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2003-06-04 IGS Evening Seminar, Ochanomizu University, Tokyo, Japan
「Gender/Sexuality Troubles」—II

Self-Empowerment and Professional Performativity in Sex Work[1]
(Or, Why Feminists Are Unable to Read Sex Workers)

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

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 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 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 examples.

First 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 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 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,[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 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 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.[6]  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 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.

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 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.

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, other sex workers included.

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.


[1] The present research took place between October 1998 and August 1999.  An earlier and much longer Chinese version of the present paper is published in Taiwan: A Radical Quarterly in Social Studies 41 (March 2001): 1-52, while a shorter English version is published in InterAsia Cultural Studies 2 (Aug. 2000): 283-299.  The present paper is a reworking of all of the above.

[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 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): 305 – 318.

★☆ 特典:Discussions講座現場實錄 ★☆