Love in the sex market

People are brought up to believe that love should be spontaneous, transcendental, consuming, irrational, uncalculating and, especially, that it should not be about money. There is a common belief that commodification inevitably destroys sexual intimacy, which may be the reason why the intersection of sex work and love generates so much confusion and conflict. But who said that one must exclude the other?

In On the move for love, anthropologist Sealing Cheng, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, follows the lives of migrant Filipina entertainers working in nightclubs in South Korea. Focusing on their aspirations for love and a better future, Cheng’s ethnography illuminates the complex relationships these women form with their employers and their clients-boyfriends. She offers an insightful critique of anti-trafficking discourses that see women only as victims and ignore their agency and aspirations.

After almost two decades of researching and reflecting on issues of sex work, one of the most important lessons she learnt was about love. “Yes, these women can find hope and love, friendships and dignity amongst themselves, with their clients, and the Korean club owners,” Cheng says.

“From my field research, I learnt that love could grow out of gratitude, that one could ‘learn to love.’ One way of assessing love could be about how much money is given, or given up, for another person, and that love does not have to be only about one’s own feelings, but also about the well-being and satisfaction of one’s family. These ideas were very different from the ones I grew up with,” she says.

Sealing Cheng started doing research on military prostitution in South Korea in 1998, specifically at what are called R&R (rest and recreation) facilities for US servicemen. She was drawn to the experiences of Korean women working in US military camp towns. But when she arrived, she found out that native women were being replaced by Filipina and ex-Soviet states women in the clubs. At that time, South Korea’s rapid economic growth, combined with the stigma and low pay attached to entertainment work, led to a shortage of Korean women willing to serve American soldiers. Club owners then brought in cheaper labor, predominantly from the Philippines and ex-Soviet states, to fill the vacancies left by Korean women.

Third World women who migrate to engage in military prostitution for US servicemen became a potentially explosive topic then. It was the late 1990s, when concerns about human trafficking were drumming up a resolution at the United Nations––the Palermo Protocol.

“To outsiders and the many feminist scholars and activists who have spoken on the subject before me, I was naturally researching on the violence that militarism, patriarchy, capitalism, and globalization have brought on the women. But in my fieldwork, not a day went by without me talking with the Filipinas and the GIs, as well as to Korean club owners about girlfriends, boyfriends, fights, jealousy, suspicion, and love between the Filipinas and the American soldiers. I was lost for a while between an exploding discourse of human trafficking that the state, global and national NGOs were using to describe women like these Filipinas, and my everyday interactions with them. Yes, they did have to deal with difficult personal and labor conditions, yet most of the women have found hope and love, friendships and dignity amongst themselves, with their clients, and the Korean club owners in their own ways,” Sealing Cheng recalls.

In her view, even though in part these women’s lives fulfill the definition of trafficking––their employers withhold their passports, salaries, and arbitrarily impose penalties––“if we use the framework of human trafficking to understand their lives and presence in the camp towns, presuming their sexual victimhood, and work towards rescuing them and sending them home, we may not only be working against their wishes, but we will also never understand why these women want to stay in the clubs, why they want to meet their GI boyfriends, why they may have sex for free, and why they even talk about love”.

Cheng decided the title of her book ––On the Move for Love –– on the experiences of those migrant Filipina entertainers in South Korea, and started teaching a course on Love and Intimacy to help her think through “love” as a historical and cultural construct, and how much it is embedded in our understanding of gender, sexuality, as well as our understanding of race, class, nation and history.

“It is certainly not my claim that love is the great equalizer that could erase the power differentials between Filipina entertainers and their GI customers. Rather, I try to show that love is an integral aspect of the on-going negotiations in their structurally asymmetrical relationships”.

In response to the common belief that commodification destroys love and sexual intimacy, she argues that a wide variety of interpersonal relations combine sexual and economic activity, from the narrow, short term relations called “sex work,” to the broad, long term relations that we tend to call “households”.

“This belief reduces commodification to a solely rationalist logic and idealizes sexual intimacy as a purely emotional experience. As a modern idea, it buttresses the rise of the notion that family is a safe haven of love and care from the cold and ruthless world outside. Yet we often forget that we engage in plenty of calculated exchange in our private lives, and we invest a great deal of emotions––from attachment, desires, to disgust––in our relationship with commodities.”

To exemplify how the commerce of sex and sexual intimacy do not necessarily exclude each other, Cheng cites Barnard College Professor of Sociology