Lecture 2

Self-Empowerment and Professional Performativity in Sex Work[1]

(Or, Why Feminists Are Unable to Read Sex Workers)

Josephine Ho

National Central University

Carol 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 industry.[2] A similar transformation took place in Taiwan with the emergence of its first prostitutes' rights movement in 1997, led, ironically, by none other than the lowest stratum of sex workers.

When 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 and dialogs repeatedly tell of the self-empowering practices that sex workers have developed out of their professional work, which mainstream feminists continue to misread. In this lecture, I only have time to tell you a few obvious examples.

First obvious example of misreading. 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 only 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 use."[3] In 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.

Moreover, 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.

It 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.

While 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 aims to create 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,[4] 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.

My 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 sell 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 on their way to and from work. 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, for, as the girls claim, they have always worn "safety panties" especially designed against any kind of peeping. Ironically, such protective gear does not exist only for that purpose; more often than not, they also function as an imaginary space on which 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 way.[5]

This 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 crossed. The wisdom accumulated during professional work is a power that outsiders cannot even begin to envision.

Here is another example of that power as one girl reflects on her work:

I 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 beauty.

Such 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 girl/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 but 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 dealt with too rashly. Rather than feeling angry and yet powerless about 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.

Here 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.[7] 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 says 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 initiative 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" for the clients.

Even 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:

She 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.

Performing 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.

Critics 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, certainly beyond the community of sex workers.

With 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:

If 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.[8]

In 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.

The 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 king."[9] 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 housewives.

Discussant: MIZUSHIMA Nozomi (UNIDOS Uphold Now! Immediate De-criminalization of Sexwork!, SWASH Sex Work And Sexual Health)

1. "Wisdom" of sex workers

Skills and tactics of sex workers vary according to their specialization, individual personality and physical characteristics, the choices of service that is acceptable to them. I was impressed that sex workers in both Japan and Taiwan have made efforts in advancing their skills and passed them on through generations.

Skills in "Fashion Health" (no Honban--intercourse) include: to be more "actively" engaged by kissing and licking customer's entire body in order to avoid and minimize fingering in vagina; to try to avoid fellatio that is conducted mainly without wearing condom thus increasing the risk of STD; to increase the use of thighs and the use of "hand-job" using gel in order to decrease the risk of STD yet increasing pleasure of customer; to use more lotion and increase the amount of saliva during the service of fellatio so that bacteria can be washed away and to increase customer's pleasure.

Skills in individual prostitution, "delivery health" (with intercourse) include: to try to start intercourse wearing condom as soon as possible in order to avoid fellatio during which it is often difficult to use condom; to try to prolong service using lotion in order to minimize the time on fellatio and penis inserting; to place an internal use medical capsule that contains jell in vagina in prior to service so that during service the jell comes out of the dissolving capsule, deceiving the customer that the sex worker is being "wet." The sex worker can satisfy the customer, at the same time, protecting her vagina from being hurt.

2. Anti-state-regulated-prostitution in Taipei

Chen Shui-bian's proposal to abolish state-regulated prostitution is said to have been modeled after Japan's Anti-Prostitution Law. In the movement in creating Anti-Prostitution Law in Japan, anti-prostitution women activists participated. Therefore, Japan played some role in anti-state-regulated prostitution movement or "clean-up" in Taipei.

Question: When you organized a public forum with prostitutes and members of COWAS to gain understanding among middle class women such as housewives and teachers, what were the reactions of these women? Were there any changes? Did the movement spread?

3. View of anti-sex work feminists

The argument that regards sex workers as victims/exploited is based on the assumption that customers, meaning men, are enemies. It seems that this view cannot be changed even in the face of positive understanding of the work by sex workers. The view further develops into thinking that sex workers are either victims by the enemy or allies of the enemy. This perception only looks at men. Isn't this male-centered way of thinking?

It is pointed out that anti-sex work feminists support "Good wife, wise mother" idea or nationalism. Similar situation is observed in Japan, too. What is called for to feminists to change this situation within feminism? What should feminists do?

4. This argument is necessary for feminists not for sex workers.

Many sex workers do not expect feminists to understand or save them. Discussion on sex work is needed for feminists (feminism) to contemplate ways to achieve not only gender liberation but also sex liberation.

Response by Ho:

I am most grateful for Mizushima Sensei's insights on the wisdom of prostitutes. Obviously we can work together and discovered more of these "subjugated knowledges" that Foucault referred to when he talked about the kind of knowledge that empowers the individual against institutionalized knowledge/power formations.

In our experience struggling alongside the Taipei prostitutes, we have time and again run into indignant and morally righteous women who had only room to preach but little room to listen. So, change is limited and very slow in coming. The biggest difference I have observed is in the self-empowerment of the prostitutes themselves, who have now overcome whatever shame they had once felt and are carrying on with their daily lives with more ease. Taiwan has never seen prostitutes organized for human rights or work rights; their persistence/perseverance was what won the citizens over. It is undeniable that sympathy or pity made up a major part of the support of Taipei citizens, but I think the sex workers' struggles have changed a lot of citizens' minds and set a good example for sex workers of the world.

Mizushima Sensei asks: what should we do to change feminists within feminism? I don't have an answer for that. Mainstream feminists are now policy makers, women with real political power, but not the kind of power that would make more room for different kinds of women, but the kind of power that demands a uniformed look and style of life from all women. In the past five years, the mainstreamers have succeeded in instituting more laws to regulate gender/sexuality than all of Taiwan's history put together. We of course wanted to debate them on such matters. I remember pleading with one of the anti-sex-work NGOs for an opportunity to discuss such issues among feminists groups themselves before turning it into a media issue. The leader of that women's NGO replied bluntly: "There is no need to talk. Let's just see who has more muscle." At that moment, I suddenly realized that we did not have any muscle, while they had the police, the city government, the law, etc. All we have was persevering resistance. I also realized that we have to struggle against this new kind of political power, a power that results from the collaboration of the civil society and the state which makes life much harder for the marginal sexualities.

Mizushima Sensei is certainly correct that feminists need to learn about their sex worker sisters and educate themselves about sexuality issues. But with increasing decriminalization, it is getting very hard to organize or even access sex workers. In other words, recent developments in legislation against sex work have worked to criminalize and thus isolate sex workers. That is why we have been working very hard to strengthen the alliance between sex workers and other sex-rights groups, such as gay groups. We believe such an alliance would increase our understanding of sexuality issues while building toward public awareness of sex rights.

Audience Q & A:

Question 1: In your lecture, you mentioned that Taiwan's national-state building project is helped by the international gender analytic. In Taiwan's case, is state control strengthened by the abolition of sex work?

Answer: I am sorry to say, "Yes, the state has been helped by the abolitionist move" in three important ways. First of all, nation-state building in our date and age entails image-building, and holding an abolitionist stance on the issue of sex work gives the state a righteous image through which the state can more legitimately use its power to exercise control. It also looks good to the international community to display the result of the state's obscenity sweeps. Secondly, nation-state building is also consensus building. With issues such as abolition of sex work or other stigmatized practices, rigid state policies can usually sail without much contention. That consensus is achieved through the threatening force of stigma. After all, who dare to stand up against morally correct obscenity sweeps? Thirdly, nation-state building is also legal reconstruction. And the conservative groups' desire to abolish sex work has certainly helped the stage reorganize or rationalize its legal structure so that more and more areas of control now come under the auspice of the law. That not only contributes to the consolidation of state rule but also gives the conservative groups a footing in policy-setting and power-sharing within the state.

Question 2: How do sex workers view their clients? Isn't there a lot of violence that take place in transactions?

Answer: Well, sex workers view their clients in very many different ways, depending on the situation, the mood, the person, and a lot of other contingent factors. Some clients develop into old time friends, some clients become lovers—at least for a while, some clients are avoided at all costs. There is no uniform meaning to the word "clients." As to the presence of violence, it happens in sexual transactions as well as marriages and other intimate relationships. If sex work seems to be more dangerous than other lines of work or other types of relationships, it's probably because the continued illegality of sex work makes it vulnerable to abuse. When Taipei's legal prostitution was still in place, the sex workers could enjoy police protection when violence took place. It goes to show: violence is not innate to sex work. With the right structure of management, violence may not be able to take its toll.

Question 3: In your lecture, you included a lot of forms of work that I would not consider "sex work." Why do you include them in sex work?

Answer: I think the question presumes that sex work involves only sexual intercourse. In other words, if it does not involve sexual intercourse, then it is not sex work. This is an oversimplified understanding of sex and of sex work in today's historical context. Perhaps in a reproduction-oriented social context, penetration makes up all of sex. But even then, sexual services were varied and included many different ways of sexual play, as testified in classical novels. Now we live in an age when sex has diversified even more into a lot of different activities. Also, in regard to sex work, modern forms of sex work are increasingly flirtation-oriented interaction. In Taiwan, right now, the newest form of sex work is lap-dance, in which the sex worker and her customers assume a position and an activity that in everyway looks and sounds like sexual intercourse but without the intercourse part. Still, the interaction is sexual through and through. Take the telephone sex clubs as another example. Is that sex work or not? By the penetration definition, it is not; the sex worker does not even meet her client. But can you truly say it is not sex work when the client's sexual desires are ignited and gratified through the phone call and the woman on the other end of the phone line gets paid? Taiwanese government certainly thinks it is when it clamps down upon such transactions.

Question 4: You talk about agency of sex workers, but isn't that agency conditioned by the social structure? We really cannot overlook the important force of socio-economic structuring.

Answer: This is a good question. I think the underlying assumption is that sex workers are situated in such a lop-sided power structure that any agency claimed by them is to be discredited. Well, to pit social structure and subject/agency against each other is itself a gross characterization. To begin with, social structure is not a piece of iron that stays the same. History has already shown social structure being changed repeatedly by collective action. If not, we would still be living under totalitarian regimes. On the other hand, agency/subjectivity is of course a product of the social-historical context. Nobody truly believes that by his individual agency he would be able to turn the world upside down. (Not unless you are Hitler or some other power-crazy conceit.) But we are never truly and completely constrained by the social structure. If not, then we would never find opposition forces in authoritarian rule. We would all be conditioned to be docile citizens. So I think the opposition between social structure and individual is a false one. After all, what is social structure, if not the collectivity of us individual subjects organized in different forms and ways? Society is not a structure out there, beyond us. We ARE the society. And if we the individual subjects have changed and demonstrate a new agency, who can say that the social structure is still the same? Sex workers have developed their agency out of given and limited social conditions, our duty as more privileged citizens is to support and nurture such agency rather than second-guessing or discrediting it.


* Delivered on June 4, 2003 as IGS Evening Seminar, Ochanomizu University, Tokyo, Japan

  • 1. Research for this paper took place between October 1998 and August 1999. The full version is now published as "Self-Empowerment and 'Professionalism': Conversations with Taiwanese Sex Workers," InterAsia Cultural Studies 2 (Aug. 2000): pp. 283-299.
  • 2. Carol Leigh, "Inventing sex work," in Jill Nagle, ed., Whores and Other Feminists (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 230.
  • 3. Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997), p. 207.
  • 4. Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1963, 1986), p. 3; Lerita M. Coleman, "Stigma: an enigma demystified," in Lennard J. Davis, ed., The Disability Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 224.
  • 5. It really does not matter whether the girls are actually wearing those tights or not at the moment. (Who would have the audacity to double-check anyway?) The fact that they can always verbally invoke the existence of the tights, and effectively frustrate the critics and curious peepers alike, already demonstrates a kind of wisdom and power that is rarely found in the so-called good girls or good women, who, when faced with flirtations or harassment, can only respond with anger and a sense of helplessness.
  • 6. For the good women looking into the booth, the betel nut girls' crossed legs signal either deliberate licentiousness or the danger of exposure. But for the betel nut girls themselves, crossing their legs in their super mini skirts projects the impression of a luring posture yet affords the least exposure and the most protection from peeping eyes.
  • 7. The timing is strategic here because if the client is satisfied quickly, the session is over and he cannot linger on to demand more service. And if the client do decide to drag on, the girl could always demand that he pay for another session, which will be to her profit.
  • 8. Joan Nestle, A Fragile Union (San Francisco: Cleis P, 1998).
  • 9. Naifei Ding, "Prostitutes, parasites and the house of state feminism," Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 1.2 (Aug. 2000): pp. 305-318.