Hostess life: "What I learned by being a migrant sex worker in Japan"

Bloomberg News has published a two-part, first-person investigative piece by Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, on the lives of Filipina sex workers in Tokyo, Japan. To study the living and working conditions of these "hostess bar" migrant laborers, Parrenas became one.

The Bloomberg pieces are excerpts from her new book “Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo,” released this week by Stanford University Press.

Here is part 1. And here is part 2.

The Bloomberg excerpts are fascinating, as is the book, for providing an unusual glimpse inside a world most of us will never witness first-hand.

I spent nine months in Tokyo working as a hostess in a working-class club in one of the city’s many red-light districts, frequented by members of the yakuza, the Japanese crime syndicates. This type of place, in a seedy location, owned by a proprietor with a questionable background, was often assumed to be a site of forced prostitution.

In 2005 and 2006, I resorted to this work as a way of gaining access to the world of Filipina hostesses in Japan. During my first three months in Tokyo, I had struggled to meet hostesses willing to participate in my study of their conditions. My visits to clubs as a customer had not provided any solid leads.

Attending church with fellow Filipinas had not gained their trust. Even hostesses whom I befriended had always declined my request for an interview. I had assumed that they had experienced emotional distress from the stigma associated with their occupation. I had come to Japan believing claims by other academics that “hostess work” was a euphemism for “prostitution.”

After I began working as a hostess, every person I approached agreed to talk to me. By the end of my study, I had completed interviews with 56 Filipina hostesses: 45 females and 11 male-to-female transgendered individuals. After working just one week in a hostess bar, I realized I had entered an unfamiliar sexual world, where people are more open about their sexuality, where both customers and hostesses seem to be ready for extramarital affairs, and where men can sexually harass women with no punishment.

Parrenas takes the position that "unsubstantiated claims of the forced prostitution of Filipina hostesses are morally charged, and divert attention from the need for regulation and protection of sex workers." Laws to prevent abuse by middlemen brokers in the sex industry would do more to improve the lives of these migrant women than eliminating their jobs, she argues.

"Hostesses don’t need to be rescued," Parrenas writes, "They need the empowerment that comes from being independent labor migrants. Only then can they remain gainfully employed, free of migrant brokers, and have full control of their own lives."

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