Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

When Push Comes to Shove: Sites of Vulnerability, Personal Transformation, and Trafficked Women's Migration Decisions

Academic journal article SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia

When Push Comes to Shove: Sites of Vulnerability, Personal Transformation, and Trafficked Women's Migration Decisions

Article excerpt

Introduction

In this article I explore the reasons women from the "Third World" continue en masse to migrate to more developed regions globally for tenuous and vaguely understood work opportunities, particularly in the entertainment and service sectors where there are often strong associations with prostitution. Specifically, I focus on Filipino and Russian women working as "entertainers" in South Korea (hereafter referred to as Korea), where the term "entertainer" does indeed carry negative connotations of various forms of sexual labour and where Korea is fast developing a reputation in the Asian region as a major destination for sex trafficked women. I focus particularly on how women describe their lives at home prior to migration, which both helps to understand why they would "take their chances" in a volatile and extremely challenging context like Korea, and also why "ambivalent return" (Suzuki 2002, p. 99; Constable 1999) marks their reflections about returning to their homeland once in Korea. By recounting Filipino and Russian women's stories about their broader lives at home I aim to reveal the types of experiences that commonly contribute to women's decisions to go abroad in situations where they may be vulnerable to sexual and other forms of exploitation.

My contention here is that women vulnerable to trafficking in their migration processes generally have an extremely low self-esteem and sense of self-worth, which is developed through the context of both personal relationships and societal norms in their home countries prior to migration or as a result of previous migration experiences. The decision to migrate could be contained in a single, life-changing event or the coalescence of various experiences over time, but the explanation for many women's decisions to become migrant entertainers can ultimately be traced to the destructive impact of these personal and societal contexts. According to stories about their lives that participants shared with me, negotiating this context on a day-to-day basis over time can often lead women to reach a point of despair or despondency about their futures. At this point women often attempt to turn these feelings into transnational hopes crystallized in the form of migration strategies. Further, women's negative self-perceptions tend to be extremely well-understood by trafficking/migration agents (in the case of entertainers these agents are called "talent agencies", "promotion agencies", or "recruiters") who play on women's negative experiences at home in developing imaginaries of personal transformation abroad. Agent's positive constructions of work abroad as entertainers are sometimes perpetuated by "stories of success" from returnees who demonstrate not only material betterment (1) but perhaps more importantly, as women of the world, gaining valuable experiences and skills, and ultimately achieving the personal transformation they imagined previously. As such, geographical movements come to be seen by women intending to migrate as intimately connected to desires for personal transformation as well as the more traditionally discussed desire for heightened economic mobility.

In existing studies of women trafficked for prostitution the causes of trafficking tend to be located in women's circumstances prior to migration. These circumstances are normally limited to a few key push and pull factors that reinforce stereotypical understanding of these women as, for example, trapped by a combination of poverty and familial obligations. Several participants in this study were, in fact, primarily concerned with remitting money to their families. These women were generally shouldering the greatest share of the responsibility as breadwinners for their families and/or their own children. However, while it is important not to underestimate the role of economic circumstances or affective obligations in women's migration decisions, or to discount the relevance of individualistic agendas identified more recently by some, this article makes two different claims. …

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