Why I Choose the Term “Sex Work” Over “Prostitution”—and You Should Too

Because most sex workers themselves do (duh). But if you’re looking for a deeper explanation, Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, just out in a Korean translation, would be a great place to start.

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes. Sources: Aladin, mikoto.raw Photographer from Pexels.

Once upon a time, I lived with male sex workers in a red-light district in New Zealand, shortly before sex work’s decriminalization there. Truthfully, the experience was no great eye-opening introduction to LGBTQ politics and sex workers’ rights. They were under no obligation to provide one, and were much too busy working, taking drugs, and partying to care anyway, even when they saved time by doing all three simultaneously. Mostly then, what I did learn was how to dance half-naked to Cher’s latest hit on the DJ equipment in our living room, which also happened to have hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of Eastern Orthodox iconography of saints hanging on its walls. (It’s a long story.) Under their judgmental eyes, I’d hear a great many confessions from my newfound friends and flatmates over the next 18 months, including letting go of their tough, affected exteriors for a moment and letting me know how much it bothered them that I—who should know better—called them “prostitutes.” Of course I stopped immediately, just like it’s basic respect to automatically defer to people’s preferred pronouns today.

Sadly, since moving to Korea and settling down, I only occasionally dance half-naked in the living room now. (My teenage daughters are somewhat less sad about that.) Also, recent events notwithstanding, I’m a lot less likely to find amphetamines lying around on the floor than I did back then too. Which is a pity, because I needed the energy. For a long time, I was just too sleep-deprived and focused on nappies and piggy-backs to give much thought to sex work. Just between you and me, I may even have been too tired to remember to use the s-word for a while.

Then I started this blog. Although I can’t claim to have personally met sex workers and activists as a result of my eye-catching, shamelessly stolen byline, I have met people who know many well. Again, I learned that worldwide, terms that focus on the job, rather than historical terms that stigmatize with their connotations of criminality and immorality, are generally preferred by sex workers themselves. So I’ve been at pains to use “sex work(er)” ever since. (In Korean, “성노동[자],” rather than the generic “성매매.”)

You may be surprised then, to learn at the visceral reaction you can receive at calling members of a profession what they actually want to be called, as recently explained by Hankyoreh columnist Han Seung-eun:

성노동이라는 단어를 쓸 때면 손끝에서 미세한 진동이 느껴진다. 오랜 시간 성매매를 둘러싼 긴장과 대립을 간접 경험하며 생긴 반응이다. 성매매가 아닌 성노동이라고 표현하는 순간, 이어질 문장들은 사라지고 납작한 메시지만 수신된다. ‘당신은 성매매가 얼마나 성차별적이고 폭력적인지 인정하지 않는군요. 어떻게 성을 사고파는 일을 노동이라 표현하죠? 그 현장이 얼마나 참혹한지 몰라서 하는 말인가요? ’나는 금기가 된 단어를 사용하는 일보다, 그 금기로 인해 더 많은 논의가 이어지지 못하는 현실을 두려워하기로 했다.

When I use the term “sex work,” I feel a slight tingling in my fingertips. I get this physical sensation as an indirect reaction to the tension and confrontation I’ve been feeling for a long time whenever I choose how to discuss the selling of sexual services. You see, as soon as I choose the term “sex work” instead of “prostitution,” all nuance gets lost and I get these dogmatic, stock responses of “Don’t you know how sexually discriminatory and violent it is? How can you describe the buying and selling or sex as just ‘work’? Don’t you realize how horrendous and gruesome it is?” The word was so taboo, that I was scared of using it at all lest it just close the conversation down completely.

Of course, things are more complicated than that. It’s no secret that that those who support the abolition of the sex trade generally prefer the p-word instead. To use the s-word is to declare your politics.

Are things really all that more complicated though? Just on its own objective merits, the p-word has very little to recommend it, as that last link makes clear.

More to the point, I feel compelled to reiterate that if sex workers think of themselves as workers, then I’m inclined to believe they have good reasons for that. Not so much, to listen to sex work abolitionists—or anyone else—who claim to know the wants and needs of a group better than members of a group themselves.

I stress I’m no expert. But I’ve just found an opportunity to learn more. Through Han Seung-eun’s column (actually a review) appearing in my feed today, I learned of the book Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights (2018) by Juno Mac and Molly Smith, which by all accounts provides a very balanced, nuanced argument for decriminalization (alas, Nordic Model Now! disagrees). Now updated in a 2020 edition, I’m glad to have been made aware of it and to have learned that a Korean translation has recently been released, and the least I could do is to also let you know about it too.

Please check out publisher Verso for ordering information. Unfortunately for Korea-based readers, even with a sale on at the moment the time and cost of sending a paperback from the UK are prohibitive. However, it is very cheap to buy on Aladin.

What are you waiting for?

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Announcing the First Book of The Grand Narrative Book Club: “If I Had Your Face” by Frances Cha, Thursday 27 January 7:00pm

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes. Source (edited): Frances Cha.

If you wannabe my lover, you gotta get with my books.

Or, if you just want to be my friend (your loss!), I’ll settle for a shared love of books in general.

Just as in a romance though, a relationship on that basis can still entail a bittersweet mix of passion and frustrated longing. Specifically, as my own taste in books has rarely meshed with my friends’, I’ve found there’s only so much I can wax lyrical about my latest conquests when they’re so unlikely to ever read them themselves. And with 52 books read in 2021, plus a goal of 72 in 2022, that’s of lot of pent-up passion not to have an outlet for.

But you already know where it’s going to go now.

As I type this, I’m loving If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha, “a fierce social commentary about gender roles, class divisions and, yes, plastic surgery in South Korea.” I’ve been especially struck by how realistically Cha depicts the daily lives and conversations of the four main young(ish) Korean female characters, much more so than in previous Korean or Korea-related fiction I’ve encountered. “Finally,” I said to myself, “I’ve found characters in a book talking just like my Korean friends and I talk!”

Yet we’re not in our 20s or early-30s either. Beyond the swearing and sex talk that I love so much, does Cha indeed portray their lives realistically? It’s been especially difficult for someone with my background to tell, slowing down my reading with so many nagging thoughts and questions.

Then something occurred to me in the shower. It’s a popular book, making Time’s list of 100 must-read books in 2020 for instance, meaning there’s many of you out there with your own opinions, insights, and maybe even your own nagging questions. So why not share them with each other on Zoom?

I’m envisaging something very intimate and informal, cameras on, with a maximum of 12 participants (but in practice probably much fewer than that). To ensure it’s as safe a space as possible, I’ll screen all attendees as much as I’m able, the Zoom link will be invite only, and once it’s started I’ll be very busy behind the scenes to ensure things run smoothly.

Just for that last reason alone, I want to be clear that this will be a discussion, and definitely not any kind of lecture, webinar, or even dominated by me. While in my duties as host I will have prepared many hopefully interesting questions and potential talking points to raise if necessary, I strongly encourage—nay, demand—everyone attending to come up with at least couple of their own (please!).

For those amongst you who are interested but haven’t read the book yet, I’m thinking that by Thursday, January 27 is plenty of time to order, read, and digest it, and that 7pm on that evening (Korean time) is both late enough to drink eat first, and early enough to get a discussion of a decent length in before people get tired. We could also decide the next month’s book then too.

If you’re interested in attending, please leave a comment below (your email address will only be visible to me) or contact me, and I’ll get in touch in a group email closer to the date. Any thoughts, suggestions, and advice for running a book club would also be very welcome.

See you on Zoom!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Even When it’s to Businessmen, it’s Still Evil to Advertise Your Hotel with What Feels Like a Male POV Dating Sim. Here’s Why.

Tell me Korea has a huge gender pay gap, without telling me Korea has a huge gender pay gap

“Would you like to dance with me?” Estimated reading time: 7 minutes.

Most gendered marketing, I get. Obviously, when it’s for products or services related to physical differences, like bras or medicines. So too when, assuming equal access, it’s primarily one sex that purchases them, whatever the combination of nature and nurture responsibility for that. But it’s a risky strategy for companies. Only focusing on one sex can easily lead to an overreliance on crude stereotypes in advertisements. As the example of “boobs and burgers” Carl’s Jr. in the US suggests, any company that willingly alienates half its potential market deserves intense scrutiny of how its male leadership and managers treat women behind the camera. And don’t get me started on what anyone in favor of “pinking and shrinking” thinks of them.

About the staff behind Korean travel-app Tripbtoz, I reserve making any judgements for the moment. Because I confess, I like—no, love—their commercial for Westin Josun Seoul. The background track alone, Summer of Our Lives by Waykap (ft. Emmi), is legitimately sensual in its own right. In combination with model Chae Yu-jin‘s dancing and sultry stares, mesmerizing.

But of course I would think that. The commercial is so squarely aimed at cishet men, to describe it merely as a classic example of the male gaze feels insufficient:

Just prior to watching, by coincidence I’d been reading “Privileging the Male Gaze: Gendered tourism landscapes” in Annals of Tourism Research (October 2000),* in which authors Annette Pritchard and Nigel Morgan persuasively argue that “the language and imagery of [tourism] promotion privilege the male, heterosexual gaze above all others.” While it’s not an empirical study, so not definitive “proof” as such, making the radical assumption for the moment that that bias does exist helps us formulate several uncomfortable, revealing questions we could ask of the commercial.

What it is, is a teaching moment.

Source: “How BTS is redefining art for the female gaze” by Michelle Fan.

First, we could ponder how difficult it would be to find a commercial with a male model in place of Chae. Certainly, in keeping with the theme of Pritchard and Morgan’s focus on transnational tourism imagery, catering to the foreign hetero female gaze has become a significant element of the Korean Wave. But specifically, a commercial featuring a young man strutting his stuff in a hotel for his female partner? Whatever the nationalities of the intended audience?

I suspect the world yet awaits. Yet even if enterprising, lusty readers do find an example, that exception would prove the rule: that no-one’s wanting for videos of scantily clad young women in luxurious surroundings appealing to the fantasies of middle aged businessmen. That in contrast to how awkward an equivalent video with a male model might feel due to its rarity, ones with women are so normalized and routine as to be boring.

In fact, I only clicked on this otherwise unwelcome YouTube ad break at all due to the background music.

Next, could it be not in fact be aimed at women? The idea being that, through showing Chae’s enjoyment of the many luxurious services the five-star hotel has to offer, many women would now just love to be in her shoes? (This may even be the advertisers’ genuine intention, a point I’ll return to a moment.)

If so, it’s strange how we never actually see what those services would look like from a female guest’s perspective. Instead, through the exclusion of anybody but Chae in our field of view, we’re only given that of her besotted paramour as she leads him into their shared room and bed, or acknowledges his admiring glance in the bathroom or corridor.

Should what she’s expecting of him from those glances isn’t already obvious enough, background lyrics like “Give it to me like you know you should now baby” help further clarify.

Is he necessarily a businessman? It’s true I have no figures on the sex ratio of business travelers, who would surely make up the bulk of guests at Korean 5-star hotels during a pandemic. But given that only 5.2 percent of Korean executives are women, only 3.6 percent of Korean CEOs are, and that Korea had the highest gender wage gap in the OECD prior to it (and only widened since), then it’s a safe assumption. It’s further reinforced by the use of the honorific language of “시” (as in “저랑 춤 추실래요?” instead of the more equal but still polite “나랑 춤 출래요”) in the “Would you like to dance with me?” of the opening image. While it is simply a polite way to ask, it’s much more likely to used by a younger woman to an older man than vice versa (make of that what you will), and also the level of politeness older businesspeople would be accustomed to.

Despite appearances however, women may actually have been the target. That the overwhelming majority of media is produced through the perspective of a supposed “average” cishet (usually white) man’s point of view, to the extent that it’s widely assumed to be an objective neutral, is painfully clear to anyone familiar with the concept of the male gaze. So, it’s entirely possible that the—very likely—men at Tripbtoz and Westin Josun Seoul responsible for the commercial may genuinely have been aiming it at women, and had no idea of how seeped in their own vision of luxury their notion of what women really wanted was. (The evidence from Tripbtoz’s YouTube channel is mixed.)

But whomever it was aimed at, the commercial is primarily about conveying a sense of luxury, and further questions could be asked about how gendered and sexualized life for the one-percenters is portrayed in Korean advertising as a whole. Specifically, I’m thinking of the eerily similar messages provided by Korean Air’s “Color of Perfection” campaign from 2007:

Designed to showcase “a refreshed image of a sophisticated, modern and creative airline,” complete with a specially-composed background track that likewise got people’s attention in its own right, unfortunately for Korean Air it was overshadowed by the image below in its print ad. Which, while unremarkable in East Asian markets, was wildly misinterpreted in Europe and North America:

Ironically for all the fellatio jokes however, perhaps that overshadowing is also why so few people noticed that in the accompanying commercial, cringingly unsubtle ejaculation imagery was provided by a champagne cork popping from a man’s crotch:

(NSFW image appearing in a moment.)

I’m no prude, and am all for fellatio and ejaculation when done well. What’s at issue is how the women are portrayed compared to the men. Of the three men you see, all of them are fully clothed. Of the seven women you see, two are virtually half-naked, one is on her back in (potentially nothing but) ultra-feminine high heels, another shows off her luscious red lips as the camera lingers on them, and another is the flight attendant waiting upon a male passenger. Of the two that remain, the first stands in front of a sculpture of a disembodied female torso—as if it wasn’t already clear enough that to Korean Air, “luxury” means ready access to women’s bodies, available to serve a wide variety of men’s needs.

I’ll let Pritchard and Morgan explain this conception of it is crucial (my emphases):

Kinnaird and Hall (1994:214) comment that tourism advertising and the myths and fantasies promoted by marketers are dependent upon shared conceptions of gender, sexuality and gender relations and that women are often used to promote the exoticized nature of destinations:

Sexual imagery, when used to depict the desirability of places in such a way, says a great deal about the gendered nature of the marketing agents and their fantasies…the sexual myths and fantasies extolled in the tourism promotion lead to the construction of these ideas in the hearts and minds of tourists (Kinnaird and Hall 1994:214).

Again, in themselves, these two cherry-picked commercials provide no proof of anything. But there are many more examples to choose from Korean tourist imagery for those who care to look, let alone from other areas of advertising. Sexualized imagery of haenyeo in the 1970s used to promote sex tours to Jeju to Japanese businessmen for instance. Or colonial-era postcards depicting kisaeng for the purposes of promoting the gigantean sex industry for the world-biggest number of colonial officials in Korea then. Segueing into my favorite musical genre, Korea is no stranger to electronic dance music’s notoriously sexualized aesthetics either, peddling only very narrowly-defined cishet male fantasy that is part and parcel of a deeply sexist industry—and which in Korea also has an additional Occidentalist element through its widespread theft of pictures of non-Korean models, who are unlikely to sue Korean nightclubs for copyright infringement from overseas. And so on.

(It’s Miranda Kerr.) Source: MS-Photograph; (CC BY 2.0).

Are any of the above examples offensive, or sexist? That’s not for me to decide for anybody. But in my experience, cases like them rarely generate any outrage. Most likely, because feminist activists generally have far more pressing concerns than a hotel gently indulging middle-aged businessmen’s fantasies. Possibly, also because it would be counterproductive to scream “sexism” about things most men would consider inoffensive, and maybe even like.

You tell me.

I feel on more certain ground though, in lamenting that were it not already bad enough that Korean women are so financially disempowered that luxury hotels might not even bother advertising to them. Or, when they do, that in the process their advertisements would so actively perpetuate the gender and sexual stereotypes underpinning that status quo.

I am not naïve about how companies perceive their social responsibilities. But in Korea in fact, they hold them more dearly than most. So perhaps appealing to that sense of duty could result in change? Combined with demonstrating the financial benefits to be gained from adding more women’s and sexual minorities’ voices to advertising campaigns?

Please let me know your thoughts!

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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Why You’re NOT Living in a Feminist City: Two must-reads on living as a single woman in Korea and overseas

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Image (cropped) by Sara Aho on Unsplash.

Daily reports of stalking sharply increase after implementation of anti-stalking law“—The Korea Herald, 18/11/2021.

When I read that, I happened to be in a coffee shop next to Remark VILL, an expensive serviced apartment building in Busan. Last year, I highlighted the owner’s sexist, infantilizing advertising campaign, which featured then 32 year-old actor Im Se-mi enthusing about relying on maintenance staff to change her lightbulbs and unblock her toilet in place of her father, as well as about how eager she was to lose her virginity to the male guests she could now invite. (Yes, maybe there’s a good reason those commercials are no longer available.) But while I did have to acknowledge the attraction of and dire need for the security services Remark VILL’s buildings offered their female residents, I also pointed out they were also yet anotherpink tax” which most single women simply couldn’t afford. And I have to highlight them again today too, for the exquisite coincidence of what I then read in Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World by Leslie Kern (2020, pp. 164-165), which I’d gone to that coffee shop to finish:

“In my research on gender and condominium development in Toronto, I found that developers and real estate agents enthusiastically marketed condos to women with the idea that the 24-hour concierge and security staff, as well as technical features such as handprint locks, CCTV, and alarm systems, made condos the safest option for women living downtown. These features were highly touted when condos were arriving in ‘up and coming’ neighbourhoods that had previously been stigmatized or seen as abandoned, industrial areas. I argued then that by making condos ‘safe’ for women, developers were smoothing their path to expansion into neighbourhoods that might otherwise have been risky real estate investments. This expansion certainly wasn’t going to make life any safer for the women who would be displaced by this form of gentrification. Nor does it tackle domestic violence in any way. Furthermore, asking women to ‘buy’ their safety through condo ownership contributes to the trend of privatization, where people are held responsible for their own well-being, even their safety from crime. Making safety a private commodity in the city means that it becomes less and less available to those who lack the economic means to secure themselves. This is certainly a long way from an intersectional feminist vision of a safer city for women.”

“We may not know exactly what a safe city looks like, but we know that it won’t involve private safety measures. It won’t rely on the police to prevent or adequately investigate crimes. It won’t throw sex workers, people of colour, youth, or immigrants under the bus to create the appearance of safety. It won’t be centred on the needs and desires of privileged white women. And it won’t expect physical changes to undo patriarchal dominance.”

My apologies for the white lie of the post title: by no means is Kern only or even mainly concerned with single women in Feminist City, with Korea—as in Seoul—only getting five lines in it. Critics also tend to agree on two glaring flaws of the book: her focus on the Global North, and her lack of solutions to the many problems she outlines. Yet I also enjoyed that her book is so firmly rooted in her own experiences in Canada and the UK as, variously, a girl, university student, mother, divorcee, single-parent, and feminist geographer, for she brings a lot of wit, personal anecdotes, and insights to those experiences that you sense would be lacking about subjects less close to home. In addition, she is at great pains throughout to point out that her cishet, middle-class, and white privilege mean ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities can have very different experiences to her, as well as to expand upon those.

Even without the coincidence at the coffee shop that threw my own objectivity out the window, it’s an easy, eye-opening, and thoroughly enjoyable read overall, which would appeal to both newcomers to the F-word and diehard urban activists alike. It should also be required reading for the (overwhelmingly) male architects, urban planners, and city councilors who generally take their own urban lives as the default norm—and so have no idea how inconvenient, difficult, ill-suited, and even dangerous their policies can be for the very different lives of female residents of their towns and cities.

If you would like something more specifically about single Korean women though, then consider Living on Your Own: Single Women, Rental Housing, and Post-Revolutionary Affect in Contemporary South Korea by Jesook Song (2014), based on interviews of 35 single women in late-20s to late-30s.

Actually, this may be a tough sell once you realize those interviews were conducted in 2005-2007; since then, Korea’s single household rate has skyrocketed, a massive demographic shift that has potentially radically transformed many of the issues that Song describes. The book is also especially frustrating for being, well, just too damn short, with less than a hundred pages of actual chapters. In particular, it lacks one on navigating sex and relationships outside of marriage, which would have been invaluable in an era when, thanks to the stigma and fear of being caught engaging in either, other academic researchers had difficulty finding any interviewees at all. Another valid criticism is that her interviewees are unrepresentative, all of them being self-selecting, all remaining unmarried by choice rather than because they lacked the means, 90 percent of them being former activists, and with a significant minority identifying as lesbian. Hence, when compared to their contemporaries, the uncharacteristic strength of their shared wherewithal and inclination to brave living alone at a time when often led to being ostracized—which Song herself recognizes.

However, she does cover sex and relationships in passing. In addition, given how “stubbornly” unmarried 30-something women are generally considered “difficult” by their families, society, and policymakers alike, their wants and needs easy to ignore, that Song has provided material on a group so often rendered voiceless and marginalized is reason alone to order the book in my view. But its main strength is how, by (explicitly) providing such a rare examination of what a hitherto abstract concept like “developmental state” means for ordinary people on the ground, she demonstrates how the Korean state’s goals, filtered through the lenses of familial and societal patriarchy, resulted in pervasive financial discrimination against women. So convincing is she of its huge scale in fact, that actually I’m not at all convinced that aspect of single Korean women’s lives has “radically transformed” at all in the 15 years since Song’s interviewees told her about its impacts on them.

Let me finish with some examples from pages 43-44 of the second chapter, described by one recent reviewer as “discuss[ing] the economic structure that marginalizes single women in trying to finance the lump sum required to secure decent housing. Young single women were excluded not only from official financing measures, driven by neoliberal restructuring, but also conventional informal financing. She also illustrates how cultural gender norms are reflected in loan conditions that only cater for heterosexual married couples, making securing housing even harder for single women”:

Sorry (not sorry) for not having an e-book to copy and paste from, but those are available. Meanwhile, I bought my physical copy from Aladdin in Korea, for about the same price as from publisher Suny Press.

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If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

One Quick Thing You Absolutely Must Read to Understand Modern East Asia

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes. Original image source: The Chosun Ilbo, August 2015. For a discussion, see here.

It’s not often that one brief book chapter helps your whole degree make sense overnight. Even less often that someone will rescue a nearly 30 year-old, long since out of print tome from obscurity and offer that chapter as a free download.

Let me thank Shuyi Chua of the Education University of Hong Kong then, for providing a scan of Manuel Castells’ “Four Asian tigers With a Dragon Head: A comparative analysis of the state, economy, and society in the Asian Pacific Rim,” from R. Appelbaum & J. Henderson (eds.), States and development in the Asian Pacific Rim (1992). Not only did it give me one of my first genuine Eureka moments at university, but it’s still so relevant and helpful today that it took pride of place in my recent presentation above, and hence my finding Chua’s link.

(It’s probably still technically illegal to offer it publicly though, which is why I’ve never done so myself. So take advantage while you can!)

Let me also thank Professor Michael Free and his students at Kangwon National University, for the opportunity to wax lyrical about some of my favorite topics to them. If anyone reading would also like me to present to their students sometime in person or via Zoom, if for no other reason than to remind them that it’s not just you that gets excited about your subjects, please give me a buzz.

Finally, a big apology to everyone for not writing for so long. With so little physical social interaction over the summer, and with even what face-to-face contact I do get now almost entirely confined to my family and students, then frankly the weeks and months somewhat blurred into one another, making it difficult to pay much attention to the deadlines I set myself on the (always too many) posts I have in the pipeline. Inspired by my work on the presentation now though, I will try very hard to have one of my longer and more thought-provoking ones ready for you next week.

Until then!

If you reside in South Korea, you can donate via wire transfer: Turnbull James Edward (Kookmin Bank/국민은행, 563401-01-214324)

Books I Read in 2021, Part 1: January to June

“Work hard, know your shit, show your shit, and then feel entitled”—Mindy Kaling.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels.

Language was invented, Robin Williams enlightens us in Dead Poets Society, to woo women. But the modern consensus is that it was developed by all sexes, to woo all sexes (PDF). I wonder then, would that have occurred to his progressive character in 1959? Would he have been equally candid teaching in a girls’ boarding school instead?

I like to think so.

Yet if words do indeed possess such power, that means I’m surely doing myself a grave disservice by not showing off how many of them I’ve read so far this year. And how better to do that, than by encouraging discussions about the books they were in?

If my brief seductions below work their magic then (or if you’d just like to show everyone how smart you are yourself!), please let your feelings known in the comments—or in my Zoom talk tomorrow, which is still open for registrations! :)

1. The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality (1992) by Lynda Nead, 2.5/5

Nead is insightful on pornography and feminist art here, but frustrates the reader with only 108 pages of text and images before the endnotes, wasting most of them on a somewhat incoherent philosophical argument.

2. Dalí (1996) by Gilles Néret, 2.5/5.

With barely any painting mentioned that isn’t also provided, this visual feast is a great book to inspire further interest in the artist, and would have been especially welcome in the pre-internet age it was published. Unfortunately however, that inspiration is about all it provides today, as Dalí’s other artworks in other media are almost completely ignored, and Néret’s fast-paced prose lacks even basic biographical information.

3. The Politics of Gender in Colonial Korea: Education, Labor, and Health, 1910–1945 (2008) by Theodore Jun Yoo, 4/5.

An excellent source on the conditions for female factory workers in particular. Only 4/5 though, for ending so abruptly when it feels like you’re actually only halfway through, and which leaves flustered ebook readers worried that their file has been corrupted!

4. The Youth of Early Modern Women (2018), ed. by Elizabeth Storr Cohen and Margaret Reeves, 5/5.

A very eye-opening reveal of the methods, possibilities, and richness of this hitherto “hidden” history, with short, very readable chapter lengths and a wide variety of topics also being a bonus. Of much more relevance to studying women in later periods and/or non-European socities than its title would seem to seem to suggest, I’m very eager to apply its lessons to analyzing modern-day Korea!

5. Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin (2006) by Mel Gordon, 3.5/5.

A wild account of a wild time and place. Yet surprisingly short for all the research that clearly went into it, and very frustrating to read due its awkward two-column format and overabundance of images.

6. Intimate Japan: Ethnographies of Closeness and Conflict (2018) ed. by Allison Alexy and Emma E. Cook (2018), 4/5 (OPEN ACCESS).

Many frustratingly short and uneven chapters, but overall a must-read that exposed big gaps in my knowledge and challenged preconceptions I didn’t realize I had. Has many, many parallels to Korea too.

7. Erotic Ambiguities: The female nude in art (2000) by Helen McDonald, 3/5

McDonald is an excellent read when on the solid ground of describing feminist art, and the politics thereof. But her vague, wordy writing style is much less convincing when applied to more abstract topics in later chapters, which are also somewhat outdated.

8. The Politics of the Female Body: Postcolonial Women Writers of the Third World (2006) by Ketu Katrak, 1.5/5.

Many insights here, but unfortunately its theme-based approach covering women writers from former British colonies in, Africa, the Caribbean, and especially India will quickly overwhelm any reader not already intimately familiar with British colonial history, and often it can frankly be quite a challenge to determine which continent the author is actually discussing in any particular paragraph. This is a pity, because had Katrak confined her study to one region, and provided some historical context, this could have been a much more accessible and popular book.

9. Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object (2010) by Kathleen Rooney, 5/5.

A slim but surprisingly deep, erudite discussion on art, the history of nude modelling, and public perceptions of beauty, told through the author’s own experiences. Recommended!

10. Migrant Conversions: Transforming Connections between Peru and South Korea (2020) by Erica Vogel, 4.5/5 (OPEN ACCESS).

A fascinating look at a community that I frankly didn’t know existed, with much to teach about Korean immigration and religion in the process.

11. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials (2001) by Gillian Rose 4/5.

Reading this in 2021, naturally this first edition was a little outdated in its coverage. It was also surprisingly and ironically lacking in images in later chapters, and would have really benefited from including some practical case studies. But it remains a good introduction overall, and I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the 4th edition (2016), which at twice the length probably addresses many of those shortcomings.

12. Sexuality: A Very Short Introduction (2008) by Veronique Mottier, 2/5.

With only 150 pages to devote to the subject, an impossible task for any author, but Mottier’s disjointed, WEIRD-focused attempt still disappointed nonetheless. Much better for the series would have been several regional or country introductions instead.

13. Waiting (1999) by Ha Jin, 2.5/5.

A universal, well-told story, but unfortunately the final Part 3 of the book feels very rushed, the main characters’ unexpected, Crime and Punishment-like transformations coming across as very sudden and inauthentic. A real missed opportunity.

14. Breasts and Eggs (2020) by Mieko Kawakami, 5/5.

A surprisingly universal story with only light touches of its Japanese setting, my only complaints are the frequent vivid dream/vision sequences, ironic for whom are otherwise such realistic characters. Still, totally worth the hype!

15. Sex in Advertising: Perspectives on the Erotic Appeal (2002) ed. by Tom Reichert & Jacqueline Lambiase, 3.5/5.

A very uneven volume, with chapters ranging from outstanding and insightful to vacuous and full of jargon. Generally though, it was very educational and relevant, even two decades later.

16. High-Rise: A Novel (1975) by J. G. Ballard, 2.5/5.
Growing up with many of Ballard’s novels in my father’s bookshelves, I’ve come to expect that I have to make many suspensions of disbelief to enjoy them. But this particular one started off much more grounded and realistic than most, so that it rapidly turned fantastical anyway came as a big disappointment, compounded by the lack of any real conclusion. Although the book is often hailed as a social commentary on class and apartment living then, in my opinion it’s anything but, Ballard squandering that opportunity by having all its protagonists quickly losing themselves into his typical dreamlike fugues.

17. Fatu-Hiva: Back to Nature (1974) by Thor Heyerdahl, 3/5.
An extraordinary man tells about the first extraordinary location he visited—what’s not to like? Yet 25 years after my first reading, my eyes frequently glazed over at his overly histrionic writing style, his philosophical musings about humanity, nature, and civilization frankly not particularly insightful. Had he spent that time giving more voice to his wife accompanying him instead, on providing more practical details on how they accomplished their shared trip and survived on the island, and/or on what he saw there that compelled him to launch his Kon-Tiki expedition 10 years later, I could have seen myself rereading this at least a third time.

Based on my skim-reading however, Senor Kon-Tiki: Thor Heyerdahl (1967) by his friend Arnold Jacoby does appear to fill many of those gaps, so I’ll look forward to that.

18. Asian American Sexual Politics: The Construction of Race, Gender, and Sexuality (2015) by Rosalind S. Chou, 3/5.

An informative and pertinent work, marred by an unceasing victimhood narrative and a dogmatic insistence that nobody can overcome their socialization, prejudices, and racial stereotypes when choosing a romantic partner.

19. Dirt, Undress, and Difference: Critical Perspectives on the Body’s Surface (2005) by Adeline Masquelier (ed.), 4/5.

One of those books that takes a close look at things you took for granted, only to make you realize how culturally specific the meanings you attached to them were—and how profoundly gendered.

Also, very serendipitous to have read before Filthy Fictions: Asian American Literature by Women (2004) by Monica Chiu, which by coincidence I’m finishing as I type this.

20. Sexuality and Marriage in Colonial Latin America (1992) by Asunción Lavrin (ed.), 5/5.

One day in March 1997, I had to read a chapter in this for a Latin American history assignment. A woman sitting across from me in the university library was so intrigued by the title, she was easily persuaded to become my first girlfriend shortly thereafter.

Never underestimate the seductive power of a good book 🤓

(Which it is. Age having robbed me of my rose-tinted glasses, I expected to be thoroughly disappointed upon a rereading. But in fact, it’s even more informative and interesting than I remembered!)

21. Armies of the Caliphates 862-1098 (1998) by David Nicolle, 3.5/5.

Because sometimes you just have to linger over a brief, lavishly illustrated guide like this, and let your historical imagination go wild…

22. To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987) by Robert Heinlein, 3/5.

A favorite childhood author (which if you know him, explains a lot!), I enjoyed rereading these memoirs of the sassy AF Maureen Long. But the story becomes a mess when it starts focusing less on her than on her time-traveling relatives.

23. The Rape Of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust Of World War II (1997) by Iris Chang, 1.5/5.

Without disputing (most of) the harrowing facts presented about the massacre, nor Chang’s invaluable service in raising public awareness of it in the West, I simply can’t recommend this terribly written history.

24. The Woman in the Purple Skirt (2021) by Natsuko Imamura. 1.5/5.

Persuaded to buy this after watching @FestiveBuoy‘s (a.k.a. Books & Bao) video review, I was disappointed to find it only mildly amusing, much too short to find deeper meanings in, and to have a spectacularly underwhelming ending. Still, it’s always good to have one’s horizons expanded, and I have faith that I’ll enjoy the next book I discover through their excellent channel :)

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