Tag Archives: Antoaneta Tileva

Cosmopolitan Sex Workers: An Interview with Christine Chin

Originally published on The Stoner’s Journal

Professor Christine Chin came to write her ground-breaking book, Cosmopolitan Sex Workers: Women and Migration in a Global City, somewhat reluctantly as sex work a subject she was not initially interested in and one that is fraught with contention in feminist scholar circles.My first book was about domestic workers in Asia; my second was about global cruise ships. Even though I kept hearing about sex workers, I was not interested in conducting research on the topic initially. One of the reasons was that the debate amongst feminists on how to understand this phenomenon was divided between abolitionists and those who felt that sex workers had agency and that it was a valid choice, with the dominant perspective being the abolitionist. I did not want to get into this debate as I felt it was too binary and picking a side was incredibly limiting.”

Dr. Chin instead allowed what was coming in from the field to shape her line of inquiry—for example, news reports of immigration raids were suggesting that not all of the women in the industry had been trafficked. “I started to dig into this somewhat reluctantly, but I also saw how the literature up to this point was so rigid and so…almost morally rarefied; it was very focused on sex trafficking and I felt that there was an unrecognized spectrum of experience that could only be seen by letting the women tell their stories.”
Utilizing an ethnographic method, Dr. Chin interviewed a number of sex workers from all over the world–including Asia, the Middle East, and Russia–living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, shattering  many of the prevailing views on the industry, and turning her research lens on non-trafficked women who willingly migrate to major global metropolises for sex work. Uncovering a wide spectrum of experiences, including the nature of the migration (serial, where women shuttle back and forth between home and a city vs. circular, where the women move within the global cities of a region and then move to another region), whether the workers moved with the aid of a syndicate or independently, and the motivation for their involvement in the industry, Cosmopolitan Sex Workers paints a complex picture of the structural forces of globalization at play and how the women very keenly understand and respond to them.
When I sat down with Dr. Chin to discuss her book, she outlined three of the key findings of Cosmopolitan Sex Workers. Firstly, migration for sex work is being globalized via an interconnected web of global cities that are nodes on this new frontier. For example, there are Senegalese women in Paris and Eastern European women in the Middle East—in other words, the same forces at play as a result of globalization are impacting this industry in predictable ways as well. The clients these women serve also travel to these destinations driven by the same economic motivations. Second, the common assumption that the workers are the “poorest of the poor,” is often not true. Some of the women are college graduates and/or come from middle class families. The women enter the business for a variety of reasons. For example, to assist their families, save money to start a business, get an education abroad, enjoy a certain more consumptive lifestyle, or simply earn income while travelling. These are the same reasons most workers migrate, regardless of their profession. From the women’s perspective, and the reason Dr. Chin prefers to use the term “sex work” rather than “prostitution,” sex work is work.  Dr. Chin underlines the fact that doing this strictly for survival purposes is not always the case; for many of the women, this is a very calculated choice based on a careful consideration of their ability to earn income doing work that is commonly associated with—and available to–migrants, more specifically domestic work or other blue-collar labor. Sadly, the math weighs heavily on the side of sex work, which could earn them something akin to ten times as much as what they could bring in otherwise. Women’s monthly incomes (post-syndicate “taxes”) range between several thousand to tens of thousands of dollars. Thus, the impetus lies somewhere between a familiar, pragmatic strategy and an imperative.

Trafficking map: USA Routes

Sex trafficking USA routes via anti-trafficking organization The Future Group

Finally, Dr. Chin reflects on how neoliberal globalization facilitates the occurrence of the relatively new phenomenon of non-trafficked sex workers. Some of the women contract with syndicates or facilitating groups—one of those syndicates is explored in-depth in the book. Morphing from a traditional Chinese secret society or a triad to a new model of a transnational corporation, it reflects the environment of the global city. Whereas organizations such as this one previous dealt in debt bondage and extortion, the newly “cleaned up” climate of the global cities rendered those feudal vestige industries obsolete, if you will. This is a horizontal organization that conducts a lot of “legitimate” business, such as investing and as a business organization also responds to the needs of its clients. What are those needs, you might ask? Predictably, fair-skinned women are in high demand, as are African women who are perceived to be “exotic” in Europe. To quote one of the members, “they want to make this a five star city; we will give them five star women.” Women who contract with such syndicates pay agreed-upon fees and a percentage of their income in return for syndicate-arrangement of their travel documents, transportation, board and lodging, and personal security.  The spaces for the sex work are very varied as are the hierarchies of what was “in,” in other words: The physical characteristics of the women controlled where they could work and what prices they could command. Most of these women come into the cities under the auspices of either a tourist or a student visa. Though it deserves mentioning that some actually were receiving legitimate educations and not just using the visa status as a cover.

“The political economy of colonialism is not that terribly removed from the political economy of globalization and the sex industry illustrates that these ‘shadow economies’ are not afterthoughts or side effects but something that is inherently built into the system.”

“The political economy of colonialism is not that terribly removed from the political economy of globalization and the sex industry illustrates that these ‘shadow economies’ are not afterthoughts or side effects but something that is inherently built into the system,” Dr. Chin says. This system, in parallel with the same structural forces in place under colonialism, is highly gendered and racialized. Dr. Chin explains, “The book shows the gradations, the nuances of something that was previously thought to be very binary. I wanted to show that the women are responding, and rather astutely so, to structural forces at play. They understand the hypocrisies inherent in the system—the fact that their occupation is morally-condemned, yet at the same time, work such as being a domestic servant is so incredibly low-paying and subjects them to abuse as well.”

The Sectarian Myth: Iraq Ambassador Lukman Faily Speaks On The Situation In Iraq

My article
“The reality in Iraq is very different from that portrayed in the international media,” affirmed the Iraq Ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily in a talk at American University on February 18th. The focus on violence and the identification of sectarianism as the root cause of Iraq’s violence creates what he called a “sectarian meta-narrative,” that is far too simplistic of a paradigm and one that has plagued not just Western media portrayal of the region but also Arab media rhetoric as well. “It is easier to define a country in binary terms; to find simple, sellable elements to hone in on in the media. Violence has long stopped being sectarian in nature since about 2006-2007.” Ambassador Faily defied all the conventions of a typical “ambassador speech,” electing to speak frankly on the many misconceptions surrounding Iraq’s democratic transformation.
“Dictatorship changes the fabric of society.” Upon my request to further expound on this, the Ambassador stated that, “the longer and more ruthless the dictatorship, the longer it takes to shake off that coat, if you will. The state is there for the needs of the dictator so the people no longer associate themselves with the state. In a sense, people dislodge themselves from the state, which is why, for example, we saw the looters when the regime collapsed. The years under Saddam were detrimental to the Iraqi society. People began to associate the sanctions with the US because they were so removed from the state as a concept.” Psychologically, he explained, there is a need for cleansing after living so long in those circumstances. “Dictatorship demoralizes people, it makes for a more inward-looking, self-centered community and the longer it lasts, the more adverse the effect.” Placing Iraq more in the context of the Arab Spring movement, Ambassador Faily described the mindset of the people as “I want change, but I am not sure what the new social contract should look like.” People are after a new social contract, he suggested, but the weak civil society institutions in place, and the total dearth of NGOs and other community organizations, mean that the foundations are still not there and the role of the citizens is still unclear. “This is a young democracy and more people participation is needed.” This also necessitates the need not just political reforms but for social and economic ones as well.

Iraq Ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily and AU Professor Dr. Abdul Aziz Said in a talk at American University on February 18th. ©Toni Ti

Ambassador Faily then offered a very theoretically-rich construct to apply to the state of Iraq—the dichotomy of nation building vs. state building. “People often conflate nation with state, but this is a bit more complicated in Iraq. The state as a concept is very clear, but the definition of what it means to be an Iraqi is evolving.” What is the nation, he asked, especially in a society as heterogeneous as Iraq, where people can define themselves by a plethora of factors such as region/province, religious, or ethnic identity. He outlined several questions, including, “Do we rebuild the national character or the state institutions?” and “Do citizens have a stake in the nation or in the state?”
In addressing the current economic climate in Iraq, the Ambassador stated that the adverse impact of past sanctions was severe damage to the economic infrastructure. The current rate of economic growth is 9-11%, with steady increases in oil production and income levels. Unemployment, however, remains the same due to an over-reliance on oil production. Since oil as an industry is not very labor-intensive, he explained, it employs less than 1% of the population. “The core structure of the economy has to be managed better, with less reliance on subsidizing certain sectors.” Iraq also hopes to maintain a long-term investment relationship with the United States.