In its second day, the Asian Regional Dialogue on Sexuality and Geopolitics addressed two critical realms that intersect with each other and have critical impacts on gender and sexuality constructs: information technology and migration.
Back in 1936, Walter Benjamin could not have imagined how deeply and extremely technical reproductibility would have reached in the 21st century. In fact, it is quite likely that he would have never wondered how this later state of reprodutibility of sexuality would be directly affected. The tone of the first session of the second Dialogue day can be encapsulated in the question: is sexuality in the tech era about progress or pathology?
The debates of the session Sexualities in the Tech Era: progress or pathology? were initiated by Michael Tan of the SPW Advisory Group and Chair of the Anthropology Department at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. He presented a historical and sociological overview of information technology and media in the last thirty years, which has led us towards the current digital revolution characterized as it is by portability, autonomy and anonymity. Tan suggested that Marshal McLuhan himself would probably have not imagined how widely applicable the affirmation “the medium is the message” would become in the 21st century. He also extensively quoted Marc Auge about the relevance and meaning of “non places” in order to understand virtual spaces such as chat rooms and web-based communities where we “meet non-people” and “interact” with them. He has also extensively examined how “sexuality” in its various expressions – bodies, products, interactions, hybridization – is flowing through the web creating totally new conditions for self identification, but also often reiterating norms and stereotypes.
The complex panorama presented by Tan gained clearer contours and density in the case studies presented about the interconnection between new information technologies and sexuality in Vietnam and India. Khuat Thu Hong, from the Institute for Social Development Studies of Vietnam, examined the ways in which digital technology is transforming Vietnamese sexual culture. Hong looked into a sequence of “sex” scandals involving young female celebrities whose images, naked or having sex, have widely circulated on the Internet between 2004 and 2008. The responses of Vietnamese society and government to each of these cases gradually changed from the first to the last episode. While the singer who was first exposed was heavily attacked and finally moved to the US, the last case, which involved the circulation of an actresses’ explicit sex videos, was viewed by a majority of the public as something that should be seen as a “personal life issue.” In Khuat’s analysis, the fact that in just a few years, the State stopped harshly punishing female “sexual dissidents” and that public opinion has moved from outrage to tolerance, indicates how rapidly attitudes towards sexuality has changed. She also considers that, “In the Vietnamese context, sexual postings on the internet can be considered political acts of resistance. The government’s attempts to control cyberspace have been bluntly challenged by young people making their own films to ‘replace’ those inaccessible on firewall websites.”
Maya Ganesh, an independent researcher from India, presented a case study in progress about the use of mobile phones not merely as a technological tool, but as a culturally and socially constructed object, which is rich in symbolism and embedded in relationality. She presented a video that documents how kothis, (biological males displaying a fluid range of femininities and a desire for men) who live in Mumbai, use and talk about what mobile phones mean for them in terms of social capital, mobility, and most importantly, as a tool to enhance sexual encounters and ensure greater levels of safety and protection when they eventually engage in sexual interactions that may be prone to policy abuse.
While the morning session looked into the mobility and fluidity of images, the afternoon debates shifted towards the movement of bodies themselves, with the theme Migrant labor and sexual politics: known and unknown linkages. The overview paper presented by Dr. Rosalia Sciortino, from the Institute for Population and Social Research of the Mahidol University of Thailand, underlined the increasing interdependence of goods and labor markets within an unbalanced global economy. In this context, migration flows have been and are spurred across the world and Asia, more specifically, it is rapidly becoming a global and regional migration hub, particularly in regards to South to South flows. In Dr. Sciortino’s analyses, when sexuality and reproduction are brought into the picture of migration patterns, rules and impacts can be classified into three broad categories: those related to labor contracts, those connected with HIV/AIDS and finally those involving trafficking in persons. Her analysis also emphasized how, by and large, migrant rights are not respected in the Asian region, even when the movement of people is done under formal a contract established between outgoing and recipient countries. Another key aspect raised was the systematic collapsing of trafficking and prostitution that affects women’s mobility and often compromises the analysis and policy measures with respect to trafficking for labor. Dr. Sciortino has also underlined that even when class remains a key factor to explain conditions in which migrants live, gender and sexuality more than often constitute criteria for the triage of those who can or not legally migrate. She strongly called for the human rights of migrants to be respected and within that, for their sexual and reproductive rights to also be recognized.
The research developed by Le Bach Duong, from the Institute for Social Development Studies, reveals that migration has always been a political sensitive issue in Vietnam, particularly after Doi Moi or the economic reforms of the 1980’s. Migrants’ sexualities in particular tend to be automatically linked to the so called “social evils:” commercial sex and HIV transmission. However, similar patterns can be identified in other Asian countries where strong rules of state control over migrants also prevail. In countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, for instance, the states punish female migrant workers who get pregnant or contract an STI. On the other hand, states can be more flexible when their demographic or social reproduction needs are at stake, for example, in the case of Vietnamese women that migrate as wives of Korean men or as domestic workers to Taiwan.
Malu Marin from the Philippines presented research findings that show similar patterns are observed elsewhere. For instance, in the Gulf area where a large number of Southeast Asian migrants flow, Islamic Sharia law can be applied to regulate and police their sexual behavior. “Migrant workers often find themselves in a precarious position, in situations where sexual expression is prohibited, migrant workers who defy the rules may pay a heavy price for such infractions, including deportation, detention and death. ” Her analysis also explored how the use of information technology is affecting the lives of Asian migrant workers in the region and elsewhere. Migrant workers in the Phillipines can send text messages to friends or family members if they experience abuse or violence, which is particularly important considering the social isolation migrant workers may face abroad. However, on the other hand, due to migration rules and policies, in many cases the employers may confiscate their cell phones. Marin has also shown how rules relating to HIV status are becoming increasingly restrictive and negatively affect the ability of people to move in search of better living conditions.
In the debates that followed, Codou Bop, who is a member of SPW Advisory Group, mentioned that in Senegal today, mobile phone technology is becoming a key tool to protect women. It allows married women that must live with their migrant husband’s family to have more direct contact with their husbands. This helps them to develop a more intimate relationship with them while they are away. Also, they are now able to request and receive money directly from their husbands by passing the traditional practice of having the money be sent to the head of the household, which often leaves them totally disempowered.