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Cosmopolitan Sex Workers

July 23, 2013

Authored by: Dr Christine B. N. Chin, Associate Professor of International Relations, School of International Service, American University, author of Cosmopolitan Sex Workers, available via Oxford Scholarship Online.

 Cosmopolitan Sex Workers: Women and Migration in a Global City, by Christine B.N. Chin
Cosmopolitan Sex Workers analyzes the manner in which women’s transnational migration for sex work has grown in tandem with the rise and expansion of “global cities.” The title foregrounds the presence of women who knowingly migrate for sex work, and in the process, they develop intercultural skills, attitudes and worldviews that help them adapt successfully to contexts in which they are stigmatized by the nature of their work, immigration status and perceived racial-cultural traits.
In global and national discourse, to be sure, the relationship between women, migration and sex work is understood and addressed largely from the perspective of criminality (sex trafficking groups and the victimization of women) or illegality (illegal-immoral migrant women engaged in selling their sexual labour for cash). My book, however, constructs a broader context and demonstrates why the criminality-illegality perspective is so attractive, yet incomplete and it fails to address structural forces that bring about permutations of this relationship. Contemporary economic restructuring processes that give rise to global cities also are strengthening a global business in sex work that caters to local and foreign executives, tourists, businessmen, migrant workers and so forth. This global business encompasses a range of licit and illicit profit-seeking activities and actors, women’s migratory modes, work experiences and outcomes. Within this context, I highlight a lesser acknowledged category of non-trafficked women, and the structures and processes involved in their migration for sex work.

Fieldwork interviews reveal that women from different regions and classes who knowingly migrate for sex work are not among the poorest of the poor—some of them are university graduates and/or come from middle class families. The women do so for diverse reasons, for example from financially assisting family members and saving money to setup a business, to earning income while travelling the world. From the women’s perspective, sex work is work, i.e., they exchange sexual labour in return for income. In fact, the majority of women in this book earn more and are in relatively better work environments than those in authorized jobs such as the live-in domestic, restaurant and factory worker in receiving cities.

While some women migrate with the help of their established personal-social networks, others contract with syndicates or facilitating groups. These groups differ in size, organizational structure, external ties, nature of recruitment strategies (for example, by deception, force or explicit terms of contract) and so forth. The book offers an unprecedented case study of a large Kuala Lumpur-based syndicate (comprising men and women) with extensive transnational ties: it is structured and operates in ways similar to a transnational corporation. Women who contract with such syndicates pay agreed-upon specified fees and a percentage of their weekly income in return for syndicate-arrangement of their travel documents, transportation, board and lodging, personal security, clients, remittance of income and forward journeys to other cities. Depending on the tier of sex work, women’s monthly incomes (post-syndicate “taxes”) range between several thousand to tens of thousands of dollars. Large syndicates with domestic and transnational ties have become key anchors in organizing what can be called a global sex frontier with cities as major nodes. They coordinate loosely-held networks of participants from consulates, state agencies, travel agencies and transportation companies to hotel concierges, policemen, money changers, owners of business establishments and so forth. This brings up important questions, for example, how does the complicity of state and non-state actors affect advocacy for migrant women’s worker and human rights? Given that some migrant women are realizing neoliberal globalization’s promise of free markets (including the free market in commercialized sex work) as the sites from which people are expected to “author” their own destinies, then how might we even begin a discussion on the moral-ethical dimensions of commercialized sex work?
The platform offered by Oxford Scholarship Online provides an e-venue of global reach and scope from which the scholarly community may grapple with complexities and contradictions that characterize transnational migration in general, and women’s migration for sex work in particular. This is a venue that encourages us to identify those who work in the same subject matter, and to share knowledge that possibly can lead to advancements in theoretical and applied research.

Cosmopolitan Sex Workers: Women and Migration in a Global City is available in print and through Oxford Scholarship Online.

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