Book Review: Governing Sex, Building the Nation

Hardback, pp277

Yen Wan-chen writes that the KMT considered prostitution as something that was problematic, but also something that ought to be available

Prostitution in general, and Asian prostitution in particular, has spawned a wide variety of responses.

First there is the bluff joker, invariably male, who refers to “working girls” (“It’s their right!”) and can be relied on before long to talk about “the world’s oldest profession.” Then there are those, typically Korean, eager to gain compensation for Japan’s war-time “comfort women” practices. These are closely followed by feminists in general who assert violations to the female body, plus more guarded observers who comment that women earning less than men elsewhere in the economy is a key to the phenomenon. Then there’s Thailand, which rarely avoids a mention. Lastly there are the skeptics, often Marxists, who see prostitutes as workers like any others, and press for them to be left alone, and even unionized.

Yen Wan-chen’s Governing Sex, Building the Nation is an academic book, and modern academics are fond of associating prostitution with power politics generally, and especially colonialism. Eminent names such as Michel Foucault and Edward Said led the way here, but Yen is keen to show that the situation in Taiwan is different. Since the Japanese left in 1945, Taiwan hasn’t been anyone’s colony. Instead, for 35 years and more it was a one-party state under the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), and it’s this party’s attitude to prostitution that this book is concerned with.

The essential argument is that, judging by official and other publications during the period under consideration, the KMT considered prostitution as something that was “problematic,” but also something that ought to be “available.”

There was pressure from women’s groups, mostly drawn from Mainlander elites, to enforce a greater degree of Confucian orthodoxy, in which women’s roles were seen primarily as domestic and marital, with motherhood the ultimate aim. But on the other hand, there was pressure from foreigners, mainly Americans during the Vietnam War, for Taiwan to serve as a base for “R and R” (rest and recuperation, operational from 1965 to 1972), in which sexual services played a central, and maybe the central, role.

I have to admit that my ability to follow the argument of this book was limited by an on-going tussle with its style. I am full of respect for authors who write in what may be a second language, but despite that I often found myself reading through a long paragraph only to throw my hands up at the end and exclaim “What did that mean?” I could sometimes guess at the meaning intended, but struggling through a book, jumping from one guess to another, isn’t the ideal route to comprehension.

Sometimes the skies cleared, and I am able to report that the work examines, among other things, the phenomenon of “foster daughters,” or “girls who were taken or sold into other families in the name of adoption, but acted as daughters, daughters-in-law, or maidservants … [Some of them were] forced or traded into prostitution by their adoptive families.”

It also, and extensively, considers the problem of venereal disease, and the attempts by the authorities to control it. Prominent in this discussion is the role of military brothels, established throughout Taiwan as soon as the KMT arrived. The dominant idea was that the natural vigor of soldiers had to have an outlet. Without this release, the nation’s safety was at risk. Licensed brothels were the places where such activity could be best controlled. It’s fascinating in this context to read that, under a law enacted in 1952, soldiers on active duty were not allowed to marry.

Prostitution had flourished prior to the Japanese takeover in 1895 in the form of courtesan houses, wine shops and actual brothels. Under the Japanese, there were “comfort women” for the military, geisha houses for officials and gentry and wine shops and brothels for everyone else. The hot springs in Taipei’s Beitou District (北投) housed many willing to offer sex, and in the 1930s Taipei tea rooms and coffee shops were added to the list. Indeed, it comes as a surprise to read that many ordinary waitresses were obliged to have medical tests, so widespread was the assumption that they were working as prostitutes on the side.

But when you read Yen’s assertion that sex workers could earn up to 20 times what girls working in factories could earn, the ruse of the waitresses seems less surprising. Elsewhere Yen states that, according to official statistics she has unearthed, the number of registered prostitutes and hostesses in Taiwan increased from 2,060 in 1962 to 23,018 in 1970, while those engaged in unlicensed activity was estimated at 105,000 (no date given). With Taiwan’s population at 16 million in 1974 — eight million women, and perhaps five million at a sexually active age — I calculate the above figures, if the 105,000 estimate is accepted, to represent around one in 40 of the relevant female population.

This is a difficult book to get to grips with, but on a fascinating subject. Reformers, mostly women’s groups who pressed for abolition, are set against regulationists (essentially the government). Were these troublesome women or women in trouble? The debates continued, and are followed by Yen, but the “problematic but available” consensus prevailed throughout the period, except for when licensed prostitution was briefly banned between 1946 and 1947.

There is no attempt to explore prostitutes’ experiences via oral evidence. The author apologizes for this, but says it has been done already by other writers. All in all, this book is about how the “unavoidable evil” attitude was maintained during a crucial era in Taiwan’s history, with the evidence culled from published sources. The author is currently continuing her research in Kaoshiung.

Bradley Winterton, Taipei Times (26/11/16)

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