[by Cheryll Ruth R. Soriano]
The paper represents an important leap from the research tradition characterizing sex work as mere exploitation and therefore advances our thinking about the issue of Asian Cam Models and their work.
I appreciate the self-reflexivity which I think is highly important in this kind of study and which strengthened this piece. However, I was hoping for a more extensive discussion/thick description of what the girls truly think about what they do, in their own words, to support the authors’ arguments, for example, that “it does not touch their core being,” an important argument being made in this paper. I am curious whether there is anything to be problematized about their self-perception of their mediated performances in the midst of a culture where gender ideologies are influenced by the ‘Virgin Mary’ ideal (previous studies have made this point). The choice of moving from being a schoolteacher to a cam model, for example, can be further explored in terms of what this means for the model. The paper contributes to theoretical discussions of mediated identities in the context of relatively understudied Internet activities and users, extending the question of the extent by which mediated performances connect or detach from offline identities and performances: When an ACM performs before a client, does it truly “not touch her core being”? To what extent is cybersex, not sex? Do the girls offer “sexuality” to their customers online? To what extent is the person in front of the camera not what she really is? Do these cyber-identities differ from identities of those involved in physical sex work? How do the girls find continuity between their physical bodies and their online performances? For research in computer-mediated environments, the notion of representational reality collapses as identity perceptions emerge from what the participants write and communicate to the researcher. However, multiple identities are tried on and detaching self-expression from the politics of the body, CMC also allows participants to promote a playful exploration of skill sets as they navigate through these identities (Lindlif & Shatzer, #). Conducting online interviews while posing as clients implies that the researchers also need to confront the ambiguity of this identity performance by the respondents in analyzing their responses in relation to the researcher’s positionality. The knowledge claims produced from such studies are “always partial and contingent on the researcher’s ability to read discourse and discern its significance” (Lindlif & Shatzer, #).
I found the discussion of how this kind of work puts the girls in a greater position of control stimulating. This discussion of control, however, needs to be juxtaposed with the seeming lack of control in terms of the percentage of their earnings vis a vis the ISP and boss; their conditions of work (not really thoroughly discussed); arrangements with the clients [i.e.,
“While the client can see the gurl [sic]. She may not be able to see the client” (Mathews, Escobar & Manalo, 2014 p. 9)]; and of market-driven values. The authors also argue, in p. 22, that there are “no such risks” (in comparison to prostitution). From the paper’s images, it is apparent that taking screenshots or recording of these videos by the clients is feasible (as the authors have done, albeit covering the girls’ eye area). But if any client can do a screen capture, does this not make the girls vulnerable in the age of spreadable media? Would this not imply a lack of control by the girls in terms of what the audiences could do with the screenshots/videos? I wonder how the girls would weigh this risk vis-a-vis the “empowerment” that this work seems to afford them. I feel that this issue needs to be addressed in the methodological discussion – was permission of the cam models sought in the process of screen capture, and what did the models think of it? The cam models, experiencing some “freedom” as they might be, are still used as instruments for the perpetration of market-driven values where foreign ISPs continually earn (and at predatory share arrangements) at the expense of willing cam models. Finally, the ACM industry seems to be operating under covert conditions and I was looking forward to descriptions of how the girls found themselves in this profession. This discussion seems limited and yet the authors made some generalizing points about them as voluntarily participating. Thick description is important especially in consideration of the research methodology’s bias towards more cooperative participants, implying that the narratives of those less interested in participating are not represented.
The ethical question of the CAM models’ vulnerability upon screen capture is coupled by the question of whether it is ethical to conduct research on such activities in the first place. Amidst much debate, the Supreme Court of the Philippines has recently upheld most provisions of Republic Act 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, which considers “The willful engagement, maintenance, control, or operation, directly or indirectly, of any lascivious exhibition of sexual organs or sexual activity, with the aid of a computer system, for favor or consideration”, or cybersex, as a crime. “Jurisdiction lies if any of the elements was committed within the Philippines or committed with the use of any computer system wholly or partly situated in the country,” (Sec. 21) which seems to include the girls who participated in this study. Moreover, Section 15 of the same law provides, under its search and seizure provisions, that “the law enforcement authorities may order any person who has knowledge about the functioning of the computer system and the measures to protect and preserve the computer data therein to provide, as is reasonable, the necessary information, to enable the undertaking of the search, seizure and examination”. Is it therefore possible to conduct ethical research on what the law considers “criminal” activities? Promises of full anonymity may be in question because hackers or a court order may lead to the discovery of the identity of the participants and put the workers in unnecessary danger. The workers may be subject to risks due to their involvement in the research and the researchers may later be found to have legal obligations that could compel them to provide the data gathered from the workers. How should researchers respond to such orders? What would constitute guidelines for research on such activities that will uphold ethical principles of autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence and justice? Most of these ethical principles in research were worked out before the advent of the Internet, and the Internet has made us rethink our ways of examining social life and how it can be studied. Is it necessary to rethink the relevance of such principles?
In monitoring the activities in the site for research purposes, the researchers may be violating expectations of worker-customer privacy amidst the confusing boundaries of private and public in the virtual realm. Proposing to see the private/public notions in the virtual sphere as a continuum rather than a dichotomy, Elm (74-75) conceptualizes a “private online environment” as “one that is hidden or unavailable to most people and where access is restricted to the creator of the content and his or her invited guests”. This category in Elm’s continuum includes private chatrooms where registration is required and where the sender specifies who has access to certain content. This conceptualization of a private online environment does not explicitly consider the context of research on cam modeling where the researcher, posing as a client, may join a private chatroom upon registration. By posing as a client, which I understand is probably the only way to obtain access to the workers and the users of the site, deception becomes a necessary methodology for this kind of research. In conducting research in AsianPlaymates, even if users–girls and clients– are aware of being observed by others, they may not consider the possibility that their actions and interactions are being observed, documented, or analyzed for research purposes. The utterances exchanged are intended for a particular recipient and purpose, and the transmission of this content to other (i.e., research) contexts may be considered obtrusive. Communication through such online spaces, especially “as one’s chat with an ACM may be interspersed with several other clients,” (Elm 9) is likely not intended to be exposed to the “public”. Obtaining informed consent when studying online environments can be challenging and the nature of online interactions often does not render themselves possible for informed consent (Elm 72). Yet, an informed consent assures that the participant has the autonomy to decide whether, for how long, and under what conditions they will (if they choose) take part in the research. Do we then privilege the knowledge that the research might yield over such ethical principles?
The ultimate ethical question remains: Does the potential good that may arise from the data outweigh the potential risks? (Ess & Jones #). Engaging a utilitarian perspective, this research is an important step towards opening up valuable discussions about Asian Cam Models, and raises important debates crucial for theorizing about the construction of virtual identity and how this may be detached from or connected to the workers’ offline identities. The study also extends our understanding of sex work and how users engage the technology to “enact agency” by “technologizing their work”. Seminal works have been developed through the conduct of research in sensitive environments without the privilege of informed consent (i.e., mental institutions, “tea room trades”) and where research has been conducted under false pretenses by the researchers (Elm #). One can therefore argue that in the interest of producing alternate representations and voices and for the sake of better understanding the perspectives of the workers whose views about their work would otherwise not be heard, this research is ethical. Through this study, we see that ACM-ing is a form of un-coerced work for some of the girls, that they experience a form of gratification by having their bodies admired by clients, or that they creatively manage their client relationships by playfully negotiating their online identities – all of which point to a sense of agency in contradistinction to seeing them as mere victims or criminals. It also helps in challenging traditional notions of seeing cybersex myopically as exploitative or criminal, essentially opening valuable interrogations of the law’s assumptions about cybersex and the workers. However, how can this approach to research be differentiated from the deception that may be conducted by a police officer, who likewise takes a covert position as client to enforce the law of the land to “prevent the exploitation of information and communication technologies” or promote the “preservation of moral values”? Are academic values (i.e., of knowledge creation) to be privileged over other sets of values?
These are some points which I hope could stir further discussions by the community on the ethics of conducting research in and about such work environments.