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  • Healing Labor: Japanese Sex Work in the Gendered Economy by Gabriele Koch
  • Brigitte Steger (bio)
Healing Labor: Japanese Sex Work in the Gendered Economy. By Gabriele Koch. Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 2020. xvi, 230 pages. $90.00, cloth; $28.00, paper.

Gabriele Koch's Healing Labor is a study of the sex industry from the perspective of the women who work within it. In contrast to a widespread acceptance of male consumption of commercial sex as a means of maintaining social order (the underlying assumption being that men have a "natural instinct" for sex that needs to be managed rather than suppressed [p. 25]), Koch observes that women's participation in sex work transgresses widespread norms of respectable feminine behavior and is rarely mentioned or considered (pp. 3, 45–46). The "sexual economy is always also a moral economy" and thus how women talk about themselves is shaped by moral ideologies (p. 74). Koch's focus on sex work exposes the gendered nature of the socioeconomic system in Japan perhaps more clearly and poignantly than many studies of more mainstream workplaces.

The Japanese sex industry operates in a legal gray zone. It is "not illegal for sex industry businesses to operate as long as they do not violate any laws," such as the Anti-Porn Law which forbids selling (but not buying) penile-vaginal intercourse (p. 6). This marginalization makes it easier for the authorities to crack down on sex-related businesses and "keep them in line" (pp. 31–33), but also places the women working in this stigmatized world in a precarious position. The legal situation, as well as the stigma related to sex work, are the reasons why women prefer to call themselves "women who work in the sex industry" rather than "sex workers" (p. 16) and describe themselves as amateurs (shirōto) regardless of their experience and skills (p. 79).

Koch's main argument centers on women's understanding of their work as "healing labor," which they regard as their essential contribution to society, and she contends that most women take pride in their demanding work [End Page 442] of helping men to be "healed." According to sex workers, their customers are ultimately craving to be recognized as hard-working, desirable, and fun to be around—in short, as "being a man." The women see their work as a form of reproductive or nurturing labor that occurs outside the family and combines maternal care with sexual gratification (p. 106).

Iyashi (healing) has been a buzzword in Japan since the 1990s and is used to express a type of new-age spirituality in the muen shakai (a society without connections) of the postbubble recession years. The sex industry has appropriated this idea to frame its services (p. 104). Koch's informants found that customers regard their regular visits as "less a leisure activity than part of a health maintenance regime." During the economic boom years, some companies provided their workers with funds for this purpose, but now men have become responsible for their own healing. By downplaying their work as temporary and amateurish, women are able to render their healing labor more emotionally authentic and effective. In a sense, they naturalize affective labor as the very essence of womanhood, despite it being grounded in deliberate and often exhausting labor (p. 109). In this way, they embody larger shifts in the national political economy and the exclusion of women from the labor market (p. 120). Although healing labor is likened to maternal care, the care that women in the sex industry provide is also very different from that of mothers. Men often buy sexual services because their marriages have grown sexless (p. 117), confirming, from a different perspective, what Tianji Vespera Xie in her study of parenting magazines finds, that although marriage and parenthood are requirements for being considered a mature adult, for women, motherhood is seen as marking the end of womanhood.1

To understand the attraction of the sex industry for women, Koch considers their alternatives in the labor market. Most jobs that do not require higher education are low-status office jobs, monotonous menial work, or jobs in the service industry such as...