RivkaT (rivkat) wrote,


Eileen Yuk-Ha Tsang, China’s Commercial Sexscapes: Rethinking Intimacy, Masculinity, and Criminal JusticeI was interested in this book not just because of its subject matter but because, as far as I can tell, the author is both trying to do scholarship that engages with well-known Western frameworks but also hoping to convince Chinese authorities to follow her suggestions by invoking Party ideals. It’s hard for me to say if the latter could be successful but it sure did make for different reading. Tsang studies female sex workers in a city known for its sweatshops, which draw in women from the countryside; some choose sex work instead, deeming it less bad than the alternatives. She argues that sex work improves their living conditions and also allows them to pursue the modern Chinese dream of individualization/success through being able to buy stuff. She also criticizes current police enforcement: while bribery keeps high-tier sex workers protected, arrested sex workers are sent to re-education centers that force them to produce goods, as in the sweatshops, but with even less control and more humiliation.

I was struck by Tsang’s findings that many women moved to the city to escape abusive husbands; she then says that “most of these women left their children with their parents to ensure a safe and stable environment,” though query how safe it is where physical abuse is otherwise acceptable.

Tsang also interviewed male clients, focusing on clients in low-end and mid-tier niche markets. She argues that such men—poor and unable to afford larger indicia of success, like owning property and marrying—are in crisis over their masculine identity; they buy sex as a way of asserting masculinity. Of course, the high-status, wealthy clients (including a number of foreigners) do that too, but they get more companionship out of it, because buying the intimate services of a charming, educated woman is even more desirable. The foreigners, unsurprisingly, tended to conceive of Chinese women as more traditionally feminine, flattering, and attentive than Western women, and the wealthy clients who developed long-term relationships with high-tier sex workers tended to tell themselves—and Tsang—that their partners weren’t really/inherently “dirty,” just nice girls who were looking for an authentic relationship.

Although Tsang expresses admiration for the sex workers’ gumption, she also ultimately treats sex work as a thing to be eliminated; her goals include helping policymakers “to decide how to provide retraining to the single-adult migrants and improve their working situation. This can provide time for the migrants to find a respectable partner and encourage them to get married. Subsequently, they will no longer pose a threat to society or participate in violence or disorder and so affect China’s stability and harmony.” Is this strategic, said to justify the research? It’s hard to say. When Tsang asks “why and how has China’s post-socialist transition reshaped women’s gender ideologies and contributed to a moral vacuum which is evidenced by sex work in high-end bars,” though, the missing information is: has prostitution actually increased? That’s plausible given increased mobility, but not shown—prostitution is known to many societies including ones that purport to place less emphasis on making money.

At the same time, Tsang identifies some reasons for sex work that go beyond the other choices being worse. “First, the work focuses on thrilling sexual desires. Second, the work involves pleasure and reciprocal relationships with their clients and their coworkers. Third, the commercial sex industry rewards creativity and new skills or techniques in the workplace. … Simply put, clients will pay exorbitant sums of money to experience the most extreme, taboo physical acts.” When she talks to former sex workers who married Hong Kong businessmen, some get alienated and feel isolated, even to the extent of resuming their former work.

Bruce Catton, The Battle of Gettysburg: Short overview of the military aspects of the battle: key strategic and tactical decisions, with a brief coda on the Gettysburg Address. Maybe useful as a refresher if you were going to visit.

David Faris, It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American PoliticsIf you want some fighting lingo, this book delivers. (“The default negotiating position of the Democratic Party … should be this: You will give us Merrick Garland, or you may go die in a fire.” Though the moderate Garland isn’t where I’d start, I admire the sentiment.) Faris is outraged and wants to swing for the fences, arguing that debating whether the minimum wage should be $13 or $15 is unhelpful while Republicans are playng hardball and successfully obscuring the connection between policies and the parties that support those policies. That’s not to say we shouldn’t campaign on the minimum wage, but it won’t be enough. (Trump is on track to appoint 30% of all federal judges, by the way.) We should abandon the filibuster and any urge to make policy in “bipartisan” fashion until Republicans have reformed themselves. We shouldn’t play Republican dirty—closing down voting stations in white-dominated areas, for example—but we should play to win. That would include statehood for DC and Puerto Rico (he argues that existing polling doesn’t capture the real taste for statehood there), splitting California into seven states (“California is so enormous that if you laid it out end to end, it would almost stretch across the entire black hole of empathy and human feeling at the center of the contemporary Republican Party”), packing the Supreme Court and the lower courts, expanding the size of the House and electing representatives in multimember districts with ranked-choice voting, and comprehensively making it automatic to register and super easy to vote.

The California stuff was the freshest idea to me. Although California was purplish until relatively recently, Faris argues that demographic changes would make at least five and possibly all seven of the new states into Democratic states sending Democratic senators to Washington. And, not incidentally, California’s 38 million people would gain more equal representation, and there’d be more of a path for talented California politicians of any stripe to actually get some experience in government. I’d sort of rather abolish the Senate, but it’s an interesting pitch, and he argues that the logistical challenges are indeed daunting but certainly worth the same investment that “our elites generally reserve for invading small, unimportant countries, demolishing their societies, killing their leaders, and watching their young people grow up burning with a thirst for violent revenge.” Expanding the House would also help malapportionment: though gerrymandering is plenty bad, Faris argues that there’s basically no way to district for a 435-member House without packing Democrats together in uncompetitive urban seats. 

Sharon Lamb, The Not Good Enough MotherA beautifully written, challenging memoir by a therapist who evaluates children and families for Vermont’s DCF to see where the children should stay or be placed. One of Lamb’s own sons struggles with a heroin addiction (which she denied for a while), influencing her musings on what it means to be a good enough mother and on when we should look at outcomes or behaviors, or some combination. I found it quite striking that she recounted an anecdote from Amy Chua’s well-known account of her “Tiger Mother” upbringing of her two children—Chua recalled ripping up a handmade Mother’s Day card because the art was too sloppy. If Lamb had been evaluating Chua, that could have cost her custody. But of course Yale Law professors don’t get the state evaluating their parenting in that way, and maybe it matters that they had stable employment and no obviously out-of-control addictions; maybe it matters that her daughters grew up to get good educations (hell, one of them is about to clerk for Kavanaugh). It was heartbreaking to read about “mothers who canot stand for their children to want them, to need them. In attachment terms, it brings to mind for them, to the unconscious mind, their own unreliable mothers.”

Lamb was surprisingly-to-me empathetic to men who were physically violent; at some points I felt she lumped yelling at, demeaning, and hitting children together. (She even says she doesn’t trust herself to gauge what’s an okay amount of male aggression—but what do we do with that?) I do think it’s a relevant question to ask whether a man who hits his partner can ever be trusted: is there really no coming back? Doesn’t it matter that his kids may well love him deeply and be harmed by being taken away from him, even if they also risk harm in staying? Life is unpredictable and so what happens may happen even if we do everything as well as we can (and nobody can, and there is no such thing as perfect mothering), and this extends to addiction as well. When Lamb notices that it’s almost impossible to distinguish between sham and real addiction treatment centers, if there’s even a distinction, it echoes her observations about the differences between good enough and not good enough mothers.

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Tags: au: catton, au: faris, au: lamb, au: tsang, nonfiction, reviews

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