Sex Work in Southeast Asia: The Place of Desire in a Time of AIDS

Sex Work in Southeast Asia: The Place of Desire in a Time of AIDS

Sex Work in Southeast Asia: The Place of Desire in a Time of AIDS

Sex Work in Southeast Asia: The Place of Desire in a Time of AIDS

Synopsis

This is a cultural critique of HIV/AIDS prevention programmes targeting sex tourism industries in Southeast Asia. It highlights how feminist and postcolonial politics shape practices of global AIDS prevention.

Excerpt

In the late 1980s Asia was designated the new epicentre of HIV/AIDS, and a diverse assortment of commercial sex activities were grouped together under the rubric of ‘sex work’. Sexual encounters negotiating different sexualities and genders, different classes, races and ethnicities, went under the epidemiological microscope, and became the subject matter of health professionals, activists, academics and government agencies. ‘Sex workers’, as they are increasingly called, thus emerged in the global discourse of HIV/AIDS—and in a manner conditioned by ideological debate. Representations of Southeast Asian sex workers as victims of the global political economy, as casualties of tourism development as well as prey to (and vectors for) a deadly virus became particularly prevalent in the 1990s, gaining a new and transnational coherence.

While AIDS research in Southeast Asia has revealed multiple forms of paid sex, as well as different levels of foreign involvement, AIDS prevention activities have continued to place a strategic emphasis on paid sexual relations between Western men and Asian women. The major preoccupation of these projects and programmes is the extent to which contact with foreign men implicates women in the local spread of HIV, and how to prevent the contaminating influence of foreign sexual relations. Prevention activities are influenced by popular and academic texts, where portrayals of HIV infection highlight the crucial role of sex tourism in bringing HIV to countries in the region and how this predicament reproduces long traditions of foreign exploitation. The sex worker’s body becomes conflated with nation, invaded by foreign powers and infected with a fatal virus. Such fetishized representations permeate AIDS education activities, and are interrogated in this book.

It is important to acknowledge how foreign sex industries are implicated in the spread of HIV, but the tropes of male power and Western dominance in the region have marginalized the voices of sex industry workers themselves. Dichotomous models of power permeate AIDS prevention discourse—that is, the colonized/colonizer binary of nationalist discourse as well as feminist discourses of masculine oppression and female subordination—reinserting stereotypical images of Asian women as passive and exploited

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