By definition, sex work is “the exchange of sexual services, performances, or products for material compensation. The term emphasizes the labor and economic implications of this type of work.” For girls who grew up online, sex work and sex workers are no longer a distant Other.
Through our webcams the practice has become intimately familiar, almost innocuous, to the middle-class Young-Girl. The Young-Girl has a casual relationship with sex work. Used to practicing forms of labor online, the thought of working as a cam-girl has crossed my mind: The money would be so easy. I can stop if I don’t like it. It could be exciting. I jarringly remembered these flippant thoughts when I sat down to talk to Cristine Brache about her new work, which focuses on the reality of sex tourism in Asia.
The experiences of the sex workers in Asia — and the men who prey on them — are filtered through her online video project mongertours.com, as well as her recent show at GUCCIVUITTON during Art Basel, I know the master wasted object. Through her travels, Brache has observed and documented her experience of sex work as both an outsider and insider. “I have always been interested in sex work,” she recalled. “I was obsessed with porn mags when I was 17 and have a collection of them back home.” Brache’s obsession with sex work led her all the way to Thailand. “There are many things people say about Thailand — like, Thai girls are this and that and how sexuality is perceived in Thai culture.” Women in Thailand, forced by circumstance, typically do not enter into sex work thinking, “The money would be so easy. I can stop if I don’t like it. It could be exciting.” Speaking candidly about her project and sex work in general, I asked Brache if she felt that there has been a glorification of sex work in the discourse around it. The term ‘webcam feminism’ came to mind and stuck there. “It’s hard to define those feelings of what’s healthy and what’s unhealthy. Everything is so conditioned. I think it’s important to be sexual and explore whatever that means to someone. I do feel like there is a lot of shame-shedding in exhibitionism but all of this, I feel, is another world to what the reality of prostitution for survival is. Prostitution without any other option — or opportunity, I should say. It’s difficult to feel comfortable expressing these feelings without feeling condemned on either side,” said Brache, “but when I look at these sites in particular like ‘buck wild’ it’s like come on.”
‘These sites’ Brache refers to are sites like buckwildtours.com, which offer sex services targeted to middle-class American men. They promise companionship and nights of wild sex with local women. Brache describes the districts in Bangkok where the streets are lined with brothels: “It’s so cheap there. Any average middle class guy can go there and feel like a king, have the girl of their dreams.” Sites like Buck Wild Tours promote the exotification of Asian women by comparing them to the ‘typical American whore.’ The Buck Wild Tours homepage boasts:
“The attitude of the Filipina is really incredible! They truly love to serve you and please you. Everything from taking your shoes off for you, back rubs until you fall as sleep, to feeding you like you are Julius Caesar, they really think of you first. What American whore will do any of that for you? With all of these details it’s simple to see why the Philippines is the #1 ranked country for international marriages! In America taking a women out on date typically results in her ordering the most expensive food and drinks on the menu, and at the end of the night she’ll still be ungrateful. The chance of you getting a return on your investment is slim to none. Some of those piles of shit go on dates just to eat the best food and drinks they can on your dime, having zero interest in you and focusing solely on the contents of your wallet.”
In these descriptions of women as docile and subservient but also sexually willing, the woman is viewed as a projection and not a partner. I know the master wasted object demonstrates this using a plastic bag, the show’s key visual component. Like a woman-as-projection, “the plastic bag is a container for something of more value. It is produced with that sole purpose and then discarded.” Brache likens the objectification of the woman figure to that of the trash gyre in the Pacific Ocean. “Both issues overwhelm me,” said Brache. “The thing about the trash gyre in the Pacific is that it’s completely invisible. People try to think of it as an actual island but it’s not. You can’t even see it. Just like a lot of people can’t even see this objectification. There is also the element of consumption with both. Most sex workers in East Asia in particular are considered to be too old after 25, especially in the Philippines. There are so many women who are available to replace the ‘old ones’ and there is absolutely no place for them in society after.”
Places like Pattaya, Thailand and Guangzhou, China are particularly popular sex tourism destinations. Local men in these areas try to create a recognizable tourism brand, publishing videos on YouTube of the underbelly of city nightlife. You can search YouTube for ‘mongering spots in ___’ and lists of videos will come up if it is a popular area for sex tourism. These videos often depict young girls in hotel rooms or at sex parties, showing a glimpse of what they can offer you for a few thousand dollars. “Most of [the men] use the camera as their own eyes and none of them ever show their faces, which is an interesting element for me,” said Brache. “There are all these videos of girls in hotel rooms and if you watch them a lot of the time the women are just awkwardly laughing. They don’t have it in them to say, ‘turn that shit off.’ Some of them block the camera. Some of them like it too. These guys even offer tours for other guys to show them the ropes.”
In the online counterpart to her IRL show, Brache creates the world of Monger Tours, aping the style of sex tourism sites and recontextualizing their content to create the experience of Justin Love, a sex tourism aficionado. “Justin Love is basically another one of these kinds of guys and Monger Tours is his brand of sex tourism.” In third person, affecting the style of a distanced blog entry, Justin Love narrates the video chapters, touching on different characteristics of sex tourism in these ‘exotic’ places. The effect of these videos is surprisingly romantic and obsessive. The narration sounds almost like poetry and the combination of real cam footage cut with kitsch imagery allows us to have a mediated experience of the ‘girls in Guangzhou,’ viewing their reality as an outsider.