Return to VAW Module III





From “Comfort Women” to “”:

The Commodification of Women in Global Capital Markets






















Brina Milikowsky

May 17, 2001

Women’s Studies 131






            On my first day of work researching for the Let’s Go Europe travel guide in the summer of 1999, I sat on the patio of a bar in Luxembourg City.  The bar was in the valley on one side of the city with a spectacular view of the ravines and the old city walls at dusk.  The man in his late 20s or early 30s at the table next to me was an American who lived in Luxembourg City—he struck up a conversation with me by offering to help translate my bureaucratic battles that he had heard me struggling to conduct in English with my German cell phone operator.  I ended up having a drink with this man Dave and his friend, Chris, a childhood pal who was visiting Luxembourg for Dave’s wedding.  What followed between us was much of the same standard conversation that I would have with any number of fellow travelers over the course of my research: they asked what I was doing in Luxembourg, I told them about my Let’s Go work, and they, excited by my connection to the guide, eagerly offered me stories about their various trips and experiences.  Chris had recently completed a 6-month tour of Southeast Asia, Let’s Go guide in hand, and so he regaled me with tales of Vietnamese and Cambodian adventures. 

“And Bangkok…,” he smiled and shook his head.  “Bangkok is one crazy crazy city… It’s unfathomable just how many strip clubs and brothels there could be in one place, it’s out of control…”  What could have been a critical report of the massive and overwhelming nature of the Bangkok sex industry and sex tourism quickly became a funny story to share with a fellow American traveler.  Chris told me about a bar where the women did tricks with magic markers.  One worker asked him his name and drew him a personalized picture by holding the markers with various untraditional bodily orifices.  He saved the picture and pinned it to the wall of his bedroom in his parents’ apartment in New York.  He laughed over the fact that his parents had no idea where the drawing came from, that they probably assumed it was drawn by a former girlfriend of his and held sentimental value.  Isn’t that a gas?

Call me naïve, but up until that moment the idea of ‘sex tourism’ had never occurred to me.  I knew that the travel industry was changing, that the global political and economic situation was changing, and that more and more young Americans and Western Europeans and Australians were spending more time before and after university traveling to newly touristed parts of the world.  I had not realized that a standard-issue tourist attraction for so many of those young male travelers was ‘visiting’ the centers of the sex industry.  I had heard and read enough about travel in Southeast Asia that I had assembled a list of reasons why I wanted to travel to Thailand myself.  But I had not heard that Bangkok had a reputation for its burgeoning sex industry.  This well-known fact somehow escaped me. 

I now realize that my lack of exposure to the nature and prevalence of sex industries in foreign touristed locations was not a result of my personal naiveté but a product of the larger system of knowledge and power that deliberately shields women in my social sphere from the realities of the sex industry.  In this paper I want to explore the way in which so many women have become commodified through transformations in geopolitical power, either through war or through economic development, and the ways in which the violence of that commodification has been cloaked in language and concepts which eclipse the injuries perpetrated by men and their capital against women.  America has fought several wars in order “to make the world safe for democracy”; in doing so, American capitalism has reduced foreign women to sexualized commodities.  In the pages that follow, I will, with the help of a Marxist understanding of capitalist relations, unpack the role of the commodification of women in the expanding free market of globalization.  Through an exploration of the history of sex tourism and an inquiry into the on-line market of mail-order brides—two worlds which, until recently, I only barely knew existed—I hope to expose some of the mechanisms which propagate a false consciousness around the violence of such economic exchange.  I have been exploring these two international components of the multibillion-dollar[1] global sex industry in order to then more critically engage the question of whether or not the commodification of certain sex acts and certain bodies necessarily results in the commodification of all sex and all female bodies.  In order to set the stage for this analysis, I will first offer another personal moment, an extended anecdote that points to the tensions coursing through this discussion.

A few weeks after my Luxembourg lesson in sex tourism, I arrived in Amsterdam, where I stayed for two and a half weeks.  Unlike most American backpackers—who stay in hostels near the train station and briefly flirt with the legalized drugs and sex of the Red Light District before quickly fleeing on the next train to Paris—I liked Amsterdam for its subtle charm, its array of cultural offerings, and its tremendous diversity and tolerance among its population.  Unlike most backpackers, I explored the entire city and got to know different neighborhoods and local people.  I did not set foot in the Red Light District until after I had been in Amsterdam for a week and a half; I went on a weekday afternoon to survey the scene and review the one museum and several hostels in the area.  Although a bit grimier than the rest of the city, the Red Light District surprised me by its failure to phase me.  This neighborhood did not seem much shadier than the rest of the city, which already felt considerably safer than most American cities I had been in.  Unlike anywhere else in the city, there were several seemingly homeless drug addicts on the street, a sad and potentially threatening sight rarely seen anywhere else in this city but no surprise to an American.  As I wrote to my editor, there is no reason that anyone who has been to New York or Chicago or Paris should feel any less safe here in the afternoon than they do in any other urban setting. 

Except “feeling safe” in an urban setting rarely means pure freedom from danger for women; I felt safe enough in the Red Light District because I had already figured out a way to be alone on city streets, exude a confident independence, and ignore the potential threats lurking on the most ‘normal’ of afternoons.  Upon further reflection, the potential threats that I blocked out on that afternoon in the Red Light District reveal a new set of dangers to my person and identity when situated in an environment where sex work is legalized and regulated. 

First of all, I was presented with a new form of street harassment.  Most strip and sex show club managers standing in the doorways spoke to me as I walked by, asking me to come in to their club.  Because I had been threatened by far more lewd comments in the past, and because there were many people on the street and it was broad daylight, I did not feel especially violated and deflected these comments as I would have in any other city.  Except the nature of their comments reflected the legal status and social expectation of their industry; they threatened me by demanding that I commodify my body as well and by mocking me should I refuse to do so.  How often does a young woman attend a sex show during the day by herself?  The club managers’ propositions to me did not feel to be a legitimate attempt to market their goods but rather a deliberate gesture toward my appearance and my body.  When they asked me to ‘come inside,’ I couldn’t help but feel like they were actually offering me a job rather than inviting me to a show.  They spoke to me as a commodity available to become part of their industry rather than as a free individual seeking entertainment of my choice.  If they weren’t perceiving my body as a sexualized commodity, if they weren’t insinuating that I too should join their labor force, then they were mocking me, trying to intimidate me as punishment for deviating from the proscribed gender norms.  They probably knew that I wouldn’t attend a daytime sex show by myself; their sarcastically asking me if I wanted to come inside was their way of reminding me that young single women did not walk these streets by themselves, that these streets are for the entertainment of men, that my presence was a transgression of the social boundaries of acceptability. 

The second threat I encountered that day was far more removed and, as such, far more upsetting over a longer period of time—the threat of legalized prostitution.  The Red Light District is ‘safer’ for tourists than they might imagine because the prostitution has been moved off the streets and into clearly marked buildings.  The streets have been ‘cleaned up,’ as Giuliani would say about Times Square, and so the ‘average citizen’ is ‘safe’ to walk down the streets without being confronted with a solicitation from a prostitute.  Instead, sex workers display themselves in the windows of licensed brothels, illuminated by red lights.  One walks down the streets without direct solicitation from street workers, and the scantily clad women in the windows can blend into the consumerist landscape along with the thousands of other commodities the average citizen passes but does not consciously engage with every day.   People on the street are ‘left alone’—left alone to window-shop, to stare up at the women in the windows as if their bodies are just like any other inanimate objects for sale.  If prostitution is the transformation of private sex into a good exchanged on the free market in the public sphere, then the windows in Amsterdam serve as artificial barriers that separate the public citizen from the commodity (sex) and puts public sex work back inside a semi-private domain.[2]  Institutionalized and marketed through the transparent window, this legalized exchange of sex for money becomes commercialized in a new way.  Everyone on the street bears the gaze that commodifies the bodies on display in the windows.  Walking through this neighborhood, it becomes normal to see live women on display in windows. 

There shouldn’t be anything normal about this.

There was no reason for me to return to the Red Light District that summer.  When traveling in northern Europe again the following summer, I went to Amsterdam for the weekend with three female friends who had never been there before and wanted to survey, among other things, the infamous sex scene.  And so on Saturday night, ‘escorted’ by two older male friends whom we were visiting in Amsterdam, we walked through the Red Light.  This time, I could barely squeeze through the throngs of men filling the bridges and sidewalks.  Shorter than most of the men around me, I couldn’t even see very far ahead or behind me, but I had the unmistakable sense of being trapped in a massive mob inching its way along the narrow street between the canal and the endless row of illuminated windows.  Everywhere I looked were gangs of men—almost exclusively young American and British men, well-dressed college-aged men who otherwise would be described as ‘respectable’ and ‘upstanding’ looking.  These were the men on my train, in my hostel, reading my guide book.  These were the men, the boys, who go to Europe for the summer with friends and come home to college classes and dormitories and parties. 

Boys will be boys, as they say, and boys go to Amsterdam or Bangkok or any other such sex industry center to be boys.  And perhaps these boys are Harvard men and will sit next to me in my science core or my history seminar. 

When these boys sit next to me in class, do they see me as their equal?  Or does their commodification of those women in Amsterdam collapse my body into that industrialized space where sex is waiting to be purchased?  Does their commodification of those women translate into a universal commodification of all female bodies?  Or do these boys differentiate “those women” whom they purchased abroad—or maybe just looked at through the windows, making the men into ‘consumers’ nonetheless—from me, a ________ woman.  Fill in the blank: Harvard, white, American, English-speaking, educated, economically empowered, etc.  We [privileged] women are ‘different’ than ‘those’ women, or so goes the young American male tourist’s justification of his wild summer behavior. 

            And, in fact, in many ways, we are different.  My class, race, and nationality aligns me with the capital power that has significantly contributed to the development of sex industries abroad—the growth of capitalism is directly related to the growth of the sex industry.  In The Prostitution of Sexuality, Kathleen Barry outlines the histories of the mid- to late-20th century expansion and institutionalization of the sex industry in Southeast Asia, which began through military-related prostitution.  During World War II, 100,000 to 200,000 Korean women and tens of thousands more from China, Burma, the Philippines, and other Asian countries were forced into prostitution by the Japanese military.  These “comfort women” were held on military bases throughout Asia to ‘service’ Japanese military men.  During the U.S. occupation, the Japanese military made these comfort women and other Japanese women available to American troops.  As Barry writes, “Japanese market demand for prostitution sex tourism followed the military prostitution during and after World War II,” and Japanese businessmen, with their growing economic strength especially in the 1970s and 1980s, turned first to Taiwan and then to Korea for sex tourism.[3] 

Meanwhile, the Vietnam War intensified the market for military prostitution and more significantly laid the groundwork for today’s sex tourism.  Although prostitution remained virtually nonexistent in Hanoi throughout the 1960s and early 70s, 500,000 Vietnamese women were in prostitution in the South by 1975.[4]  Sex industries—propagated through bars, brothels, and massage parlors—developed in clusters around U.S. troops in South Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines, and the continued U.S. military presence in Southeast Asia fueled the American, European, and Australian markets for sex tourism.  Today, according to Barry, there are 18,000 prostitutes servicing 43,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in 27 areas in Korea.[5]  In other countries, the U.S. military institutionalized the sex industry until it withdrew its troops, at which point the firmly established industry attracted foreign tourists.  For example, the 25,550 U.S. military stationed at Clark Air Force Base in 1990 sustained an economy of 1,567 registered bars, massage parlors, and brothels, with 5,642 registered entertainers and thousands more unregistered; in Olongapo City, where 70,000 military men from aircraft and ships docked for repairs drove an industry of 11,600 registered female entertainers, 6,000 bar girls, 14,000 unlicensed prostitutes, and 500 registered establishments (10% of which were owned by retired U.S. military).[6]  Since the U.S. military has withdrawn from the Philippines, the country has consciously attempted to regenerate its sex industry through the development of a tourist economy catering to foreign, mostly Taiwanese and Japanese, businessmen.  In Thailand, where U.S. military docked in transit still pump considerable money into the sex industry every few months, the tourist industry has radically expanded the market for sex.  Since the early 1990s, roughly 5.3 million foreign travelers—disproportionately male—visit Thailand; it was estimated in 1993 that every night 500,000 men bought sex in Thailand.[7] 

            Amidst these glaringly massive figures, the statistic that most resonates with my previous thinking about sexual assault in the U.S. is that most women working in these military-based sex industries were war widows, had been abandoned by husbands, or were rape victims[8]—that is, initial acts of male violence in Southeast Asia, often perpetrated in the name of war, directly turns women’s bodies into commodities.  Opponents of prostitution in our class often cited the fact that 75 percent of prostitutes had been sexually abused before entering the sex industry as reason to dismiss the notion that women freely enter the sex trade as if it were any other autonomous contract in the free market.  This dismissal also attempted to undermine the pro-prostitution claim that women who choose to enter this business arrangement feel sexually empowered to do so.  Yet this dismissal never fully satisfied me because it relied on the traditional notion, as Barry writes, that “the explanation for prostitution, like the customer john or trick, is found upon women’s bodies.”[9]  This explanation retained the potential to imply that women who have been abused have necessarily lost all control over their sexuality.  Rather than arguing that no women raised in a patriarchal system that commodifies women’s bodies could fully enter this market as a free agent, this reasoning implies that it is the women who had been abused who do not have the capacity to know what they “really” want.  At any point in the future, this reasoning implies, a victim of sexual abuse can’t “really” be free to choose her own sexual relations.  Although I assume that opponents of prostitution in our class did not intend to insinuate such meaning, I always hesitated relying on such a statistic for fear of sliding down that slippery slope of presumptions which we in a Harvard classroom have no right to assert. 

            Perhaps the reliance on this statistic attempts to dismiss the ‘free contract’ pro-prostitution theory by emphasizing the notion that poverty is coercive.  In her essay “Market-Inalienability,” Margaret Jane Radin discusses the liberal pluralist justification of preventing poor people from selling sexual services as well as children or body parts:

The liberal would argue that an appropriate conception of coercion should, with respect to selling these things, include the desperation of poverty.  Poor people should not be forced to give up personal things because the relinquishment diminishes them as persons, contrary to the liberal regime of respect for persons.  We should presume that such transactions are not the result of free choice.[10]

Women have historically worked in the sex industry out of lack of other economic opportunities, and 75 percent of prostitutes are juveniles procured after running away from home.  Because most runaway youth, like most homeless women and children, are fleeing abusive situations, we can begin to outline the economic relation between suffering initial acts of violence and later working in the sex industry.  Women and children have little economic viability outside of the family unit, and when they become victims of abuse and search for an escape, it becomes that much more apparent that most of them can only survive by living and working on the street.  Citing the abuse rate as an anti-prostitution argument, then, does not necessarily reinscribe the explanation of prostitution on women’s bodies but points to the far more expansive problem of gender-based economic inequality.  A woman’s selling her sexual services is but an extreme example of the measures she is often driven to under the coercive state of poverty. 

However, to frame this recognition of prostitutes’ high rates of abuse within a discussion of the more general coercive state of poverty is to obscure the more concrete actions which create the market of commodities for prostitution.  Not only do male consumers seeking industrialized sex drive the demand side of the market, but male actors also enact violence that sends women into prostitution, thereby driving the supply side of the market as well.  Male violence perpetrated over the last half-century in Southeast Asia, mostly through war and against women, provides the clearest example of this economic relationship.  Military men rape women and kill their husbands in the name of war.  Excluded from the family unity, these women’s only means of survival has been to commodify their bodies through the sex industry, first supplying services to the same military personnel and then to the post-occupation tourists.  Essentially, foreign men rape local women and thereby strip them of their status of being a free citizen in a market-based economy; male acts of violence directly reduces these women to commodities after the war.   The broader violence of limited economic opportunity and the coercive nature of poverty can thus be understood to be specifically linked to initial acts of mostly sexual violence perpetrated by men, and the explanation for prostitution is rightly shifted from the injured women’s bodies to the acts of the original injurer. 

The idea that these initial injuries have reduced hundreds of thousands of women into commodities exchanged through stabilized sex industries offers devastating insight into the possibility of achieving freedom under the capitalist regime of globalization.  Foreign military—mostly American military, bearing the banner of freedom and democracy for all—infused local communities both with the supply (otherwise unemployable women) and the demand (military personnel R & R) of a market for sex.  These lucrative industries deliberately targeted foreign businessmen and tourists as buyers to sustain the market and infuse the local economy with foreign capital if the military withdrew from the area.  These sex industries, based on the commodification of women’s bodies, afford these economies with some of their best opportunities to entice foreign investors.  However, despite their relation to the massive expansion of the tourist industry, sex industries in developing nations are sustained by local men whose urban industrialized surroundings is dependent upon this industry; for example, 86% of Thai prostitution is with local, not foreign, men.[11]  These men are not foreign actors spreading their capital through different national economies.  Rather, these men have acquired new leisure money through the expansion of their local economy, and prostitution is the hottest commodity these men can buy—and 450,000 Thai men frequent prostitutes daily.[12]  As such, the commodification of women comes to signify a transition for men gaining access to capitalist power.  The sex industries commodified women for the service of foreign political and economic investment; when the local economy flourishes, local men gain access to more money and exercise their new economic power by purchasing the commodities of the sex industry. 

            Meanwhile, for women in developing nations, globalization means the imposition of a new form of coercive poverty through the industrialization of sex.  Barry explains how industrialization in Third World countries enforce the gender-based inequality of poverty.  Countries in early stages of industrialization often offer deregulated incentives to foreign corporations in areas called Export processing zones (EPZs), where mass production can be executed at low cost.  These EPZs draw laborers from rural areas, provoking massive rural-to-urban migration patterns, and they typically recruit female labor, which is cheaper than male labor.  Sex industry procurers often work these areas because, exempt from minimum-wage standards and fair labor practices, EPZs provide a means of escape from rural poverty without providing subsistence wages.  As Barry writes, “when they are sufficiently developed, sex industries… are able to buy off women for prostitution with higher wages than they could earn in industrial wage labor sectors.”[13]  In developing nations where both the traditional and the sex industries have been spurred by foreign ‘investment,’ women advance economically by becoming sex workers; men can display their economic advancement by purchasing sex. 

Such a recognition of the role of the sex industry in the development of local economies exposes the gendered implications of globalization and near-universal capitalism.  Barry notes that it is traditionally assumed that prostitution spurred by initial rapid industrialization will decline as the economy stabilizes and continues to grow, expanding so as to grant women more access to better jobs.   But in newly industrializing economies, prostitution continues to increase as economic development advances—the two-pronged foreign assault on these women, combining the history of physical assault with the increase of economic exploitation, work to permanently commodify certain female bodies.  This history of military occupation, foreign investment, and local economic development has established a structure in which many women’s ‘best’ economic opportunity is to submit to the commodification of their sexuality while men assert their economic opportunity by purchasing commodified sex.  According to a study, “The Sex Sector: The Economic and Social Bases of Prostitution in Southeast Asia,” published by the International Labor Organization, “The scale of prostitution has been enlarged to an extent where we can justifiably speak of a commercial sex sector that is integrated into the economic, social, and political life of these countries” and  “the economic social forces driving the sex industry show no signs of slowing down.”  The ILO estimates that between 0.25% and 1.5% of the total female population of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand are engaged in prostitution and receive significantly higher wages than other unskilled workers; the sex industry accounts for between 2% and 14% of these countries’ GDP.[14]  Globalization thus spreads its capitalist power to men everywhere by commodifying a new class of women in certain places, structurally trapping them in the role of a sexual good to be exchanged on the market.  

            This institutionalization of a new class of workers—Third World women who have commodified their sexuality so as to service the increasingly powerful Third World men as well as the Western capitalist ruling class—adds a new perversion to the Marxist critique of capital.  According to Marx, workers are alienated from their work, which has become a means of survival rather than a tool of self-development, and they are alienated from their product, which is manipulated and valued by larger market forces beyond their control.  Operating under the liberal presumption that ‘liberty’ means the right to be free from others’ harm, citizens of capitalist republics only relate to each other through the exchange of goods and are thus alienated from each other.  This deep social alienation is obscured by what Marx calls ‘the fetishism of commodities’—the tendency to relate to goods as if they have intrinsic value, thereby glossing over the true source of value, the labor of production, and the systematic exploitation involved in commodification and market exchange.[15]  When the commodity exchanged on the free market is a woman’s body, when the good whose value is at stake is sex, then Marx’s notion of the fetishism of the commodity is twisted to new levels.  If men are alienated when they only relate to the world through the exchange of objects, how does this alienation intensify when the exchanged commodities are women?  In this advanced stage of global capitalism, we seem to have resurrected Claude Levi-Strauss’ analysis of tribal communities in which women function as the means of economic exchange.  Initial acts of violence against women have created the supply of a commodity which can assert the hegemony of certain male capitalist power while simultaneously reverting our social relations to that of pre-modern patriarchal tribalism. 

            Of course, like with all other goods, the injury and violence caused by the economic exploitation of the sex industry cloaked by what Marx described as false consciousness.  People in capitalist systems operate under a false consciousness that allows the domination and exploitation of the system to be obscured by its language and cultural attitudes.  One such example of obscured domination is the label “comfort women” assigned to Korean sexual slaves to the Japanese military during World War II.  Cloaked in the idea of emotion, this particular language constructs the fantasy that men are sensitive beings who need comfort and emotional support when at war and far away from their families.  In fact, the idea of ‘comfort’ polishes the rough edges of the notion that men ‘need’ sex regularly and therefore ‘need’ prostitutes while they’re away from home.  This faux-biological reasoning constructs our cultural understanding of what it means to be a man—one who needs sex—which in turn is both constitutive upon and productive of what we understand ‘sex’ to be—and act in which the man is sexually satisfied by a female partner/object.  The ‘need’ for male physical satisfaction excuses the domination involved in this sexual exchange; the uses of a term like ‘comfort’ provides the funny ruse of linguistic emasculation to counteract the underlying domination and violence that exists so as to reinforce their manhood. 

            To cite a more clearly market-based example, Kisaeng prostitution in Korea represents a way in which the economic relations are obscured by social value that is not in reality intrinsic to the commodity.  Barry writes, “‘Kisaeng’ originally referred to independent women who were singers and dancers and who took on lovers.”[16]  By creating tourist spots where prostitution is disguised as “Kisaeng,” the sex industry masks the alienation of commodification by promoting artificial cultural meaning.  Kisaeng tourism, located in certain isolated resorts in South Korea, promises “authentic” and “indigenous” experience to its customers; the women in traditional Korean dress commingle with the other culturally nostalgic food, drink, and décor to comprise an ‘authentic’ cultural tourist experience.  The fantasy that these sex workers are independent Kisaeng women obscures the market relations—the experience of sexual violence, the situation of coercive poverty, the slavery of trafficking—that commodify these women in this particular industry. 

The mail-order bride industry reveals the way in which recent transformations in capitalism have secured women’s entrance into the global market only as commodities and similarly thrives on the obfuscation of the alienation of commodification.  The Internet has exploded the power and lure of mail-order-bride trafficking in women—a  search for “mail order bride” on leads to links to 25,300 sites!  Most of these links are classified by Google under the headings:

society > relationships > dating > personals > guides 

These websites market themselves as marriage, dating, and introduction agencies that will find ‘true love’ for American and European men by selling them addresses of ‘pen pals’ or by leading them on dating tours abroad. describes itself as a:

Dating Directory—the World’s largest quality index of links to Singles, Dating, Personals, Lonely Hearts, Mail Order Brides, Marriage, Pen pals, Matchmaking, Romance, Love, Friendship, Chat Room, 900 Numbers, Correspondence, introduction services and other sites of interest to Singles.[17]

A Foreign Affair (, a Phoenix-based international marriage agency that was the first introduction service to go on-line, that organizes 1- to 3-week tours for men, ranging from $3,500 to $8,000, to meet 500 to 2,000 women in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Crimea, Odessa, Kiev, Dnepropetrovsk, Riga, and Cartagena.  With 70,000 photographs of “beautiful women worldwide,” also maintains the largest database of women on the Web.  Their home page best describes their marketing approach: “If you are truly serious about finding a beautiful intelligent, and loving woman whom you can marry and spend the rest of your life with, then you have landed on the right page!”[18] 

The demand for Russian and other Eastern European women has increased over the last few years, fueling the Internet boom of the mail-order-bride industry and surpassing the demand for Asian, especially Filipina, women.[19]  In just six months, the International Acquaintance Service (, the owner claims, “with almost no advertising except for just being on the Web, we have over 1,000 girls in our database, who are getting a total of about 200 letters a day from American and European men.”[20]  Timofei Schukin, the St. Petersburg office manager of A Foreign Affair, recently claimed that his agency “has about 12 marriages a week world wide, and eight or nine of them come out of Russia, not to mention that 65 percent of the 20,000 women in our global database are girls from the former Soviet Union.”[21]  Cultural stereotypes have shifted as the capitalist supply of women has expanded into the former Soviet Union, and now Russian women have become included under the stereotypical fetish of an exotic beautiful foreigner who will passively submit to the authority of her husband.  As one man who had been on one of A Foreign Affair’s dating tours in St. Petersburg later said,

The women are not to be believed, they are as honest and nice as they appear.  This is no game; they are like girls were here in the 50s.  No pretense, no attitude, no baggage, just all girl.  They love their country and family, but the men there are playboys and/or drunks.  So the girls are looking for a family man.[22]

To obscure the exploitative nature of the relation between relatively wealthy American and European men on dating vacations and the procured local women introduced to them, A Foreign Affair and other ‘international marriage agencies’ describe the matchmaking in terms of love and affection.  “St. Petersburg is truly a place full of beautiful women who want to meet and marry an American man who would simply make a decent husband,”[23] one customer explained.  “The chaps on my trip were all upper middle class with a genuine interest in meeting someone,” recalled one customer.  “The women were generally university educated and attractive with a genuine interest in marriage”—but the economic bargain involved in marrying a foreigner is revealed by this customer’s following sentence, “It might help to bring photographs of one’s house, neighborhood, and city.”[24] 

Despite the rhetoric of finding honest, loving, long-term relationships, these dating services are still pitched to men in terms of their market value, reinforcing the foreign women’s’ differences from American women who don’t need this economic escape.  A Foreign Affair describes its multi-city tours as “an extremely efficient and cost-effective way to visit more than one of these magical cities and meet hundreds more of these absolutely beautiful women.  If you are serious about finding someone special, and have the time to enjoy some of the most beautiful cities in the world, as well as the women who inhabit them, then the multiple city tour was designed for you!”[25]  For longer tours, men are invited to an Intimate Social, where the staff leads “special programs, such as word games, which are designed to assist the men in getting to know the women better in a fast and efficient manner.”[26]  The emphasis is unabashedly about the speed and effectiveness with which a potential customer can identify and effectively purchase his wife.  As another customer said, “The socials are your best bet.  You can spend months or years writing beautiful letters.  But you make the strongest impression by being seen in person, especially at the socials.”[27]  Another justified the economic expenditure by explaining, “just meeting one single, attractive, intelligent, Russian woman in her native St. Petersburg is worth the price of the trip.  There are thousands like her in this beautiful city.”[28]  Todd Cuson put it best, perhaps, when exclaiming, “American women of this caliber would not even look at these guys!  In Russia the women always show interest and conversation…. The Russian people love anything American including you!”[29]  And despite A Foreign Affair’s and other websites’ attempt to bill these introduction services and dating opportunities as the foundations of loving relationships, the commodification of the women involved and their reduction to marketable goods reveal themselves nonetheless.  For example, Dennis G., A Foreign Affair customer, said:

I think I met about 20 women I would love to bring back, but stuck with one.  But as they say, ‘you can’t always get what you want,’ so I am not sure if the one I picked will pick me.  So I almost [sic] sorry to say, but I am sure I will be doing another tour next year.  Once is just simply not enough.[30] 

It sounds like he’s talking about the bargains on Turkish rugs in the Istanbul Bazaar or leather belts in a Florentine market.  “Once you’ve tried Russian,” another customer wrote, “you won’t want to go back!”  Once you’ve tasted our fat-free mayonnaise, you’ll never want to go back to the original…! 


Much of the mail-order-bride material on the Web also works to normalize these relationships, in part by trying to assuage men’s fears that they are being unmasculine by ordering women through catalogues.  In “A Man’s Guide to Exotic Women and International Travel,” a self-help sheet linked to,  claims that American men who seek Filipina wives are not ‘losers’ because, according to an INS study by David Jedlicka (1988):

The men [tracked by the INS as having purchased mail-order-brides] were generally white (94%); highly educated (50% with two or more years of college, 6% with M.D.’s or Ph.D.’s, only five did not complete high school); politically and ideologically conservative; and generally economically and professionally successful (64% earned more than $20,000; 42 were in professional or managerial positions).  Their median age was 37…. 84% lived in metropolitan areas.  Fifty-seven percent had been married at least once…. 35% had at least one child, and 75% wished to father additional children.[31]

Because the customers in this industry are for the most part ‘upstanding’ professionals—where ‘upstanding’ is defined as the combination of being white, well-educated, metropolitan, and wanting to be a father—then purchasing the address of a woman on-line in hopes of importing her for marriage is also an ‘upstanding’ endeavor.  This “Man’s Guide to Exotic Women and International Travel” also tries to deflect the stigma of the term ‘mail-order-bride,’ which “implies that a man can thumb through a catalogue at his leisure, pick a gal he likes, and have her delivered by UPS to his doorstep.”  This, notes the “Man’s Guide,” is not possible and these services are not mail-order-bride companies but mail-order-address companies.  But “anyway,” it continues, “how you meet your fiancée is not as important as how well you get to know her, and how genuine your relationship is.”[32]  Again, this language obscures the economic relationship involved and refocuses the customer’s attention to the notion of emotional social affairs.

            The questions of legality involved in the mail-order-bride industry, however, necessarily lead the marketing rhetoric back to the more direct discussion of market value.  A Foreign Affair promotes it’s EZ-Do-It Fiancée Visa Package, just $89.50 for “the most useful and complete package available to help ensure your success!”  Whereas immigration attorneys can charge several thousand dollars “for a simple Fiancée Visa Application,” this visa package “gives great advice on such matters as to where to get married and where not to” and “is a must-read, even if you are just considering embarking on the process.”[33]  In explaining the difference between B-2 Tourist visas and the K-1 fiancée visas, explains the economic risk taken by the consulate by granting a tourist visa to a young, attractive woman with skills who is going to visit a boyfriend who might propose marriage when she arrives, inviting her to stay.  The non-immigrant turned immigrant makes the consulate looks bad, says; but consulates happily give visas to alien fiancées, who only need to prove their intent to marry.  This lesson in immigration policy encourages the male customers to propose to these women perhaps more quickly than they otherwise would, before they even meet in person, while reducing the woman into an exportable commodity whose value is solely determined by her marriageability. 

            The market value of these arrangements are not lost on the women, although sometimes they too submit to a false consciousness about the social meaning of the industry.  According to Barry, many Southeast Asian women impregnated and abandoned by U.S. military personnel view their prostitution as an interim necessity, a means of surviving economically before their GI’s send for them to be married and live in the States.[34]  These women rely on the fantasy that the men who first forced their bodies into the sex industry will one day reward them with economic opportunity greater than they have ever seen.  This sad fantasy satisfies the emotional need of the economic reality that so many of these developing nation sex workers understand, that, unless they can escape to the U.S. or to Western Europe, they have reached the peak of their earning power by working in the local sex industry.  Russian and other Eastern European women at A Foreign Affair’s socials might not otherwise be involved in the sex industry, but fashioning themselves as potential marriage commodities for foreign men serves the same purpose.  As Irina, one of the women procured for socials with A Foreign Affair, said about the industry, “A lot of these girls are desperate and will do anything to get out of here—they have few notions about love.”[35]  Despite the dangers of becoming a mail-order-bride, becoming a marriage export still offers a woman from a developing nation a better chance of economic livelihood than does staying in her home country; for an Asian sex worker, becoming a marriage export is the rare economic opportunity that could lift her out of her institutionalized and dead-end labor class.

            Between the military sex industry, foreign sex tourism, and the largely Web-based mail-order-bride industry, a massive network of trafficking of women connects different economies and increases the capital of different men in different parts of the world.  The links between these different facets of the global sex industry solidify the structural position of the sex industry in the new capitalist phase of globalization.  Sustained both by men of political and economic power and by less privileged men in developing nations, the sex industry commodifies a certain class of women in certain parts of the world, effectively boxing them into this new market-driven space of the global economy.  The questions remain, why is this commodification a bad experience, rather than a valuable economic opportunity, for some women?  And does the commodification of certain women affect all women? 

            First of all, commodification of women and the institutionalization of the sex industry does not provide the economic opportunity and autonomous freedom that pro-prostitution advocates profess.  Most people would agree that maintaining a healthy sense of sexuality is an integral component of retaining and developing one’s sense of personhood.  As Radin explains, “one’s politics, work, religion, family, love, sexuality, friendships, altruism, experiences, moral commitments, character, and personal attributes [are] integral to the self [and] to understand any of these as monetizable or completely detachable from the person…is to do violence to our deepest understanding of what it is to be human.”[36]  If one’s sexuality is commodified, one would theoretically become alienated from it, just as laborers are alienated from their products, the exchange value of which they do not control.  This alienation manifests itself in personal practice—most sex workers claim to not be sexual in their private lives.[37]  Historically, the economic commodification of women’s’ sexuality has negated her personhood and citizenship under the law.  Not only have sex workers been castigated as social outcasts throughout time, but they are often not treated as full subjects under the law.  For example, sex workers in Germany, where prostitution is legal and regulated, are taxed for their income but are ineligible for unemployment insurance or any other form of social security.[38]

            Furthermore, commodification is a form of violence because, as Radin writes, “commodification will harm personhood by powerfully symbolizing, legitimating, and enforcing class division and gender oppression.”[39]  This claim to violence asserts that the commodification of certain women will disturb the power and knowledge system that defines all women, symbolically inscribing the commodifiability of sex onto all women’s bodies.  In this sense, the sex industry activates what Radin calls the domino theory of market-inalienability, the theory that “The existence of some commodified sexual interactions will contaminate or infiltrate everyone’s sexuality so that all sexual relationships will become commodified.”[40]  Therefore, the commodification of rural Burmese and Cambodian women, for example, affects the personhood of me, a white American woman at Harvard. 

            Given the economic considerations of which sectors of the sex industry have recently expanded, and how much of that expansion is contingent upon the evolution of capitalist globalization, I find it hard to reconcile my economic opportunity and relatively massive quantity of freedom with the claim that the commodification of trafficked sex workers in Southeast Asia or mail-order-brides in the former Soviet Union simultaneously commodifies my body.  Practically, experientially, that domino theory does not hold up to me.  However, I cannot forget being in Amsterdam and wondering how the sex tourism of young American men in July did or did not prefigure the acquaintance rapes that I knew would take place on college campuses in August and September.  Furthermore, I hesitate to negate the concept of a universal class of women, which I realize would threaten the possibilities of global feminist organizing and of arguing of universal women’s rights as basic human rights. 

            Part of my anxiety around the domino theory affect is the realization that arguing for complete market-inalienability in the name of universal commodification is in part an unproblematized privilege of economic freedom.  The belief in the domino theory of commodification—the claim that the sex workers in the windows in Amsterdam, for example, drag my female body into the process of commodification and dehumanization—often provokes a pure market-inalienability argument—that therefore, sex work in Amsterdam should not be legal and regulated by the government.  However, how can I, sitting at a computer in Cambridge, advocate for the eradication of an industry in Southeast Asia that has been institutionalized as women’s only inclusion in the new capital markets of globalization? 

            Similarly, Radin critiques the liberal reliance on coercive poverty, as discussed above, as justification for an anti-prostitution stance.  The liberal discussion of coercive property rightly assumes that poor people forced into giving up personal things do not conduct such transactions as the result of free choice.  However, Radin writes:

If poverty can make some things nonsalable because we must… presume that such sales are coerced, we would add insult to injury if we then do not provide the would-be seller with the goods she needs or the money she would have received.  If we think respect for persons warrants prohibiting a mother from selling something personal to obtain food for her starving children, we do not respect her personhood more by forcing her to let them starve instead.[41]

We add insult to injury, Radin claims, if we prohibit someone’s coercive economic opportunity without providing for another means of economic survival.  As such, banning sex work because women in poverty are driven to prostitution isn’t a logical rationale for banning prostitution unless we simultaneously institute a massive redistribution of wealth and opportunity.  An effort to eliminate the commodification and abuse of women through the global sex industry requires the very real prerequisite of establishing new economic opportunities for women in developing countries now forced to submit to the exploitation of EPZs and of sex industries so as to escape rural poverty. 

The call to promote economic justice in this period of massive geopolitical economic change is not new.  But those interested in global economic justice often fail to recognize the role of the sex industry in the growing economic inequalities spurred by globalization, thereby obscuring the gendered violence of alienating market relations.  As I mentioned earlier, my gender intersected with my social position that falls in line with the capitalist superpower, leaving me blind to the massive size of the burgeoning sex industry and its origins in foreign military conquests and business investments.  I hope that a more integrated understanding of the global economic implications of the links between gender-based violence, the growth of the sex industry, and the expansion of capital markets in developing countries will promote a substantive commitment to assessing creative ways to afford more rewarding economic opportunity to women everywhere.  


[1] Kathleen Barry, in her 1995 The Prostitution of Sexuality, cites the trafficking market as a multibillion-dollar industry.  I could not find a more recent or more specific figure, but I suspect that in the last six years, with the advent of on-line services for trafficking women, the market has expanded dramatically.

[2] added 12-04-01: this gets back to mackinnon’s quote that we are safer in public than we are in private and what i wrote for midterm essay, that the street is unsafe as well – it is in some ways, i could say, all that is left of hobbes’ state of nature or something, where we are all left to fend for ourselves, really – but that the workplace, this public but privatized (and, of course, run by and thus protected by private capital) in-between sphere.  the ironies here of ‘cleaning up the street,’ making the street safer to walk on by legalizing prost. and putting it in shopwindows – make the street safer for whom?  it was the prostitutes themselves at risk of being attacked by men on the street – but putting them behind the glass barriers seems to clean the morality and values of the public space, so the streets are cleaner and less corrupted? but there are still women in the windows, which hardly uphold good christian values for male pedestrians.  and now the only people left on the street are the drug addicts and pimps, the men who were the threat of concrete violence in the first place…

[3] Kathleen Barry, The Prostitution of Sexuality (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1995), 138.

[4] Barry, 135.

[5] Barry, 139.

[6] Barry, 146.

[7] Barry, 144.

[8] Barry, 133.

[9] Barry, 162.

[10] Margaret Jane Radin, “Market-Inalienability,” Harvard Law Review 100:8, June 1987, 1910.

[11] Barry, 145.

[12] Barry, 141. 

[13] Barry, 161. 

[14] “Factbook on Global Sexual Exploitation,” Coalition Against Trafficking in Women,

[15] Marx outlined a similarly brief—but arguably less reductive—synopsis of his critique of liberalism and capitalism in “The Gotha Program,” The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978), 535.  Also see Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1990), 163-177.

[16] Barry, 140. 

[17]  See attached. 


[19] John Varoli, “American Lion Seeks Russian Lioness,” The New York Times, December 17, 2000, 9:1-2.

[20] Varoli, 1.

[21] Varoli, 1.  See attached list of A Foreign Affair’s number of women’s profiles broken down by region.

[22] Joe Alan,

[23] Eric Fender, St. Petersburg Tour 2000,

[24] Wayne H., http://www.lovem.ecom/tour/tour96.shtml.

[25] A Foreign Affair,



[28] Jim,

[29] Todd Cuson,

[30] Dennis G., St. Petersburg Tour, November 2000,




[34] Barry, 151.

[35] Varoli, 2.

[36] Radin, 1906.

[37] Barry, 229. 

[38] Barry, 228.

[39] Radin, 1916.

[40] Radin, 1913.

[41] Radin, 1910-11.