Sexbots vs Carebots

Aviva Rutkin, writing for New Scientist wrote a piece last week prodding at the moral panic around sexbots and arguing that there is a substantial disparity between titillating reporting on sexbots and their actual manufacture, sale and future use. I really appreciate that she ends up connecting the viability of home robots with the moral and material valuations of different kinds of labor.

To get there, she takes us on a journey that begins with the dazzling appeal of reporting on sexbots. Not only are sex robots “recession proof” as objects – or so says sexbot maker Douglas Hines – but the headlines sexbots (and their moralistic condemnation) can garner are no doubt providing endless thrills for analytics-obsessed journalists.

Yet notwithstanding the dazzling appeal of reporting on sexbots, sex is not likely to be the only kind of home robot. Care robots are coming onto the market, albeit their emergence is rather slow, and their designs are embarrassingly somewhere between cuddly and uncanny.

But public opinion is not falling in step. People are still unsure about (or downright uncomfortable with) outsourcing care for the elderly and children to machinery. And how interesting that is, or perhaps it’s just absurd, given that this kind of work is some of the least respected and lowest paying work.

Read below.

Why granny’s only robot will be a sex robot

Not Like Us is Aviva Rutkin’s monthly column exploring the minds of intelligent machines – and how we live with them

Robobear
A robot bear to care for you

AFP/JIJI Press

Douglas Hines started out with what sounded like a nice idea.

In the early 2000s, the former Bell Labs engineer was busy caring for his elderly father and building his own technology business. That’s when he first came up with the idea for a companion robot: a machine that could look after his dad and keep him in touch with the outside world via webcam.

Hines started working on a prototype, but ran into trouble finding financial and legal support for the project. So he gave up, and instead turned his attentions to Roxxxy, a life-size sexbot dressed in filmy black lingerie (“always turned on and ready to talk or play!”). That gambit was far more successful. As Hines deadpanned in an interview with IEEE Spectrum in 2010, adult entertainment is “recession-proof”.

Hines’s story is a good allegory for the wider landscape of care robots: five years later, sexbots, though not yet exactly flying off shelves, have stoked enough cultural interest to inflame a widely covered campaign to ban them. Meanwhile, care robots for the elderly remain stuck in sociocultural purgatory. They’re the flying skateboards of the service industry: always predicted, always trotted out as an example of the future, perpetually just out of reach. It’s time to admit that the problem with this vision isn’t the technology. It’s us.

On the surface, the fates of sexbots and carebots should not be so divergent. Both are mechanised stand-ins for roles that are typically undervalued and ill-treated in society, with neither ethically straightforward to replace. Neither will work without a robot that can move around on its own and do some heavy lifting. Both would work even better with some level of social or emotional intelligence built in, to better respond to human needs.

Where are all the robots?

It’s especially curious that the carebot revolution has not taken place, in light of how direly we need it to. In the UK, the number of citizens over the age of 65 is expected to surge by 12 per cent by 2020; and the number of over-85s by 18 per cent. Reports have identified care for the elderly as one of the fastest-growing roles in healthcare.

It’s certainly not a lack of robots that’s causing the hold-up. A bevy of recent prototypes includes Toyota Research Labs’ Robear to lift people out of bed, wheelie bot Zenbo, which can call for help in an emergency, and the seal pup Paro, which takes on the emotional labour of fuzzy companionship. In a demo video for Robot-Era, a project recently piloted in Italy and Sweden, “friendly machines” pick up groceries and mail, relay video calls, take out the rubbish, provide reminders about medication, and take their owners’ arms as they stroll down the street.

But how well will these sell? Not very, if you believe surveys. It seems that people don’t like the idea of carebots looking after their vulnerable relatives. Of more than 25,000 people questioned in a 2012 survey of attitudes in the European Union, 60 per cent thought robots that care for children, the elderly and the disabled should be banned outright; and 86 per cent said they would be uncomfortable with one caring for their children or parents (though many more were OK with the idea of a robotic assistant and even a surgeon).

In a separate poll of people in the US, 65 per cent of respondents across all ages agreed that it would be a “change for the worse” if robots became the primary caregivers for the sick and elderly.

Why the squeamishness? We generally look forward to robots doing the chores for us, from answering emails to picking apples to defusing bombs, tirelessly, cheerfully, with uniform precision. (The word “robot”, in fact, is derived from the Czech word for forced labour.) It’s quite all right for a machine to carry out such demands, from the trivial to the tawdry.

On the surface, carebots look like mechanised butlers, too. However, in difficult moments they flip the script – asking us to relinquish control, human connection and our fantasies about ourselves.

Complex dilemmas

Every day, carebots will run into hundreds of small moral dilemmas: their owner decides not to take today’s prescribed medication; she keeps leaving the stove on, or wandering out of the house and down a street heaving with traffic; or he commits a crime in full view of a watchful mechanical eye, as in the film Robot and Frank, in which an ageing thief recruits his carebot as an accomplice.

What mistakes will be acceptable, and which will be grounds for a recall? Will there be limits to a bot’s responsibilities? Or will their charges have to submit to their power?

In the paper “Granny and the Robots”, Amanda Sharkey and Noel Sharkey at the University of Sheffield, UK, point out another drawback to life with a robo-caretaker: it’s lonely. Putting a carebot in place of a human might deprive many of one of their few opportunities for regular social contact. Such isolation is linked to poorer health outcomes, such as a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. It could also make people feel plain dehumanised – ripped of their dignity, a vulnerable object to be lifted, fed or prompted at intervals.

“If the human rights of the elderly are to be respected as much as the rights of other members of society, it is important to ensure that robots introduced into elder care do actually benefit the elderly themselves, and are not just designed to reduce the care burden on the rest of society,” write Sharkey and Sharkey.

Or, as one person put it recently in The Guardian, being left with a carebot is just “another way of dying even more miserably”.

There’s another reason that carebots might not sit comfortably with us: they don’t jive with our flattering visions of ourselves. Looking after another human being is hard work. It’s physically and emotionally taxing, occasionally messy, and can be boring and thankless. It’s also among our lowest-paid jobs. There’s an expectation that this work is a kind of calling, performed out of love or a sense of service by a friend or family member, or at least a compassionate and conscientious worker.

The reality is a harsh departure from that ideal. In elderly care homes in the US, people are more likely than in the wider community to be subjected to emotional and physical abuse or neglect  – one in 10, according to some reports.

Carebot dystopia

No one looks forward to a carebot dystopia, in which machines exercise dubious moral power over people. But the alternative, too, can be discomfiting: robots turning out to actually be preferable to human aides. It doesn’t reflect too well on us if our future seniors opt to live in a non-human ghetto, with whatever glitches and lack of contact, over the prospect of abuse by bitter and angry staff.

“We need to think of automation as a political question,” said Lucy Suchman at Lancaster University, UK, speaking at a White House workshop on artificial intelligence in New York City on 7 July. “What grounds are there to believe that a robot can engage in the work of care?” Work like this is difficult for a machine to master because of its nature: heterogeneous, open-ended, and often reliant on the ability to interact with others.

Rather than jump to robotic substitutes, we could think of other ways to sate society’s growing need for workers who care for the elderly, such as revaluing the work involved. “The fact that you get paid a huge amount of money to write code and you get paid nothing to take care of people’s children is not a reflection of the relative skills,” said Suchman, “but rather a reflection of the valuation that we make of those jobs within a particular political economy.”

We should ask whether there are really not enough people to do those jobs, or whether it’s just that those roles have been devalued, she added.

The problem closely parallels the idea of using robots for childcare. New parents are expected to extol the joys of parenthood and gloss over the drudgery, even though the experience is a proven drag on personal happiness. Tireless devotion is considered a virtue, one that the vast majority of us cannot attain; leaving a child with just a human nanny carries an undeserved social stigma of neglect, even though for many it’s the only practical solution.

What would the neighbours say if they heard that little Jimmy was left with a machine while mum went out for a well-deserved drink? It may not be fair, but it’s not unimaginable. That’s a tough norm for a shiny new robot to break down.

Leaving a loved one in the care of a machine will look tantamount to admitting that we have other things we’d rather do – that all humans have things they’d rather do. Like, maybe, spend time with our new sexbot.

So while sex robots already have enough of a built-in audience that people are fighting over whether we’ll marry them or ban them, the future for care robots is looking a lot murkier. Unlike with sex robots, we don’t know what we want from them.

Interview in Vice – How women really feel about sex robots

I was interviewed by Steven Blum of Vice Read the original post here.

How Women Really Feel About Sex Robots

MAR 31 2016 3:00 PM
How Women Really Feel About Sex Robots

A recent survey found that women and men had drastically different opinions on the appropriateness of sex robots in a variety of real-life situations. We asked a sex researcher: Why?

According to a recent survey conducted by researchers at Tufts University, women just aren’t into the idea of fucking a robot. About two-thirds of women polled by the university said they wouldn’t shag with a droid; in comparison, two-thirds of men said they would.

Conducted by researchers Matthias Scheutz and Thomas Arnold, the modest, 103-person poll is the first to capture how men and women see sex robots. Perhaps because the controversy over erotic automatons is so murky and theoretical, the researchers sought to understand their usage in specific hypothetical scenarios. Subjects were asked whether sex robots would be “appropriate” or “socially useful” for those who were disabled, lonely, on a spaceship, into minotaurs, or bereaved. Men were generally more chill about all of these scenarios than women were, but there were some points of agreement: Both women and men agreed that sex robots shouldn’t be made in the likeness of children and that they were appropriate to use instead of prostitutes.

Still, it was weird to me that women weren’t more into robot sex than men because a) Jude Law’s character, Gigolo Joe, in A.I. is objectively hot, and b) so many women already use vibrators. For answers, I got in touch with Shelly Ronen, a PhD candidate at New York University who studies sex, intimacy, and technology. We talked about the many ways in which robots can be disturbing—but also why they might not end up being a big deal at all.

Photo via Flickr user MikeCogh

BROADLY: Let’s talk about the recent survey that found women were less comfortable with the idea of a sex robot than men. Assuming that conclusion holds true in a larger, more comprehensive survey, do you have any theories as to why that could be?
Shelly Ronen: There could be a few reasons. Assuming this survey is really able to capture respondents’ desires, then the first possibility is that women hold a more emotional notion of meaningful sex, one that values connection with another person more highly than men do. Certainly this is in line with the traditional gendered double standard that holds women to a different standard in pursuing sexual behavior. Men are not just free to engage in meaningless sex, they are also encouraged to do so in a way that is not the case for women; women are more likely to suffer reputation consequences for doing the same.

So perhaps women are responding to that social pressure, knowing that sex with an object, which is a form of meaningless sex, would be more harshly perceived. Perhaps they have internalized the double standard and actually experience desire for more “meaningful” sex—sex that involves an emotional connection with another person. Another related option is that men, more than women, see the sexual appeal of dominating their sexual partner. Maybe they are more aroused by the idea of sex with a literally objectified sexual partner. This would be in line with the feminist critiques of heterosexual desire as rigidly locking men and women into gendered roles of patriarchal oppressor and subjugated sex victim. But I doubt that all heterosexual desire is really that simple. And the fact that some women (albeit fewer than the proportion of men) do say they would have sex with sex robots means that there is more overlap between desire among the “opposite” genders than we might have once thought.

Additionally, men are encouraged to evaluate their masculinity in terms of sexual voraciousness while women are not. So might it be that men are enacting a kind of identity work (basically, doing the socially desirable thing) by saying “yes” to sex. Meanwhile, women are performing their own kind of gender-congruent behavior by erring on the side of “no” to sex.

When people hear the words “sex robot,” what do they think? How do they exist in our collective conscience?
No research has really looked at this question. But judging by the popular media representations of sex robots, we have a whole host of anxieties about them. Most obviously, sex robots are often portrayed as here to destroy us: take our jobs, do them better than us, make us redundant and impotent. We appear to be also really concerned about whether they’ll learn to do more than what we have designed them to do. Will they learn to love other people, not just us, their owners? Will they trick us into believing they are humans?

Some surveys try to get at the question of interest in sex with robots, and it appears that men are more interested in that than women, which is surprising when you consider that more women than men use sex technologies in the form of vibrators. There is something about a fully humanized sex commodity that triggers a different kind of reaction for people. People that don’t think vibrators are immoral do consider sex robots immoral. And women, who might be more likely to use a vibrator, are less likely to indicate interest in sex with a robot intended for sexual uses.

In an episode of the podcast Flash Forward, you discussed how it will be a relatively long time before we even see life-sized sex robots, and that by the time they do come to market, we will be used to having sex with our partners through our devices. How do you think technology will change the way we view intimacy, connection, and sensuality before sex robots become available?
It’s likely that in the future we will get more sexually creative, on the way towards creating sex robots. We’ve already undergone lots of transformations that are not entirely driven by technologies: the rise of romantic love, the deinstitutionalization of marriage, the uncoupling of sex from marriage, the rise of the “hookup,” and the increasing acceptance of LGBTQ or alternative sexualities. There are definitely technologies that are implicated in these social changes, like the invention of birth control, which was huge, and the wide dissemination of automobiles, which gave teenagers unprecedented access to private space to fool around in. It’s likely that technologies will continue to play a part in the broader transformations of love, sex, and intimacy.

In the short term, there are a bunch of long-distance sex tools that are much more feasible. Some are already on the market, and they allow you to have sex with your partner through sex toys networked via the Internet. I think the use of VR and hardware in conjunction with the much more advanced visual technology in the pornography industry is very likely imminent.

But then there are going to be transformations in intimacy that have less to do with the invention of toys or tech. The rise of the asexuality movement, despite accounting for the experiences of a minority of people, is also pressing an important conversation for us as a society: What [is] the connection between intimacy and sexual behavior? Is it causal, sufficient, even necessary? That’s just one way in which intimacy will continue to be reimagined, regardless of the invention of sex robots.

The survey also found that both genders were uncomfortable with the idea of a sex robot made in the likeness of a child. Do you think that view could change as well? That society could end up comfortable with the idea of robots being used to treat pedophiles?
I don’t know if the view will “change” in the sense of: if you surveyed these same people in five years, and then again in ten and 15 years, then a larger and larger portion of them would say it’s alright. It’s possible. I think the scenario in which this is most likely the case (that people increasingly endorse child sex robots as acceptable) would involve some medical trials that show that the use of these kinds of “therapeutic” sex tools reduce the incidence of future offense among convicted pedophiles. We are a sufficiently punitive society that I conjecture this would be a powerful sway on popular opinion.

More likely, however, is that people are going to continue saying child sex robots are unacceptable even as the industry producing them and the market purchasing them increases significantly. I mean, look at pornography. There is a widespread moral objection to child pornography. There are laws to make sure that underage performers aren’t involved in the production of porn. But even just in the realm of legal porn (set aside child pornography that involves children as performers), the ideal of youth is widely valorized. Sex with women dressed as schoolgirls is clearly a popular fantasy. So I think the relation between sexual fantasy and public opinion is less direct than we might think.

Do you think relationships between humans and sex robots will eventually be viewed as equally valid as relationships between humans?
There’s really no way of knowing. If we get to that point, it won’t be without a significant amount of social upheaval.

Future of Sexbots: On Podcast Fast Forward

Stellar journalist, Rose Eveleth interviewed me along with two other sex robot and sex futurist experts, A.V. Flox and Madeleine Ashby, for her podcast Flash Forward.

LISTEN HERE

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 12.16.21 PMScreen Shot 2016-02-09 at 12.16.38 PM

This week we have three experts helping us think through how we get to sex robots, and what we do when we get there. A.V. Flox is journalist who covers the intersection of sex, law and technology. She is very skeptical of all the sexbot hype, and says we have a long way to go before we’ll see anything remotely like an actual sex robot. Madeline Ashby is a science fiction writer and futurist who’s been a guest on the show before. A few of her books involve sex robots, and she thinks that before we get anything human we’ll start to see cartoony looking forms. And Shelly Ronen is a sociology PhD student at NYU who studies sex and sex object production. Ronen says that it’s possible we won’t demand full-on humanoid robots, but instead be totally satisfied by less human-like machines.

Together the three of them walk us through all the things we might have to sort out before and after the rise of the sex robots. How do you keep them clean? Where do you store them? What happens if they break? What will they look like? How do you handle the uncanny valley? Who should use them, and how does their existence impact sex workers?

You can read an optimistic take on sex robots in the book Love and Sex With Robots by David Levy and you can find more on Levy’s outlook on robots here. Levy is optimistic about sex robots — not only does he think they’re coming quickly, he also thinks they could have some very positive impacts. On the other side of the table is the Campaign Against Sex Robots. You can guess how they feel about these devices, and their argument is generally summed up here. Essentially, they feel that prostitution is bad, and sex robots would be a form of prostitution and encourage it, therefore sex robots are bad. This is an argument that many people disagree with, including sex workers who point out that many of them enjoy and would like to keep their jobs.

Plus, we have to make this a lot sexier before it will work for most people:

To top everything off, here are some fun fact about our long tradition of wanting to create and love female robots:

  • Robots were originally assumed to be male. The 1920’s science fiction play R.U.R. that gave us the word robot also gave us the term for a female robot: a robotess.
  • The term “gynoid” (which you don’t see quite as much anymore) was coined by the writer Gwyneth Jones in her 1985 novel Divine Endurance.
  • The term “fembot” first shows up in 1976, in a script for the show The Bionic Woman.
  • Brigitte Helm played “Maschinenmensch,” the female robot in the iconic 1927 movie Metropolis. Apparently her costume was extremely uncomfortable, and other actors would apparently slip coins into various openings out of pity for her. She used those coins to buy chocolate.

Flash Forward is produced by me, Rose Eveleth, and is part of the Boing Boing podcast family. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Broke for Free. The illustration is by Matt Lubchansky. The music for our various sex robot commercials was by Alaclair, Strong Suit and BoxCat. The voice for the Hadaly commercial was Jaya Saxena, whose writing you can find at jayasaxena.com. The voice forMargot’s Discount Closet Solutions was Mike Rugnetta, who has a podcast called Reasonably Sound that you should absolutely listen to. And the voice convincing you to buy a Leopold was by Brent Rose, who is currently driving around America in this crazy high-tech van. You can follow his adventure at ConnectedStates.com and on Instagram @brentdangerrose.

If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at info@flashforwardpod.com. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.

And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! We have a Patreon page, where you can donate to the show. But if that’s not in the cards for you, you can head to iTunes and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help.

That’s all for this future, come back next week and we’ll travel to a new one.

 

Double Dirty Work – published in Public Books

My latest piece in Public Books just came out. Read the original here.

DOUBLE DIRTY WORK: SEX RESEARCH AND
SYMBOLIC CONTAMINATION

SHELLY RONEN

September 1, 2015 — “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 bookDealing 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.

<i>Saigon</i>. Photograph by Robert S. Donovan / Flickr

Saigon. Photograph by Robert S. Donovan / Flickr

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 adoubly 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.