The role of stigma
By many measures, from working without brokers to supporting their families financially, women who exchange sex in Mongolia demonstrate significant independence and responsibility. Based on such characteristics, these women could be considered to represent the national identity of a progressive Mongol woman, and a progressive Mongol State. However, given the simultaneously influential gender ideology around women’s bodies as a tool for Mongolian cultural preservation and women’s traditional role as wife and mother, our research has found that women’s engagement in sex work is more often viewed as shameful. Using their sexuality for purposes other than reproduction, potentially engaging in sex with foreigners, and not always having intimate partners, women who exchange sex threaten the traditional, conservative nationalist understanding of gender. As a result, a strong stigma exists around sex work and women who exchange sex in Mongolia.
Women who exchange sex report feeling isolated, lonely, ashamed and unable to share their work status with others who know them. Social stigma often becomes internalised, with women reporting feeling shame and self-loathing. According to one woman engaged in sex work,
I am afraid that [my] family and friends will find out about me. My kids, they are sweet and holy little things. Sometimes I hate myself and [will] not allow myself [to] kiss them with my filthy mouth (Age 28, Ulaanbaatar).
(Witte, Batsukh, and Chang 2010: 97)
Most women indicate that they would like to leave sex work, but, in addition to losing the needed income, the stigma of being a sex worker will remain even after they have ceased to be sex workers. Despite these challenges, many women do choose to leave sex work to pursue vocational training or start businesses.
This stigma may be intensified for women who engage in sex with foreign clients or leave Mongolia to engage in sex work in another country. The dominant nationalist values result in women receiving physical or verbal abuse if they are seen in a public space in the company of a foreign man (Tumursukh 2001). In 2009, a YouTube video showed a young woman’s hair being shorn to humiliate her for allegedly having had sexual relations with a Chinese man. In his analysis of this event, Bille suggests that by staying faithful to men of Mongol ethnicity, women are, thus, staying ‘faithful to the nation’ (Bille this volume). The low population of Mongolia and its proximity to highly populated Russia and China heighten concerns of ethnic preservation.
Further complicating women’s struggle between stigma and economic necessity, conducting sex work with foreign clients — or leaving Mongolia to engage in sex work in other countries — is considered to be more profitable. Chinese men, in particular, are rumoured to be wealthy and, thus, desirable clients. If known or suspected of exchanging sex with foreigners, women experience magnified shame or attack for putting their own needs above their community and country (Bille this volume). Thus, women who exchange sex in Mongolia find themselves in a treacherous situation of negotiating perceived disloyalty to their nation, intense stigma and shame, and the financial realities of poverty.