AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 136

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Session 136: Passionate Politics: Migrant Logics of Sexuality and Intimacy Across East and Southeast Asia

Organizer: Cheryll Joy B. Alipio, University of Queensland, Australia

Unlike flexible migrants who are able to “respond fluidly and opportunistically to changing political-economic conditions,” the labor sojourners of East and Southeast Asia are endowed with less agency as they are subjected to exceptionally impoverished and exploitative work conditions that limits their mobility and marginalizes their identity (Karam 2001:45-46). As migrants, their partners and children are subject to abuses and other challenges to their human rights and personal well-being, this panel addresses the need to articulate the dynamic and transformative processes of migration within the inter-Asia region. The panel brings together a number of papers situated in sites of struggle and survival in an attempt to understand the emotional and economic investments of migrant workers and marriage migrants through each phase of mobility: pre-departure, employment, and return. Organized around a series of questions that explore the intricate link between labor, marriage, and family, the panel asks: How are sex and sexuality, masculinity and femininity, intimacy and vulnerability affected during each phase of migration? What conditions enable personal empowerment and disempowerment in movements across territorial, racial, gendered, and politicized spaces? How do social structures, state entities, and other institutions help or hinder these individuals in their ability to do so? With ethnographic case studies ranging from married Chinese migrant workers and overseas Filipino workers to Vietnamese and Chinese marriage migrants in Taiwan, the papers in the panel turn towards the conceptions, practices, legalities, and imaginaries of sexuality and intimacy to readdress the shaping of migrant mobilities and identities.

The Ban on the Transnational Marriage Brokerage in Taiwan – A Feminist Reconsideration of the Public/Private Distinction
Hsunhui Tseng, Chinese University of Hong Kong, USA

Taiwan has attracted a lot of marriage migrants from Southeast Asia and China since the 1990s. This growing number of transnational brokered marriages has drawn the public’s attention to social problems thought to be brought about by the migration flow. In 2007, under the pressure of protests against the “bride trade,” the amendment to the immigration law, in which profit-oriented matchmaking is to be banned, was passed. The policymaking sparked a hectic debate among scholars and NGOs on whether or not the brokerage business should be completely banned. Starting with a review of this policy, this paper reflects on the debate by discussing two issues. Drawing on Spivak’s critique of subaltern studies, this paper will first examine the power relations between foreign brides and women’s groups by exploring the representation of the former by the later and the legitimacy of the latter to represent the former. The second issue looks at the state’s intervention in the marriage market, and will discuss the relationship between the state and the individual choice of the brokered marriage. Informed by feminist critiques of Habermas, I argue that in addition to gender, race should also be taken seriously into consideration when considering public space building. Through interviews with governmental officials, women’s groups, people looking for brokers as well as discourse analyses of the debate in the mass media, this paper provides an understanding of the cultural logic of policymaking and how gender, class and race play out in shaping our perception of the social order.

Bogus Brides, Runaway Maids and Blind Masseur: Sexual Intimacy, Exploitation and Friendship of Marginal Migrants
Melody Chia-Wen Lu, National University of Singapore, Singapore

This paper is an ethnographic study of a massage parlour in a semi-rural town in Taiwan, a site of struggle, survival and negotiation of sexual intimacy for marriage immigrants and migrant domestic workers from the PRC and Indonesia in Taiwan. Therapeutic massage is a protected profession for blind (Taiwanese) people; however, many licensed massage parlours employ illegal migrants and offer erotic massage and at times commercial sex services. Contrary to media representation, most of these illegal “erotic” migrant workers are not trafficked into Taiwan by organized groups. Rather they enter via formal channels of marriage and labour migration, but end up working in the massage parlour to escape from exploitative marital and labour relations. There are two interlinked objectives of this paper. The first is to analyze the process of the migrants’ marginalization in entering erotic work. I argue that in the effort of curtailing bogus marriage and sex trafficking, the state adopts different measures of controlling and disciplining the sexuality of marriage immigrants and domestic migrant workers. Those who fall out these controlling measures become illegal migrants, and with their “sexualized” image they can only find work in the erotic and sex industry. Secondly, I document the survival strategies and agency of these migrants in negotiating intimate and at times exploitative relations with their husband, blind employer, clients and fellow male migrant workers. In the process of these negotiations they transform their own sexuality, rationalize their life choices, and build friendships that transcend the boundaries of cultural identity.

When Wives Earn As Much As Husbands: Gender, Family, and Work in Southwest China
Xia Zhang, Manhattanville College, USA

This paper examines the impact of rural to urban migration on marital relations of male rural migrant workers who are referred to as “bangbang” (porters) in the city of Chongqing, Southwest China. In the literature on China’s migrant labor up to the date, scarce attention has been paid to married migrants’ experiences; even less attention has been paid to how male married migrant workers, as conscious gendered beings, perceive and deal with the changing division of labor, strategies of power bargaining, and forms of intimacy within their households when their wives work alongside in the city. Drawing on ethnographic data collected through one-year fieldwork in Chongqing, this paper argues that male bangbang’s masculine pride is under assault when their wives actively engage in paid employment and gain more independence. However, male bangbang balance the emergent egalitarianism in the household with constructing the local community as male-dominated. Furthermore, the gender structure in the home villages, which persistently encourages gender hierarchy, tends to perpetuate male dominance, such as securing the privileged position of male migrants in ancestor worship. Overall, this paper argues that migration greatly challenges the current gender order but also puts enormous stress on intimacy and marital relations of migrants. Rural married migrant women’s increasing independence and agency in the city might be outweighed by their inferior positions determined by the patriarchal structure of the local migrant community as well as their home villages.

Spaces of Vulnerability: The Sexual Networks of Overseas Filipino Workers and Their Families
Cheryll Joy B. Alipio, University of Queensland, Australia

As a global people on the move, overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are often identified as being “vulnerable” and even “most-at-risk” to the transmission of HIV/AIDS due to the “risky” environments in which they work. However, it is not just OFWs who are susceptible to the disease but also their partners and children who are back home. As HIV testing is a requirement for working abroad, there were 852 reported cases among OFWs in 2006 with seafarers and domestic helpers being the two highest afflicted groups. This paper draws upon ethnographic fieldwork in San Pablo City, Philippines to examine what the HIV Coordinator for the International Organization for Migration consider as “sexual networks [that] stretch across regions and countries and connect low and high prevalence epidemics, different levels of sexual education, and one vulnerable space to another” (2010). By examining these spaces of vulnerability through an HIV/AIDS seminar conducted by a non-profit organization, the paper asks: How is sex, intimacy, and sexuality understood and conceptualized by those left behind? How does affect, in the form of emotions and reason, structure lifestyle choices and familial responsibilities? What are the processes of power and decision-making in this context of mobility? How is marriage redefined in the midst of possible bodily risk? In exploring these questions, this paper argues that left-behind partners simultaneously negotiate their gendered identities as husbands and wives as they forgo their sexual and reproductive health and rights in order to protect their children first.