- Sexual Labor and the Transnational Sphere
Studies of prostitution conducted in the 1980s focused on state policies to regulate prostitutes and police actions to control sexual commerce. More recently, the question of state regulation has ceded ground to analyses of women’s activity within sexual labor and the culture, politics, and economics related to prostitution. Feminist theories about women’s work have also provoked scholars to examine prostitution as labor in relation to patriarchy or military authority.1 The works under review here represent new approaches to interrogating how sex work is understood as labor. They also investigate the influence of the United States, its army, and its allies on systems of prostitution. Each work addresses the expanding extraterritorial authority of the United States military over women’s livelihoods and sexuality. Sealing Cheng’s ethnographic study provides powerful insights into Filipina women’s motivations for engaging in sex work in South Korea. Contributions to Maria Höhn and Seungsook Moon’s edited volume also interpret women’s decisions to engage in sex work, and how U.S. authority has influenced relationships, interpretations of masculinity, and defense work. Sarah Kovner’s study of prostitution in post-World War II Japan explores the degree to which Japanese prostitutes were identified as a source of Japanese shame and a symbol of defeat. Kovner’s book in particular articulates the extent of American military and political authority over prostitution and sex work in the transnational sphere.
In her fascinating study of Filipina women who provided sexual entertainment to U.S. military personnel, Cheng argues that Filipina sex workers followed well-established migratory labor patterns between the [End Page 187] Philippines and South Korea as “hopeful” laborers rather than as the victims of the international sex trade. She takes issue with studies of sexual commerce that have focused exclusively on women as sources of entertainment, cheap sexual labor, aliens to control, or as part of nongovernmental organizations’ statistics. An ethnographer, Cheng interviewed Filipina sex workers to understand the “lived realities” of their work in South Korea’s entertainment industry, revealing how the human desire for stability and love influenced migration patterns and work habits. Her book might be interpreted as the outlier among the three presented here because of its focus on women’s relationship patterns. This would be unfortunate: it is an excellent contribution to all fields of prostitution studies as it emphasizes women’s volition to engage in sex work rather than their victimization.
Cheng begins by recounting the biographies of seven Filipinas who escaped poor working conditions in a South Korean sex club, using negotiations between them and club owners to highlight the complexities of migrant labor. She argues that we should understand the Filipinas’ work in gijichon (military base villages) as part of their desire to find a better future and that individuals who traveled to South Korea for work in the sex or entertainment industry existed in a state “where they are marginalized and stigmatized, yet hopeful and agentive” (5). By avoiding a binary understanding of prostitution that focuses on aggressors versus victims, or consent versus force, Cheng demonstrates that migrant sex workers expressed agency and remained in control of their lives, despite the demands of their work. Although migrant women had a limited ability to protect their rights as workers and may have been exploited and abused by employers, those who aspired to find love or migrated to other locations discovered opportunities to subvert the controls placed on their lives at work. Because defining Filipina sex workers in terms of sexuality or victimhood...