In her book Illicit Flirtations, Rhacel Parrenas provides us with cutting edge, systematic, and empirical research on Filipina migrant hostesses— the women the U.S. government called the largest group of “trafficked” persons in the world in its 2004 and 2005 Trafficking in Persons Reports. Illicit Flirtations challenges this simplistic long-distance assessment. It presents the nuances, differences, struggles and hopes of Filipina women working in Japan as bar hostesses. In 2005, Parrenas moved to Japan to conduct participant observations by working as a hostess in a bar for several months. She also conducted interviews with a diverse sample of female and transgender hostess workers in a wide range of areas in Tokyo from upscale to lower-classed venues.
Her on-the-ground research method is rarely seen in the world of human trafficking research even though it is crucial to understand the lives of migrant workers and trafficked persons. It allows the researcher to gain rapport and develop a relationship with women in order to unpack the nuanced and complex relations existing between the migrant worker, the club owners, the broker agencies, and talent managers in both the sending and receiving countries.
As a result of her extensive research, Parrenas cautions researchers and activists against sweeping generalizations of human trafficking. She acknowledges that there are two sides to the debate on human trafficking, with the anti-prostitution feminists and advocates on one side and the sex worker rights feminists and advocates on the other. Parrenas dismantles this binary framework and calls for a more nuanced understanding of the complex dynamics of coercion and choice, based on her understanding of the lives of Filipina hostesses in Japan.
Parrenas asserts that not all women are trafficked or forced into sex work – yet the women are not completely free of labor exploitation either. Rather Filipina migrant hostesses inhabit a middle zone between human trafficking and migrant labor, where they are exploited but not held in forced labor. They enter this zone that she describes as indentured mobility— a process of labor migration that results in both progress (improving their economic opportunities) and subjugation (submitting to exploitative working conditions). This highlights the tensions between the “financial gains afforded by labor migration that come at the expense of their freedoms” (pg. 7). For example, women may choose to enter into hostess work; however, they do so by submitting themselves to the structural conditions that bind them migrant brokers, employers, and possible criminalization.
Parrenas pushes us to think about the conscious decisions that women make as they willingly migrate and enter into hostess work while she simultaneously refuses to dismiss their vulnerability as migrants and women. The migrant Filipinas she worked with did not see themselves as trafficked women. That is, they were not kidnapped, sold, or forced into the sex industry. Rather, they willingly entered hostess work knowing that they would give up some basic freedoms because they felt that hostess work was less exploitative than domestic work.
This innovative approach pushes researchers, policy makers, and state officials to look beyond the sensationalized stories of the media and into the multi-layered set of morals in gendered and sexualized hierarchies that shape migrant experiences. Rather than looking at the moral views that society places on the act of selling one’s body for money, Parrenas examines the subjective moral dilemmas of hostess workers who do not always engage in sex work.
She argues that Filipina migrant hostesses can be placed into three groupings of moral conservatives, amoralists, and moral in-betweeners. Moral conservatives are women who believe that the direct purchase of sex for money is wrong and sinful. These women were rare and are also more likely to get sent back to the Phillipines. Amoralists do not believe that commercial sex in immoral and as such they engage in commercial sex work inside and outside of the club. The moral standards of what Parrenas calls in-betweeners are neither morally conservative nor amoralistic.
Hostess workers engage in relations with their clients that encompass a wide range of principles concerning the intersections of sex and money (p. 158). Some maintain strict moral boundaries around sex with their clients, while others accept the use of eroticism at work, as they flirt and engage in varying degrees of intimacy with their customers. However, in order to become a long-term legal resident in Japan, Filipina migrants must become sexual citizens. That is, in order to become a Japanese citizen they must engage in sexual relations with a Japanese citizen as a wife or bear the children of a Japanese citizen. This privileges heterosexual relations making legal citizenship virtually impossible for transgender hostess workers.
In the second half of the book, Parrenas does what no other scholar has been able to accomplish – to bring the literature on immigration, migration, and sex work into conversation with one another. Through her empirical data she brilliantly examines the circulatory migration patterns of temporary Filipina migrants and those who settle permanently in Japan. She examines how different patterns of migration lead to a range of vulnerabilities, as women have to negotiate their different relations with their Japanese husbands, brokers, and bar owners. For example, undocumented migrant workers who fear deportation live in fear of the police and immigration authorities. Moreover, Parrenas brilliantly sheds light on a group of women who live mostly isolated lives as visa over stayers. Bound between home and work these women are limited their geographic mobility, thereby, rendering them invisible in the legal sphere and thus vulnerable to exploitation and enslavement by their employers (p. 232).
As government organizations, NGO’s, and policy makers provide “solutions” to the problem of human trafficking, we need to find better ways to measure the problem and think through the complex layers involved around issues of labor and migration. Parrenas’ book is one of the first to provide us with a systematic analysis of the migrant hostess workers. Importantly, Parrenas asserts that “trafficked women” are not always victims who need to be saved. Nevertheless, as migrant workers they face severe structural constraints.
Rather than eliminating the women’s opportunity to earn a living as hostesses, Parrenas, along with other sex workers rights activists, urges policy makers as well as the US State Department to disentangle anti-trafficking ventures and anti-prostitution efforts in order to “ensure the independent migration of women.” Most importantly, she argues that we must acknowledge the will of migrant workers to choose to engage in sex work. In addition, she suggests that solutions to workers subjugation should be geared towards ensuring workers independent labor migration stating, “if migration is indeed liberating and empowering, then the near eradication of migration flow of hostesses from the Philippines to Japan threatens female empowerment” (p. 272). We must work towards improving their labor conditions as well as their ability to move freely across international borders by recognizing hostess workers as labor migrations rather than as “trafficked victims” in need of “rescue.”
This was a brilliant book and a must read for those interested in issues of human trafficking, gender, labor, migration, and citizenship.
Kimberly Kay Hoang is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at Rice University in the Poverty, Justice, and Human Capabilities Program at the Center for Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. She also serves on the advisory board for the Chao Center for Asian Studies at Rice University. She will join the faculty in the Department of Sociology at Boston College in 2013. Her areas of research include gender, migration, globalization, and political economy. She is most recently the author of, “She’s Not a Low Class Dirty Girl!: Sex Work in Ho Chi Minh City,” published by the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.