Monday, September 16, 2019

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Article Index

I. Military Prostitution

The stereotypes and conceptions around which early American immigration laws were formed were based on the perception of Chinese women as prostitutes who posed a moral and physical threat to the nation. While the early assumptions that all Chinese, and subsequently other Asian, women were prostitutes have lingered in the American consciousness until today, it is primarily the attention given to prostitution in U.S. military bases in Asia that created a further association between Asian female bodies and sex work.

Asian women have been the most visible icons of U.S. military-prostitution. During their time in American-occupied territory in Asia, American soldiers often developed strong perceptions of Asian women as prostitutes, bargirls, and geishas. These perceptions perpetrated the stereotype of Asian women as servicing and serving men. Many Hollywood films and television shows about the wars in Asia portray Asian women as prostitutes or bar girls. For example, The World of Suzie Wong portrays Suzie Wong, a prostitute working in a bar filled with U.S. sailors and local Hong Kong women. Other movies that portray Asian prostitutes and American soldiers include The Teahouse of the August Moon, which is about U.S. forces on Japanese Okinawa Island in the late 1940s and Cry for Happy, which portrays American soldiers living in a Geisha house in Japan. The portrayals of Asian women as prostitutes serving American troops have influenced the way in which Americans currently think of Asian women.

The military involvement in the Philippines, Korea, and Vietnam encouraged the development of a local sex industry to serve American troops. Until 1991, the United States maintained two significant military bases in Philippines. The sex industry constituted the most significant economic activity near the bases. A survey in the 1990s estimated that 55,000 prostitutes worked in Angeles and Olongapo, two cities near military bases. Olongapo had 330 bars, massage parlors, and entertainment establishments where hospitality girls worked.

The existence of the sex industry on military bases was also present in Korea and Vietnam. During the Korean War, about 300 Korean women were confined to a warehouse in Seoul and used at will by American forces. Trucks would come onto American bases, transporting a few hundred women who would stay the night. Even after the end of the Korean War, prostitution remained rampant around U.S. military bases. In the 1990s, there were approximately 18,000 registered women working in bars near U.S. bases, as well as about 9,000 unregistered prostitutes. The large numbers show the effect that the military activity in Korea had on the boom of prostitution as an industry.

As it had during the Korean War, the sex industry flourished during the Vietnam War. Throughout the War, Thailand was officially designated as a rest and recreation . . . site for American troops, and prostitution thrived. As a result, Thailand gained a reputation as a destination for sexual recreation, and after the war ended the sex services industry reoriented itself toward civilian clients. This contributed to a robust international sex industry focused on bringing American and European men to countries in Asia.

After the end of military activities in Asian countries, the military sex industry shifted to a sex tourism industry. In this international sex industry, foreign women are often represented as a contrast to the women in the men's home country. Asian women are promoted as exotic, sexually available, and subservient. In advertisements, the sex tourism industry emphasized the exotic and compliant nature of Asian women and their racial and sexual differences from women in the consumers' home countries. To promote its services, one organization's advertisement emphasized that, Asian women are without desire for emancipation, but full of warm sensuality and the softness of velvet. In stressing the difference between Asian women and women at home, the advertisement solidifies the perception of Asian women as sexual and docile. These images are consistent with earlier images of Asian women promulgated as a means of highlighting their difference from American women and threat to the American nation. Now, the same images of Asian women as sexualized and submissive are being used to make them attractive to consumers of sexual services.

Thus, nineteenth century views about Asian female immigrants as prostitutes and sexual slaves were reinforced during the twentieth century military occupations and wars in Asia as a result of the flourishing sex industry that serviced American troops. Perceptions of Asian women as sexual and docile were further promulgated through the representation of Asian women in film and television, portraying Asian women serving and servicing American troops in Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines. These notions about Asian women, once used to exclude them from immigrating to the United States, are now being promoted by the international sex industry and mail order bride industry to attract customers.

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Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law

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