A Review

[by Elinor May Cruz

]

The article, in an attempt to make a contribution to the hitherto uncharted terrain of cybersex research, comes at a time when much needs to be heard and understood about the realities of Adult/Asian Cam Models (ACMs). This is in view of the Supreme Court’s recent decision on the constitutionality of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 and the consequences of said decision on the lives and labors of those who benefit from ICTs, through legal or illegal means. The authors, in this academic endeavor, are thus taken to task to provide, to the best of their abilities and reflexivities, narratives that come close and do justice to the narratives of ACMs themselves—narratives that have been cast aside by prevailing techno-legalist and moralist discourses.

The article begins by laying down the analytical path diverging on the dichotomy of choice and necessity in existing sex work research. It gives a discussion of the online and offline conduct of the research and presents findings to cast light on the women who work as ACMs; how the ACM industry works; and the notions of agency and trafficking in this emergent form of work.

Based on the findings, the authors make the following interrelated claims. First, that “ACM-ing” is a form of work that is distinct from sex work. This is because the use of technology obviates the risks common to the latter: the lack of physical sexual contact, unwanted pregnancies, STDs, etc. Second, that ACM-ing enables the women to “de-objectify” themselves by cultivating personal relationships with their customers. This sets apart their identities from sex workers in their construction of the self as performer, worker, or friend. The crux of these two claims is that technology, as enabling mechanism in ACM work, has allowed for the ACMs’ denial of what they do as sex work.[i]

The research is novel in that it has both online and offline components in its research design. The main author, or so it appears to be, has carried out observations, participant-observations, and “ad hoc cyber interviews” in one chat room site for an extensive period of time. The main author also met several of the ACMs in person, gained access to their workplace, and even met their bosses, which gave him an insider’s knowledge to an otherwise inaccessible phenomenon.[ii] While the authors have provided a substantive discussion of the methodology, the first question that came to my mind is: “how did the authors’ reflexivities come into play throughout the research, as white (maybe applicable only to the main author) males—the typical profile of ACM customers?” Transparency of researcher positionality may shed light on this fundamental question. How did the authors arrive at this topic? How did they craft the research design? How did they imagine the contribution of their research to knowledge production on this pervasive yet invisible phenomenon?

The discussion of methodology is critical to literature on cybersex research, especially on how technology is increasingly calling for “new sets of skills and data collection methods,” as pointed by the authors. There was mention that “the study opened up all kinds of potential for mis-communication.” What were these instances? How did they conduct the research in a “sexually charged environment”? How did the researchers steer exchanges when “read as (potential) sexual encounters by participants”? If possible, excerpts of the chat transcripts would be insightful, provided that privacy of the ACMs is upheld.

A key ethical concern in line with the call for transparency is the inclusion of screenshots of the ACMs in the article. How do these images contribute to new knowledge on the realities of the ACMs, save for a reproduction of what is readily accessible online? Furthermore, was informed consent obtained, especially for screenshots of individual ACMs? How?[iii]

Instead of an outright defensive stance,[iv] transparency would help build on the stepping stones laid out in the conduct of the research to craft new and requisite ethical methodologies in cybersex research. This applies to all researchers with the daunting task of knowledge production. It especially puts the pressure on those who “do not just toe the line but dare to cross it”, as the authors averred.[v]

The practices of de-objectification in ACM work make for a rich source of alternative narratives, as opposed to sensationalized exposés found in mainsteam media. A reduction of ACM work to merely sexual activities would have failed to capture the varied experiences of ACMs—in establishing genuine connections and relationships of empathy, as well as hoping for better life chances through the use of technology. Yet I hope the authors would reconsider devoting more analysis to the sexual domain of ACM work, as this remains a potent source to draw from on how ACMs have actively and creatively engaged the technology—the manipulative strategies they employ to negotiate their autonomy and privacy, for instance. To leave out the sexual domain, a domain highly vulnerable to exploitation but nevertheless also a site where resistance can be strongly played out, would be to discount how technology has facilitated “the revolt of the sexual body” (Foucault 57) or the materialization of power in the ACMs’ labouring bodies. In the same vein, we have posited in a different research that cybersex can be a site where “systems and relations of power…are generated, managed, re-appropriated and resisted” (Clough et al quoted in Cruz and Sajo n.d.), and the sexual domain proved to be most contentious.

A similar point that merits further analysis is the authors’ use of the trope “noli me tangere” (touch me not). Technology has not made the power-laden notion of touch absent. This would be to reduce ACM work to merely its anti-thesis, where there is no physical sexual contact. Touch it it remains a part of cybersex work, of the product being sold. Customers can “touch” ACMs through text (chats), voice (verbal requests/instructions), even in the realm of fantasies/imaginings, and it can go both ways. An ACM can touch herself and this affects the customer and her own body.[vi] The power-laden notion of touch is thus one sexual dimension to ACM work that can enrich views on how ACMs negotiate their agency through technology. A reduction of the incorporeality of ACM work to “noli me tangere” discounts how technology transforms the notion of touch as well as other sexual dimensions of ACM work, which ACMs have creatively used to their advantage.[vii]

Yet we should not romanticize technology either. In positing cybersex work as a form of affective labor, in the same research, cybersex work includes both narratives of agency and oppression to account for ways in which individuals labor in digital capitalism. While our research showed individuals negotiating their agency in cybersex work—turning the tables on manipulation and deception; repositioning the gaze; as well as the creation of monetary and non-monetary values for themselves and their families—the autonomy afforded by technology to cybersex workers has been bound by new and intense forms of surveillance and control online and offline. No longer limited to sexual exploitation, cybersex work has become subsumed under a biopolitics of “life-itself” (Clough quoted in Cruz and Sajo n.d.), that is, risks to the bodies and subjectivities of the cybersex workers encompassing their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. How the notion of agency measures up in the article thus becomes problematic and may need to be revisited in terms of how the technology has enabled conditions of possibilities, of new forms of oppressions and negotiations.

I reckon that one possible reason the authors failed to capture this is the analytical decision to belabor instead questions of whether or not ACM-ing is pornography, prostitution, trafficking, as well as, whether or not the ACMs are exhibitionists, strippers, trafficked pornographers, prostitutes, digital prostitutes, even puta, etc. This almost immediately circumscribes the analysis of the ACM phenomenon into merely what it is not instead of accounting for its complexities through the use of technology. Technology after all is what makes ACM-ing distinct from these other forms of activities, and to conflate the experience of ACMs with the above ignores how technology in ACM work has made possible these new forms of oppression. The authors may want to revisit notions of empowerment in ACM-ing in the making of the following dangerous claims: “Where is non-choice in all this? And where is the ‘slavery’ or ‘forced labor’ if the ACMs are getting paid? And where is the ‘prostitution’ or even the ‘pornography’ which Philippine law has not yet defined?” These claims are, to say the least, counterproductive in understanding ACM-ing and tends to gloss over the experiences of ACMs. The statements that ACM work is “not really a difficult job” tends to dangerously homogenize the ACMs’ experience. In our own research, we have come to view cybersex workers as embodying the impositions forced on them by the contradictions of state rhetoric of an ICT-led development. One cybersex worker’s statement “Wala naman akong tinatapakan” gives a glimpse of cybersex workers’ embodiment of foreign and often forceful impositions on their own desires in the work that they do. Looking at the big picture, structural conditions have pre-empted and reduced the workers’ potentialities to service work, and the authors’ celebratory and limited view of technology does not open to scrutiny these conditions that brought about cybersex in the first place—and even risks promoting the status quo. To wit:

Indeed, if we are to agree that sex-work is work, and consider what may be poor/better/best work for young unskilled girls, then prostitution may well be better, at least in terms of providing more money, excitement, opportunity to travel or to meet a foreigner who may be a future spouse and the gurls may have almost no direct supervision; but it comes at a moral, social and possible health costs. Perhaps then what is “best” is being a digital “sex-worker,” but without many of the risks of prostitution.

At this point, there is danger in deciding what is best for the ACMs. The goal of the article it seems has been lost on

  1. answering whether ACM-ing is pornography, trafficking, and/or prostitution, or if ACM gurls are exhibitionists, trafficked pornographers, and/or (digital) prostitutes; and
  2. arriving at a one-size-fits-all recommendation on what is best for ACMs.

Where there is a glaring lack of knowledgeable sources on ACM work, it may be more prudent to serve as a platform where their own voices can be heard instead. Furthermore, to cast ACMs as “digital prostitutes” seems unethical, in view of their stand at the onset, as evidenced in the article—that they do not see themselves as prostitutes. The question “so what if ACMs are prostitutes?” confounds the issue all the more.[viii]

The authors may choose to further reflect on the following points: The authors, in navigating the online environment where ACMs work, described the hundreds of gallery thumbnails showcasing the ACMs, with Filipinas making up the majority of the gallery. Instead of presenting this as a given, the authors could have expounded on why this is the case. Why are ACMs predominantly Filipinas, despite the “Asian” designation? Moreover, in view of the insider’s perspective the authors were able to obtain, how can we make sense of the ACMs’ studio settings, aside from being “signifiers of the erotic and feminine”? How can we bring to the surface hidden power structures hinted at by the different working arrangements of ACMs the authors have witnessed for themselves: working for a boss in studio-type arrangements and working for own aunt in home-based arrangements? Finally, citation of a dated prosecution of porn stars abroad seems misplaced. How do the authors recontextualize ACM work from the purview of the new cybercrime law?[ix]

To end, the preceding paragraphs have, in essence, been inquiries to extend and possibly rethink the authors’ insights. The goal of the article, at the onset seemed simple: to show why ACMs do not view ACM-ing as sex work and how this view enables their self-determination through the use of technology. This proved problematic when using conventional optics applied to issues of prostitution, pornography, trafficking, etc. I hope the authors are willing to revisit what I can imagine to be a voluminous amount of data to draw on what the ACMs have to say about their experiences in this largely unexplored phenomenon. In the process, I hope the authors remain cognizant of the impact of their research, especially for the ACMs who remain highly vulnerable to distorted views. To discursively contribute to their further marginalization would attenuate, even cancel out, the research’s potential contribution to cybersex research.

WORKS CITED

  • Cruz, Elinor May, and Trina Joyce Sajo. “Cybersex as Affective Labor: The Case of the Cybersex Phenomenon in the Philippines.” (n.d.): n. pag. Print.
  • Foucault, Michel, and Colin Gordon. Power/knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon, 1980. Print.

[i]Words in quotes are words and/or concepts drawn directly from the article, unless otherwise stated.

[ii]It would seem to be the case that the main author has largely drawn from his 2010 publication titled Asian Cam Models: Digital virtual virgin prostitutes? This needs to be mentioned in the article as well as the book publication’s distinctiveness, if any.

[iii]Arguably, the reproduction of these images serves the perpetuation of sexualized images of Filipino women in cyberspace.

[iv]The methodology section oftentimes reads as if the authors are defending their conduct of the research.

[v]One minor comment is for the authors to show consistency in the discussion of the methodology. Interviews of non-ACMs and of a police informant cited in the article were not discussed in the methodology section.

[vi] In the same study I co-researched, where we framed cybersex work as a form of affective labor, we posited that affect encompasses thinking and feeling states of cybersex workers and customers—from imagination, attraction, desires, fantasies to visceral experiences such as arousal and orgasm (Cruz and Sajo forthcoming). In the same study, I remember a transgender cybersex worker vividly “feeling” the touch of her customers and this makes the cybersex experience “real” for her despite or more so because of the lack of physical sexual contact.

[vii]The use of the trope “noli me tangere” as well as “puta” in the article seem anachronistic as well.

[viii]I would have liked to have read more about who the ACMs are instead and how they make sense of the work that they do. Antithetical definitions make for a poor substitute. The article made me wonder why the authors did not use direct quotes from the interviews with the ACMs themselves in the first place. Similarly, the analysis on why ACMs use “gurls” would seem stronger if founded on/contextualized from a quote coming from the ACMs themselves. Did it come from them? Finally, I would like to call the authors’ attention that to refer to a participant as “naïve” seems uncalled for. Instead of singling out a participant, the authors could have reflected on her predicament on the requisite performance of “having fun”, to be always “game”, in ACM-ing. How does this impact on ACM-ing as a form of work? How does this impact on the ACMs themselves?

[ix] Other minor comments: In the statement, “They attempt to negotiate a middle path, employing an unspoken discourse of representation of sexuality, between women as sexually desired personae and crass tangibility,” please elaborate on the phrase “crass tangibility.” The phrase “money for genitalia” can be rewritten, unless this is a phrase culled directly from the interviews.