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  • Response to Section II:Dis-sexuality Sexuality and Dis-Sexuality in the International Regime of Human Rights
  • Sidonie Smith (bio)

I come to the three essays in this section on Sexuality/Dis-Sexuality with my own particular question: How does sexuality and dis-sexuality play in the contemporary regime of human rights with regard to the identities and differences that regime sets in motion? Having just coauthored (with Kay Schaffer) a book on human rights and narrated lives, I am particularly interested in examining the issues that arise when we situate cultural projects within a human-rights framework and within the intersections of rights politics and narrative practices. The following comments do not so much attempt to engage the arguments of these essays as to raise questions about our understanding of the meanings assigned to sexuality and dis-sexuality at this historical conjuncture.

Sue Sun takes us back to the late 1960s for an examination of the politics of representation in the Vietnam War-era sex-education film Where the Girls Are—VD in Southeast Asia. Sun teases out the gendered logics of representation in the management of venereal disease: the threatening and exotic prostitutes of Vietnam, the innocent and faithful young woman left behind in the American home, and the gullible serviceman caught between the snares of excessive sexual excitement and his military duties. Girls exposes how sexual predation became another battleground in America's engagement with the constantly shifting grounds of a guerilla war. (It is tempting to interpret Girls as an explanatory exposé of the increasing impossibility of prosecuting a [End Page 128] successful war in Southeast Asia.) Even in his search for rest and relaxation, the American soldier confronted an "enemy" out to confuse and contaminate him. In the logic of the film, and the logic of a military regime concerned with maximizing the readiness and fighting efficiency of its troops, the sexualized military body is paradoxically fit and unfit, dominant and yet victimized by a maelstrom of desire. Paradoxically, then, in this zone of "hetero-national masculinity," the film must position the United States soldier as "weak" before the onslaught of the inscrutable, wily, and feminine "other," in relation to whom he becomes a "victim."1

Sun suggests that the production of Girls marks a transition to a stance of "cautious engagement" with the economic realities of the militarized sex industry, but that it also projects the enemy's women as objects of contemptuous appropriation and the sex-entertainment industry as a naturalized business of war. And what of the young women enlisted by the early venture capitalists of the Southeast Asian sex trade? The "girls" in Girls do not speak, cannot speak. The Vietnamese women in the sex trade of the 1960s were unable to tell their stories (though a romanticized story would be told about them a decade later when Miss Saigon hit the stage with its droning helicopter and Madame Butterfly tropes). At that point, there was no discourse in the United States or elsewhere through which to understand the profiteering on the sex trade and sex tourism in Southeast Asia as state-sanctioned, organized exploitation of and violence against women, especially impoverished women. Some thirty-five years later, one wonders about the stories that haunt the film's narrative, stories which depict the unspoken cultural subordination of women and their bodies within Vietnamese society and within the zone of United States imperialism and war making.

Twenty-five years after Girls was shot, a pre-Vietnam War generation of women with experience in organized prostitution around military bases began to speak out publicly about their horrifying pasts. They too were enlisted in the sex trade attached to wartime; they too were enlisted in the project of keeping military men fit for battle. They also come from Southeast Asia and jugun ianfu (military comfort women)is the euphemistic term used to refer to them. When the spread of venereal disease threatened the preparedness of the Japanese Imperial Army during the Pacific War, the military hired sex brokers to recruit native girls and women throughout the extensive regions occupied by Japan where a licensed system of prostitution had already been instituted. Though the exact...


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pp. 128-133
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