You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 2: #MeToo and Women on the Margins

#metoo and Women on the Margins

The #MeToo movement has gone global and led to important conversations about the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment worldwide. But have women on the margins—sex workers, domestic workers, and migrants—benefited from the movement?

In this episode of Big World, Chin defines what it means to be an economic migrant (1:14) and how the traditional idea of “women’s work” connects female migrants who perform sex work or live-in domestic work (2:12). She discusses the contradictions and stigmas that allow foreign domestic workers to be entrusted with the care of children and households while simultaneously being subjected to constant surveillance (3:40). Chin also talks about the “constrained choices” available to migrant women in Southeast Asia and why a woman might choose to become a sex worker rather than a restaurant server or domestic worker (12:52). Finally, Chin discusses her reaction to the #MeToo movement (18:25) and whether sex workers and domestic workers will see any benefits to their own lives as a result of the movement (20:30).

What would Chin do to create positive change for women on the margins? Hear her top five policy suggestions for improving the lives of female migrants in our “Take Five” segment (8:33).

0:40    Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. Today we're talking about Me Too, a movement that started on social media but has expanded far beyond it and its impact for women without a power base, women who live on the margins of society.

0:40    KS: I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Christine Chin. Christine is dean of the School of International Service. She is also a professor, a critical political economist, and a third-wave feminist. Christine, thanks for joining Big World.

0:40    Christine Chin: Thank you for having me, Kay.

0:40    KS:      We're going to be talking about the lived experiences of some different groups of marginalized women working around the world including domestic workers and sex workers. Now Christine, you have published books about both of these groups of women and have a unique perspective on their circumstances.

0:40    KS:      While they come from various backgrounds, one of the things that these two groups of women that you've written about seem to share is their migrant status. Just to get us all on the same page, how do you define economic migration?

1:14    CC:      I'd define it in this way: people who leave their home countries, their families in search of or to take up employment elsewhere in the world.

1:30    KS:      Okay. I want to focus our conversation for a moment on two of your books. We have In Service and Servitude: Foreign Female Domestic Workers and the Malaysian Modernity Project, which examines the circumstances of Indonesian and Filipino domestic workers in Malaysia in the 1970s through '90s, and Cosmopolitan Sex Workers: Women and Migration In A Global City, which looks at transnational migrant sex workers in global cities, including Kuala Lumpur.

1:30    KS:      Now these books detail the experiences of transnational migrant domestic workers and migrant sex workers in Malaysia, both of whom can be described as economic migrants. It appears that they perform different work, obviously, and lead very different lives. Other than being economic migrants what is it that these two groups of women have in common in your opinion?

2:12    CC:      One of the most obvious is that they are doing work traditionally we call women's work, right? In the domestic sphere, women have historically been in charge of performing housework, taking care of children, and whatnot. That's where I would put domestic workers. Also, in the private domestic sphere of the home is where intimate relations occur. In the case of transnational migrant sex workers, it just so happens that the workplace is not the home per se but hotels, luxury condominiums, businesses. That's where some of the sites of sex work take place.

2:55    KS:      Interesting. One of the things that struck me is how these two professions overlap in these books. In Service and Servitude, you examine how domestic workers were dehumanized and othered in numerous ways but one of the most pervasive was this idea of their "sexploits" in which employers were convinced that their maids would be prostitutes if they had any free time.

3:00    KS:      Rather than allow these workers free time they were instead overworked and often confined to prevent this perceived deviant behavior. Please explain a bit more about that. Was this stigma attached to their status as migrants or as domestic workers or both? How did they get to that point?

3:40    CC:      Because of their immigration status, that they are, to use US immigration lingo, aliens in the host country and it just so happens that these migrant workers live 24/7 in their employer's house. There's a sense of trying to keep their households pure or uncontaminated from the women's foreignness while being physically dependent on their labor.

4:15    CC:      That's the paradox, that's the contradiction, that middle class women managers of their households really had to navigate or experience. That you do need childcare, you need someone to clean your house but that person lives in your house and that person is not a member of your community.

4:41    CC:      If you look back about 60, 70 years ago in Malaysia the domestic workers came from [inaudible 00:04:49] women citizens who came from other parts of the country. However, you cast it, they were Malaysians. Starting in the 1970s, the women who started working or performing live-in domestic service were foreigners either from Indonesia or the Philippines.

5:15    CC:      It's a notion of their foreignness, foreign culture, and the fact that they are living and working in the intimate space meant that women employers had to keep an extra eye on them. It doesn't help that immigration labor regulations in the country really held male and female employers responsible for the movements of their domestic workers.

5:45    CC:      In other words, if you wished to hire a domestic worker, you had to pay a bond to the government. The bond at that point I think was about $5,000, $10,000. If the domestic worker should run away from her workplace, your bond, the bond monies, would be forfeited. The state played a role in really affirming middle class women in the household as managers and surveillance specialists.

5:45    KS:      Interesting. There was really a monetary motivation for the families that employed these women that wasn't necessarily tied to any reality about how these women would act in their off-hours. There was more of a, "We need to make sure we know where they are because we might lose some money if they ran away?"

6:36    CC:      It's not just monetary. It's also emotional. It's also perceived physiological dimension. In the sense that if your domestic worker were to sneak out of the house or on her day off instead of going to church, in the case of Filipinas, she went to perform sex work.

6:56    CC:      She could pick up all sorts of diseases, come home, and transfer them to your children or to the entire family, because chances are very high that, if the worker was hired to take care of the children, the worker would also cook the meals in the home.

7:13    CC:      It had a lot to do with being a foreigner and being a foreigner of questionable repute when it came to hygiene. Here's the contradiction. If she's good enough to take care of your children you would think she's good enough to really be a good employee in the home.

7:43    CC:      One is government regulations. Two is the sensationalization in the media about stories of women, domestic workers escaping or moonlighting as prostitutes. It really ramped up the anxiety of employers.

8:33    KS:      We've got a feature here on Big World where we ask our guest to take a few minutes and blue sky just a little bit. It's kind of a "if I ran the world" type of question. Here it is. If you could right now single-handedly institute five policies or practices that would change the world for the better what would they be? Christine, in this case, if you could make Me Too have five real outcomes for migrant women what five things would you do?

8:33    CC:      If I ran the world?

8:33    KS:      Mm-hmm (affirmative)

8:37    CC:      First would be freedom of movement, freedom of travel. That women don't have to engage with facilitating groups or to go to find an official, informal, extra legal channels just to move or just to cross borders.

8:56    KS:      Okay.

8:57    CC:      That's one. If I ran the world, the second policy I would implement is the right to work. That if women met the credentials, the qualifications, that they should have the right to work wherever it is in the world and in whatever occupation.

9:23    CC:      The third, if I ran the world, would be to eliminate the category of "unskilled work" that international organizations and states use to generate data and to make policy. I've never fully understand why domestic work, for example, is unskilled work. Try cleaning houses professionally six days out of the week, and let's see how many of us will succeed in keeping the houses clean and neat.

9:53    CC:      My fourth policy is, in a perfect world, prostitution or sex work would disappear completely, but it won't. We know that, right? In lieu of that I would make sex work work, not because I'm interested in having an argument with the abolitionists, but because then we can fully regulate it, women have insurance, they're protected by law, and that the revenues that are generated become another form of revenue for states. Because if you licensed such work and places we could capture millions and millions of dollars of lost revenue.

10:48  CC:      Now, that is not to say that this is already being tried in certain places that have legalized prostitution. I'm saying that, if I were to rule the world and we're not able to get rid of prostitution per se, that we should make it a safe place, workplaces, for women where they have the kind of benefits that other workers have as well.

11:15  CC:      My fourth ... Did I? My fifth.

11:18  KS:      You're on fifth. Yeah.

11:19  CC:      My fifth ...

11:21  KS:      The world is getting better.

11:23  CC:      If I were to rule the world, in every occupation, I would have supervisors swap jobs with their direct reports for one to two weeks, so that supervisors fully understand the scope of work, especially when it comes to "women's work."

11:46  CC:      That supervisors not only understand the scope of work, the conditions in which the work is performed, but that they begin to develop some sort of empathy for the women who perform such work. That's my five pie in the sky ideas, policies. Thank you.

11:46  KS:      I'm sitting over here jumping up and down for each one of those. Thank you so much.

12:04  CC:      Thank you.

12:05  KS:      Switching to the other book that we were going to talk about, so conversely, in Cosmopolitan Sex Workers, you describe how the decision to perform sex work is often a calculated choice based on a consideration of their ability to make money doing work that is available to migrants, specifically domestic work.

12:05  KS:      Was the choice for these women pretty binary? Either be a domestic worker or a sex worker with sex work providing substantially more income than domestic work, or were there other factors leading this group of women to pursue sex work?

12:52  CC:      I tend to want to think of it as constrained choices. That women are given a specific kind of limited space from which there are a certain number of choices available to them. Based on my interviews with the sex workers the majority of them informed me that there was a financial calculation. Migrant domestic workers get paid anywhere between $400 and $800, Malaysian ringgit. If given a choice between that and having to do live-in domestic work 24/7 in your employer's home, where your freedom of movement is highly constrained. Compare that to being a mid-tier or top-tier sex worker, where you get to live in a luxury condominium, you are told, depending on your negotiations with the facilitating group, three to four major clients a night, but beyond that during the daytime and afternoon you are free to go shopping, you are free to go get your nails done, your hair cut.

14:09  CC:      There is a certain freedom of movement involved in that and that you will earn way more than the $400 to $600 ringgit that domestic workers earn. It is financial, it is emotional, it is physical. These different dimensions come into play in the way in which migrant sex workers calculate or make their decisions.

14:42  CC:      I had one woman explain to me, because we were talking about sex trafficking and how women are coerced. She said, "Listen, there are two interpretations or definitions of coercion. A woman who is physically threatened, right? We can call that coercion.

15:06  CC:      Can you still call it coercion when women make the decision between either being a live-in domestic worker or a server in a restaurant where you work 12, 16 hours, and you have to wash dishes all day long or serve and/or serve people?

15:24  CC:      Are they not coerced because they have to do the work in order to feed their families? If that's coercion, then women who make their decision to be sex workers in order to save money for an education or to pay for mother's chemotherapy treatment, that's coercion too. She was very nuanced in terms of how she understood coercion.

15:51  KS:      Coercion is almost a part of that constrained set of choices.

15:55  CC:      Yes. Yes.

15:57  KS:      That you have such limited choices and you ... Yeah.

15:58  CC:      For international migrant women, based on the host country's immigration and labor requirements and demands, you have a choice, you have a range of choices but the range of choices go from at least in southeast Asia being a domestic worker to being a factory worker to being a restaurant server or to participate in the fishing industry to clean fish, right?

16:25  CC:      If that's the range of choices it's really not a choice. As far as the migrant sex workers are concerned. Some of the sex workers do have undergrad degrees--a BA in journalism or political science, communication, and whatnot. For them it was a no brainer because sex work allowed them to not just work, but to travel and see the world at the same time.

16:51  CC:      Now having said that the women I interviewed all worked for major syndicates or had developed personal networks in different southeast Asian countries that they knew how to navigate the cities very easily. There were also migrant sex workers who worked for syndicates where they weren't paid as well, they weren't treated as well, and they even did mid-level sex work or sex work out of what we call day spas.

17:29  CC:      Their experiences were quite markedly different from the mid- to top-tier women. Then when you compare that to street walkers in major global cities in Asia, you have migrant women who performed on-street prostitution, and their experiences are markedly, markedly different.

17:29  KS:      Very different. Yeah. I think that may be a natural pivot point to this moment that we're in. With Me Too, we are seeing for the first time that I can remember women coming forward in large numbers to say that they have endured some measure of sexual abuse or harassment. Men, and this includes some powerful men, are paying actual consequences for their actions. Looking broadly at Me Too for a moment, as a third-wave feminist, are you surprised by this moment?

18:25  CC:      Yes and no. Yes in the sense that when you look at first-wave feminism, first-wave feminism focused on suffrage. Second-wave feminism focused on sexual harassment, domestic violence. Third-wave feminists focused on and are still focusing on the intersection of race, class, gender, age, nationality that shape women's experiences.

18:58  CC:      Sexual harassment, domestic violence, the absence of equal pay for equal work are still present. Some people today talk about fourth-wave feminism as exemplified by the Me Too movement and really fueled in large part by social media.

19:18  CC:      It is surprising in the sense that it is the platforms on which women have been able to articulate their experiences. It's not surprising in the sense that women have been talking about this in different parts of the world for decades.

19:43  KS:      Is the consequence piece new? I feel like the consequences that we're seeing for some men at least are new.

19:43  CC:      Yes. Yes. It's not just the Me Too movement in relation to Hollywood or the motion picture industry. It's the Me Too movement now. We find women in the sciences, women in finance, talking about their experiences of sexual harassment.

20:00  KS:      Women in the military. Yup.

20:00  CC:      Yes. Absolutely.

20:01  KS:      Pulling back into some of the women that you've spoken with in your research do you think that Me Too will embolden or have any real life effects for women who are more susceptible to sexual harassment or assault like hotel housekeeping staff or women who are paid for sex? Will any of the women that you talked with see their lives improve because of Me Too?

20:30  CC:      I would say, for the sex workers whom I interviewed, their arrangements with that particular syndicate were such that the syndicate armed them with a cellphone each before they were driven to the place of work.

20:52  CC:      The cellphones had a 1-800 number programmed into it. If a client just got out of control, all they needed to do was to punch that number and the bodyguard would come. There were several instances in which the bodyguards actually beat up the clients.

21:10  CC:      Now, that does not mean that the women were not subjected to sexual harassment by men members of the syndicates. I did not have any women who spoke about this. It's interesting. I was just reading a magazine a few days about how sex workers have complained that they have been left out of the Me Too movement. Precisely because they perform sex work, and therefore there is this perception that, because you voluntarily work as a sex worker, sexual harassment does not apply to you.

21:53  KS:      That any type of sexual activity inflicted on you is voluntary because of your profession. Yeah.

22:00  CC:      For domestic workers it's somewhat different. I think it was in 2008, 2009, the International Labor Organization finally categorized domestic work as work and recognized domestic workers as a category of workers.

22:19  CC:      At least with the live-in migrant domestic workers they are subjected to immigration regulations, and in many parts of the world, in many cities of the world live-in domestic work is not considered a formal category of work because the home is the private intimate space of families.

22:41  CC:      You're working in the home. There's a challenge of how you regulate the home as the workspace. This is not to say that there has not been glimpses of a Me Too movement with regard to domestic workers. If you speak to any of the major NGOs focusing on service and advocacy on behalf of domestic workers, they can tell you a lot of stories, narratives from the women about sexual harassment in the workplace, which is the private domain of the family.

23:25  CC:      I've not heard of domestic workers in the contemporary Me Too movement. If they participate, they will have to participate anonymously because they live in their employer's homes.

23:40  KS:      Sometimes I wonder if the best outcome or at least the most global outcome that can come from Me Too is that there is a large amount of sunlight being shown on some quarters of society that people just have simply not acknowledged or thought about before.

23:59  CC:      What I think needs emphasizing with the contemporary Me Too movement is it took up very, very quickly. It was able to take off so very quickly in different parts of the world in Morocco and Egypt and Chile and Guatemala, in certain Asian countries, in India, because there were women who had organized, whether in terms of social movements or their work in NGOs, pushing states to really address sexual harassment and domestic violence.

24:40  CC:      A major reason why Me Too took off in other parts of the world was because you had something already anchored, right? Take for instance in India, for the last six, eight years the incidences of gang rapes of young women and how that incensed, not just Indian women, but Indian men, and the movements to address it. Me Too then became another way to build community and allyship in cyberspace.

25:13  KS:      Christine, thank you for joining Big World and speaking with me about women on the margins.

25:13  CC:      Thank you so much for having me, Kay.

25:13  KS:      Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our theme music is It Was Just Cold by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.                        

Episode Guest

Christine BN Chin,
Dean of SIS

Stay up-to-date

Be the first to hear our new episodes by subscribing on Apple Podcasts.

Like what you hear? Be sure to leave us a review!

Subscribe Now