Double Dirty Work: Sex Research and Symbolic Contamination

“Your skin is very dark,” a hostess in a Ho Chi Minh City bar complains to sociologist Kimberly Hoang. The woman has taken Hoang under her wing to help her become desirable to the bar’s Vietnamese ...

“Your skin is very dark,” a hostess in a Ho Chi Minh City bar complains to sociologist Kimberly Hoang. The woman has taken Hoang under her wing to help her become desirable to the bar’s Vietnamese clientele. “You need to buy foundation that will make you look lighter,” she adds. “You are lucky because you do not need surgery … You cannot wear long dresses, because you are short and chubby … You have to remember to sit and stand up tall. Women who look expensive get tipped more.”

Hoang, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, embedded herself in four different hostess bars appealing to distinct clienteles to research her book Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work. Hostess bars make up part of Ho Chi Minh City’s diverse “sexscape,” offering a unique window into global sex work. The male clients are brought in and seated, fettered with shots of expensive liquor as gestures of hospitality from bar mommies. They select women to sit with and entertain them. Hostesses pour drinks, lead toasts, sing karaoke, dance or initiate drinking games; sometimes they serve as hired girlfriends (gai bo) or have sex for money or valuable gifts.

Immersing herself in this world, Hoang first learned to embody moneyed pan-Asian femininity for Vietnamese businessmen riding the wave of economic ascendance. Later Hoang worked at bars catering to Westerners, many of them former bankers who moved to Southeast Asia to escape their economic failure following the recession in 2008. For these men, the allure hinged on the appearance of Third World dependence on white largesse. There, instead of lightening her skin, Hoang was advised to sunbathe and apply copious eye shadow to conjure a “smoky” aesthetic considered exotic. Connecting these details of attraction to broader economic processes, Hoang’s book reveals how deeply global capital is intertwined with sexual and economic desire.

Hostess bars make up part of Ho Chi Minh City’s diverse “sexscape,” offering a unique window into global sex work.

As with the women who rely on hostessing to survive, Hoang’s research exacted a cost from her body itself, one that registered both in the field and at home. “I learned how to adjust my gait,” she reports, “serve, take orders, smile when people criticized my weight, and remain silent when men touched me inappropriately.” Even years later, Hoang still finds herself clinking her glass below others’, just as she did during ritual toasts for bar clients, where the gesture is a compulsory sign of subservience.

Strangely, fellow academics often assumed Hoang’s research was fun. “Wow, so you get to party all night and call that fieldwork?” one colleague teased. As a young scholar studying sex toy production, I recognize this dismissive and condescending attitude. I am often met with prurient reactions and questions about my own sexual proclivities. Does my research reveal something about my own sexual tastes? People are eager for sordid details, at least when they aren’t looking puzzled and asking why I study that.

Hoang’s research placed her in a more treacherous position, personally and professionally, and in ways that go far beyond physical safety. As an ethnographer, Hoang gets in there: she does not just observe but actively participates in the hostess role. In other words, she gets dirty.

Conducting research on sexuality is already a kind of “dirty work,” as Janice Irvine has called it.1 The phrase captures paradoxical attitudes towards sex research, since “dirty work” is both stigmatized and socially necessary. Irvine shows that famous sexologists, though inundated with letters praising the importance of their work, also faced constant hostility and even discrimination in their academic workplaces. The contradiction also applies to more contemporary researchers. Professional humiliation—such as the revocation of a job offer because sex research is “not in keeping with [the university’s] mission”—is joined by more insidious disadvantages, which include a lack of training and mentorship, confrontations with ever-cautious Institutional Review Boards, and difficulty finding places to publish one’s work. Some of Irvine’s respondents even told her they felt discouraged from working on sexuality until after they had achieved tenure—all for fear that it might damage their careers.

In the face of this dispiriting environment, moreover, one of Irvine’s respondents observed that research methods can affect public and professional reception of sex research. Numbers, the scholar observers, lend legitimacy to dirty work: “I think because I am using quantitative methods [my research] is respected. I am not sure what the situation would be if I was using qualitative methods.” Indeed, by participating in the sexual practices she studies, Hoang risks an even more toxic professional response. Where quantitative researchers may claim academic distance from polluting topics, ethnographers like Hoang engage in a doubly dirty work.

The extent of Hoang’s participation in studying hostess culture often prompts readers to identify her with the sex work she describes. Hoang herself becomes suspect in the process. Indeed, in both academic and public settings, audiences are always curious to know, how dirty did she get? How far did she go in the name of research? Did she engage in sex work? Rather than attending to her analytic payoff, these questions derail and even suppress the point of the research by attending to Hoang’s own body and immersive methods, rather than the findings obtained through months of ethnography. What’s more, criticism and advice about self-presentation doesn’t stop once Hoang leaves Vietnam. She is warned by supportive advisors that she will be sexualized when presenting her findings, and that she must adjust her dress and appearance to prevent encouraging that kind of scrutiny. She must walk a fine line to manage her own symbolic contamination and maintain her professional standing.

What does this double dirty work yield? Perhaps most helpfully, Hoang reveals the stakes of masculine status in these hostess bars, finding the dynamics of Asian economic ascendance and Western decline reflected in the relationships between gendered bodies. Further, Hoang identifies distinct uses of intimacy in each setting. For local businessmen, hostesses assist in developing relations of trust with esteemed guests. Sexy hostesses embody the ideal Vietnamese economy, signaling that the country is a good investment. Viet Kieu men (Vietnamese men living overseas), meanwhile, indulge in “fantasy-oriented” intimacy, by which they get to feel attractive and superior to Western men. Finally, hostesses at bars catering to Western clients convey sexualized poverty in line with stereotypes of needy sex workers in the “Third World,” presumed to be tragic victims forced into sex work without alternatives. Some of these women are even able to extract long-term remittances from overseas Western boyfriends. Throughout, Hoang engages in yet another subtle symbolic contamination: the book “dirties” the economic realm by showing the close relationship between global capital and sex work.

Hoang’s book reveals how deeply global capital is intertwined with sexual and economic desire.

On this point Hoang’s research resembles Anne Allison’s in Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club (1994).2 Both Hoang and Allison describe how flows of capital direct sexual preferences and legitimize gendered expectations. Allison’s research explores a different time and place in Asian economic ascendance (some 20 years earlier in the now-fallen Japan), but her ethnography of one hostess club in Tokyo finds women offering sexualized servility as a means for white-collar workers (sararimen) to indulge in conspicuous consumption and consolidate an ideal of masculine productivity.

Allison’s project offers particular insight into the Japanese cultural practices that manifest in these hostess-client relations. Unlike bars in Ho Chi Minh City, these Tokyo hostesses are officially discouraged from having paid sex with clients. But interactions at the bar allow sararimen to playfully complain about their bosses, who are seated with them, and to engage in fantasies of bounded intimacy that they do not have with their wives. Like Hoang, Allison is faced with suspicions about the credibility of her academic project, as well as abuse in the field. Between derogatory remarks and uninvited touching, bar clients are puzzled at her interest in such a culturally frivolous subject. Why doesn’t she study something more serious, they wonder, more Japanese, like flower arranging (ikebana) or tea service (chanoyu)?

Despite, or perhaps because of, this willingness to get dirty, both Allison and Hoang show the interdependence of capital and sex in ways that quantitative sex research cannot, and that economic research pretends do not exist. Nightwork shows how time at the hostess club incorporates realms of pleasure into work while cultivating devoted workers. Dealing in Desire shows how clients compete for masculine honor, trading for economic status in the currency of bodily pleasures. Both Hoang and Allison show that economics is about far more than just impersonal monetary exchange. The stakes of personal desire shape the spheres of sex and money—spheres that modernity understands to be properly separate.

It is these conclusions and their immense theoretical significance that get obfuscated or suppressed when readers focus on titillating details. When a lecture audience politely asks how far Hoang went for the sake of the research, they distract from the analytic prize. They understand little of the knowledge earned through dirty work because they are seduced by its dirtiness. Obsession with the researcher’s contamination also offers an unwitting testament to the persistent taboos against studying sexuality. As long as we are preoccupied with the bodies doing dirty work instead of their larger socioeconomic significance, we overlook the troubling links between capital and sex that Hoang’s research so remarkably unveils. icon

  1. Janice Irvine, “Is Sexuality Research ‘Dirty Work’? Institutional Stigma in the Production of Sexual Knowledge,” Sexualities, vol. 17, nos. 5–6 (2014), pp. 632–56.
  2. Anne Allison, Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club (University of Chicago Press, 1994).
Featured image: Saigon. Photograph by Robert S. Donovan / Flickr