Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Offloaded: Women's Sex Work Migration across the South China Sea and the Gendered Antitrafficking Emigration Policy of the Philippines

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Offloaded: Women's Sex Work Migration across the South China Sea and the Gendered Antitrafficking Emigration Policy of the Philippines

Article excerpt

Introduction

Adelle had just arrived from the Philippines for a short visit in Hong Kong when I met her in the summer of 2011. I soon learned that since 2006 Adelle has been making regular visits to Hong Kong, where she travels as a tourist and works as an independent sex worker in nightclubs frequented by male expatriates and business travelers from western countries. A single mother in her late thirties, Adelles primary source of income is prostitution. For her, the ability to migrate across the South China Sea affords her an economic mobility otherwise denied in the Philippines; and expanding her markets to include Macao and Singapore-extending her time in multiple Asian countries-enables her to further maximize the rewards of her sexual labor. Typically Adelle traverses the South China Sea between Hong Kong, Singapore, and Macao for about three to four and a half months before returning to the Philippines. While she finds migrating as a tourist stressful, she also relishes that she is her own boss and is able to control certain elements of her migration and labor, including going home to her son regularly. Despite such control over her migration, in recent years Adelle has faced increasing restrictions on her ability to work overseas because the Philippine government considers migrant women workers like her vulnerable to human trafficking.

In this article, I describe the migration of freelance or independent sex workers like Adelle and examine the impacts of the Philippine government's efforts to control their ability to cross borders. I analyze the effects of the antitrafficking policy of "offloading" which prevents suspected victims of human trafficking, illegal recruitment, and undocumented workers from leaving the country. I argue that a "masculinist logic of protection" (Young 2003), coupled with gendered and classed assumptions about migrant vulnerability, undergirds this policy. I illustrate how the antitrafficking policy of offloading evinces the state's logic of "benevolent paternalism," which is defined by Rhacel Parreñas (2008) as the culture of restricting migrant women's freedom purportedly for their own best interest. My discussion establishes that even though the campaign against human trafficking is considered a critical global feminist project (Doezema 2010), gendered antitrafficking emigration policies may have the contradictory effects of limiting women's freedom of movement.

This essay offers two scholarly interventions: First, it attempts to expand our knowledge of migrant sex workers. Despite their ubiquity across the globe, we know little about their experiences because, as Laura Agustín argues, they have been ignored by migration scholars (2006). Instead, scholarship on migrant sex workers is subsumed under human trafficking debates that are bifurcated by two competing ideological positions on prostitution, namely new abolitionist and nonabolitionist feminists (Chuang 2010). New abolitionists propose the abolition of prostitution which they see as inherently violent and degrading toward women. They do not distinguish between voluntary and involuntary prostitution, arguing instead that all women working in the sex industry are sex-trafficked persons (Barry 1995; MacKinnon 2011). In contrast, nonabolitionist feminists contest the criminalization of prostitution, and make a distinction between those who voluntarily engage in sex work and those who are forced into it. While some view sex work as an expression of sexual freedom (Chapkis 1997), others consider sex work as an income-generating practice amidst increasingly limited employment options for women (Chuang 2010; Kempadoo and Doezema 1998). Analyzing the lives of migrant sex workers beyond these confining ideological debates, select feminist scholars have begun in recent years to empirically examine the migration of sex workers, offering nuanced analyses on how the control of migration brokers, and not necessarily the nature of sex work,1 can produce migrant vulnerability (Andrijasevic 2010; Parreñas 2011). …

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