On Kimberly Hoang’s “Dealing in Desire”, and Saving Sex Workers

Kimberly Hoang delves into four niche areas of the Taiwanese sex industry, using them as insight into larger macro-economic shifts within Taiwan and the global economy.  By conducting detailed study in four different hostess bars, Hoang situates the sex work industry within a rich economic environment, highlighting the symbiotic relationship between Ho Chi Min City’s (HCMC) sex work industry and Asia’s rise as a major global player.  The sex work industry in Taiwan from 2006-2010 facilitated the flow foreign capital and overseas remittances into the economy and served as a meeting place to create crucial business ties.  Adding postcolonial theory to the sex work conversation, Hoang shows how gender performances in these bars both affirm and contest Western superiority based on audience.  Despite this wealth of information, the most enduring product of Hoang’s study is the undercurrent that challenges the victimization of sex workers and women in developing countries.

This book is a model ethnography.  Hoang’s arguments are well constructed and supported, her structure and language are clear, and she removes herself from the equation as much as possible, while simultaneously being reflexive and aware of her position.  With the exception of one argument, Hoang accomplishes all she states she will.  Yet despite her well-argued points, the most valuable aspect of this book comes from her personal commentary, particularly in the introduction.  She articulately describes problems faced by female ethnographers and academics, questions the value of self-reflexivity, and challenges narratives of victimization.

Her discussion of “cowboy ethnography” made me reflect on Nikki Jones and Elizabeth Bernstein’s studies, and the gendered differences implicit in how we treat those who study illicit economies—and even the men and women within those economies.  I enjoyed Hoang’s book largely because of how much she removes herself from the story, and inserts herself without inserting her own opinions.  Her reactions have little place in the narrative, which makes for incredibly academic work.  Contrastingly, I found myself critical of Haney, Jones, and Bernstein’s methodologies.  Their personal experiences, reactions, and emotions figured much more in the overall narrative of their works than did Hoang’s.  Perhaps it is simply a difference in approach and perhaps I give Hoang too much credit  for removing herself from the equation, but I appreciate that Hoang largely lets the women speak for themselves and makes no moral claims or impositions [1].

I also appreciate that Hoang questions the idea of self-reflexivity and the importance of contextualizing one’s own location, arguing that it delegitimizes the scholarship of others who approach topics differently.  This is counter to what I am currently taught, where great emphasis is placed on the author’s positionality and the dangers of “speaking for others.”  While these are certainly important issues to consider, it seems to be used to delegitimize scholars who are not scholars of color or a particular gender, and to wildly constrain the issues deemed appropriate for study and address.  Hoang recognizes the limitations in her study, and she is very much aware of her own location, yet she speaks to her own experiences in very delineated sections.  Another aspect that resonates with me is her experience in navigating how to present herself and her research in the realm of academia, and the danger she faces of being labelled as a ‘mesearcher’.

As with any study, Hoang’s research is not flawless.  Of the issues/caveats in this book, the first is for me a personal one.  The danger is that I agree with so much of what Hoang argues that it may keep me from questioning other aspects of her arguments, methodologies, conclusions.  The second issue is that Hoang did not adequately back up her arguments about Western men “reclaiming a sense of failed masculinity.”  That’s not to say I disagree with her statement, but it is bandied about fairly frequently, and without any supporting evidence—an oddity in this book where every other argument is well supported.  There are of course limitations to the data Hoang collected and the women she interacted with, and she largely tells the stories of women who were successful in the industry, which may give an inaccurate portrayal of the Taiwanese sex industry overall.  Nevertheless, her study is not about the workers’ personal lives and the explicit selling of physical relations, it is designed to show how successful bars operated and what their goals were. 

What I appreciate is that Hoang and her respondents articulately explain my own argument regarding Elizabeth Bernstein’s Temporarily Yours, a study of prostitution in San Francisco.  As Westerners, we are approaching global sex work from a particular set of morals (and, importantly, history of colonization).  I believe there is a point at which following the trail of ‘choice’ and ‘economic necessity’ and ‘reification of objectification’ down the rabbit hole simply becomes a goose chase.  What Hoang is arguing above all other things is that we need to stop denying that women in different socio-economic classes have agency.   While we can argue that nobody wants to see themselves as a victim, it is unfair to deny that person’s own narrative.  Indeed, many of the women in Secrets and (particularly) Naught Girls, would call themselves a victim when it suited their narrative within the sphere of catering to Western men. 

My advisor has spoken about his experience attending a well-intentioned display about poverty in South America, “There was this presentation, ‘The Faces of the Oppressed’ and I was like…on these faces are mouths and maybe you should listen to what they’re actually saying.”  The women Hoang studies, and as we have seen, many other sex workers are saying, “I don’t need or want you to save me.”  Living in developing countries and/or in poverty does not somehow create a different species of person.  It does not take away one’s ability to make rational decisions and to work within the constraints they have.  These women absolutely work the system and they know exactly what game they are playing.  I would be more inclined to argue that these women are victims of global ideas of consumption and consumerism than their sex work, and I wonder if our narrative of victimization is a modern form of colonization.

[1] Rather, she does explicitly state that she sees no wrong in their work, but she makes no oppositional claims to her subjects’ own narratives and agency. 


One response to “On Kimberly Hoang’s “Dealing in Desire”, and Saving Sex Workers

  1. Pingback: On Body Politics, Agency, & Outsourcing Surrogacy | anygivensunday·

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