How Legal is a Hostess Bar?

English: Signage for hostess bars in Kabukicho...

English: Signage for hostess bars in Kabukicho, Tokyo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Miranda Solly

The issue of women from the Philippines working in Japanese hostess bars, as described in research by Rhacel Parreñas, was thought-provoking for me. One point I would like to address in particular is the stereotype of these women. There is an apparently widely held expectation that the women working in a hostess bar would be illegal immigrants, as can be seen in videos of Japanese police raiding hostess bars. This is also a common belief surrounding places like lap dancing bars in the UK (my native country). As was demonstrated by those videos, very few of the Filipino women were actually in Japan illegally. Why does such a misunderstanding about this kind of work exist?

While the past 50 years or so have seen a huge change across the world in the way race, gender, and sexuality are perceived, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that we’ve not managed to reach equality yet. In a way, hostess bars in Japan are a perfect example of this. First of all, consider gender and sexuality. If a group of men go to a hostess bar, it is seen as a good night out. If a woman works at one, however, there are suppositions made about her morality, her economic position, and her vulnerability. Why is it socially acceptable to use a service, but not to provide it?

Moreover, the women who come to Japan from the Philippines to work in hostess bars are assumed to be illegal, and most probably trafficked to Japan against their will. As Parreñas’ research demonstrated, for the majority neither of these is true. Often, women find that they can earn much more as a hostess than other jobs, so the work makes economic sense. This reason is probably no different to the reason why Japanese women work in hostess bars. Why does a female immigrant’s nationality play such a large role in the way she is perceived at her job?

As a foreign student in Japan, I can apply for a work permit and am free to take up a job such as teaching English, as long as it does not interfere with my studies. But that work permit does not allow me to work in a hostess bar. On the other hand, the entertainment visa that allows you to work in a hostess bar is specifically targeted at women from the Philippines. This distinction is made because of our different goals in entering Japan. But why should a part-time job at a hostess bar, talking in Japanese with clients, distract me from my studies more than a part-time job at an English school, speaking English with clients? I would have thought that the former would actually give me more of a chance to improve my Japanese. However, hostess bars apparently sit uncomfortably close to immorality for Japanese lawmakers. They appear to be tied up with all kinds of crime; mafia, trafficking, prostitution. While it is not actually prostitution, an unsuspecting foreign student would no doubt be in serious danger if allowed into such an environment. But if the work is so dangerous, why are women on the entertainment visa allowed to work there? In fairness, the Japanese government did also attempt to protect female immigrants from the Philippines from these threats, by changing the entertainment visa laws. However, it was shown that this actually forced some of the more vulnerable women into prostitution in other countries.

I’d like to suggest that instead of treating hostess bars as more illegal than they are, we do the opposite. They may offend a conservative person’s sensibilities, but the sex industry exists in one form or another in most parts of the world, and has done so for a very long time. As can be seen with hostesses from the Philippines, if conservative attitudes discourage native women from this kind of work, immigrants often fill the jobs; this also appears to be true in the UK. Looking at history you can see that making sex work illegal does not make it go away, and while some people attribute it to our endemic gender imbalance, that is unlikely to be rectified any time soon. In any case, hostess work is as emotionally taxing as, say, a flight attendant’s job, but no-one views foreign flight attendants with the same mistrust. Hostess work is also much less open to abuse than prostitution. By allowing hostess bars to exist on the same level as mainstream society, it would be easier to police visas and abuse, and an open discourse might help to dispel some of the myths surrounding women who immigrate to work there.

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Penalizing the Sex Worker or the Customer: French Policies on Prostitution

Prostitution Réprimée Santé Sacrifiée

Prostitution Réprimée Santé Sacrifiée (Photo credit: William Hamon (aka Ewns))

Anonymous student post

We studied in class the migrations and their influence on sexual work. This phenomenon, as complex as important, is a subject of debate and polemic within the political class. Concerning a badly known, and sometimes taboo, subject; prostitution remains a difficult domain to supervise effectively by the law. Connected to this subject, a law is going to be voted in 5 days in France. This draft law is an innovative initiative because it proposes the penalization of the customers instead of the prostitutes. This blog post will present the various opinions emitted on this subject, in a sociological aim towards the sexual workers.

At the origin of this project, there is an alarming report on the state of the prostitution in France. On 40,000 sex workers acting in France, 90% would be foreigners, victims of the sexual exploitation. The Minister of Women’s Rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, particularly in favour of this law, has for ambition to remove the prostitution from France. To penalize the customers, with 6 months of detention and 7500 euros of fine, appears as a way to destroy the source of the prostitution: the demand. These arguments arise from the idea that the prostitution is very rarely chosen and generally undergone. Adopting a law like this would respect the principles of the Republic. Also it could destroy the financing of the mafias and so on destroy the traffic.

On the side of the opponents of this project, the arguments are not either lacking. “STRASS”, France’s sex workers union, is one of the main opponent. For them, such a law translates a moralistic ideology of the politicians. The abolition of prostitution, for them, seems to be an unattainable goal, furthermore such a law would damage above all the prostitutes. To penalize the customers would create an increase of the violence. Instead of trying to destroy mafia networks, such a law would only serve to stigmatize more the sexual workers. In the name of paternalists and puritans ideals, the politicians would prefer to attack the smoke rather than the fire. The failure of this kind of laws in Sweden and in Norway lets think the opponents that a regulation approach must be studied, rather that a stigmatizing one.

It is clear that both opposed camps have the same aim and objective: the abolition of the sexual slavery. Nevertheless, the evoked ways are subject to the controversy. In my humble opinion, the penalization of the customers will not destroy prostitution. Although I recognize moral virtues in this law, it is only disputing the expression of the problem and not its source. The foreign prostitutes would be the first victims of such a system. It is necessary to bring institutions (medical, judicial, economic) to them rather than to try to hide them. To penalize the customer would only “blur” the system, in the style of hostess bars in Japan. Try to legally distinguish deliberate prostitution from forced prostitution would be a first stage in the destruction of maffioso networks. Unfortunately trying to supervise legally the activities connected to human vices appears in our societies as a form of laxness. Seeing the reality such as it is would allow the improvement of our legal system, however it includes also to admit that prostitution cannot disappear.

References

Geert de Clercq, Reuters, “French debate: Punish prostitutes or their customers?

Tom Craig, Demotix, “French Prostitutes protest Law Penalizing Clients

Hanna Kozlowska, Foreign Policy Blog, “Frenchmen to government: ‘Don’t touch our whores!'”

Massoud Hayoun, Al Jazeera, “French sex workers demand open dialogue on proposal to fine clients

Elisabeth Lévy, Le Monde, “Les gardes roses du nouveau puritanisme