What I Learned by Being a Migrant Sex Worker (Part 2): Parrenas

Oct. 14 (Bloomberg) -- 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.”

Unfamiliar World

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.

This world has been condemned not only for its debauchery and criminal elements but also for “crimes against humanity.” Japanese hostess clubs -- specifically those that employ Filipinas, Eastern Europeans, Colombians and Korean women -- have been labeled by the U.S. Department of State as hotbeds of sexual trafficking. In these places, women are not just endlessly harassed, but supposedly also held against their will, forced into prostitution and made victims of sexual violence by lecherous Japanese men.

What I discovered, in fact, was that these women come to Japan voluntarily and gratefully, knowing what their jobs will be. Very few engage in prostitution, and if they do, they do so willingly. Instead, workers in hostess clubs are expected to flirt with customers. Flirtation could occur up close at the table or from a distance via the seductive performance of a song or dance onstage. In explaining their profession, hostesses view themselves as modern-day geisha.

Like Geisha

The hostesses I met catered to much-lower-earning men than those who would typically engage with geisha. A middle-range Philippine club in Tokyo charges no more than 5,000 yen ($65) per hour. Still, like geisha, Filipina hostesses entertain customers. While they might not play the stringed samisen or any other musical instrument, they do sing and dance. More significantly, like geisha, the hostesses would not engage in the direct exchange of sex for money and tarnish their reputation by making themselves easily available on a nightly basis.

In Japan’s nightlife industry, hostess clubs occupy a particular niche; men go there to flirt. In contrast, men go to image clubs for sexual stimulation through role-playing; pink salons for fellatio or masturbation; soap lands for a full-service bath with the option of sex; and lingerie clubs or no-panty bars for sexual excitement.

Objectifying Hostesses

In the clubs, men bond over their ability to objectify hostesses with no admonishment. In the place where I worked, customers usually commented on the appearance of the hostess assigned to their table immediately after being introduced to her, expressing either approval or disapproval, and in some cases rejecting her, telling the club manager to replace her with someone more attractive. Sometimes customers would request a hostess with a specific physical feature, notably large breasts.

I often heard customers describe me as “futote,” meaning fat, and “kuroi,” meaning dark. I could not retort because customers patronize hostess clubs not only to avoid rejection but to experience male superiority. Hostesses can express only positive comments about clients. As one of my co-workers observed of our clients, “No one wants to listen to them. No one tells them they are good-looking. No one admires them. That is why they go to the club.” Hostesses try to generate sales by bolstering the masculinity of their customers.

Precarious Status

Generally, sales determine a hostess’s treatment at the club. Proprietors do not hesitate to fire those with lackluster numbers. Entertainers who are fired are not necessarily sent back to the Philippines; they are likely to be placed at another club, which leaves them in a precarious, illegal immigration status. Clubs have no qualms about berating hostesses for poor sales performance.

Hostesses generate sales by securing a “shimei,” a customer’s request for their company inside the club, and a “dohan,” a paid date outside the establishment. Influenced by conservative moral strictures of feminine respectability, most shun paid sex. Yet even if hostesses hold no moral qualms against prostitution, sex for money would not necessarily guarantee them more sales, because sex could repel as much as attract customers. Giving in would eliminate the thrill of the chase.

Challenging Requirement

Hostesses consider the “dohan” one of the most challenging job requirements. It technically requires that a hostess spend some time with a customer outside the club, whether it is a few hours or no more than five seconds for those who literally do nothing but escort the client into the club. The purchase of a “dohan” guarantees at least one hour with the hostess inside the establishment. In female hostess clubs, a “dohan” costs anywhere from 7,000 yen to 15,000 yen, plus a minimum purchase of 10,000 yen of food inside the club.

Most hostesses do not think a “dohan” harms them; they told me it was unlikely to mean coercive sex, though it might involve voluntary prostitution. One woman said she once played tug of war with a customer trying to get her inside a love hotel. At the same time, hostesses on a “dohan” are sometimes envied, because they are often taken to a Filipino restaurant.

False Assumptions

Yet the U.S. State Department cites the “dohan” as an indication that Filipina hostesses are sexually trafficked in Japan. Such false assumptions led to a U.S. policy that prompted Japan, in 2006, to reduce the number of visas for Filipina hostesses by 90 percent. Anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution crusaders counted this a triumph. But no trafficking and very little prostitution was stopped, and 81,000 Filipinas lost their livelihoods.

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.

For Filipina hostesses, the goal should be job improvement, not job elimination. What’s needed are laws to prevent abusive behavior by middleman brokers. Club owners should be required to pay hostesses directly, rather than brokers. And labor standards should be enacted to ensure that the hostesses have regular days off and an eight-hour-per-evening work limit.

Hostesses don’t need to be rescued. 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.

(Rhacel Salazar Parrenas is a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California. This is the second in a two-part excerpt from her new book “Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo” to be published Oct. 15 by Stanford University Press. See Part 1.)

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