Introducing the phenomenon of non-trafficked migrant women sex workers in major cities of the world, and poses the central question, ‘In what ways and with what consequences do contemporary economic restructuring processes encourage and facilitate women’s transnational migration for sex work?’ A detailed discussion of the ‘3C’ framework of city (global or world cities and GATs), creativity (of states, migrant women, and facilitating groups) and cosmopolitanism (nature of encounters in contact zones of global cities) is presented to organize the analysis. The case of migrant women who travel to and from Kuala Lumpur for sex work is offered to contextualize each of the dimensions. The chapter concludes by discussing the conduct of gendered global ethnography, particularly the researcher’s simultaneous identity as ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’.
Kuala Lumpur’s origin as a 19th century colonial trading settlement and its late 20th century ascendance as a world city on the global arena. In the effort to address key colonial legacies, the postcolonial state implemented a social engineering policy (NEP) that gave way to a neoliberal development path. The state reconfigured use of place and space via employment, urbanisation, and industrialisation policies. Subsequently, the state approved selective entry and employment of low wage transnational migrant men and women in the construction, agriplantation, manufacturing and eventually, services sectors. State liberalization of tourism and education sectors to maintain the city’s competitive identity paradoxically created additional migratory pathways for unauthorized workers. As a global city, KL’s specialization in ‘advanced producer services’ is accompanied also by specialization in ‘personal services’, inclusive of ‘personal sexual services’ performed by transnational migrant women.
Chapter Three discusses state efforts to manage the population of regular and irregular transnational migrants. The state pursues two unique strategies, respectively based on neoliberal tenets of ‘diversification’ and ‘privatisation’ for internal border management of the nation, especially in the world class city. The former strategy diversifies migrant nationalities in order to mitigate dominance of a few nationalities. The latter strategy transfers some key security operations to RELA, the civilian-citizen volunteer corps. This chapter’s analysis foregrounds the racialised-ethnicised, gendered, and classed dimensions in both strategies devised for state surveillance and control of migrants, including that of ‘foreign prostitutes’. Implemented concurrently with migratory pathways established by state liberalization of tourism and education services sectors, the strategies compound an already ‘vicious cycle’ of policies by broadening the conditions in which many more migrant men and women from many more nationalities are represented and treated as illegal aliens.
Chapter Four begins with a brief history of prostitution in KL and Malaysian women’s gradual displacement by transnational migrant women sex workers. This is followed by analysis of women from different nationalities, why and how they migrate for sex work, and their views of a largely stigmatized and illegal economic activity. An overwhelming majority of the women consider sex work to be a relatively quicker and less exploitative way (than other kinds of jobs open to them) of earning more income toward an end of improving their socioeconomic positions (that may include gaining an education or vocational skills, establishing a business, financially assisting family members, and/or ‘seeing the world’). The women’s decisions and perspectives are shaped by their understandings and experiences of structural forces, or their social locations in multiple intersecting and mutually constituting nationality, gender, class and racial-ethnic hierarchies.
Chapter Five examines ‘Syndicate X’ (pseudonym), its historical origins, organization structure and operations. This syndicate is one of the largest groups specializing exclusively in non-trafficked transnational migrant women sex workers. The syndicate and its counterparts are anchors in KL’s migration-ancillary industry for sex work (e.g., ancillary partners such as money changers or hawala, and alliances with overseas syndicates). This chapter discusses why and how Syndicate X morphed from a hierarchical Chinese triad or secret society controlling on-street Malaysian women sex workers, to a more horizontal corporate-like enterprise specializing in up-market sexual services performed by transnational migrant women (especially those on the ‘Asian Circuit’ of sex work). Syndicate X brings in women of different nationalities and provides them with board and lodging, personal security and men clientele in exchange for monthly board and lodging fees and taxes on women’s incomes. Shaped by KL’s history of race relations, the racialisation of Syndicate X and migrant women also is examined in this chapter.
Chapter Six discusses migrant women’s and syndicate members’ encounters in KL’s contact zones. The analysis begins with migrant women sex workers’ experiences living and working in urban spaces that, at the outset, are multiracial and multicultural but upon closer examination such spaces are claimed by residents from specific intersections of class, race-ethnicity, and nationality. The focus then shifts to syndicate members, especially men who provide support services to the migrant women. Significantly, and despite the centrality on earning income, migrant women’s and syndicate men’s encounters are not entirely utilitarian based. From views on humanity to acts of reciprocity, they genuinely desire to know and appreciate alternative ways of living, being and doing by people born and raised in communities other than their own. Still, some endorse deprecating stereotypes premised particularly on gender and/or racial-cultural superiority. In KL’s stratified contact zones, migrant women and syndicate men evince emerging cosmopolitan subjectivities, and paradoxically affirm colonial-like ascriptions and ensuing worldviews and treatments of the Other.
Cosmopolitan Sex Workers
Women’s transnational migration for sex work occurs in and is fueled by structural constraints and opportunities born from the marriage of patriarchal power with free market economies. Until and unless structural forces are acknowledged and addressed comprehensively, policies based explicitly on ‘either-or’ positions relating to sex trafficking, migration prostitution, illegal aliens, and so forth will obscure, if not perpetuate, contradictions.
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