09 September 2013

Book Review: Sex and Borders

Leslie Ann Jeffrey is a Canadian professor of political science in the Department of History and Political Science, University of New Brunswick. After the last book about Thai "gender and sexuality", I was hopeful the picture on the book meant that we were going to be looking at things a little more holistically.

Again, I was wrong. Apparently when women studies authors write about prostitution in Thailand, they write about heterosexual women and the men who oppress them. If anyone can recommend a book analyzing male prostitution in Thailand and what that says about the gender hierarchy, oppression of women, repression of desire, etc., please let me know. I'm interested.

Even with that little caveat, I really enjoyed this book. It was a political and historical account of how patriarchical Thai society and how global flows of ideas, capital, etc., had an impact on Thai society and the Thai state's nation-making through enforcing strict gender hierarchies.

Jeffrey also indirectly tells an important lesson about nationalism -- to which I am a great skeptic, in all but the most limited ways. Nationalism was used by the military to control the populace and justify whatever it wanted to do with society. In the 1960s and 1970s, students and the middle class began to appropriate the structure of nationalist discourse to critique the military and its relationship to the U.S. military. More recently, nationalism is used by the economic elite to extract surplus capital. As I say, nationalism is a useful boat to cross the river of independence. But, once on the other shore, it is nothing but a burden to then carry that boat on our backs when the next step requires us to walk into the forest of a new world.

On another topic, prostitution books always make me wonder if its really just inertia that prostitution is by-and-large criminalized the world over. It seems to be that if there is a real concern for those who profess prostitution, prostitution would be legalized and tightly regulated: weekly or twice-monthly blood tests, paying of income tax, employment based health insurance, unemployment insurance, temporary disability insurance, worker's compensation/employer liability insurance, compulsory contributions to a private retirement fund scheme (not to mention mandatory contributions to public social security insurance scheme), and protection from organized crime, corrupt government officials, petty criminals and violence that criminalization of prostitution allows. Of course, every time I say this in most feminist circles, I'm condemned as a patriarch, sexist pig who wants to rape women (really? really.) I still fail to see more than a hidden religious or patriarchical agenda in criminalizing prostitution (the criminalization of the solicitation of prostitutes is a slightly different story, but I digress) and an only thinly veiled religious one in the well financed international "rescue" industry. Sexual slavery is real and it is a problem and I can't, for the life of me, see how criminalizing prostitutes helps resolve that problem.

In any event, Jeffrey covers many of these issues in great historical and interesting detail primarily as it relates to Thailand and if you were to read one book on the history of the Thai gender structures, this would be that book.

The version I read was a 252 paperback published by the University of Hawaii Press  (February 1, 2003), ISBN-13: 978-0824826185. It is written in English. The lowest price I found online was used at abebooks.com (if you include shipping in your calculations).

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