Mark Pendleton

The politics of sex and sexuality in East Asia has a long history of crossing borders. We know, for example, that Japanese sex workers were migrating to the imperial borderlands of China from about the 1850s, attracting bureaucratic attention from policy makers and public intellectuals in the process (Driscoll 2010: 61—62; Mackie and Tanji in this volume). Wartime cases of cross-border sex work and enforced military prostitution led to later political battles over the transnational memory of these processes between those who were called ‘comfort women’ and the historians, writers and political figures who came to take an interest in their experiences (Gluck 2002: 192—234). The arrival of US forces in Japan after 1945 radically reshaped sex workers’ lives and the regulatory frameworks placed upon them by authorities (Kovner 2012). From the 1970s, women’s liberationists and other feminists in East Asia focused attention on the politics of women’s sexuality, often forging links with their sisters across national borders (Shigematsu 2012; Shigematsu in this volume; Welker 2010), a process that has continued in differing forms to recent decades (Mackie 2001: 180—206). Since the emergence of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s, we have also seen an increased focus on sexual health, human rights, and identity politics across the countries of the region (Piper and Yeoh 2005: 1—5; Hood in this volume; Kawaguchi in this volume).

While the transnational nature of both sexual experiences and sexual politics may not be empirically new in East Asia, interest in thinking about sexuality in a transnational frame began relatively recently. Studies of sexuality have typically been focused within national boundaries, as sexual politics is often structured around specific national and cultural concerns. Since the late 1990s, however, scholars have begun to focus their attention on how sexuality functions across and between national boundaries. For Elizabeth Povinelli and George Chauncey (1999: 446), ‘thinking sexuality transnationally’ reflects the need to ‘map the movements of people, capital, and images across national boundaries; follow the desires, aspirations, and desperations that prompted these movements; and chronicle the effects of these movements on sexual sub­jectivities, identification and intimate practices’. Geographer Richard Phillips (2006: 9—10) has argued that sites of sexuality politics are ‘mutually connected… [making it] necessary to investigate the relationships between places, personal and institutional, biographical and social, informal and formal’. The ‘transnational turn’ in sexuality studies suggests an increased focus on the in-between spaces of politics and thought and on the agency of those moving through these spaces. This focus was initiated by a broader transnational turn in the humanities and social sciences.

One of the key thinkers of this trend is Aihwa Ong. For Ong (1999), the need to focus on transnational events and activities is a necessary result of the changing nature of human movement and interaction, which is connected to broader transformations in global capitalism. Writing in response to David Harvey (1989), Ong argued that it was important to focus on the ‘horizontal and relational nature of the contemporary economic, social, and cultural processes that stream across spaces’ as well as the way these processes exist within different regimes of power (1999: 4). Capitalism created new forms of flexibility, and corresponding processes of globalisation resulted in an intensification of human interactions, cultural interconnectedness and mobility. These combined to provide new opportunities for humans to be agents of change and not simply passive subjects of the newly flexible capital.

In the increasingly connected and mobile world we live in, the terrain of sexual politics is less constrained by national borders than ever before. East Asia is no exception. Workers in sex-related industries move around the region seeking employment, often from less wealthy locations in places like Thailand to more wealthy ones, such as Japan (Aoyama 2009). The new middle classes in places like South Korea, Taiwan and China travel abroad for tourism, reversing that movement and often seeking marriage and other sexual partners in the process (Yang and Lu 2010). Ideas and practices seep into and out of the region and across borders within East Asia through film, television, print media, human migration and telecommunications (Berry, Martin and Yue 2003).

Rather than attempting to cover all of these potential topics, in this chapter I focus on two specific examples which represent some of the key tensions in thinking about transnational sexual politics in the region now — the changing transnational politics of human rights and identity recognition and the politicisation of migrant sex work in frameworks of ‘trafficking’ and ‘slavery’. Tensions around sexual politics in East Asia exist in relation to the following interconnected questions:

What forms do contemporary identity politics in the region take, and how do these relate to transnational models?

How do nation-states, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and individual actors relate to structures of global governance?

What function does the (possibly fading) global hegemon, the United States, play in relation to these two questions?

The first example I have chosen reflects what might be seen as a positive outcome of pressure from NGOs and individuals, resulting in the international recognition that people suffer discrimination and violence on the basis of their perceived membership of certain categories of sexual or gender identity. Recognition of this as a problem accelerated after a conference of international legal and human rights experts in Yogyakarta, Indonesia in 2006, which developed a set of principles on how to apply international human rights law in relation to sexual orien­tation and gender identity (Yogyakarta Principles 2006; see also Sanders in this volume). The second example follows how a particular form of sexual practice has been placed within ideo­logical frameworks that subject it to transnational surveillance and criminalisation. In both of these examples, institutions of global governance such as the United Nations and transnational surveillance like the US Department of State play a central role. These examples, as we will see below, also emerge in response to and help shape transnational organising around sex and sexuality.

To explore these manifestations of transnational sexual politics requires some engagement with how sex, identity and cross-cultural interaction have been understood. First, it is important to acknowledge that local discourses of sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity shape individual politics and experience. Localised experiences, however, also come into contact with political frameworks which are applied transnationally and which function to shape, control or police sexual expression. The inequality inherent in systems of political power means that it is necessary to think about how these two different trajectories of the local and the transnational intersect. It is not enough, however, to simply respond to the existence of unequal power relations by relying uncritically on local knowledge and/or experience as a counterpoint to the hegemonic. As Naoki Sakai (2000: 801) has argued in a different context, responding to Euro­American political dominance through a recourse to local specificities only reinforces a binary between the ‘putative unity of the West, the dominant and universalistic position… sustained by the insistence on the equally putative unity of Asia, the subordinate and particularistic position’. Both of these halves need to be interrogated, and nowhere more so than in relation to sexuality. Grewal and Kaplan (2001: 670) point out that ‘[n]ation-states, economic formations, consumer cultures, and forms of governmentality all work together to produce and uphold subjectivities and communities. [and this means] that we cannot think of sexual subjects as purely oppo­sitional or resistant to dominant institutions that produce heteronormativity’. The relationship between identity, local cultures, transnational norms and the reproduction of power structures is complex, as we will see below.