Throughout the year, we’ll be featuring each of our Fellows as guest bloggers where they will share their thoughts on their films, filmmaking, or anything they think would be of interest to the documentary community. This month we hear from Amy Oden about her latest documentary project which offers a different take on commercial sex work within the context of globalization.
“Don’t start thinking that you’re better than someone else, just because you have a different job than they do,” I said to one of the interns at my day job last week. You could file the comment under “unsolicited life advice,” but it very much resonates with and originates from my experiences filming workers in the commercial sex industry in the Pacific Rim.
When a friend from New York first told me she was thinking of taking a contract to work as an exotic dancer in Guam, I became obsessed with the idea, and immediately started seeking out contacts to figure out the details of the situation. I quickly found dancers from Portland, Atlanta, Alaska, Vancouver; the list seemed endless. Somehow it had never occurred to me that folks could leverage dancing as a way to travel the world via contracts, even though I was already starting to leverage academia and film to travel. Amidst my preoccupation with the racial and colonial implications of American women stripping on the island, and without a hint of self-reflection about my own position as a migrant employee, I accepted a contract at the University of Guam, and relocated temporarily.
I had heard that there were plenty of venues for sex work on the island, and I suppose I drew a boundary in my mind between the strip clubs and the rest of the industry. What I found when I arrived on Guam was not the Western world of categories and delineations I had envisioned, but a messy, fluid, nuanced network of people who came from an array of places, and who had varying degrees of understanding about what awaited them during their stay on the island. There were plenty of American women who had bounced around, broken contracts, or gotten stranded. I also met locals who had worked the streets, and migrant women who met the textbook definition of “trafficking victim,” and who had voluntarily returned to the industry after escaping. The way governments label people across this vast range of life experiences “victims” or “criminals” is woefully inadequate.
My working definition of what constitutes “commercial sex” also became blurred, as I witnessed everything from full contact dancing, to girls doing “carry out” services. This is an industry of fantasy and luxury, where 55-year-old mama-sans are more concerned with hand-feeding their new customers filet mignon than policing the border between customer service and prostitution. I witnessed officers behaving badly, saw multiple drag band ensembles of overseas contract workers, and had a massage parlor mama-san tell me that a lady customer needs a male masseuse like “the sun needs the moon.” In my experience, “commercial sex” can be everything from a dancer with a day job doing a private party, to a weekly waltzing date at a karaoke bar.
Why am I making this film? The short answer is that I believe women’s work should be respected, and that decriminalization is the first step towards recognizing that real life is more complicated than legislative language. In a globalized world, where tourism is one of the only industries that can’t be outsourced, the proliferation of sex work as a component of the “local experience” seems almost inevitable. In this context, if we agree that prohibition does nothing to suppress the sex industry, we need to focus on the treatment of workers, which is why I think examining legislation, stigma, and the “rescue industry” is especially important right now.
Some of the dancers I met in Guam had bachelor’s degrees. In the wake of the global recession, dancing affords the chance to earn what Rachel Aimee refers to as “quick cash in an unregulated environment,” despite often hazardous or falsified work conditions. In late stage capitalism, we all have the potential to be migrant workers. If Fordism is truly dead, then for Generation Y and the Millennials, there will likely be more plane tickets and employee housing than anniversary watches or company cars. Taken together, these arguments point to how relevant the lives of the workers on Guam are to all of us.
This month I am doing a second pass on my interview string out for the film, and have been juggling incorporating everything from labor statistics, to nuclear testing contracts. The Docs In Progress Fellowship has definitely helped me stay motivated, and given me a place to connect with folks who are in similar trenches. The empathy and direction that this group of people has provided has been both validating and helpful. I hope I can round out my time here by continuing to form and articulate the vision behind my project.