Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 23, January 2010
Sex Work, Migration and Trafficking Identity Matters:
Non-Sex Workers Writing About Sex Work

review essay by Elena Jeffreys

  1. Academic writers self-identify particular personal experiences in their non-fictional writing, for the purposes of laying bare their social position as ethnographers, creating a distinction between themselves and the ethnographic subjects of a study, contrasting their own expectations or social experiences with an anecdote of their topic that is typically shocking to a Western non-sex work audience, and maintaining a distance between themselves and the study participants.
  2. I am an Australian sex worker, writing about authors who are not sex workers. Sex work texts portray sex workers as living troubled, conflicted, torturous lives; disrupting social norms facing the consequences of social exclusion and victimhood. The biggest stigmas I face in my life stem from academic writing about my work. In this paper I discuss four texts written by non-sex workers about sex work. The authors share similar life experiences; they are paid to research and write about sex work and were funded by scholarships from academic institutions and/or their Governments to migrate from a Western country for the purpose of studying sex workers. I have not been funded to write this paper, I do so out of my own interest and in the interest of investigating the academic works of non-sex workers.

  3. Cleo Odzer traveled to Thailand to study sex workers in 1988 on a United States National Research Council grant, and wrote a dissertation on her work there.[1] Elaine Jeffreys received an Australian Government scholarship in 1993 to live and work in China, and has based her entire academic career on writing about Chinese sex workers.[2] Tiantian Zheng returned to her home country, China, in 2000, funded by Yale University, to study sex workers for her PhD.[3] Siddharth Kara self funded to visit brothels across the world,[4] writing a book published by Columbia University Press. Proceeds for the book are donated to 'Free The Slaves,' a non-government organisation headed up by Kara. In different ways, each of these authors has journeyed to other places and capitalised on the lives of sex workers by writing, teaching, fundraising and/or working on issues relating to sex work.
  4. In Red Lights, The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China Tiantian Zheng details her class background, sexual experiences, race, gender, age and social standing, and explains her data collection in relation to her own role in the field as a researcher. Cleo Odzer uses the title of her book to clearly position herself as an outsider, Patpong Sisters, An American Woman's View of the Bangkok Sex World, and describes her life, loves, friendships and heartbreak as an American anthropologist in Thailand in the 1980s, writing her entire book (based upon a dissertation) as a personal account of the sex work culture she was studying at the time. Elaine Jeffreys in China, Sex and Prostitution uses the same license to give an intimate knowledge of a sex worker friend, whom she titles 'X.' 'X' likes her job as a sex worker at first, then becomes depressed and indecisive about her work choices, further complicated by regulatory attention from Chinese authorities.[5] Jeffreys uses the shock value of friendship with a sex worker to put a sympathetic and familiarly tragic twist to the sex worker narrative, and then goes on to deconstruct the use of personal experience in an introduction to her academic text.
  5. Jeffreys recognises that using personal anecdotes has a particular role in cross-cultural research work, illuminating to the reader a closeness between the author and the subject, demonstrating that the author has local language skills, enough to build personal relations and take their research work beyond the academic and into the personal.[6]

      …my opening gambit constitutes more than an attempt to claim the intellectual capital that conventionally accrues to practitioners of China studies, it also mimics the realist approach to knowledge that characterises the field. As mentioned earlier, the narrative of my relationship with X does not explain how, or in what ways, the subjects of sanpei and prostitution constitute 'ideal' objects of intellectual endeavor. It simply locates the voice of 'the authentic native' and 'the objective Western scholar' in the same temporal order, and hence anchors the text the seemingly indisputable (as in prediscursive) world of actuality.[7]

  6. Use of personal accounts of authors' friendships with sex workers adds intellectual clout and reputation to the author; this is a dominant mode of academic expression. Jeffreys then derides this approach and argues throughout the text for a re-evaluation of methodology within China studies. She takes the introduction of her book into another direction, reflecting instead on the work of other Western feminists in this field, particularly Gail Hershatter.[8] However the reader is left somewhat perplexed—was the story of 'X' real? Were feelings of sympathy and concern for 'X' simply a tool or were they genuine? Is there any truth in writing about sex workers in China? Jeffreys does not apologise for using 'X' to create academic credibility. She does not refer to 'X' again, or mention the level of consent or involvement 'X' had (if 'X' even exists) in the telling of their own story. She does not delve into personal relationships again throughout the text, denigrating the use of such a tool as academically immature and unsophisticated.
  7. Tiantian Zheng places a personal slant on the entire text of Red Lights. She views her research work through the lens of her own life, her own experiences as a researcher, and her personal friendships with the sex workers she studies. While positioning the 'sex worker' as the protagonist of the manuscript, she generously shares her own ethnic background and how she was discriminated against by her parents when she chose to research, mix with, and dress like the sex workers she lived with for two years. She also describes in detail the sexual morals of her own migrant Chinese family growing up in the US and how it shaped her understanding of sex workers as 'outsiders.' Tiantian Zheng lived a puberty of self harm, shame and confusion about sexuality, at the hands of migrant Chinese parents in a Western American setting.

      My femininity and my sexuality needed to be controlled and policed at all times. My parents even believed that films, DVD's, and television were evil forces that corrupted women. Ever since I was twelve, they had forbidden me to watch TV dramas that involved love stories that could corrupt girls. Even as a mature woman, it was impossible for me to watch a DVD at home. It did not matter how old I was; all that mattered was that I was a woman.[9]

  8. Like Jeffreys, Zheng briefly turns to leading academics on Chinese sex work in the introduction to her book. In agreement with Hershatter and Elaine Jeffreys, Zheng accuses these academics of playing a role in the perpetuation of flimsy unreliable data based on dominant social morality and anti-sex work rhetoric.[10] 'Almost all of them stand with the state on the issue of prostitution and busy themselves with proposing solutions…their work is clearly based on preconceived outcomes for their studies. Their methodology makes arbitrary assumption that no competent social scientist would make.'[11] Zheng thus positions herself outside of mainstream academic studies of sex work, but does continue to reflect on the work of Elaine Jeffreys, Gail Hershatter and Pan Suiming,[12] academics she believes are worth engaging with.
  9. Cleo Odzer was living in Bangkok and writing about sex work on the cusp of new academic interests in the topic—she began her work prior to HIV being embraced as a topic worthy of academic thought, and finished her academic work benefiting from emerging academic HIV rhetoric which eventually gave her research the academic context she needed.[13] As well as befriending sex workers by paying them for information, she was extremely close to a number of cross-cultural couples in Thailand—Thai women with farung (foreigner) boyfriends or husbands. She witnessed successful relationships, marriages, break ups, and Thai women negotiating either ongoing sex work or returning to sex work while maintaining relationships with their farung partners. Amidst this, Cleo fell in love with a Thai man who was also her informant. I propose that she become a default farung client herself, acknowledging that 'Thailand was a paradise for Western women too.'[14]
  10. In marked contrast to the degrees of personal experience and self reflection Odzer and Zhang embrace, and the critical relationship Jeffreys has with personal exposés, Kara chooses not to disclose either gender identity or cultural background in the manuscript Sex Trafficking. The book is told as a 'life altering journey,'[15] however particular details about Kara's social status are withheld from the reader. I read the book imagining Kara a migrant woman of Indian background living in the US. Part way into the text (p. 67), Kara discloses ownership of a US passport that is missing a certain detail: father's name. The reader is not informed why the document is incomplete, and instead Kara's own migratory status remains ambiguous. Kara is male. However he does not recognise his sex as granting him certain privileges as he visits brothel after brothel across the world, and he avoids referring to his masculine privilege and status in the text.
  11. The authors recognise that their works are essentially theorised travel stories. Kara describes his thought processes when deciding how to present his story. 'The first drafts of this book were composed as a narrative journey…This initial approach did not work.'[16] Kara then chose a crusader approach, using the introduction as a space to present his organisation, 'Free the Slaves.' 'Free the Slaves' answers the sex work question by focusing on harsh anti-trafficking measures involving military, police and Kara's very own vigilante group. Kara uses shocking stories of abuse in migratory and non-migratory sex work to illicit sympathy and compassion from the reader, in the form of donations to his non-government organisation, which is discussed in detail throughout the book. His steps to combat sex trafficking are simple:

    1. Read his book.
    2. Donate money to anti-trafficking groups.
    3. Become a 'Free The Slaves' vigilante.
    4. Write letters to Parliamentary representatives in the USA.[17]

  12. Kara's ideology matches the core claims of the international moral crusade movement against sex trafficking, as defined by Ronald Weitzer in the 2007 article 'The Social Construction of Sex Trafficking: Ideology and Institutionalization of a Moral Crusade.'[18] These core claims are: sex work is evil by definition, violence is omnipresent in sex work and sex trafficking, customers and traffickers are the personification of evil, sex workers lack agency, sex work and sex trafficking are inextricably linked, their magnitude is high and has greatly increased in recent years, legalisation would make the situation worse.[19] Kara maintains this approach throughout his work and assumes all interactions he has with migrant sex workers involve trafficking.
  13. None of Kara's solutions include empowering people who are affected by trafficking. His ideas would be summarised by the International Labor Organisation as the most right wing of the 'hard prevention' approaches.[20] Jeffreys and Kara are supporters of criminalisation, raids and forced rescue and are competent crusaders against sex work. Jeffreys, like Weitzer's crusaders, does not recognise the agency of sex workers to self-determination. Odzer and Zheng differ from Kara and Jeffreys in this area—they are supporters of decriminalisation and believe in the agency of sex workers, as detailed by Odzer: 'to me the prostitutes are pioneers in advancing women's autonomy by breaking the mold of suppressed and passive females…defying women's subjugation.'[21] Zhang attributes Jeffreys' lack of command of the Chinese language to her shallow understanding of the benefits of decriminalisation of sex work to sex workers in China, commenting that Jeffreys' 'book is entirely dependent on "translation" of secondary sources, making it appear that these translations reflect reality in China.' Both Odzer and Zheng make reference to sex workers self organising, whereas Jeffreys and Kara are at pains to ignore or denigrate such ideas.
  14. Zheng and Odzer explore the cultural and social context within which migrant sex workers work, in Dalian (China) and Bangkok (Thailand), and place sex work within a broader economic context, thus understanding the benefits sex workers receive from engaging in sex work. This is lacking in Kara's work, and texts on sex work generally. Zheng describes the historic cross-cultural, military and economic power struggles that have occurred in the Chinese town of Dalian and made it what it is today. Odzer speaks of her love for Thailand and the difficulties faced by migrants and women, and then places migrant sex workers within that broader context. Zheng similarly explores both the home identity and the work identity of the migrant sex workers of Dalian, concluding (as Odzer does) that migrant sex work allows these particular women to create economic and class pathways for their lives that other occupations would not allow. Kara does not recognise this.
  15. Kara views migrant sex workers as victims and clients as abusers, saying he does not believe most males condone 'these vulgarities.'[22] Statistics do not support his claim. Almost one in six Australian men admit to sex with sex workers.[23] Odzer sympathises with the (mostly Western) clients in her study of sex work in Bangkok, as lovers of beautiful Thai women. Zheng describes the men who have sex with sex workers as participating in the performance of masculinity in Dalian.
  16. Zheng painstakingly explores the link between masculine sexuality and the military-industrial complex in Dalian. In 'Turning in the Grain: Sex and the Modern Man,' she proposes that the clients in her participant observation research view sex work as representing the hyper femininity of the market reform in Dalian; sex work is seen as part of capitalism, a product of the social transition that would not exist in a socialist state. The men in Zheng's study do not believe the rhetoric of socialism, and rebel by spending time, money and 'liang' (grain, or semen) with sex workers as a way of performing their masculinity in post-socialist China.[24] Zheng proposes that it is too simplistic to conclude, as Pan Suimin did, that clients only see sex workers for reasons of sexual pleasure. Rather the Chinese men in Dalian see sex workers as a foil to impotence and proof of their strength against China's condemnation of promiscuity.[25] Participants of sex work; clients and workers, are struggling against dominant social conditioning.
  17. Other theories of Pan Suiming's are backed up by Zheng's research, particularly concerning client/sex worker relationships: 'The hostesses in my study rejected romance as nothing more than a vehicle for men's sexual exploitation of women, and they insisted that romance obscures its patriarchal characteristics by attributing impossible virtue to women and confining them to a narrow sphere of behavior.'[26] Zheng positions this as causing emotional pain and self-harm tendencies due to feelings of loss for the sex workers who are not in long term relationships. Or is it a powerful display of body discipline? Zheng observes:

      As in America, a common stereotype of women in China is that they are weak and emotional while men are cool and rational. Women live for love and men live for work. Veteran hostesses are not fooled by this stereotype.[27]

  18. Sex workers in Dalian embody their own cultural space, using body discipline and body modification as a uniform; tattoos, eyelash extentions, high heels, high fashion, and use their sex work status to define themselves as different to their rural poor backgrounds.[28] Zheng describes migrant sex workers as using sex work to access social and visible consumption as a form of resistance from the patriarchal state and cultural history of Dalian; not for the benefit of the client, but for the class benefit of the sex workers themselves.[29] Migrant sex workers in Dalian become part of the 'nuevo riche' by being conspicuous in their consumption compared to their established class,[30] and then returning with a high profile back to their home towns. Sex workers' families do not acknowledge the source of the money, although their conspicuous wealth buys a degree of safety from criticism by their family. Odzer relates similar stories of home comings for migrant sex workers in Thailand in the late 1980s.
  19. Migrant sex workers in these studies use their migrant status as a way to get ahead in sex work. Migrant sex workers in Dalian utilise their heritage as a poverty narrative to maximise their profit from clients, performing a 'Cinderella' role to the client's 'Prince Charming.'[31] Acknowledging the mainstream position of women in society, migrant sex workers play the Cinderella role to make more money as a hostess. Zheng is firm that this is a performance, and Odzer observes this in her research as well. Paying tribute to Wendy Chapkis' concept of 'emotional labour,' Zheng contends that sex work is not a fractured identity, but rather a conscious performance. Reevaluating right and wrong, migrant sex workers in Zheng's Dalian research 'played on the stereotype of a poor, rural, vulnerable women to entice the clients to be their "saviours".'[32] Stories of rape or sexual abuse are told to clients as an explanation of their 'tragic existence,' inviting the client to become the 'masculine hero' through 'reforming' a 'naïve and transgressive rural girl.'[33]
  20. This understanding of the performance of sex work roles is not recognised in any way by Kara, who is regularly an audience of non-consensual sex worker performances as he enters into brothel workspaces and attempts to save migrant sex workers from their work. Kara's masculine identity is based upon his ability to rescue sex workers by treating them as objects of the military-industrial complex. Kara performs prince charming for the migrant sex workers he meets in brothels, and instead of paying booking by booking is paying his dues through the 'Free the Slaves' organisation. His organisation grants him a closeness and intimacy with sex workers by redeeming them into rescued victims and positioning himself as part of the mechanism that will save them.
  21. Kara positions sex workers as victims to be saved, of concern only to law enforcement or vigilantes who are expected to 'rescue' them. Elaine Jeffreys poses sex workers as a political conundrum, too impossible for social inclusion and too oppressed for self organising or empowerment. Does Zheng draw the connection between her struggles as a Chinese migrant woman and the political cause of Chinese migrant sex workers? 'Like the hostesses, I continue to be a filial daughter. Unlike the hostesses, I have to live with the contradiction between my understanding and my feelings.'[34] Sex work is an avenue to live your life on a chosen path, different to that chosen by society. Odzer critically celebrates this through her work, Zheng openly acknowledges this, Kara and Jeffreys are antithetic to these concepts, to them sex workers are social subjects, not social leaders.
  22. There is one question of importance for all four authors that sex workers will be asking— why are they researching sex work? Perhaps this is best answered by Tianyian Zheng's mother, who said to Zheng in a moment of abuse and denigration 'you are a scholar, not a prostitute.'[35] In the same way as it is a choice to be a sex worker, it is a choice by these academics to occupy the social position of researcher, friend, helper or rescuer.
  23. Odzer and Zhang answer this question through detailing their friendships and relationships with sex workers and the sex industry. Jeffreys describes at least one friendship ('X') but leaves the reader wondering if this was real or imagined. Kara's masculinity is predicated on second hand stories of slavery, forced marriage, abduction, exploitation, catatonic trances, trafficking, re-trafficking, women who are 'hunched and sallow despite layers of make-up,'[36] and with 'meek voice and turned down eyes'[37] and concludes his book with a story of an individual who has been stabbed in the head with scissors, who is not a sex worker but who has suffered the 'darkest cruelties of human kind.'[38] Kara, and the reader, can save every victim in the world, starting with sex workers. The mere existence of sex workers allows researchers and consumers of research to be exalted. As a sex worker reading these four books I found this to be evident, particularly in the work of Kara and Jeffreys. These concepts are explored in historic detail by Laura Agustin in her groundbreaking text Sex at the Margins.[39] Non-sex workers gain status by claiming to help sex workers, even if sex workers themselves do not want help or benefit from the research.


    [1] Cleo Odzer, Patpong Sisters: An American Woman's View of the Bangkok Sex World, New York: Arcade Publishing, 1994, ISBN: 978-1559703727, 313 pp., referencing pp. 10 and 307.

    [2] Elaine Jeffreys, China, Sex and Prostitution, New York: Routledge, 2004, ISBN: 978-0415318631, 232 pp, referencing p. 1.

    [3] Tiantian Zheng, Red Lights, The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2009, ISBN: 978-0816659036, 304 pp. referencing p. 17.

    [4] Siddharth Kara, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-231-13961-8, 320 pp., 26 illus., referencing p. xii.

    [5] Jeffreys, China, Sex and Prostitution, p. 2.

    [6] Jeffreys, China, Sex and Prostitution, p. 4.

    [7] Jeffreys, China, Sex and Prostitution, p. 6.

    [8] Jeffreys, China, Sex and Prostitution, pp. 9–18.

    [9] Zheng, Red Light Rights, p. 18.

    [10] Zheng, Red Light Rights, p. 25.

    [11] Zheng, Red Light Rights, p. 25.

    [12] Jeffreys, China, Sex and Prostitution, pp. 129–30 and pp. 217–18.

    [13] Odzer, Patpong Sisters, p. 307.

    [14] Odzer, Patpong Sisters, p. 305.

    [15] Kara, Sex Trafficking, p. ix.

    [16] Kara, Sex Trafficking, p. xiv.

    [17] Kara, Sex Trafficking, pp. 43–44.

    [18] Ronald Weitzer, 'The social construction of sex trafficking: ideology and institutionalization of a moral crusade,' in Politics Society, no. 35, (2007):447–76.

    [19] Ronald Weitzer, 'The Social Construction of Sex Trafficking,' pp. 451–57.

    [20] Anders Lisborg, 'Combatting Trafficking & Labour Exploitation – ILO Responses and Lessons from South-East Asia,' Presentation to the Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra, 24 June 2008, Slide 34.

    [21] Odzer, Patpong Sisters, p. 309.

    [22] Kara, Sex Trafficking, p. 33.

    [23] Juliet Richters, Andrew E Grulich, Richard O. de Visser, Anthony M.A. Smith and Chris E. Rissel, 'Experiences of commercial sex in a representative sample of adults,' in Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, vol. 27, no 2 (2003):191–97, p. 191.

    [24] Zheng, Red Light Rights, pp. 105–45

    [25] Zheng, Red Light Rights, pp. 130–132.

    [26] Zheng, Red Light Rights, p. 231.

    [27] Zheng, Red Light Rights, p. 231.

    [28] Zheng, Red Light Rights, p. 174.

    [29] Zheng, Red Light Rights, p. 176.

    [30] Zheng, Red Light Rights, p. 191.

    [31] Zheng, Red Light Rights, p. 234.

    [32] Zheng, Red Light Rights, p. 234.

    [33] Zheng, Red Light Rights, pp. 234–35.

    [34] Zheng, Red Light Rights, p. 243.

    [35] Zheng, Red Light Rights, p. 18.

    [36] Kara, Sex Trafficking, p. 120.

    [37] Kara, Sex Trafficking, p. 135.

    [38] Kara, Sex Trafficking, pp. 217–18.

    [39] Laura María Agustín, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, London: Zed Books, 2007.


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