Article Review

[by Joseph Ryan Indon]

“Noli me Tangere (Touch me not): When is sex-work not sex-work?” (by Paul W. Mathews, John Escobar, and Louie Navarro) is an interesting qualitative study of “Adult/Asian Cam Models” (ACM) in the Philippines. The researchers conducted participant observation, or “participant-experiencer” as they put it, by signing up on an ACM chat site, observing the mechanics of this site and how its members interacted. Over several months, the researchers selectively conducted interviews over the Internet with models and customers of this site.

A number of issues were dealt with in this paper. One issue is how the convergence of technology, women’s agency, and traditional notions of morality clash over the meaning of sex work. The paper contends that all too often, traditional notions of morality towards sex work leads to the denial of women’s free choice to engage or not engage in sex work. Such traditional notions explain that women take up sex work since they are poor and that other higher-paying jobs are not available to them. Furthermore, such notions point to poverty and lack of education that push these women to choose easy sources of income, such as sex work. Therefore, women in sex work have no choice in doing so. They are abused, disempowered, and have to be rescued.

As the researchers pointed out, this is an inaccurate portrayal of the women that they encountered. The women they interviewed had freely chosen their work as ACMs. Certainly, money was a motivator for them to choose this line of work. But, this is precisely true for any other profession as well. People make rationalistic choices of what kind of work to do, bearing in mind the rewards and sacrifices that come with these choices. The women they interviewed pointed out that they had other choices of work, that they had considered the costs and benefits of their decision to be or not to be an ACM, and that they were not coerced into doing this work. They even get to choose to dump a customer if they want to. Therefore, ACMs in this study are empowered and are able to exercise agency, contrary to the familiar arguments made about them as forced by poverty and traffickers to do their work.

This is a compelling argument that the researchers are making. This is echoed by other studies on topics such as prostitution, pornography, or migration, where moral forces in society frame women involved in these activities as vulnerable, undereducated, impoverished, and desperate for anything that will allow them to escape their situation. Such labeling denies the reality that some, if not many, of these women do make conscious choices in doing or not doing these activities. This denial of their agency and the rules and laws enforced on these women are manifestations of the continuing male-based disciplining of women in society, in particular, control of their sexuality. Perhaps, this is also an example of how law-enforcement institutions are constantly looking for new objects of control and discipline in order to justify their continued existence and authority. Women in these situations are particularly targeted because they are seen as the easiest to subject to authority when compared to other more deviant and, arguably, more socially damaging activities like government corruption.

Unfortunately, the paper makes interesting arguments on agency but lacks description and exploration of agency among the ACMs. The voices of the women in the paper are relatively thin compared to descriptions of the ACM website, the process of joining, general information about the women, or theoretical discussions. For example, the researchers described one of the women, “Chelsea”, as someone who “employed various strategies to develop more personalized relationships with clients” and that in doing so, she is not just “performing as a passive object for the consumption of others, she demanded recognition as a living subject…” This sounds like a very interesting finding, but the researchers failed to fully illustrate this finding with data, stories, or the thoughts of Chelsea herself. The researchers then went on to stamp their theoretical interpretations on her actions, claiming that Chelsea “intuitively recognized she is both the ‘lived’ body of the self and the ‘object’ body seen by the other.” This interpretation needs more basis in details about Chelsea. What are these strategies that Chelsea employed to develop relationships with clients? How does Chelsea see herself in relation to her clients? How does Chelsea come to learn to employ these strategies? Was she coached, or did she just come up with these strategies by herself? How does her choice of work and strategy tie together to her overall view of her life? Does she feel she is in control of her life and that she is aiming for something?

This omission of stories and voices from women presents a missed opportunity to lend more light to the process and the elements of agency among these women and other such morally targeted subjects. More could have been learned about how the women came about the choices that they made, what kind of conflicts within themselves and with others arose as they pursued their choices, or how they resolved the contesting claims of right or wrong, benefits or disadvantages, of their choices. Such an omission undercuts the legitimate concerns of the researchers that moral forces resort to simplistic assumptions in labeling these women as passive, abused or misguided.

This lack of voice from the women is also felt in the researchers’ arguments about human trafficking. They defined what human trafficking is and then went on to state that their informants said they were not trafficked and that they chose this kind of work. However, this contention by itself, without in-depth description or the voices of the women themselves, sounds unsupported.

Even as the researchers reiterate the element of choice and their denial that these women are trafficked, it is possible that other ACMs are victims of trafficking. It would be easier and less risky for traffickers to engage women as ACMs instead of offline prostitutes since they can be held more privately and more discreetly at homes or buildings. Keeping them in this environment makes it easier to control them. The women would not have to go out where the risk of running away is there. Customers are far away and more easily found through the Internet instead of traditional pimping. Some ACMs, such as those that the researchers encountered, were likely not coerced. However, it is not hard to imagine that coercion or trickery might have been used on other women. This is why the stories of women are important to hear.

On another issue, the researchers discussed how technology affects the women’s construction of what sex work is and is not. Since the women are performing through a webcam, they believe that they are not engaging in sex work. There is no physical touching or sexual penetration, therefore it is not sex. For them, they are selling images and performances, not sex itself. Also, they are in control of what they show in front of the camera. This sense of control makes them feel they are in an empowered position in relation to the customer. They can cut customers off if they feel mistreated by them. Doing so does not have the same consequences as a similar situation in the real world, where customers could react violently. This sense of power to reveal or not reveal allows some of them to derive satisfaction from their work because they feel that their customers appreciate their performance and their sexy bodies. This becomes not only performance for money, but also, performance for the women themselves.

This is a very interesting finding that contributes to how technology is reordering social relationships, as well as redefining activities such as sex work. Technology allows people to create new spaces within activities that were once seemingly clearly defined. Moralists might consider these new spaces as problems to be controlled. But, on the other hand, these new spaces provide possibilities for engaging in topics or activities that in the “real” world would be punished. It gives these women the freedom to explore parts of their personality they would otherwise be ashamed of revealing in the offline world (e.g., their views on sex or their satisfaction in revealing their bodies to strangers). It gives users the ability to differentiate between their projected images of themselves and their inner selves. They can even commoditize and gain financially from peddling their projected images without feeling any damage to their “real” selves.

Freedom, however, is not absolute. The Internet also records everything. Since it is possible that their pictures, videos, or chat sessions are recorded, have the women considered how these records could harm their future career or marital choices? In offline interactions, their work would have remained largely as personal knowledge between the women, the customers, and their pimps. But with the Internet, their activities could be out there on the Internet for anyone to see, forever. Future employers or suitors can easily search for their past on the Internet. The world of the Internet and the real world are not separate. They are very much intertwined.

On balance, the paper contributes to a more nuanced understanding of sex work and agency, away from the predominant moral and sexist discourse, and more focused on the motivations and choices of the women ACMs. Too often, the public discourse has been dominated by unfair characterizations of these women as both sexual deviants and willing victims. Such discourses ignored, even stifled, the voices of women themselves. The paper sheds some light on sex work from the point of view of the women involved. It is unfortunate that the paper missed the opportunity to give a richer picture of these women’s ideas and stories. Still, the contribution of the researchers behind this paper, as well as the participation of their informants, in furthering the public’s understanding of this issue should be acknowledged.

The paper points to the enabling abilities of new technologies in redefining activities like sex work. It also allows ACMs to feel free and empowered in ways that would not be possible in offline interactions. But, the paper is silent on the potential drawbacks of this technology, such as the fact that online interactions can never be erased. Such permanent records could potentially harm their offline lives in the future. This can be an interesting topic to follow up with ACMs in a future study.