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Dealing in Desire Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work. by Kimberly Kay Hoang (Author); February ; First.
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Full Name Comment goes here. In the niche markets of HCMC that cater to Western men, masculini- ties are indeed mobilized to privilege an international hegemonic mascu- linity that affirms Western superiority. Masculine distinction in the bars depends heavily on the labor of female sex workers. Through these per- formances, sex workers effectively work together with clients to contest and actively reshape global race-, nation-, and class-based hierarchies.

These masculinities and productive femininities that hinge on male desire are precarious precisely because of the rapid economic transfor- mations occurring in the broader political economy. Consequently, I show that racialized desires, social status, business success, and hope for upward mobility are both realized and shattered in the bars of Ho Chi Minh City. A burgeoning literature examines the plight of women as victims of human trafficking or as forced partici- pants in the global sex industry owing to dire economic conditions.

However, I found that few of the women in my study were forced, duped, or coerced into the sex trade. As far as I could tell, none of the workers I spoke with had been pres- sured by pimps or bar owners to have sex for money against their will.

Harper Lecture - Dealing in Desire: Intimacy and Economic Transactions Featuring Kimberly Kay Hoang

Mommies earned their money through a combination of business profits from the bars, alcohol sales, and tips from the clients. While several scholars critically examine the issue of forced labor and human trafficking, I examine the broader structural conditions that shape the range of choices available to women as they enter the sex industry.

For the women I studied who catered to wealthy local and other Asian businessmen, the sex industry allowed them to escape rural life and move into some of the most lavish spaces in Vietnam. They had all worked in the service economy and in factories, earning less than a hundred U.

Harper Lecture with Kimberly Kay Hoang: Dealing in Desire: Intimacy and Economic Transactions

Sex work provided these women with opportunities to advance economically and to escape exploitative working conditions. Critically, these women were not vic- tims of trafficking. They were free agents who could quit working at any time.


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Nonethe- less, the contemporary sex industry provides sex workers with differing pathways of upward mobility. Finally, people often ask whether the sex workers and clients in my study practiced safe sex. This book is not about their sexual-health practices. However, I will say that the vast majority of men and women in my study indeed used protection. Male clients, moreover, often encouraged safe sexual practices in order to protect their wives and their other girl- friends and lovers in their complex social circles.

These bars include Khong Sao Bar, which caters to wealthy local Vietnamese elites and their Asian business partners; Lavender, which caters to overseas Viet- namese men living in the Vietnamese diaspora; Secrets, which caters to Western transnational businessmen and expatriates; and Naughty Girls, which caters to Western budget travelers.

Between and , I interviewed 56 sex workers and 27 clients.

In total, this book is based on participant obser- vation and in-depth and semistructured interviews with individuals in Vietnam between and In the methodological appendix, I provide a detailed explanation of how I obtained access to each bar. Before soliciting interviews that would delve into some of the most intimate details of their personal lives, I had to become familiar with my subjects.

At Khong Sao, Lavender, and Secrets, I worked as a hostess and a bartender, serving drinks, sitting with clients, singing karaoke, and standing in the lineup as men chose the women to invite to their tables. I diligently wrote field notes each morning before returning to the bar.

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After nine months of this work, which required me to drink alcohol nightly with customers, I decided to scale back. In Naughty Girls, the lowest-status bar, I conducted three to four days of fieldwork each week as an observer rather than as a worker. In all four bars, the first two weeks were dedicated to learning the culture and unspoken rules of each space, the names of my coworkers and regular clients, and recording copious field notes every night.

Once I became a fixture in each bar, I began to systematically conduct infor- mal interviews with my research participants. I prepared and memorized two interview guides, one for clients and one for sex workers, which allowed me to conduct two to three inter- views per night.

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Each interview flowed as an informal conversation that lasted anywhere from two hours to seven hours. I began the interviews with basic background questions about where the participants were from, their occupations, their experiences prior to bar work or arrival in Vietnam, and their recent activities, such as traveling or working in Vietnam.

I then began to ask intimate questions about their private lives, which included marriage and family life, extramarital affairs, and details about their relationships, emotional experiences, expectations, and anxieties about topics such as love, care, and deception. My beloved advisor Raka Ray once told me that every time I pre- sented my work, I needed to make sure to desexualize my own body with suits or dresses that covered most of my skin.

She told me that as an Asian American woman, I could not afford to give a presentation that was undertheorized, because a presentation that lacked theoretical and empirical rigor would allow audience members to ask questions about my positionality, sexualize my body, and ultimately delegitimize my project.


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She was right. I have presented various pieces from this book numerous times in a variety of academic and public contexts. Each time someone asked this thinly coded question, I always wondered if male urban ethnographers were regularly asked if they partook in acts of violence, engaged in drug activity, or participated in sex work with and around their research participants.

Indeed, some of the classic ethnographies of our time have depended on ethnographers developing close and highly intimate relationships with their research subjects. While many of these ethnographers have been explicit about the fact that they did not sell drugs or engage in sex work during their fieldwork, it is often unclear whether the formation of their relationships in the field involved having sex with or doing drugs with their research subjects.

Certain close relationships developed in the field are subject to greater scrutiny than others, depending on the gender, race, and class background of the research subjects and the researcher herself. The types of relationships that I had to develop in the field receive far more scrutiny than the types of relationships that other ethnographers develop, because of my gender and racial-ethnic background as well as those of my research subjects.

Earlier feminists like Sandra Harding, Dorothy Smith, and Patricia Hill Collins called on researchers to reflexively contextualize their unique race, class, and gender standpoints in situating their research.

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By saying that I did not engage in sex work, I would delegitimize the work of many feminist scholars who came before me, like Wendy Chapkis, who did engage in sex work to advance research agendas on women and labor. Distancing myself from sex work would also inhibit feminist scholars emerging after me who might choose to engage in sex work to advance their own research agendas.

I do not believe that having sex for pay is shameful. Men are heroic researchers while women are sexualized objects both in the field and in the academy. In the end, I decided not to disclose whether I engaged in sex work. I have chosen to answer this question with another set of questions of my own: Why is it that when sex moves into the realm of pay that this inti- mate question suddenly becomes appropriate to ask?

[SOC 220] Asian Ascendancy Intertwined with Values in the Diaspora

And why is this question, and others like it, used to scrutinize particular scholars, often scholars of color? For twelve to fourteen hours a day nearly seven days a week, I became engulfed in the Viet- namese sex industry, subjecting myself to submissive performances of femininity and an incredibly powerful male gaze that constructs notions of female desirability. In order to make myself useful in my field sites, I had to do what most ethnographers are afraid to speak of—I had to engage in my own deal- ings with desire. Letting go of all the markers of respectability that I had acquired in the United States as a highly educated woman from prestig- ious universities, I engaged in a deeply embodied ethnography that trans- formed who I was.

This external shift humbled me, brought me both great pain and great joy, and ultimately became the catalyst for an inter- nal shift that altered the narrative of my research.

Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work

The stories of the men and women I interviewed cast a new light on the sex industry and pro- vided me with a deep sense of respect for the men and women whose honesty and friendship led to my greater understanding of the coconsti- tutive relationship between gender and global capital flows. So many of the rich stories that fill these pages came with what I call an embodied cost. Some ethnographies are so deeply embodied that they forever transform the researcher conducting them. Over the course of several years, I learned how to theorize and ask big questions crucial to the formation of this book.

However, I truly found my place in the world through my experiences in the field. As an ethnographer, I entered into a space where I could experiment with different aspects of myself. Each bar required a different kind of embodied engagement, and it was in those spaces where I learned the tremendous power of humility and empathy that enabled me to dig deep within myself and others to pull out the stories that make up the empirical puzzle of this book.

Articles Cited by Co-authors. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 40 4 , , International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 27 2 , , Journal of Asian American Studies 18 2 , , The kaleidoscope of gender: Prisms, patterns, and possibilities, , Perverse Politics? Feminism, Anti-Imperialism, Multiplicity, , Articles 1—20 Show more.