sexual values have already diverged from puritanical morality, and most importantly, if sexual adventurism (in the form of sex with multiple partners or sex with strangers) is experienced as the latest in-thing instead of a life-and-death matter for teenage girls (as it used to be for their mothers or grandmothers)—then it is little wonder that enjo-kosai and other forms of teenage sex work are taken rather nonchalantly by teenage girls.  It is simply another form of sexual exploration, and with tangible as well as sizable profits.

As much as enjo-kosai (casual prostitution) has been interpreted as an alarming phenomenon unique among teenage girls in East Asia (thus worthy of social panic), its existence in Taiwan has its own unique ramifications.  First, enjo-kosai has now become an umbrella term for all forms of individually-operated sex work in Taiwan, be it professional sex workers who are taking advantage of the term’s amateurish connotation, or occasional practitioners who are taking advantage of its imported cultural image.[13]  In fact, the most frequently reported cases in the past year or so have involved all kinds of young men who are offering themselves for sale out of curiosity or out of a desperate need for a quick income or even out of a desire to raise funds for a sex reassignment surgery.[14]  Second, enjo-kosai has also become a new code-word for the popular but infamous game of one-night-stands on the internet.  It not only adds a taboo fantasy dimension to the pre-game negotiations as well as the actual sexual encounter, but also leaves room for post-game demands for compensation should the encounter turns out to be unpleasant or unsatisfactory.[15]  In that sense, enjo-kosai is more of a space for sexual negotiations than a fixed set of sexual transactions.

These developments in no way deny the fact that there are quite a lot of teenage schoolgirls who ARE conducting enjo-kosai in their after-school hours.  The absence of work opportunities for teenage schoolgirls has only been ameliorated in the past 15 years by the arrival of the fast food industries and the convenience stores.  And as the service industries began to expand as part of the transformation of Taiwanese economy, more schoolgirls entered karaokes, coffee-shops, tea-houses, nightclubs, etc. to work as part-time service crew.  All of these jobs pay part-timers by the hour on the basis of a fixed hourly wage, and judging from the meager going rate (US$2 an hour), it is quite understandable why some girls would look into other lines of work, better-paying work.  One 14-year-old girl who was caught by the police doing enjo-kosai says that she had worked in a beauty parlor as an apprentice, and what she earned standing all day long could not even compare with half of what she earned “lying down” for a brief while.  She announces that she would go back to enjo-kosai as soon as she gets out.  While women’s groups beseech the police to rid the internet of enjo-kosai ads so as to “protect” the girls from exploitation by evil customers, perhaps women’s groups should first take seriously the girls’ complaints about the exploitation involved in the so-called respectable and normal jobs at McDonalds and other such business institutions.

Many have attributed the popularity of the term enjo-kosai to the Japanese drama 「神啊!請多給我一點時間」(「神様、パよ少ウクん」,kami sama moo sukoshi da ke) which aired in Taiwan from July to September 1999.  Yet as early as March 1999, the movie 「援助交際24小時」(“Enjo-kosai around the clock”) had already caught the attention of the general public which was trying to come to grips with the changing faces of teenage girls.  One senior journalist even wrote about her worries over the possible convergence of enjo-kosai with the Taiwanese “spicy/hot sisters” (辣妹), who were “girls under the age of eighteen but radiating sexiness as well as maintaining the innocence of a little girl, full of sex appeal.”  History proves that the local term that captured the delicate combination of innocence/detachment (out of reach) and enticing sexuality/sophistication would easily be articulated with the imported terminology—enjo-kosai—which also joined two seeming opposed terms, sophisticated sex work and innocent teenage girls.

Of course the phenomenon now described as enjo-kosai is not the first time Taiwanese teenage girls have come into contact with work that makes use of their bodily image and even sexuality.  Many teenage girls have already had experience working as models, not only in the traditional sense of taking the catwalk as fashion models or joining various beauty pageants or talent shows; but also in restaurant chains imported from the West (i.e., Hooters), or in car shows, software exhibitions, wine tastings, local betel nut stands, male-dominated billiard parlors, businessmen-frequented tea-houses, gas stations, car-washes, and a wide range of other businesses.  Others have found work providing all kinds of flirtation-oriented work in karaokes, dance pubs, or regular night-clubs.  When these various kinds of body-related work border one another in gradation, and when the legitimacy/respectability of “work” gradually eclipses the stigma of “sex” in this age of heightened professionalism as well as sexual openness, it becomes increasingly meaningless to try and make a clear distinction between these other forms of work and enjo-kosai, which for many is just one more type of work that involves sex appeal.  In other words, this convergence of teenage work and sex work (enjo-kosai in particular) is in fact far less a matter of “confusion of values” than a matter of “profusion of jobs.”[16]  A September 2001 survey of 16-26-year-olds reports that sex work has become an acceptable form of work for 70% of the youths polled.  And the younger the interviewees, the more strongly they side with the new sexual values.  When Japanese porn star Ai Iijima (飯島愛) came to Taiwan to publicize her biography Platonic Sex in 2000, as much as adults warned about her profession as a porn actress and one time sex worker, teenagers flocked to the book exhibition to catch a glimpse of the sex goddess they have seen so much of in the adult TV channels.  Many teenagers bought her biography and read her life story diligently as a story of courage and honesty.[17]

As much as child protection NGOs would like to describe the enjo-kosai girls as nothing but vulnerable, vain, and lazy, the girls themselves, however, are accumulating their own hands-on wisdom in this line of business.  Contrary to the guileless girls who are mostly phobic and scared witless in emergency situations, some enjo-kosai girls have become quite adept in reading people and handling complicated human interaction.  To acquire their prospective clientele, they have learned to target only middle-aged men, not because these men are more lustful, but because these men, according to these girls, are more “chicken-hearted”; in other words, they would not make trouble for the girls should the transaction go awry—the unlawfulness of the transaction, the mainstream social status of these men, and the stigma associated with cross-generational relationships would all work to the men’s disadvantage should they make any trouble that attracts public attention.  While statistics show that many of these girls are runaways, school drop-outs, night school students, cram school students, etc., many other enjo-kosai girls come from perfectly functional families.  Their parents have good-paying jobs, and the girls have good grades in school and they use the computers parents bought them for home use to get on the internet and negotiate sexual transactions.  There was a case in which two girls in their early teens started their own enjo-kosai business to avoid, according to them, exploitation by the telephone dating service where they once worked.  While doing enjo-kosai, the girls kept a “desire diary” detailing individual customers, personal tastes, prices charged, merchandise purchased with the payment, calculation of transactions needed for future purchases, etc.  Professionalism in such compensated companionship is neither casual nor rare.

Many adults continue to lament this “confusion of values,” but the real “confusion” seems to be something quite unexpected and troubling.  In the past, the “good girls” were always dressed in nice and decent clothes while the sex workers dress lewdly.  But now the “good girls” are donning all the hot and sexy dresses for their limited sexual self-expression, while the enjo-kosai girls, the new generation of sex workers, carry on their business in their school uniforms with student id cards in their pockets.  Both kinds of girls, and in many cases there is no clear line between them, are actively striving to manage the delicate multiplicities and complexities of sexual desires, which most adults, born and raised in highly rigid social-sexual contexts, have little knowledge, much less experience, about.

Casual teen sex work may have another layer of social significance that needs to be recognized.  As the world we live in becomes “a society of strangers,” the art of socializing becomes more and more important, for it provides the necessary means through which strangers (or acquaintances) may come together and develop further contacts and relationships.  Historically, socializing in the public sphere in the Chinese society had been the exclusive activity of men.  It was the prostitutes and other sex workers who first dared to challenge social decorum by entering public space in their own fashion.  In fact, the first generation of women who enjoyed financial independence, who divorced freely, who roamed public sites freely, who dressed in the most glaring way, who smoked in public to express their character and independence, who dated men freely, etc. were none other than the prostitutes.  Their revolutionary move has made it possible for other women (non-sex-workers) to also enter the public space and negotiate their own social intercourse, maybe even sexual intercourse.[18] 

Like women in the past, teenagers are also suffering immense restrictions and repressions in relation to their entry and activities in public space, as well as their channels of contact with people of varied social status.  Under the triple bind of gender inequality, ageism, and sex negativism, enjo-kosai functions as a form of “social intercourse” that could open up opportunities for youths to explore themselves, to get to know members of other social groups, as well as to get to know the society of which they make up a very important part.  Such social intercourse may very well amount to a nice afternoon of company, a passing one night stand, a short-term friendships, a romantic attachment, or even marriage—and perhaps all in connection with some form of monetary gift.  To reduce such multiplicities in enjo-kosai to simple notions of lop-sided exploitation or commodification is to overlook the efforts of teenage girls to forge new possibilities out of limited space and means. 

Social intercourse and sexual intercourse are different forms of modern intercourse.  In that sense, enjo-kosai is a new form of social/sexual intercourse in a sexually open society; and new modes of relations, emotions, and work are being created in this process by, first and foremost, our teenage enjo-kosai girls.

 


[1] This paper was originally delivered as a country report at the International Conference on Teenage Girls' Sexualities and Sex Work in East Asia, Yonsei University, Korea, Nov. 2, 2001.  It will be published in full in InterAsia Cultural Studies in Aug. 2003.  The present paper is an abbreviated and further modified version.   Photos of the celebrities mentioned in this paper can be found at  http://sex.ncu.edu.tw/members/ho/teen_girl/photo_togo_with.htm

[2] For example, women’s groups have publicized reports on the rampant “commodification” and “objectification” of teenage girls so as to call on the society to “save” these young girls.  Educators and social workers likewise have warned parents to “pay more attention” to their teenage daughters and monitor the latter’s activities and acquaintances.  The easy association between teenage girls’ sexuality and teenage sex work further invigorates the sense of urgency that may activate all kinds of social prejudice in relation to age, sexuality, sex work, etc. before the full scope of teenage sexuality had a chance to be discussed. 

[3] Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1991), 52-55.

[4] To avoid violating the age limit set by the law, the producer of the album made sure that Vivian was already 18 before embarking on the shooting.  Still, Vivian was packaged as a 13-15 year old girl in all the pictures taken.  The producer claims that Hsu was chosen because “she represented a perfect mixture of teenage innocence and subtle but sophisticated sexual desire.”

[5]  I might add here that such tight jeans are also becoming popular among young males, signaling perhaps an increasingly visible concern with sexiness that goes beyond macho manhood.

[6] The explosion in Taiwanese lingerie business in recent years attests to the progress of the erotic revolution in which women are becoming more and more concerned about the aesthetic and erotic connotations of their intimate wear rather than the latter’s practical use.

[7] Debbie Stoller, "Feminists Fatale: BUST-ing the Beauty Myth," in The Bust Guide to the New Girl Order, eds. by Marcelle Karp & Debbie Stoller (New York: Penguin, 1999), 46.

[8] “Romantic” relationships in the past may entail little physical contact, but for this generation of young people, physical, and sometimes sexual, contact embodies the romantic in relationships.

[9] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume I: An Introduction, Trans. by Robert Hurley (New York: Random House, 1980: 104.

[10] Such changes in attitudes toward sex are partly constituted by teenage girls’ favorite kind of recreational reading: romance novels.  In fact, a Feb. 2001 survey of romance novels in the market reveals that out of the four million romance novels presently circulating in bookstores, book rental places, and other channels of distribution in Taiwan, 90% of them included X-rated content, i.e., graphic depictions of sexual intercourse and other perversions.  One trouble-shooting female politician was shocked to find that many of these novels even included sections on incest, sex in the presence of children, techniques to seduce men, and other unbelievable and highly unacceptable deviances that she found difficult to mention.

[11] Although lesbianism remains mostly invisible in this reproduction-oriented society, a recent survey of high school girls, conducted in September of 2000, reports that 12% of high school girls freely admitted to being lesbians, and 63% found lesbianism an acceptable form of intimate relationship.

[12] “If advertisers and marketing men manipulated teens as consumers, they also, inadvertently, solidified teen culture against the adult world…. Defined by its own products and advertising slogans, teenhood became more than a prelude to adulthood; it was a status to be proud of—emotionally and sexually complete unto itself.”  See Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, & Gloria Jacobs, eds., Re-Making Love: the Feminization of Sex (New York: Doubleday, 1986), p. 29.

[13] It is rumored that up to 70% to 80% of so-called enjo-kosai ads on the internet are put up by professional sex workers who are now exploring new means of reaching a wider clientele.

[14] Just to give a few examples: <油漆工人上網援交送辦>,20011011日聯合報18版;<籌錢想變性,男子援交被捕>,2001108日聯合報18版;<大學生刊援助交際緩刑>,2001830日聯合報20版;<十五歲男生援交>,200184日聯合報18版;<同學道相報,高職男生援交>,2001730日聯合報18版。

[15] Recent police crackdowns on enjo-kosai messages on the internet have forced netters to return to the more “innocently” sounding term of ONS.

[16] To insist on the definite distinction between sex work and other kinds of sex-related work is to insist on the unique status of penetration-sex as a unique form of intimate contact that carries dire consequences for women.  Yet the point that I am trying to make here is that we are already in the presence of a new generation of girls for whom sex no longer carries such weight.  Ironically, the women’s groups are now trying desperately to restore this causal relationship between sex and disaster by sending these girls to correctional institutions known as half-way schools.

[17] Another Japanese porn star Madoka Ozawa (小澤圓) has made quite a few visits to Taiwan since 2002 and has been featured in car shows, wedding shows, and furniture shows among other non-profit oriented appearances.  Some parents and teachers are worrying that Ozawa’s image is now being white-washed to such a degree that being a porn star, a sex worker, would no longer carry the usual social stigma.

[18] Therein lies part of the buried story of the sex revolution in China.


★☆ 特典:Discussions講座現場實錄 ★☆