Professional Girlfriends: a letter


Dr. Hoefinger:

The results of your seven years of research as summed in your article “A Woman’s Work” left me rather disappointed. I recently read said article in Southeast Asia Globe Magazine, and what disturbed me was how thoroughly saturated it is in Patriarchy.

I am not necessarily pro or anti-prostitution or systems related to it (transactional sex and so on), but I do question any cultural system which homogenizes an individual’s identity based on “lump categories” like ethnicity, gender, age, etc., which is exactly what prostitution, bar work, and karaoke-singing in Cambodia do. It also functions within and perpetuates Patriarchy. I am compelled to question a situation (be it career, school, family-related, etc.) wherein a group of people is conspicuously absent or present. I find bar work in Phnom Penh troubling precisely because it is all young, economically disadvantaged Southeast Asian girls and women.

Your article highlights several young women who chose to go to the city for bar work. Opening with a discussion with one professional girlfriend about the benefits of her work, I was immediately overwhelmed by a sense that her identity and values were shaped around high-profile consumption, that she is fixated on consumerism and the associated prestige. As you introduce and quote a few more women, a world of hyperconsumption emerges: individual women are themselves being consumed, even as they struggle for means to further their own consumption. (On a brief tangent, does any person “subscribe” to capitalism, as you say, or aren’t we all just born into it?) On the one hand, a very shallow picture is painted of greedy women preoccupied with make-up, clothing, gold jewelry. On the other, we’re told they are “virtuous” as they provide for their families back home and take care of themselves. Either way they are fulfilling the opposite but equally stereotypical expectations of the Patriarchy.

This representation of ‘virtue’ further irritates my feminist sensibilities, particularly as how it connects to the family. Within the traditional (some would say ‘ideal’) Patriarchal Khmer family, women are constantly relegated to lower positions than their male counterparts. The expectation exists that females will provide for the family in ways which compliment male contributions, but which often become exploitative. The ‘freedom’ and ‘adventure’ bar workers experience perhaps offsets this exploitation to a degree, but still at the risk of harmful stigmatization. The burden of family honor placed on young (particularly marriageable) women is as much an item of Patriarchy as is the consumption of female sexuality. This is the shortcoming I see in affirmatory studies and articles on sex workers, bar workers, and karaoke workers again and again: simply approving of the ‘chosen careers’ of such women does little to ground their ‘choices’ in reality.

One might ask how real a ‘choice’ it is to opt for the ‘freedom’ of bar work over work in the provinces. Thus is it necessarily a gendered choice; we see few boys pimping or sexually commodifying themselves in order to attain material security, prestige, or just to get by (indeed they exist, but the point is we don’t see them). Yet women who commodify their own sexuality to fulfill male sexual pleasure, stigmatized as they are, are highly visible and are in high demand. Here is the aspect of bar work that I felt your article failed to address: how is sexual commodification (here in the form of bar work, professional girlfriendry, and transactional sex) a gendered phenomenon, and how does it affect the overall sociocultural status of Cambodian women? Indeed, of all women?

Part of me thinks your article was merely written to appeal to the masses– with sex appeal, quite obviously. Even the title of your article degrades the potential seriousness of the subject, while simultaneously upholding the Patriarchal standard: “A Woman’s Work”, really? It seems to be a most disappointing subscription to Patriarchal norms.

I appreciate your intimate use of participant observation. But the problem with this research method is that it can become too personal; I wonder if it didn’t for you? Being too close to a situation or subject can blind us to a broader, deeper context. Perhaps in your effort to portray such women as self-reliant, capable, and career-oriented, you allowed yourself to overlook the more desperate aspects both of their individual situations and the situation of women in Cambodia in general.

This you did not do in your article, “In This Place, We Are Kin” (which really only reaffirms my thoughts about mass appeal); in “A Woman’s Work”, you make no mention of the potential long term outcomes of transactional sex and bar work. You give a very detailed account of one such worker in “In This Place”, however, and I think it would have edified SEAGlobe readers to have read about her. Whereas bar work once allotted her personal freedom and stability, it ultimately does not provide realistic long-term support, and after encountering economic hardship she feels obligated to marry someone she does not love in order to survive. Her chosen career path may seem like a far cry from the textile workers and farmers in the provinces, but the end result is very much the same: unable to support themselves and their families (through no fault of their own), they are forced into relationships which are, verily, exchanges of sex for security– transactional sex, as someone would say.

I do intend to read your book when it comes out next year. You must still be writing it; if it is more of “A Woman’s Work”, expect more pejorative letters. If you decide to give a less single-minded account of the experience Cambodian bar workers, I might even buy it.

Best,

Lee Solomon

p.s. One could really go on, too, about the abysmal absence of aspects of sexual violence, but we can save that for another time.

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