Published: Jan. 5, 2002 By ,

(part of a series in Issue 35: Masculinity and Labor Under Capitalism – Edited by DONALD MORTON)

“[The] organization of power – that is, the manner in which desire is already in the economic, in which libido invests the economic – haunts the exonomic and nourishes political forms of repression . . .Capitalism was and remains a formidable desiring machine. The monetary flux, the means of production, of manpower, of new markets, all of that is the flow of desire.” – Gilles Deleuze

“Hence, men go on pointless trips and wander about foreign shores; fickle, never satisfied with the present, they try land one minute, the sea the next. They go on one trip after another and from one spectacle to the next . . . This is where disgust with life and the world itself starts, and in the mad delirium of their own self-indulgence, the pleasure seeker cries out: when will it ever be just the same old thing?” – Seneca

“Prostitution can lay claim to being ‘work’ the moment work becomes prostitution.”-Walter Benjamin

[1]   In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the populace has been conditioned by sleep-teaching “to hate the country, but love all country sports,” so that time away from work is still part of the labor process, because it “consumes transport” and the worker’s job is to consume as well as produce. At the time Huxley wrote, however, industrialized leisure belonged to the dystopian future. Since paid vacations were no more than a  dream for most working people, the nightmare of making them function in the service of global capital had yet to be formulated. The eventual reality, however, goes much further than Huxley imagined. At the beginning of the 21st century, industrialized leisure, as exemplified by sex tourism to Thailand, does not merely recreate the worker as consumer, but also extends the norms of labor into every aspect of life, including those conventionally denominated “private.”

[2]   The Popular Front of 1936 won the French a week’s paid leave annually, in addition to a shorter workweek. In the mid-1930s, CIO organizing drives–particularly those  directed to white males in American heavy industry–included vacations with pay in its list of union goals. It was in the wake of the Second World War that Britain’s Labour government instituted paid holidays and, that, even as U.S. trade unions suffered setbacks in many areas, vacations came increasingly to be included in blue-collar contracts and figure among the benefits offered to salaried employees. By the 1960s, four weeks’ vacation was legislated in most of Western Europe and, in subsequent decades, the time was extended in certain countries to five and even six weeks.

[3]   By no means coincidentally, the last third of the twentieth century also witnessed the development of tourism to its present position as the world’s largest industry. The conversion of the military aircraft industry to civilian purposes and the subsequent development of the jumbo jet enabled a larger segment of the First World workforce to join the “jet set” on charter flights and group tours abroad. Meanwhile, international rhetoric underscored the role of tourism in promoting world peace, since, in the words of President John F. Kennedy, “every tourist (would be) a cultural ambassador.”  Self-congratulation was the dominant note of a series of tourism conferences sponsored in this period by various trans-national agencies, while, at the same time, developing countries were encouraged to look upon tourism as a route to economic modernization that would avoid the pitfalls of Western-style “smokestack” industry.

[4]   Sex tourism to Thailand arose in a context doubly informed by the availability of paid holiday time and the growing affordability of foreign travel for those with a modest amount of discretionary income. Unlike the sites in the Caribbean and Africa , however, where sun, sand, and, in the latter case, safaris preceded sex in the chronology of seductive sibilants, in Thailand the sex preceded the tourism. Building upon a vast sex industry serving a local clientele, there emerged during the Vietnam War period a parallel set of institutions tailored to the needs and desires of U.S. and other foreign servicemen. These included men stationed at the enormous American airbases in Thailand itself, as well as the thousands each week who were rotated in from the combat zone for R and R, Rest and Recreation. Because providing for the needs of troops in country and those on leave from the front entailed offering accommodations, food and drink, souvenirs of all sorts, and non-sexual entertainment facilities along with sex, these services assumed significant weight in the Thai economy.

[5]   Whether we accept the euphemistic convention of calling this military tourism R and R or the grunts’ more candid alternative, I and I, for Intercourse and Intoxication, the enactment in 1967 of U.S. government contracts (with Thailand and several other Asian localities) to service the leisure time of foreign troops clearly brings together key notions of labor, masculinity and sexuality. There is, after all, no job traditionally reserved to men that is more structured around the body, in its existential dimension, than the military, nor any in whose performance notions of masculinity and male sexuality are more openly deployed to manipulate the men doing the job. From the commonplace that army service will “make a man” of the boy joining up through training by means of gendered and sexualized insults to the structures of command and compliance, the military relies upon a definition of the person-gendered-male. For this reason, when the combat soldier’s perquisites on the job include opportunities for sexual release–in the form of camp followers, military brothels, sanctioned rape, or leaves spent in tolerated red-light districts–that release is understood as an integral part of his functioning on the job.

[6]   In Thailand during the Indochina War, a new sexual institution, the go-go or dance bar, sprang up to supplement traditional bordellos, massage parlors, and “pickup” bars. These dance bars, which have become permanent fixtures in the commercial sex zones of Bangkok and the beach resorts, were modeled, superficially at least, on similar establishments in North America–featuring the same strobe lights, 30-year old rock music, dancers on display, and promise of sexual encounters. The chief difference is that, instead of one or two dancers on platforms suspended overhead, the Thai bars feature dozens of dancers on a stage with the crotch at eye level and virtually no female customers. So, instead of the sexual opportunities being consensual arrangements between customers, it is the dancers who also offer that form of entertainment. The Sexual Revolution enacted in late-1960s America is thus parodied–or exposed–in its Bangkok offshoots.

[7]   The girlie bars survived the war that brought them into being because, like the World War Two airplane factories, they too were converted to civilian use. In 1971, while the war continued to rage, Robert McNamara, President of the World Bank and, by no means incidentally, U.S. Secretary of Defence when the R and R contracts were signed, led a Bank mission to Thailand. When highly placed officials in the Kingdom’s governmental and financial classes expressed concern about what would happen to their country’s economy once the foreign troops were gone, McNamara assigned a team of World Bank development experts to the problem, and their report, issued in 1975 as the last Americans left Vietnam, recommended that Thailand’s path to economic development be through the establishment of a mass-tourism industry (Truong 162-63). That mass tourism would necessarily build on the infrastructure set up to entertain the troops–an infrastructure itself dependent on commercial sex–went without saying.
As with military service constructed as an “extreme masculine” job situation, the sexual entertainment offered to foreign civilians is linked to the male customers’ life as workers in the metropolis. This linkage is most obvious in the case of the corporate R and R contracts that send planeloads of men working in such all-male environments as Persian Gulf oilrigs all the way to Thailand for periodic “emotional release.”  These flights are written into the job description, since it is assumed that the worker, conceptually dehumanized–but decidedly not disembodied–by the employer, is marked heterosexual and, in order to continue on the job (that is, reproduce his labor power) must be allowed the somatic experiences of alcohol-ingestion, regurgitation, and ejaculation, all in a setting designed for him to do so. Otherwise, the employer’s interest in maintaining harmonious relations with–and hence oil leases from–states where alcohol and fornication are forbidden would be jeopardized.

[8]   Both the military and the corporate models of mass recreation suggest analogies to other ordinary-life experiences. The question may boil down to whether governmental and capitalist employers’ enabling interventions in their workers’ sexual lives more closely resemble taking the family dog for a walk so it can relieve itself without leaving a mess indoors or taking the family car in for an oil change so it will continue to run efficiently and avoid eventual damage to the engine. In either case, the approach to male sexual desire reduces it to its most mechanical dimension.

[9]   Travel to Thailand is also promoted to employers as an excellent employee incentive, presumably at the middle-management level. In the discourse of campaigns advertising incentive travel, “escape” to Thailand, a site defined as the ideal opposite of work, equals escape from labor. But the incentive traveler gets there by virtue of keeping his nose more firmly to the grindstone than his workmate-competitors. Although the ads are not addressed to the potential visitor, but to the individual in a position to judge and reward employee merit, they represent Thailand as a place where sensuous fulfillment and feminine service function conjointly to define the hard-earned holiday. It requires very little imagination to take this a step further, to the place where sensuous fulfillment is explicitly sexual and provided by the submissive female in the picture or her less privileged sisters.

[10]   More than 70% of tourist arrivals to Thailand are men traveling on their own and at some of the beach resorts the figure surpasses 90%. The overwhelming majority of these visitors are not covered by corporate R and R contracts or bankrolled by grateful employers. Nonetheless, for these men, as well, the industrialized leisure provided by the Thai sex industry may be usefully understood as an extension of their work lives. As one bar girl summed up their condition:  “They can’t get a girlfriend in their own country. So it’s work, work, work, and come back here.”

[11]   This essay’s title  points toward the supposed division between work and leisure time, with the eponymous “dick” reflecting the fully rationalized and stratified body of the male worker who must sublimate libidinal and erotic impulses while “on the clock.” Further, it reveals the power of a system of  labor that continues into the equally rationalized and stratified “leisure time,” which allows (demands?) release and indulgence of these yearnings. The “use value” of masculine labor converts into the “abuse value” of masculine play (Kroker and Weinstein).

[12]   The bar girl’s analysis of her clients’ condition presumes not only a distinction between work time and play time, but also a clear distinction between work space and leisure space. The blurring of labor and leisure time–as well as the industrialization of leisure itself–found in the age of the motor is both reiterated and accelerated in the age of tele-technologies. “Real time” technologies and demands have created a work environment dominated by a global present that is always accessible through the very technologies that have created it. Technologies that free the worker from physical constraints also serve to bind the worker to the office-at-a-distance. The naïve belief that new technologies will prove emancipatory and laborsaving has yielded, once again, to further enslavement and labor intensification. A new class of “business tourists” can take their offices with them wherever they may wander. Armed with mobile telecommunication capabilities, the new class of worker is always on the job, or potentially so, anywhere and any time because “here” and “there” distinctions have been subsumed by the all-the-time of “real time.”  Our bar girl’s analysis of the labor conditions her clients emerge from–one that delineates work “there” and leisure “here”–loses some of its spatial demarcation as it now expands to include the site of her own labor. This acceleration of all time to “real time” has finished the job of collapsing work time and leisure time begun in the 19th century.

[13]   The fallacy of liberation and empowerment that undergirds neoliberal discourses about technology manifests itself as well in telecommunications technologies, which do a great deal of the discursive production and circulation about the liberating and empowering capacities of tele-technologies. The “newness” promised by these emergent technologies is, by and large, an expanded and accelerated form of earlier technologies and their attendant problems. From the clipboard to the chat room to the bulletin board, the metalanguage of electronic communication has adapted, indeed appropriated, its terminology from a wide range of other media. As rapidity of communication, interactive capability, and hypertextualization become features of the phenomenon, use of the molluskular reverse-formation “snail-mail” to specify what used to be known simply as “mail” suggests a massive and even a revolutionary shift. At the same time, the content carried by these new modalities frequently turns out to be all too familiar and conservative, as technological development outstrips real social change at each stage.
This contradiction is nowhere so apparent as in the various forms of sexual communication that the Internet makes possible. On the one hand, both sexual discourse and sexual acts have been redefined by the institutionalization of virtual sex-talk and virtual sex acts. Not only can the Net make “writing and “reading” signify different experiences, but it also has the capacity to create new definitions of every sexual event from flirtation to intercourse and orgy. Yet, for many users, the post-modern medium is little more than a means of electronically globalizing such reactionary sites of sexual discourse as the men’s toilet, the locker room, and the bridegroom’s stag party, sometimes without so much as the most perfunctory recourse to the Net’s interactive potential. The World Sex Guide’s rubric “Prostitution by Country” thus makes it possible for men, mostly white residents of Europe, North America, and the Antipodes, to share information and narrative about commercial sex without making use of the new sexual institutions created by the technology, much less challenging the traditional ways that these men imagine, experience, and represent sexuality, starting with their own.

[14]   For most of the countries represented on the World Sex Guide, the entries are rather perfunctory: information, often provided by local men, about the legal situation of prostitution, the age of consent, current prices for various acts, and, perhaps, an indication of what sex workers in that country typically refuse to do for any amount of money. Indications of red-light districts in the major cities and addresses of professionals providing specialized services complete the entry. If there is any interaction, it takes the form of updating, or  “correction,” of this information, with personal accounts limited to remarks like “I went to that street and there was nothing happening (or the girls were ugly or too expensive), but I got lucky a few blocks over on….” The very few exceptions we have found to this parsimonious format (one for East Africa, one for a Vietnamese-run massage parlor in San Francisco) follow the model of the Prostitution by Country site for Thailand. (These diaries may be accessed at WorldSexGuide.org and thence following the cues to the rubric Prostitution by Country: Thailand. We provide dates for all postings quoted, but material is periodically removed from the site and may not still be there for readers to follow up.)

[15]   Whereas the listings for most other countries in the world occupy only A few pages each, “Thailand” goes on for literally hundreds of pages. These postings do  include a few from individuals and organizations critical of the sex trade, but most of the verbiage, comes from returning sex tourists who make use of the Net to share their experiences. In lieu of the customary holiday slides and home movies, many of these tourists extend and relive their vacations by logging onto the Net and producing texts.

[16]   The texts fall into three categories, echoing familiar genres in the non-virtual, non- (or not necessarily) sexual world:  the travel guide, the etiquette book, and the diary, all of which emerge during the rise of the bourgeoisie and reflect its desire for new but not too-new experience, refined behavior and self-documentation if not exploration. Although there is an increasing self-reflexiveness about being on the Net and even about having learned from reading it beforehand what to expect in Thailand, not to mention the names of specific bar girls in specific venues, these documents follow certain conventions without otherwise responding to what anyone else has written. The guidebooks supplement the ones that talk about temples, palaces, hotels and restaurants by providing a vade mecum to the brothels, go-bar bars, and massage parlors. One of them even creates a map of the sex districts using dots on a grid. Naturally, as with any other guide, these emphasize the best (literal) bang for the buck and are larded with cautions about how to avoid being exploited while engaged in the act of exploitation. In keeping wit the conventions of the genre, they also largely neglect the existence of similar documents on the Web; but, whereas there is a commercial motive for one standard published guidebook to ignore the others, here, where the information is provided gratis, apparent unawareness of the others is more of a reflection of the isolation and alienation that characterize these customers’ approach to the sex industry and to sex itself.

[17]   The documents we call “etiquette” guides rarely mention specific names and addresses, confining themselves to descriptions of the way “you” should negotiate transactions in the different sex venues. “Sex in Thailand: The Basics,” posted 23 August 1994, after explaining how best to get laid in Thailand and stressing the mutuality of the relationship, in which each partner has something to give that the other desires, concludes by revealing the limits of this reciprocity:

[18]   Almost without exception in my experience, these girls are very, very good at what they do. That said, it would be well to remember that what these girls ‘do,’ each for their own reasons, is not what they are…[I]f you never cease to remember that they are, before anything else, human beings with human feelings, chances are good you’ll truly enjoy yourself, and you will have made her life, for a moment…not as completely horrible as it might have been.

[19]   The most extensive genre in the Thailand section, however, is the travel diary or journal, with its obsessive orientation toward explicit descriptions of the conjoined sexual and monetary minutiae of each transaction. From the amount paid for ground transportation into town after landing in Thailand, there is a price tag on every experience described and, since the diaries gloss over any daytime sightseeing with some terse phrase like “mostly temples,” that means a price tag on every suck, stroke, and fuck, each of them characterized as a great bargain, a waste of money, or a splurge that paid off big time.

[20]   Once the invariable economic framework is established, the material connections become even more revealing. One correspondent, not a native speaker of English, complains in his July 1995 posting about a “dumb” masseuse who didn’t know she was supposed to massage muscles, not bones. When the couple gets into bed, she also proves a dud in the blowjob department, because he can’t get an erection. He observes, “I thought about helping her with thinking at something REALLY nice, but then I thought, ‘what for do I pay?'”  She is supposed to do all the work, after all, so why should he participate in his own arousal, which is to say, be part of his own sexuality, even to the extent of conjuring up an erotic fantasy?

[21]   This is a mentality that leads to narrative in which, as in one posting, dated 27 March 1995, the loss of a credit card and the wait for its replacement becomes a suspense-enhancing motif, and where romance is destroyed and “heartbreak” ensues when a prostitute gets “greedy”; that is, when she tells the customer she has been seeing “steadily” for several days that, according to her roommate, 1000 baht, not 500 (at the time $40, instead of the $20 he’d been paying) should be the price for an all-night session. He whines to the reader than he is really disappointed because he thought “good will” had been established and that “she was different.”

[22]   This narrator shows rather more emotion, although hardly less self-righteousness, than the author of a long sexual travelogue dated 5 August 1997. Having failed at some half-hearted bargaining his last night in Chiang Mai, he is “too tired to care,” but is pursued by a girl who wants to go back to his hotel:

[23]   Not thinking straight in my fatigue, I bring her back without agreeing to any terms. We’re both naked on my bed, she a darker skinned one with her pussy shaved, when she brings up wanting an exorbitant amount with an early hour leave. Not caring for the change in her personality, I decide toabort this one, dress, and tell her to leave now. I manage to keep the situation fairly cool, choosing to just quietly sit in a chair until she gets the message, and am rid of her without violence and at a cost of only 390 baht. I breathe (sic) a sigh of relief after closing the door behind her and go to bed. (Emphasis added).

[24]   It is only fitting, in such a context, that a lengthy diary posting dated 19 September 1996, bears the heading, in lieu of a title, “The following is a true account of my trip to Thailand; Note: $1 = 25 Baht.”  It is important for the reader to know the exchange rate to understand the narrative and its tensions. The ultimate experience, therefore, is getting something for nothing, as in this passage from April 1996:

[25]   One thing I’ll never forget…is my last night. I had specifically sought out one of the ‘Miss Thailands’ spotted the previous evening and spent my last entertainment money on her. Afterwards, I returned to the bar of my previous night’s carnal delights and ran into my ‘Sweetie’ from …last night. Well, she just about insisted about 1:00 a.m. that we return to my hotel. When I explained about no $$$, she replied, ‘No plo-blem, you fl-end, you no pay!’  I am sure it’s not a first, but getting a freebie from a beautiful Patpong bar girl ranks way up there on my list!  It also filled the time until my 5 a.m. taxi to the airport.

[26]   The “freebie,” however, is the exception, rather than the rule, and, more often, these accounts provide not only extensive information about money and quantified descriptions of sexual activity, but also a sense of never relaxing one’s guard against he possibility of being overcharged or even robbed. Whence the wonderful typo from another non-native speaker, writing about a December, 1996, trip, who explains that, not having shared a bed with anyone for a long time, he had trouble sleeping after his first sexual contact on arrival, and besides, “I…did not thrust her very much” (Emphasis added).

[27]   The World Sex Guide, realizing its own commercial potential and no longer serving as information source operating solely for “the collective good,” now sports banners of advertisements. Some of these advertise Viagra at rates “well below market value,” as is everything one can purchase on the Web. The price-per-dose in an age of managed health care (for profit) in the US also puts a regulated price tag on male sexuality and sexual performance. The narratives about Thailand, as we have noted, document in excruciating detail, every contact, every orifice, every drink and every room. Now, the cost of every erection can be factored into the bottom-line analysis that tells the consumer whether or not he’s really had a good time. If he’s paid “too much” for any element, the pleasure obviously diminishes.

[28]   More recent postings reflect some minimal awareness about the way the commercial nature of the sex tourist interaction informs the experience. Thus, while the narrator who helpfully provides the exchange rate in lieu of an epigraph crows over how many orgasms he gives the women, making it clear that the illusion of so doing is what arouses him, the December ’96 tourist says things like “I tipped her 200 Baht, because she made me a lot of compliments about my style of fucking her. She said she enjoyed it etc. (a lot of lies but who cares)” and “It’s all acting there is no real love in return for money. If you believe in it you are a fool. All they think of is money.”  Nonetheless, he tells us, “This might be the ultimate freedom for some people for the other it was the ultimate immorality and perversion. I enjoyed it since everything [sic., he apparently means “everyone”] could have what they wanted without interfering with others.”

[29]   More recent correspondents also reflect some consciousness of the medium itself. Although there is no acknowledgement that his own story is virtually identical with all the others, this last narrator even includes the fact of updating his diary in his account of the day-by-day (not to say blow-by-blow) events, a self-reflexivity that gives new meaning to Samuel Pepys’ recurrent “and so to bed.”  Indeed, on 25 February 1998, a diary begins:

[30]   I owe the WSG for helping lay the groundwork for a great vacation and lots of help on numerous business trips so I felt that it was time for my own post. This is an update of information on Thailand. I will not repeat the volumes of detail already available on the WSG on Thailand, this is just to provide an update as of February 21, 1998. This was my first trip to Thailand and because of the WSG I was able to make the most of every minute.

[31]   Although, as promised, this narrator spares us some of the detail, his entry is still substantial, because it blurs the otherwise discrete Internet genres of travel guide and etiquette book into that of diary, deploying, in the process, a certain limited use of the second-person point of view in acknowledgement of the reader’s presence (albeit both temporary and virtual) within the space of his personal sexual narration.

[32]   Paralleling the economic confessionals that make up the Prostitution by Countries entries for Thailand is an apparently newer site called the Banker’s World Sex Guide, accessed by substituting dot com for dot org after “worldsexguide” and following the electronic trail to Thailand. Here, although each posting, called a “Travel Report,” is brief, most occupying only a single paragraph, it, too, may combine the functions of diary and guidebook, with recommendations for “you” on “your” own trip. Thus, a correspondent with the seemingly inappropriate moniker “Cranky” writes on 8 July 1998 that he went “out back” with a transsexual prostitute on Ko Samui and was given a fantastic blowjob for the equivalent of US$5. Another wanted to come back to our hotel with my wife and I [sic]   and we were sorely tempted as  this one, though beautiful, still had a dick and was happy with men or women. It was the trip of a lifetime and I would recommend it to anyone. I will definitely be returning there.

[33]   “Darklord” introduces an action-packed report on a Pattaya massage parlor by announcing “I went to Thailand on (sic) June 1998 with a few of my friends. I had a great time in Pattaya and I wish to share that wonderful experience with you and hope you get that wonderful treatment.”  But on that same day, 22 June, “The Whole Shebang” turns melancholy at the end of his posting, explaining, “The whole session did not last the promised one and a half hour. 60 minutes at the most. Which suited me quite fine.  I left the place with the usual mixed feelings: happy for having been with one more woman, unsettled by her cheat and her ill-concealed hatred.”  Meanwhile, “Stranger in the Night” describes his climax this way:

[34]   [W]e arrived in due time at the right thing, a good lengthy orgasm inside her body. Paun, elf girl of the tropical night, let me come thoroughly, her fine face turned towards mine, half covered with streams of  thick jet black hair, eyes closed in beautiful imitation of sensual ecstasy while her belly performed the slow motion pumping moves that drew out every sparkle of electricity from glowing nerve threads.

[35]   Then, in a move not replicated, in our extensive reading, anywhere in this genre, he apostrophizes the sex worker:

[36]   Thank you, Paun!  In spite of your ability to extract much more money than negotiated from this farang [“foreigner”], I do not regret having met you.

[37]   Why do these men feel compelled to write about their experiences?  What drives them to articulate their movements and acts, the costs and benefits, the frustrations and pleasures?  To do so in such a public but also anonymous forum?  To do so in such excruciating detail?  To do so in such a monologic manner?  All have assimilated the conventions of the genre they are also actively engaged in constructing, but virtually none responds to the others. Perhaps the notion of totalizing alienation, as discussed in chapter 8 of Night Market, can help explain these public/private declarations and make sense of their distinctive discursive traits.

[38]   The surrealistic synecdoche of our title, which is closer to reality than one might think, takes material and discursive shape in the notion of sending one’s genitalia on vacation and then describing its adventures for public consumption. The commercial sex encounter that occurs under the purview of international sex tourism is a completely alienated experience, in both material and psychological senses of the term. For the sex worker, the work itself is alienated labor in that it is labor whose value is appropriated, and it is also alienated in the emotive sense:  that is, separated from and causing separation from authentic feelings, giving rise to isolation and revulsion.

[39]   But these postings make clear that the male customers’ own fetishized mentality often causes them also to experience the transaction as alienated. This alienation is reinforced by the “tele” of tele-technologies, as well as the bottom-line logic of the global market, and is becoming increasingly constitutive of masculinity itself. The constant praise or derision of the purchased product as a product reveals this point, especially as the quality fluctuates dramatically according to cost and perceived economic value. Similarly, when the customer’s experience is good, the sex worker is described with a synecdoche (and a superlative): “the tightest pussy,” “the fullest lips,” “the most pert breasts,” etc. But when the client’s experience is not satisfactory, then the worker-qua- worker is to blame:  her whole being is conflated with her job performance and is at fault due to incompetence, inattention, or greed. The slippage, of course, is that the customer’s discourse always already constitutes the worker metaphorically, either as synecdoche in the first instance or metonymy in the second. Either way, no fully human sex worker exists for the client.  Marx and Engels neatly articulated this slippage as emerging from different relations to and comfort levels with alienation itself:

[40]   The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-alienation. But the former class finds in this self-alienation its confirmation and its good, its own power; it has in it a semblance of human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated in its self-alienation; it  sees in it its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence (Marx and Engels 51).

[41]   Although the most blatant and prevalent characteristic in these documents is the constant, unsurprising linkage between money and sex, with the invocation of one being essentially an invocation of the other, no simple substitution is operative here, nor is there even a clear analogy of money for sex or vice versa. Instead, a more complicated connection between the two occurs and is implicated in the discursive practices of the Web itself, its representation of itself and how it functions in the techno cusp of our new millennium.

[42]   On the Web, talk is ever-abundant, ever-pervasive, and ever-in process. But despite its democratic and utopian proclamations, discourse on the web is also ever unidirectional, ever the domain of the privileged, ever self referential, and ever emanating from the dominant subject position. The “you” addressed in the various etiquette guides is really only the “I” entering the piece on his keyboard. No substantial differences exist between the self who is writing and the other who is reading. Even if the “I” is showing off for an imagined reader, showing off in terms of knowledge or experience, the reader is simply a version of the authorial “I” in homunculus. All of the “I’s” assumptions about the self-in-the-world and how the world works are projected onto any “other” who might read the posting, which is hardly the self/other or I/thou relationship envisioned by Buber or Levinas.

[43]   That only a very few of these many postings ever refer to any of the others clearly reflects the self-contained, solipsistic, and masturbatory (in that it is non-interactive) nature of discourse on the Web, again contrary to the claims it makes for itself. Although each author has read the other postings, as the massive repetition in form, content, and organization among the pieces reveals, the marked lack of references to the writings of others (especially others so like the authorial self) is both baffling and enlightening, for it reveals the deep deception operative in cyberspace’s co-optation of the liberal ideals of democracy, free choice, free will, autonomous actors, free markets, and self-fulfillment that characterize our current moment of transnational capital and global marketplaces. Despite being so much about the self, these postings reveal a profound lack of self-reflexivity. In this 24-hour a day, convenience-store world of sex chatter, sex shopping, and private monologue lobbing, the yobs fingering the keyboard seem unaware of the systems that create the even larger web that ensnares their comfortable Web. The magnetic pull of the tourist to the tourist site, of sex worker to client, of supply to meet demand, and of specific modes of desire to specific types of satiation may be more programmed all the way around than the side of the ledger espousing freedom and autonomy would care to admit.  The locus of the Internet is clearly one that emanates from their dominant subject position, which like all dominant subject positions gets cast as progressive, liberating, common-sense, unquestioned, natural, logical, and unmarked. And the Net functions in their world in this way. It has aided and abetted the reconstitution of the world into what Merleau-Ponty calls “the Great Object,” which incorporates subjective experience into the “use” and “abuse” value of instrumental logic that manifests itself in the market triumphant.

[44]   Consider, for example, the author who rushes from a plane to a red-light district at three in the morning to enact immediately what he’d read on the Web, and having found a girl who wanted 1,000 baht for the whole night, gave her 750 rather than the 500 she would have taken because he is “not a cheap bastard.”  When the sex worker expresses her disbelief that he has never been in the bars before (a cynical claim made by sex patrons and just as cynically dismissed by sex workers) he follows by saying “Of course there was no point in telling her about the Internet etc.”  His own sense of being at home in electronic transactions could be gleaned from his reading of these postings, but his application of virtual reality to peopled reality is something he assumes is clearly beyond the prostitute’s ken. The electronic world of openness, free flow of information, democracy, unfettered dialogue, and so on is one that he is sure the sex worker he hired could not even begin to conceptualize.

[45]   The most recent postings, however, bring the Internet and its content into the bars themselves, with some clients using the same laptops that allow them to telecommute to the office from Bangkok to read narrative snippets to some of the sex workers. Because some entries provide the names of specific bar girls who work in specific venues, the continuation of the Internet as the market itself materializes as a guide to consumerist acquisition. The “democratic” and “free flow” of information found in Amazon.com’s “customer reviews” now operates in sex tourist sites, where the narratives of sexual journeys, sojourns, and purchases become a shopper’s guide to consumer satisfaction that can be accessed at the point of purchase. The squeals of delight this evokes from the bar girls, so some entry-writers claim, added to the overall experience. But the customer might not always be right, as one author states that he will not include any “name” brands in his account – not out of a sense of decorum or human empathy, but because the ones recommended by previous client-authors did not measure up to his standards. Buyer beware because there is no accounting for taste.

[46]   Not only does the Web allow one to move between sites, it also allows one to achieve movement without moving, a version of royal omnipotence past, or, even of divinity. In Paul Virilio’s rather different terms, the various tele-protheses of optoelectronics “make the super-equipped able-bodied person almost the exact equivalent of the motorized and wired disabled person” (21).  The Internet creates the omnipresence of everywhere here and now by concealing the various global economic and labor-driven systems required for all this liberation of the dominant subject to manifest itself. These authors perch behind their glowing screens and hurl their missives into the cybervoid without considering the consequences of their behaviors or language practices. The act of writing becomes one more in a series of actions whose consequences and effects occur conveniently and tidily elsewhere. The global market and technology take care of that, not unlike the video confirmation of a missile striking a target in our post-Gulf War military moment.  And not unlike any purchase made on the free market, whether it is a sex worker’s time and labor or the oil for the electricity necessary to keep the Net from vanishing in the click of a mouse, the causes leading to the purchase, as well as its effects, are hidden from the consumer/author who readily participates in its concealment. “What separates a critical interpretation of technology from that of global technological entrepreneurs and leading politicians,” so John Armitage argues, “is a determination to forge a radical understanding of technology’s consequences”–including its effects on labor, gender, and noetic world formation.

[47]   But there is little room or time for such a critical interpretation in the breathless, “common-sense,” techno-cheerleading of “real time” stock and labor markets. Thus, the recent financial crisis in Southeast Asia that wrecked national economies and left hundreds of thousands starving, with millions more teetering on the brink of abject poverty, merely translates for the Internet diarists into making Thailand an even better bargain for the sex shopper. For these diarists, the devaluation of the baht means only cheaper goods and a greater array of choice as more and more people are forced into this portion of the service sector. A posting dated February 1998, makes the point abundantly clear, as the author discusses his trip’s cost as amounting to only a third of what he’d originally planned:

 

[48]   Because of the devaluation of the baht ($ = baht 45) this turned out to be a very cheap vacation. I spent half of the money that I budgeted to spend, and I was not especially trying to save money as I went.

[49]   To heighten the all-baffling alienation, the author who calls himself “The Whole Shebang” seems confused about the “ill-concealed hatred” of the sex worker who bargained for more money and reduced his contact time with her. The interactive potential of the Internet may emerge in a postcolonial moment and institutions, but it is by no means postimperial in its materialization.

[50]   Stephen Tyler has argued that the Internet is the next logical application of the Cartesian grid:  the presumed triumph of mind over body and space over time, as well as the separation of the knowing subject from knowledge.  In this grid, all thoughts and things can dwell in a space free of human intervention or contact. The Web likes to characterize itself as just such a repository, and its admirers like to invoke these Enlightenment claims of liberation. For all its forward thinking and claims to staking out whole new frontiers, the tropes and ideals that drive the Internet’s claims to legitimacy and hegemony are the same ones that have driven manifold Western desires for several centuries. So the joys of morphing and virtual identity formations can materialize as sending one’s dick on vacation by itself. And the disembodied pleasures of the grid can, and in fact do, result in fully bodied violence of the totalizing alienation experienced by workers and clients alike.

 

Works Cited

  • Armitage, John. “Resisting the Neoliberal Dioscourse of Technology: The Politics of Cyberculture in the Age of the Virtual Class,” ctheory.com/a68.html.
  • Bishop, Ryan and Lillian S. Robinson. Night Market: Sexual Cultures and the Thai Economic Miracle (New York and London: Routledge, 1998).
  • Kroker, Arthur and Michael Weinstein. Data Trash: The Theory of the Virtual Class (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994).
  • Marx, K(arl) and F(riedrich) Engels. The Holy Family or Critique of Cultural Critique (1844; rpt. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956)
  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Le Visible et l’invisible. (Paris: Gallimard, 1993).
  • Truong, Thanh-Dam. Sex, Money and Morality: Prostitution and Tourism in Southeast Asia. (London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1990).
  • Tyler, Stephen A. “Vile Bodies: A Mental Machination,” presented at the conference “The Body in Knowledge,” University of Amsterdam, June 1993.
  • Virilio, Paul. Open Sky, trans. Julie Rose (London: Verso, 1997).