Cyberporn: Sex and Commerce in the Age of Digital Communication

[by Rosemary Wiss]


Cyber sex is a sexually explicit activity over the Internet and is a growing industry and one country where business is booming, is in the Philippines. An already established sex trade, high levels of poverty, and a country which the majority of the population speaks basic English means there is a ready supply of girls to work in these so called cyber sex dens.

This opening quote is from an Internet ‘chat site’ which presents Filipina webcam girls to a market of paying men for ‘chat’ and ‘cyber-sex’. It is from one of the many webcam sites that focus on Asian women in general and Filipinas in particular. It specializes in Filipina webcam girls and its home page provides viewers with some contextual insight into the development of the live webcam sex industry in the Philippines. Posted by the webmaster for the site philippineslivechat, such commentary is usually in response to questions from viewers about what constitutes cybersex and issues of legality, such as whether webcam sites are legal in the Philippines and questions about the age of consent. Occasionally articles on recent Internet tracking of pedophiles online are posted on these webcam sites, for example, the Sweetie sting, which is discussed in the conclusion (and forthcoming 2014). A silent warning, these are nearly always posted without any commentary, much less criticism, lest the interest of enforcers of online policing be aroused. Webcam viewers know that in watching the webcam girls it has become possible that they, in turn, are being watched. Overall these sites do not carry much text or commentary. Instead, they are laden with many thousands of still images and interactive live streaming of Filipinas in highly sexualized poses.

This paper is a response to editor Raul Pertierra’s request that I review Paul Mathews’ article on ‘webcam girls’ Noli me Tangere (Touch me not) When sex-work is not sex–work? My own research (2006, 2011, 2013) is primarily on sex tourism in the Philippines. My point of departure is to contextualize Mathews’ paper on the web-web cam industry by referring to recent debates about ‘prostitution’, ‘commercial sex’ and ‘trafficking’ .



For the purpose of contextualizing Mathews I want to outline the debate about prostitution, sex work and trafficking. At the core of contemporary political agendas on human trafficking is a long-standing and highly politicized debate between two broad schools of thought on the nature of prostitution and the possibilities of choice, often discussed in sexual domains as ‘consent.’ Anti-prostitution feminist activists, or abolitionists, argue that ‘prostitution’ is gender violence and inherently exploitative, with trafficking denoting sexual slavery (Barry 1984; MacKinnon 1989; Jeffreys 1997; O’Connell Davidson 2002). In opposition, sex worker rights activists have argued that ‘sex work’ is a choice, and abolitionism treats women as victims and denies them agency (Kempadoo and Doezema 1998, Roces 2009). Moreover, the conceptual correlation between prostitution and trafficking refutes choice and exacerbates an association of commercial sex with force and victimization (Kempadoo and Doezema 1998; Agustin 2006).

Trafficking discourse has become significant in acts of global government since 2000, when the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (Palermo Protocol) produced a global and legally binding instrument on human trafficking as the non-consensual movement of people for the purpose of ‘exploitation’. The Protocol operates under the UN’s Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (2000) leading to a focus on the illegal crossing of national boundaries, and increasingly movement within borders (as domestic trafficking) through organized criminal activity. Contemporary trafficking laws therefore emphasize the state’s law-and-order regimes.

Anti-prostitution campaigners, such as the NGO Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), were highly influential in producing the much-contested Palermo Protocol, and achieved prominence in producing policy in countries deemed to have trafficking problems, such as the Philippines (see Doezema 2010). In 1993, CATW created the regional office CATW-AP, (AP designating Asia Pacific), which is based in Manila. This influence was felt when CATW-AP sponsored the 2003 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act, making the Philippines the first country in the Asia Pacific to produce its own anti-trafficking legislation (Doezema 2010). The most contested issue in producing the Philippines Anti-Trafficking Act therefore revolved around the issue of prostitution as iconic of exploitation. Manila-based lawyer Ruiz-Austria (2006) states that this dominance is revealed by six out of the eight provisions defining unlawful acts in relation to trafficking stipulating ‘for the purpose of prostitution’. It is important to note that the movement of minors into positions of exploitation is always trafficking, (legally defined as ‘qualified trafficking under Philippines law 2003), as a minor cannot consent to their own exploitation. As such, it is not necessary to prove the traffickers’ intention to exploit in such cases, making them the most likely sites of anti-trafficking prosecutions (see Wiss 2010, 2013).

In the West, and increasingly in some developing world locations, the 1990s saw the rise of sex worker rights and an emphasis on choice (see Kempadoo and Doezema 1998). The UN’s Convention against human trafficking, the Palermo Protocol (2000), led to trafficking discourse becoming politically ascendant in the past fifteen years (see Bernstein 2007, 2010). Trafficking discourse thus reacts to assertions of choice and reasserts the argument for ‘force’ (Sandy 2006). Upon reading Mathews it appears many of these concerns about what constitutes prostitution/sex work, and whether it is subject to choice or force, with force fore-fronted and increasingly criminalized under anti-trafficking legislation, is now being articulated in online sexual commerce.



Paul Mathews’ article Noli me Tangere (Touch me not) When sex-work is not sex–work? evokes two traditions. Noli me Tangere (translated from Latin as ‘touch me not’) were the words spoken by Jesus to Mary Magdalene when she tried to touch him after his resurrection. This biblical expression was to become the title of a famed novel by the Philippine national hero José Rizal (1886), a revolutionary tract which denounced the injustices of Spanish colonial rule and the Catholic friars. To begin with an invocation of such religious and national icons for a paper on the webcam industry, or ‘cyberporn’, gives some indication that Mathews is prepared to engage with controversy.

Mathews’ abstract outlines the ‘largely unknown’ Adult/Asian Cam Model (ACM) industry in the Philippines. He uses the terminology ‘gurls’ to denote ‘some’ of these young women/girl’s self-definition, a combination of girls and guys which indicates a ‘more proactive (sexual) role’ (5). Mathews’ project then, is to focus on self-definition and agency. The ACMs, or ‘cam-girls’ (camera girls) present themselves live by Internet camera to solicit customers to view them naked and/or engaging in sexual activities with a private show, usually at $1 a minute. Mathews contends that these girls are frequently represented by others as ‘trafficked pornographers, exhibitionists, strippers, or as (digital) prostitutes’ (1). However, these girls do not identify their work as prostitution or as any other form of sex work. Furthermore, Mathews states categorically that they are acting out of choice and are therefore not trafficked. Accordingly Mathews asserts the girl’s agency, ‘within structural restraints’, their denial of their work as prostitution or as a form of sex work, and the issue of their identification of these ‘performances’ as ‘work’ (1). Additionally, Mathews addresses the methodological issues associated with using Internet Communication Technologies (ICT) as a research tool to establish rapport and obtain objectivity as he immerses himself in the world of ‘cam girls’ (1).

It should be noted that prostitution and sex work are two different issues despite some political attempts to make them appear as one issue (discussed below). The defining issue is choice, which is often defined in sexual domains as ‘consent’. While prostitution/sex work is arguably subject to choice, trafficking always involves some form of coercion and so never is.

Mathews notes that research on prostitution/sex work has focused on its causes, for example, as being due to social and economic conditions, sexual inequality, or psychology. Indeed, the literature on prostitution/sex work seeks to find causes for this ‘social problem’, commonly drawing on the impacts of poverty, patriarchy and personal pathology. Western scholarship on prostitution has focused on economic factors, and gender equity, but also ‘motivations’, as noted by scholarship in deviancy studies on psychological ‘damage’ (see Perkins 1991). When the debates about prostitution/sex work were addressed in the developing world, often as sex tourism, a greater emphasis was placed on structural explanations both economically and socially (see O’Connell Davidson 2002) resulting in a reassertion of women’s agency (see Kempadoo and Doezema 1998, Agustin 2006, Doezema 2010).

Mathews claims that this article, and the book that it is drawn from, is the first ethnographic study of cam girls in the Philippines. While this is largely correct, outside of rare Western examples (Senft 2008), Matthews’ attempt to be ground-breaking can work to clear the ground of other scholarship. In particular, his article shows a lack of commentary on research by feminist and sexuality studies scholars in the adjacent fields of commercial sex work, sex tourism, trafficking, pornography and the Internet, where much valuable work has been done. Consequently, other related scholarship is produced as an absence, such as the contested politics of prostitution and sex workers’ rights (Kempadoo and Doezema 1998) or more recent work on trafficking (Doezema 2010).

Commenting on prevalent images of impoverished Third World girls being forced into sex work, and therefore becoming an incarnation of trafficking, Mathews addresses only one scholar on the politics of trafficking, Agustin (2005), who is largely used to support his argument. More specifically, Agustin is a self-defined sex worker rights activist who writes on migrant sex workers in Spain refuting trafficking discourse as it applies to sex workers on the move. Undoubtedly, contemporary trafficking discourse has gained much of its power from depicting developing-world women and children being forced into ‘sexual slavery’. There are politics behind this position. Doezema (2010) argues that current trafficking debates have been historically produced from discourses about the white slave trade in Europe at the turn of the century. Anti-prostitution/abolitionist advocates often wish to depict an ‘ideal victim’ of prostitution, an ‘innocent’ requiring rescue, or more precisely anti-prostitution policies under the rubric of anti-trafficking interventions (ibid.)

Mathews notes that ‘prejudices’ inform studies of sex work, with a ‘bias towards supply based analysis’ due to a focus on the economic conditions that ‘push and pull’ people into sex work. He argues that there are only autobiographies of sex workers, presumably in the West, and accounts of socio-economic conditions; we are left only with ‘anecdotal evidence’ of actual conditions and desires, reproducing a purely economic rationale. Accounts of prostitution, sex work, and sex tourism often focused on either economics as need or cultural identity as desire. Marxist models often focused solely on economic necessity; however, there are an increasing number of culturally attentive ethnographies, for example, Law’s (2000) account of a sex tourism industry and the desires of sex workers in Cebu. Other emergent scholarship includes Brennan (2005) on the aspirations of women who work in sex tourism in the Dominican Republic, as well as Jacobs (2012) in Egypt, Brents et al. (2010) in the US, and Frochlick (2013) in Costa Rica to name just a few.

Mathews critiques notions of rationality, and the pervasive market discourse of the rational economic actor in commercial sex and sex trafficking. However, ethnographies of trafficking including their specific cultural logics are also being produced (se Brennan 2008). Molland (2012) for instance, explores trafficking discourse and anti-trafficking interventions on the Thai/Laos border. He explicitly critiques the notion of the rational economic subject, and the ensuing modelling of a market model of supply and demand for sex work. He critiques purely economic rationales for women working in prostitution and assumptions about trafficking as a ‘perfect business’, assumed to always be ‘lucrative’. In its place, Molland investigates the conditions, payments, movements, affiliations and desires along the border and in doing so evaluates the notion of the rational actor as both sex worker and trafficker, acting in response to coherent market demands. Instead he represents complex interrelationships and aims where both the ‘victim’ and the ‘trafficker’ are in relationships with each other.

Moreover, Matthews criticizes discussions of sex work that are founded on ‘economic necessity’, but, by ‘sleight of hand’, are subject to ‘moralization’. In so doing necessity over choice is assumed for all women, and this is especially so for third world women whose agency is effectively denied. Despite critiquing such economic rationalist assumptions, Mathews readily reinserts a rational subject in reaction to notions of Filipinas as irrational, uninformed, psychologically disturbed, situationally coerced and structurally constrained (2). Relying on Agustin he argues that agency is more than economic decision-making, it must include self-identification and desires. Agustin’s work (2005) has been a specific critique of trafficking discourse and an assertion of women’s agency in migrant sex work. She rebukes the ‘sensationalist’ melodramas of the prostitute as trafficked victim. She argues that the ‘Rescue Industry’, the anti-trafficking lobby, has operated by the ‘conceptualizing of a class of victims that mandated a class of rescuers’ as part of the ‘machinery of government’ which works to ‘control’ populations (ibid.: 192). Such ‘helping practices’ infantilize women and exacerbate their stigmatization as victims (ibid.: 5). Agustin’s de-pathologizing project then, literally, is to normalize sex work as ‘normal people’ looking for ‘conventional opportunities’ in the ‘ordinary’ world of migration and sex work (ibid.: 8).

Mathews argues that there is a need for more accounts of the diversification and types of sex work (3). He doesn’t cite material from this emergent field, even though scholars like Agustin have undertaken projects to do precisely this, though no doubt more is needed. Agustin’s edited volume of Sexualities (2005) attempts to open up the field of sex work beyond economic reasons to illustrate cultures of commercial sex. For Mathews, the webcam industry presents a new arena of discussion about the nature of sex work as virtual and technologically mediated. He asserts cultural difference in relation to Agustin on sex work, because the Filipina cam-girls he studies do not identify as prostitutes, or as being involved in a form of sex work. Instead they self-identify as ‘performers’ undertaking this particular kind of webcam as ‘work’.

Mathews uses the word ‘denial’ several times throughout the paper to explain how cam-girls disassociate from perceiving and representing themselves as prostitutes or as working in a form of sex work. ‘Denial’ has many associations with psychoanalytic understandings. However, there are other ways of describing affect and identity. Mathews also uses the word ‘performance’ to describe the bargirls enactments. In contemporary gender studies the term performance usually evokes Butler (1990) but Mathews doesn’t reference her or what he takes this term to mean. Instead his paper fluctuates between representing webcam girls as voluntarily choosing their sexualized performances and naturalizing their sexuality as innate, and thus subject to both innate self-expression and their own ‘sexual liberation’.

Butler’s (1990) highly influential writings on gender as a ‘performance’ draw on the language of psychoanalysis and post-structural linguistics to produce gender identity as socially constructed. For Butler, sex and gender do not indicate an essential state; they are socialized enactments which produce what appear to be internalized gender norms. Butler’s early work (1990) responded to the entrenched historical naturalization of sex/gender and structuralism’s determinations to focus on sex/gender possibilities. She was consequently critiqued for presenting gender, sex, and sexuality as a ‘performance’, in the sense of being voluntary choices. Her later work (2004) considered restraints or more precisely context, specifically Foucault on ‘regulative discourses’ or ‘disciplinary regimes’ and less overtly Derrida on context, recitation and transformation. Butler then considered what it is possible to articulate, that is, what is socially permitted to appear as coherent or natural. The performance of gender norms can be analogized as more like speaking a language in which the speaker chooses from available but shifting terms and less like unprompted theatrics. Webcam girls do not just perform live sex shows; their subjectivity is produced as they perform their sexuality as heterosexual and their racialized gender as highly sexualized Filipinas. These performances are not freely chosen, context-free, individualized acts of sexual self-expression or liberation. They are part of this sexualizing and gendered ‘language’ or culture in which performance is recited, though through this process may be subject to transformation.

While it might not be necessary to turn to Western theories of sexuality and identification, an ethnographic account of these women’s affects or emotions could have been thoroughly explored. Denial or a lack of self-identification is not specific to webcam work. Instead, it can be argued that it is related to gendered ideals of femininity in general and in this case, to Filipinas living with the stigma of working in, or in the shadow of, sex industries. Here I turn to my research (2011, 2013) of sex tourism in Puerto Galera, the Philippines, to illustrate my argument. It was notable that both providers and consumers in the sex industry repudiated stigmatizing categories. The word ‘prostitute’ was never used by bargirls. Its moral stigma was always avoided. The expression puta, the Spanish rendering of prostitute, was sometimes insultingly directed at bargirls and was shunned as highly offensive. With its moral overtone, and reference to a type of woman rather than a type of activity, its most accurate translation in English might be the expression ‘whore’.

In the Philippines, where honor is much at stake, young women who work in the bars regularly refer to themselves by the expression ‘bargirls’, said in English to emphasize its exoticism. Bargirls have other ways to avoid the term prostitution, also describing themselves as ‘dancing girl’, and occasionally ‘hostess’, all referring to their roles as entertainers, rather than to the sale of sex. A history of the US military’s rest and recreation program (R&R) has also produced the classification ‘Guest Relations Officer’ or ‘GROs’, and some sections of government maintain this terminology in providing ‘GRO licenses’ to women who work in the bars, who are also subject to compulsory ‘GRO STD testing’. This terminology occurs in administrative domains despite the fact that prostitution is illegal in the Philippines – which in itself can be seen as a kind of governmental denial of involvement in the sex industry.

The more recent Western term ‘sex worker’, attempts to avoid the moral stigma of the term prostitute. Instead it aims to normalize through the dignity of labor and pursuit of workers’ rights. While this term had not yet arrived in Puerto Galera when I was researching there, this term was beginning to be used in governmental and NGO discourse. But it is unlikely that bargirls will use this professionalizing expression to describe themselves. Bargirls prefer to identify with the publicly enacted entertainment industry of the bars rather than the private negotiated sex that takes place in customers’ rooms. And there is another significant reason why it is doubtful that bargirls will categorize themselves as ‘sex workers’. Bargirls emphasize their prospective relationships; they concentrate on their aspirations of acquiring a foreign boyfriend and hopefully an ‘overseas’ husband. This allows them to disavow actually selling sex and to refocus on their desires on becoming esteemed wives of foreigners.

Further, affect or emotions in sex work requires a discussion of shame. Shame, or more precisely being shameless, walang hiya (literally, without shame), was often employed to adjudicate woman’s reputations and especially, to regulate their behavior. Amongst women with diverse involvements in the sex industry, honor was fiercely contested; freelance ‘hunting girls’ and bargirls (employed by particular bars) often judged each other’s behavior as the more shameful. Shame is a social and relational term (see Rafael 1993, Cannell 1999). Local women were not allowed to work in the bars, keeping themselves and their families honorable, but they often felt deprived of the opportunity to marry foreign men. They did not socially associate with women working in the industry. Additionally, local men were not allowed to marry women from the bars so they kept bargirls out of local kinship. Women from the bars who married foreigners and were able to undertake transnational migration were never able to forget their ‘fallen’ origins. These articulations of shame, respect, and morality were continually, if not incessantly, articulated in relational terms to the sex industry.

Correspondingly, denial or refutation of particular identities didn’t just relate to sex industry providers. It also applied to the consumers. Gunther (1998) aptly named his account of foreign men in Thailand’s sex bars, ‘sex tourism without sex tourists’ to illuminate their repudiation of the identity of ‘sex tourist’. In two years of continuous fieldwork in a sex tourist industry, and many years returning to it I never once heard a foreign man describe himself as a ‘sex tourist’ or his behavior as ‘sex tourism’. Foreign men recognize this as a punitive label applied to them, and actively deny it. Instead, they often described themselves as ‘partying’ if they were tourists, invoking pleasure and entertainment, or if they were in long- or short-term liaisons as resident expatriates, they quickly normalized relationships by attributing girlfriend or wife status to sexual partners.

Returning to Mathews, like Agustin, Mathews asserts women’s agency in sex work. For Agustin, rejecting victim status allows agency for ‘sex workers’. Unlike Agustin’s subjects, webcam girls according to Mathews do not see their work as sex work, and the mediation of the webcam helps them to produce this. Pertierra (2012, 2013) has extensively commented on the possibilities of new technology in giving choice and revealing important aspects of self-identity in various domains. Mathews inserts Pertierra’s argument about possibility, choice and freedom into the world of ACMs. Mathews argues that the new media of Internet webcams allows these low-income women to have expanded choices and therefore increased freedoms (3).

In relation to the commercial sex industry in the Philippines, while prostitution is numerically dominated by domestic clientele, its most infamous form has involved foreigners as it signifies the foreign exploitation of Filipinas and therefore the Philippines. This history includes militarization in the Asia Pacific with US military bases being established in the Philippines, their intensification during the Vietnam War, and the ‘R & R’ sexual service industry that subsequently recruited a new clientele, foreign male tourists. Military bases, international sex tourism, and the subsequent sexualization of Filipinas as an industry form the conditions of the new webcam commerce. That such a trajectory can be represented as a utopia of freedom, choice and self-expression, produces an origin story that does not have a history. In so doing it ignores the structural constraints, or the conditions in which agency occurs, in which Mathews claims he wishes to embed his study of ACM agency.

Another major issue I want to address is Mathews’ methodology. Mathews situates his work in the realm of the controversial, arguing that research is ‘not about toeing the line, but knowing where the line is and being prepared to cross it’ (3). His fieldwork site is an ACM ‘chat-room’ run by a USA-based company, where he used the methods of observation, participant- observation and ‘ad hoc’ fragmented cyber interviews over a period of twelve months. The initial phase involved becoming a guest of the site (where he registered in his own log-in name), and observing and reading dialogues on the site. The second phase involved ‘participant observation’ or ‘participant- experiencer’, namely communicating within the environment, though many ACMs and their customers were reluctant to be interviewed.

Throughout the paper Mathews has commented on the ‘moral agendas’ of anti-prostitution campaigners. He states that a dichotomy is continually produced between ‘coercion/necessity/morality and agency’ in sex work, produced by a ‘traditionalist view of morality’ and sex work, as if ACM were driven by ‘desperation and/or morality’ (4). Here Mathews dwells on ethics, if not morality. While morality often has a religious overtone, calling on ethics often seems to be a more secularized language where social science objectivism is revered. Mathews states he never revealed his identity as a researcher due to the site’s convention of anonymity for customers and sexual entertainment. He had ‘moral and ethical concerns’ in engaging in an atmosphere where talk is often sexual. He did not want to ‘interfere in interactions’, but sought to ‘steer [a] respectful and ethical way to exchanges which might be read as (potential) sexual encounters by participants’ (5). Mathews states that he enacted ‘a strong sense of detachment and research identity’ during ‘sometimes rather intimate exchanges’, while seeking to provide ‘empathy as a human’. On several occasions he states he found himself presented with ‘visibly distraught ACMs’ who ‘merely wanted consoling and counselling, a friend to talk to, and perhaps some recognition of them as people rather than sex objects’ (5). As a result he ‘became friends with several young gurls’ (5). The final stage was Mathews’ meeting face-to-face with some of the ACMs and their bosses, assuring them of his ‘moral neutrality’, an ethical stance in itself.

Mathews remarks that he might be accused of voyeurism, but argues this is just what the ACM business requires, an engagement with ‘voyeurism’ (6). In a footnote he also declares that he developed conversational or ‘pen pal’ relationships lasting weeks or months with several girls and about 30 others over shorter periods.’ Often ‘we would exchange private email addresses and correspond by that means, and for a few gurls I sent a birthday or Christmas gift; ‘… I develop[ed] relations of friendship. Reciprocally, I encouraged the gurls to ask me any questions they liked, and exchanged information about our daily lives’ (footnote 6, 3 my italics).

In giving a detailed account of Mathews’ relationships with the ACMs my interest is in the realm of assertions of ‘friendship’ that is personal intimacy, in researching sex and companion work, or affect in sex work. This is a complex area, not least because intimacy is precisely what is sold in this arena and questions of ‘real’ authenticity and ‘artificial’ staging often troubles this field. For example, O’Rourke’s (1991) study of his ‘girlfriend’ the Thai sex worker Oi, and Odzer’s (1994) study of sex workers in Patpong. Each names their subject as ‘friends’ until money – theirs – keeps entering the situation.

As Mathews shows, there is often business, and an attempt to benefit in the exchange, on both sides. Instead of intimate encounters Mathews discloses that ACMs addressed a number of clients at once, or worked a market of men, while customers often pressured the girls to reveal their body, or provide a sexual show for free. In many ways this is like the social world of the bars, where money is exchanged but personalized relationships can also occur between provider and customer. Mathews indicates that staged intimacy is part of the girls’ business, with the girls asking the men as ‘friends’ to send them money and goods. Mathews puts quotation marks around the word ‘friends’, yet he doesn’t seem to critically reflect on his own position as a ‘friend’ to some of the girls he gave gifts to. Instead he argues that this performance of affect, compared to professionalized sex for money exchanges, can be seen to indicate the girl’s agency in inducing and maintaining relationships which can assist them. There has also been scholarship on this area notably by Cohen (1998) on ‘open ended prostitution’ in Thailand. In contrast, more personalized gift exchange relationships occur in emergent tourism-orientated commercial sex, or cultural contact zones. More generalized exchanges occur when there is a delay in exchange to produce an ongoing relationship with future ongoing exchanges. That is, the West is associated with commodification where the non-West is still argued to embrace the gift relationship. He argues that prostitution is ideally typified as the direct exchange of money for sex and this ‘professional’ exchange occurs more often in the West. What constitutes professional in this domain is complex. In many cases both in the West and in the Philippines sex tourism industry, emphasizing the personal and shrouding the commercial is widely used to incite greater payments from customers. Indeed the arena of patronage and exchange as both economic and intimate has an extensive history in the Philippines in the literature on patron-client relations.

When analyzing the webcam studios Mathews notes that one of the consistent features were teddy bears or toys as props. These are indications of the girls’ youth, ‘but also pander to the customer’s fantasies by projecting themselves as subservient, juvenile females who need care or mentoring’ (11). This is a role Mathews seems to have claimed in his role ‘consoling and counselling’ the girls (5). At other times Mathews is well aware that the girls create representations of themselves for the camera and their customers, for example, in offering themselves as highly prized virgins. For Mathews, the contradiction is compelling. A girl might be a ‘virgin’, and also a ‘digital prostitute’, if as he says ‘they were to be considered as prostitutes at all’ (11). This is one of only a few contradictions that Mathews points to, even as he does not seem to be aware of others, much less address them.

When Mathews is asked to be a private customer he tells the girls that he just wants to be ‘friends’, an unsatisfying response for girls who want to make business (13). Some ACMs ‘personalized’ the work as ‘non-sexual’ by engaging in emotional labor. Mathews argues that ACMs undertake a ‘performance’ for the client and for themselves, a situation where they have ‘some degree of control’. He contends that working as an ACM can be ‘personally and sexually liberating’ while also ‘affirming sexual and gender inequality’ (15). ACMs were, nevertheless, in ‘an act of empowerment, able to appropriate that [cyber] space (16, footnote 9).

Yet conundrums remain. Mathews asks when sex work is not sex work. ACMs claimed that while they were doing the ‘job’ they were not sex workers, and especially not prostitutes. The prostitute was narrowly envisaged as a person who had a physical relationship with the client. ACMs stated that they didn’t have sex with customers, and disdained women who did. Mathews says that ‘common-sense’ tells us that ACMs provide something sexual but not a ‘reciprocal, tangible sexual act’. For Mathews the issue is how technology mediates the physical and the image. Sex workers provide the ‘tangible’ body; while ACMs through technology provide the “intangible” (touch me not). For Mathews, to depict ACMs as prostitutes is to ‘deny other possibilities’, and to ‘… fall into the moralistic hetero-, normative, public/private, Madonna/whore dualism that underpins most views of sexuality and sexual display’ (18). Not to allow self-definition is therefore oppressive, but these are not ‘isolated’ cultures requiring preservation, they arise out of contact histories. Privileging a ‘native voice’ in sex work will not, however, be a permanent escape from hegemonic power because they arise from it.

Mathews states that the primary motive for ACMs to engage in this work is financial, but the decision to do so as a rational choice, they are ‘uncoerced’, ‘weighing the pros and cons’, particularly in the face of the ‘loss of dignity and self-respect and internal conflict’ that women and their sexuality are subject to in mainstream society (19). Webcam work means there is no physical contact, the customer’s location is remote, performances can be private, or companionably ‘in company’, which serves to ‘normalize’ it. ICT produces ‘detachment and protection’, virtual rather than actual sex work, and helps facilitate the denial of cyber work as sexual (19). Besides, undesirable risk factors such as violence and disease are removed and choices are enhanced. Somewhat perplexingly, Mathews, who claims he is giving a voice to ACMs, then makes his own inference ‘[f]urther, it’s not really a difficult job, and it can pay well at times’ (19).

Referencing the UN protocol on human trafficking, Mathews refutes the notion that ACMs are trafficked as they willingly seek out such employment, are aware of the conditions and are free to leave the employment. He questions the lack of ‘choice’, ‘slavery’ and ‘forced labor’ given that there is payment’ (20). Mathews asserts that ACM work is a ‘freely chosen occupation, even if the decision is constrained by structural economic alternatives – as all employment is’ (20). ACM work is ‘free’, ‘rational’ and ‘uncoerced’, these women have ‘active agency’, a condition that is ‘most often appraised by the individuals themselves’ (21). ICT, in this case webcam performances, promote a ‘capacity for agency’, ‘personal development’, ‘freedom’ and the ‘expansion of choices’ to engage in this form of work ‘if they so desire’ (21). By a process of repetition, which is the very basis of performance, in this case of scholarly assertion, ACM work represents choice.

Mathews notes that technology can be potentially liberating, or, may facilitate exploitation (22). But for Mathews the real question is whether webcam work is experienced as such. Admitting the girls present their ‘sexualized bodies as product‘, Matthews naturalizes the commodification of their services along with the history of sex industries catering to foreigners in the Philippines. He declares that these Filipinas are ‘born’ with a ‘beautiful body’, ‘in a society that is globally recognized as erotic’ and which places an emphasis on ‘beauty and erotic capital’ (22). While feminine beauty is highly valued in the Philippines, Catholicism’s influence means that sex outside of marriage, much less commercial sex, is not. Similarly, this espoused natural ‘eroticism’, has a discursive history as shown in Orientalist projections of the exotic Asiatic other as the erotic (Said 1978). Instead, Mathews argues that ACMs do not see themselves as ‘sex workers’, much less prostitutes; rather, they see themselves doing a job as a ‘performer’. Mathews then gives his most forceful statement ‘[t]hese girls are not trafficked’. Instead of fearing their bosses or traffickers, they fear the police who can physically touch them, harm or jail them. In summary, they are merely trying to earn a living using technology in a way which does not breach existing law. Presumably then, laws on cyberporn will work to oppress these women’s sexual ‘liberation’ and personal ‘freedom’.

It is important to note that Mathews discusses cam-girls, who he assumes are adult women, and their choices in working in the cyberporn industry. Anti-prostitution campaigners have argued that the abolition of prostitution – in general – will prevent extreme abuse such as child sex tourism and trafficking. I would refute an automatic conflation of commercial sex with the illegal activity of trafficking. However, it is important that commercial sex enterprises should not be proclaimed as being free of trafficking in advance of their investigation. Rather, trafficking refers to specific legal investigations of force, coercion and trickery, and conditions of employment as exploitation. In relation to minors, for anyone being moved into a situation of exploitation (in the Philippines this is under the age of eighteen) it is always trafficking. As such, any minor in Mathew’s case study would therefore be considered trafficked by both Philippines and UN law.

Concluding Comments: Cyber-Encounters
Cyberporn thrives, along with poverty in Philippines
Cebu – As agents of the Philippine National Bureau of Investigation were raiding a house suspected to be a front for cyberpornography in a poor neighbourhood in Cordova town in Cebu on May 26, a text message was being circulated, telling residents to switch off computers and Internet devices
(Ursal in Cebu Daily Inquirer, June 10, 2013).

New technologies have resulted in circulating text messages to tell cybersex cam users to turn off their computers during police raids, though this seems unlikely to stop online tracing of such sites. Moreover, as part of neo-liberalism’s expansion, international outsourcing has resulted in the Philippines developing an extensive business in online enquiries and trade. Upon police investigation, the presence of computer technology and young women on premises has been repeatedly justified as legal online businesses. Legitimate online industry thus creates a perfect front for illegal webcam activities. It is highly probable that sexual commerce will be included in outsourcing businesses. New technologies will consequently both replicate – and transfigure – existing commercial sex industries.

In contending that Mathews’ account needs to be contextualized, I am not arguing that new technologies will necessarily have a negative impact in the Philippines. The use of new technologies cannot be determined in advance. While some usages will reinscribe existing power, all are subject to translation and transformation (Rafael 1993). While new technologies will present innovative opportunities they will, however, be historically embedded. In arguing this I draw on several case studies, focusing on the use of webcams for sexual commerce.

In 2011 the town of Cordova, Cebu, became notorious both in the Philippines and internationally for sex webcam businesses denounced as ‘cyberdens’ or ‘cyber-bothels’. The mass production of ‘cyberpornography’ (known colloquially in the Philippines as ‘cyberporn’) included reports of a webcam ‘cottage industry’ being set up amongst a large number of households in certain areas. While adults were used as webcam girls, there were also, more disturbingly, arrests of parents for using their own children to stage live sex shows. In one case a pregnant woman and her live-in partner were arrested and charged with trafficking her children:

Pregnant woman arrested for allegedly exposing own kids to cyberporn in Cordova, Philippines
She’s expected to give birth to her sixth child this month. Maricel … said she turned to the Internet to earn money for her delivery… A police task force yesterday arrested her at home where she allegedly exposed her five young daughters to cyberpornography in barangay Ibabao, Cordova town in the southern coast of Mactan island in Cebu… [P]olice officers from the Regional Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force barged into Ayad’s residence while her children were about to go online. The youngest child – a 3-year-old girl – was naked while the others were in their underwear when the police entered the house. A computer and video cameras were confiscated…
(Mayol in Cebu Daily News, 5 Sept. 2013).

Though charged with trafficking, the ways that Maricel could be categorized shatter nearly all the assumptions typically made about child sex traffickers. Maricel could be classified under a number of previously unimagined terms; a pregnant woman and mother as both pedophile and online pornographer, though acting without sexual desire and with the economic need to deliver another child. Additionally, she could also be classified as an incest abuser in a country which criminalizes incest, an offence assumed to be perpetrated by men (see Wiss 2010). Such shocking cases of the made-to-order sexual abuse of Filipino children for foreign customers have been seen to herald an apocalyptic vision of hyper-exploitation. The Internet is imagined as an inexorable and globally reaching new technology which stretches into Filipino villages, homes, the family, a mother’s heart. A reach that always has tangible effects:

No touch, no damage
Some parents, a social worker echoed, find nothing wrong with it. Go figure. They’re not guilty of putting their kids in harm’s way, said the arrested parents, since the supposed predator behind the computer screen is thousands of miles away… Another social worker debunked as a “myth” that no touching takes place. Probably not between predator and prey. But the children themselves, she said, touch and are made to perform all sorts of sexual acts on each other (Vergara 2014).

A further account of anti-trafficking raids in Cordova state:

Philippines – Authorities have arrested a couple and rescued their three daughters in an anticyberpornography operation in Barangay Ibabao, Cordova late yesterday afternoon. The rescued children were aged 11, 12, and 16, said Senior Insp. Ma. Theresa Macatangay, head of the Regional Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force (RATTF). RATTF personnel were accompanied by representatives of the International Justice Mission, Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), Department of Justice, and United States Department of Homeland Security during the operation (Braga in The Freeman, 30 March 2014).

What is significant about this report is some of the organizations included in this intervention. The Philippine government’s Regional Anti-trafficking Task Force participated and there were also several US government agencies and NGOs operating. The Internet webcam traffic from Cebu was intercepted in the United States by the US’s Homeland Security Office. In the name of the US’s ‘War on Terror’, justifications have been made for the necessity of intercepting and reading Internet traffic, whether domestic or in overseas locations. US Homeland Security, which also has an office in Manila, undertakes this Internet policing in the name of border protection, as it includes US Customs. The Office of Homeland Security contains an Internet child protection agency, which could be argued is a public relations arm of governmental surveillance: the protection of children from web-based pornography traffic.

The other organization identified is the International Justice Mission (IJM) a US-based, evangelical, anti-trafficking NGO specializing in human rights-based legal practice (see Bernstein 2010, Wiss 2013). With the permission of the Philippine government, the IJM trains and finances prosecutions against traffickers, as ‘in-country’ anti-trafficking service providers. The IJM receives funding from USAID and its stateside religious congregations, and also from leaders in the new technology industry. With an office in Cebu, its recent focus has been on projects relating to the prosecution of child sex trafficking, such as Project Lantern, in part funded by Microsoft through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Wiss 2013). Furthermore, many of the giant IT industries such as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo have provided large amounts of funding to counter the use of the Internet in the sex trafficking of children.

It was a result of the webcam child sex scandal in Cebu that the Netherlands-based child protection NGO, Terres Des Hommes was to use this very technology in the Sweetie sting in 2013 (see This sting involved contracting an anonymous local animation company to create an avatar of a photorealistic, animated, interactive 10-year-old Filipina girl christened ‘Sweetie’. Terre des Homme’s report, Web-cam child sex tourism; becoming Sweetie: a novel approach to stopping the global rise of Webcam Child Sex Tourism (2014) argues that the organization realized the need for a ‘proactive’ rather than ‘reactive’ surveillance of the webcam industry to entice pedophiles into self-exposure. They assert that they only undertook legal activities, refuting the need to hack into computers, and instead used ‘social hacking’, or social engagement and the drawing out of self-disclosure to ‘lure’ these ‘predators’. Clients would then wire transfer US $20 and provide their Skype address, leaving an electronic trace. Meanwhile, online investigators searched their computers for other identifying features that they gathered and passed on to Dutch national police and Interpol.

Journalist Kristen Schweizer (2014) writes of the undercover process:

Some 20,000 people contacted Sweetie during the eight weeks she was online last year, while researchers in an Amsterdam warehouse used keystrokes to turn her head, make her stare attentively or reach to adjust her webcam. After luring men in with the hyper-realistic animation, the group gathered emails, Facebook pages and head shots, then cut off contact before Sweetie engaged in sexual acts. It then gave dossiers on 1000 suspects in scores of countries to Interpol.

While 20,000 were attracted to the site, online investigators were able to use Sweetie to identify and report 1,000 alleged sex offenders in only two months. All but one of these were male, coming from over 71 countries. Terre des Hommes argues that these methods did not comprise ‘entrapment ‘as they only investigated viewers who pursued sexual contact with a girl they thought was 10 years old. There is, however, some question about whether various legal systems will treat this procedure as entrapment and also queries about the ethics of ‘online vigilantism’ (McGuinness 2013). The Sweetie sting’s first arrest was of a 37-year-old Australian man. Australian Federal Police were able to trace the man and prosecute him not for attempted sexual engagement with the avatar Sweetie, but his real-world acted-upon desires and activities evidenced by his possession of child pornography on USB drives and his personal computer.

Schweizer (2014) presents an image of the Internet as both source and solution to the problem of child pornography:

As the Internet makes it easier for people to find and distribute child pornography, companies and organisations are creating technological tools to fight it. Microsoft has software that matches photos, even if they’ve been altered, so police can concentrate on new images surfacing online. Adobe Systems’ Photoshop helps identify victims with tools that sharpen pictures to unearth clues. Google blocks search terms related to child pornography.

In line with their allegiance to the US and its War on Terror and subsequent focus on border control, the government of the Philippines has sought ways to deal with cybercrime and security. The Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 (Republic Act No. 10175) aims to address illegal online interactions, including concerns with cybersex, child pornography, identity theft, data theft and libel. The Act’s most contentious issue has involved its provision on criminalizing libel and the subsequent threat to freedom of expression.

In the intervening time, in a case that I find hard not to think of as ‘the Internet strikes back’, some Filipinos running webcam sex businesses were charged with ‘cyber-extortion’. As prostitution is illegal in the Philippines, organized criminality often infiltrates bars which are selling sex, as police and political protection are required. As pornography is also illegal, though presumably more covert, it is not surprising that these associations occur in relation to cyberporn businesses. Crucially, webcams can film and record on both sides of the lens. Filipino operators were able to use the two-way function of webcams to film many hundreds of clients having cybersex, material that was consequently used to blackmail them. The suicide of a UK minor due to this extortion subsequently led to narratives about victimization on the other side of the camera, including ironically of Western minors. The official Interpol intervention was named Operation Strike Back, indicating that these mutual, often highly unequal and historically embedded, cyber-encounters will be ongoing.



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