In recent years the issue of cross-border migration to work in the sexual service industry has come in for much media, popular and academic attention, which typically manifests as a trans­national panic around sex trafficking (Cacciotolo 2012; Cizmar, Conklin and Hinman 2011; Kim 2011). The result of this panic has been increased surveillance of the sex industry, large-scale national government interventions and international monitoring systems. These are led primarily by the United States, which now ranks governments on their compliance with its self-defined anti-trafficking measures (Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, n. d.).

In June 2012, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched the most recent annual Trafficking in Persons report, one of the major tools of this monitoring. Clinton identified the basis of this US concern as being initially about the sex industry. ‘I’ve worked on this issue now for more than a dozen years’, she said, ‘[a]nd when we started… we were particularly concerned about what we saw as an explosion of the exploitation of people, most especially women, who were being quote, “trafficked” into the sex trade and other forms of servitude’. This annual report is now concerned with broader ideas of transnational labour migration and exploitation, what Clinton calls ‘modern slavery’. While global in nature, there has often been a strong focus on ‘sex trafficking’ in East Asia. The 2004 and 2005 reports, for example, claimed that the then 80,000 Filipino women working in hostess clubs in Japan were the largest trafficked population in the world (US Department of State 2004, 2005). The increased attention to the sex industry by these transnational methods of surveillance has also prompted large-scale growth in political movements of sex workers demanding rights and freedom from harassment in their workplaces (Kim 2011; APNSW 2007).

Debates over the relationship between sex, labour and migration have been a particular concern for feminists for much of the last 100 years (Duggan and Hunter 2006). On one side of these debates are those who see prostitution as either a symptom of moral corruption or of gendered inequality (Jeffreys 1997), in which case the abolition of the industry is often the primary desired outcome. On the other side are those who favour forms of legalisation or decriminalisation of the industry as necessary steps in the improvement of sex workers’ lives, often using the language of liberal rights or sex positivity to explain their politics (Nagle 1997). For some contemporary conservative and so-called ‘radical’ feminists, ‘sex trafficking’ represents the most extreme end of an industry that is fundamentally about the exploitation of women victims by men. These groups therefore call for massive legal, administrative and other inter­ventions, including police and immigration raids of sex establishments, the criminalisation of the industry and/or of the clients of sex workers. Despite resistance, these groups have had marked success in shifting the debate around sex work from a discussion of the ethics of work and the politics of sexuality to a moral outrage over gendered exploitation and ‘modern slavery’, bringing large-scale state and transnational intervention with it.

For sex workers, and their unions, organisations and allies, the notion that there is a modern ‘sex slavery’ crisis is reminiscent of earlier moral panics over sex work and women’s migration. One such panic was the fictitious ‘white slavery’ phenomenon in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which used fears of trafficked white women as a justification for campaigns against sex work and for limiting the mobility of women migrants (Doezema 2010). For sex workers and their allies, the contemporary crisis of sex trafficking originates from similar cultural fears around the social impact of women’s sexuality and mobility and the ongoing suspicion that women who work in these industries, particularly those who cross borders to work, cannot have chosen to do so. While the concept of choice is undoubtedly a qualified one within global power systems, it is peculiar that critics typically focus only on the perceived inability of (some) women to make choices, however constrained they may be. Male and transgender sex workers are also largely left out of the story altogether, despite evidence that they constitute a significant segment of the workforce (Kong 2011: 139—44).

Sex work advocates have also highlighted the negative impact of anti-trafficking measures on workers, many of whom are removed from their workplaces and forced into retraining pro­grammes by what Laura Agustin (2007: 4) has termed a ‘rescue industry’ of NGOs, governments and religious organisations, akin to the alliances that Josephine Ho is concerned about in Taiwan. The marked contrast between government, media and NGO reports of a mass scourge of sex trafficking and the responses from sex workers, their organisations and allies, has led many to think more carefully about the nature of migration and human trafficking, particularly in the context of the sex industry.

In East Asia, recent re-evaluations of the politics of transnational sex work have taken both academic and activist forms. Academics have largely used the tools of ethnography as a means to explore these politics. Sealing Cheng (2010) studied the network of camp towns (gijichon) that were established near US military bases in South Korea over the decades since the Korean War and which thrived on an economy built on cheap alcohol, music and sex. The sexual service industries in the gijichon had originally been staffed largely by Korean women, but as the Korean economy boomed in the 1990s and many women obtained work in other industries, migrant workers from ex-Soviet states and from South East Asia moved in to take their place (see also Barraclough in this volume; Mackie and Tanji in this volume). For Cheng (2010: 24), ethno­graphy is an important tool, as the requirement for long-term, close contact with research subjects allows insight into the ‘complexity of women’s involvement in sex work… [providing] a contextual understanding of global and local structures of inequalities that engender marginalisation and violence’. Ethnography also allows for ‘an understanding of women’s crea­tive responses to their subordination, as well as the blurring of an overly simplistic binary understanding of power relationships between men and women’ (Cheng 2010: 24). What Cheng reveals is that singular labels adopted by either side of the debate limit understanding and cannot ‘capture the multiple subjectivities and experiences of these women, just as no single structure of power can explain their vulnerabilities’ (Cheng 2010: 223).

Kaoru Aoyama (2009) conducted fieldwork with migrant workers in Thailand and Japan, complicating the simplistic divide between ‘victims’ (as much of the trafficking industry would understand sex workers) and ‘freely chosen labourers’, which is one of the base positions of some of the more liberal sex worker advocates. While Aoyama is careful to identify her work as a feminist who has not been a sex worker, she ultimately argues that the ‘“freedom” in “freely chosen” and the “legitimacy” of “legitimate labour” … prove to be variegated concepts depending heavily on social conditions’ (Aoyama 2009: 39; see also Aoyama in this volume). As in Cheng’s research, Aoyama’s realisation of the complexity of the industry and of sex workers’ life experiences results in a necessary complication of the politics of sex work and a resistance to a simplistic understanding of cross-border migration to work in the sex industry as ‘trafficking’.

Similar insights can be found in the work of Rhafel Salazar Parrenas (2011), who spent nine months in and around hostess clubs in Tokyo in 2005 and 2006, working primarily with Filipino migrant women. Parrenas initially assumed that these hostesses were trafficked women in enforced prostitution, citing the abovementioned US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) reports (US Department of State 2004; 2005). While these reports had the intended result of attracting Japanese state attention to this migrant population, they also led to a massive reduction in the number of Filipino hostesses on work contracts in Japan, a drop of about 90 per cent to just over 8,600 in 2006 (US Department of State 2007). Over the course of Parrenas’ research, her understanding of her research subjects changed. Ultimately, Parrenas argued that this massive reduction in migrant workers, a result that the transnational anti-trafficking campaign saw as a victory, was actually a ‘setback to the emancipation of women… [which] stripped thousands of migrant women of their livelihood, forcing them to stay at home and helping to reverse the trend in Philippine gendered migration’ (Parrenas 2011: 4).

While ethnographies such as these have helped to complicate the story and to reveal the variegated experiences of sex workers, they have not been so successful in combatting the growth of anti-trafficking measures on a transnational scale, a project that has been largely left as a battle between well-resourced ‘rescue industries’ (Agustin 2010) with the backing of (US and other) state infrastructures and the much more marginal sex worker rights movements. This difficulty reveals that it is not enough to focus on the simple existence of transnational social movements, but rather we need to interrogate their nature. As Cheng (2010: 218) argues, a transnational activist network has the power to transform society, but the nature of that trans­formation depends on both the political ethics underpinning that movement and the ideas of justice that are subsequently brought to bear to resolve the perceived problem.

If this transnational network operates to impose a particular sexual morality, feminist ideology and nationalist ideal on the poor and working classes, it is obliterating the voices and visions of the individuals it claims to serve. Whatever their successes on the stage of international politics, anti-trafficking activists risk creating another disciplinary regime with which individuals have to contend in pursuit of alternative possibilities and dreams.

The particular disciplinary regime that Cheng is referring to is something that sex workers have been battling for some time, particularly in East Asia. In fact, if it were not for the activism of workers themselves it is questionable that these debates would be on the academic agenda at all. One of the more prominent of the sex worker networks in the region is the Hong Kong-based organisation Zi Teng (www. ziteng. org. hk/) which has, since the 1990s, been working in both Hong Kong and mainland China providing resources to sex workers, including those who migrate to work. In a 2003 report (Kempadoo 2012: 151), Yim Yuet-Lin and Anita Koo from Zi Teng argue that their work on the cross-border migration of sex workers is an essential counterpoint to anti-trafficking organisations, whose work ‘pushes the most deprived and mar­ginalised groups — women sex workers — into an unpleasant and dangerous situation under globalisation’. The solution, according to Yim and Koo is to combat trafficking through addressing it as a ‘result of the poor legal and social position of women: as women, as workers and as migrants’ (Kempadoo 2012: 152).

Zi Teng has produced a multilingual downloadable handbook for migrant workers, called ‘Things to Know Before You Go’, which emerged from a 2001 workshop on ‘Building an Effective Network in the Service of Migrant Sex Workers in East and South East Asia’. Australia’s national sex worker organisation Scarlet Alliance also does active outreach to migrant sex worker communities in Australia (many of whose workers are from East Asia) and conducts research to reveal the experiences of these workers (Jeffreys and Perkins 2011). South Korean workers have also been central in developing strategies to resist transnational interventions in their workplaces, through groups such as Minseongnoryeon (Solidarity), the Gan Teo National Union and Giant Girls (Lehmann 2013; see also Barraclough in this volume). Such groups have also been central in the establishment of cross-regional groupings like the Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), based in Thailand. These groups have coordinated a range of transnational advocacy projects on sex workers in the region, as well as promoting a transnational research agenda centred on the needs of workers themselves (Jeffreys 2010; Fawkes 2005). One recent output of this was a collaboration with several United Nations organisations to systematically survey the varying legal frameworks which are in place in the Asia-Pacific on sex work (Godwin 2012). The report outlines best practice for sex work legislation, advocating moves towards decriminalisation as the best for sex workers and for public health and safety, while recognising that progress will need to be undertaken at a national level (Godwin 2012: 30—31).

For migrant and non-migrant sex workers alike, the contemporary transnational focus on sex trafficking results in material and negative impacts on their lives. These effects are not due to the nature ofsex work itself, although there remain significant improvements that can be made to legal and administrative frameworks and to working conditions across the region. Instead, the growth in ‘rescue industries’ and their backing by state and transnational organisations has resulted in limitations on sex workers’ daily lives and on their capacity to move for work. The activism of sex workers and their organisations and the documentation of their experiences through ethnographic and activist research provide a vision of a more productive discourse around migrant sex work. This is founded on the transnational activism of workers themselves, and seeks the transformative possibilities that are opened up by listening to the voices of the affected.

Conclusion

The examples explored in this chapter highlight some of the ways in which a globalised sexual politics plays out transnationally in East Asia today. How are we to understand this in the context of the broader questions I raised above? I suggest that an effective position is one that considers the complexity of the intersections between sexuality and politics in an increasingly globalised world. From the discussion in this chapter, we can see that people have a profound capacity for the reinvention and adaptation of their personal experiences to their social and political contexts. We can also see that the existence of transnational political networks is not in and of itself a positive thing. Instead, as Cheng (2010: 218) has argued, these networks can be responsible for creating new disciplinary regimes that function to ‘obliterate the voices and visions of the individuals [they claim] to serve’.

What is evident is that transnational sexual politics in East Asia remain contested. Some people who identify with categories of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender seek to have those identities defined and protected within transnational agreements and enforced by states. Alongside this is the reality that this codification may over-ride difference and the certainty that it consolidates the power of states and transnational actors to intervene in the lives of everyday people. Similarly, for sex workers, the legal right to work and to move to work is an important political priority, yet this demand comes up against ideologies that see them as subjugated slaves, unable to demand these rights, and which also place them within transnational frameworks of surveillance and compliance. Competing transnational networks present both sides of this ideological contestation.

In order to think about transnational sexual politics in East Asia now, it may be useful to return to the discussion of what ‘transnational’ politics means in the contemporary context and to remember that processes of globalisation are multiple and potentially contradictory. The transnational interactions that the increasing integration of our world have fostered constitute both ‘an imaginative resource… [and] an assemblage of material regulatory structures whose impacts must be engaged in specific national contexts’ (Martin 2011: 118). In terms of sexuality, people will continue to make use of the imaginative resources provided by increasing interac­tion in order to pursue the sexual lives they desire. Alongside this, however, is the reality that this will be constrained by the material conditions of a world in which structures of regulation and surveillance exist at both national and, increasingly, supra-national levels. Which of these competing forces succeeds, and in what forms, will depend on the kinds of transnational inter­actions that are developed in and beyond the region: those that focus on legal proscription and state sanction to protect against certain ‘disrespectable’ forms of sexuality; or those that instead seek to open up possibilities for sexual expression, self-identification and the capacity for people to determine the conditions of their own sexual lives.