Bangkok: the new Vienna

Global Sex - Travels in the Skin Trade
March 1, 2002

A couple of years ago, after giving a lecture on globalisation and sexuality at a conference in Amsterdam, I was berated by a young student in the audience. Why, she wanted to know, had I not denounced globalisation? I muttered something about trying to understand it as a process, and wanting to explain its positive as well as harmful effects. Her anti-capitalist fervour was clearly unappeased. Only afterwards did I realise that I had failed to make the obvious point: here we were at an international conference, bringing together people from Africa, Asia, the Americas and from Europe, east and west. Across different languages, and despite distinctive experiences and traditions, we were developing a common discourse about the significance of sexual change. Was this not a good example of positive globalisation in action?

This anecdote highlights the fraught political and cultural controversies that surround discussions on globalisation and that redouble when linked to debates on sexuality, as these two books underline. Whether we tackle international sex tourism or the impact of HIV/Aids, the globalisation of sexual identities or the regulation of child abuse, we are embroiled in unresolved, and perhaps unresolvable, conflicts of values, as traditions crumble, collide, or are invented and reinvented under the impact of global change. Turbulence about values in turn suggests the significance of personal perspectives in trying to understand the processes at work.

Dennis Altman and Jeremy Seabrook claim the autobiographical is significant. Altman suggests that "one of the striking aspects of the burgeoning literature on globalisation... is the extent to which the authors draw on serendipity as much as scholarship for their arguments". So protean are changes in the globalising world that individual writers can grasp it only through their own particular languages, random reading and fragmentary experiences. Altman's range of references to sexual cultures across the globe is extensive, but he admits that his evidence remains shaped by his own trajectory.

Seabrook's work on sexual tourism, while drawing on the literature of social science, is yet more dependent on personal encounters: the young Thai woman encountered in a bar or cafe, the young man met in a sauna or park, the western tourist bumped into over breakfast in a cheap hotel. Despite the partial perspective, through the local examples we see the impact of global change.

Both authors begin with Bangkok, once described as the "global brothel". Altman offers a fascinating comparison of the Thai capital at the birth of this century with Vienna at the beginning of the last. It reminds us that much we attribute to contemporary globalising forces is not new. Yet, as Seabrook indicates, confrontations between the rich and poor worlds in the sexual spaces of Bangkok do signify something new: a world transformed by mass communications and mass tourism as much as by economic integration.

Altman's is the more ambitious work, offering an engaged but measured overview of a dual process: the reshaping of sexualities through the political, cultural and economic processes of globalisation, and the sexualisation of global interactions, from the spread of common sexual identities to international campaigns on sexual health and the rise of cybersex. He has always had a nose for the sexual Zeitgeist . In the early 1970s, Altman produced the first scholarly study of the emergence of gay liberation. In the early 1980s, he analysed the "homosexualisation of America" (and the Americanisation of the homosexual). Later in the decade he offered an insight into Aids and the new puritanism. Since then he has written widely on international efforts to combat HIV/Aids.

Altman's aim is to produce a "political economy" of global sex. He is good at showing how the dissolution of traditional patterns of life permit new sexual confusions, identities - and cultural wars. But his real concern is with the political and moral contradictions that arise from globalisation. He is at his best in analysing complex interactions between the global and the local - how, for example, the international campaign against Aids has helped to construct western-style gay identities in countries where they did not exist; how international campaigns for reproductive rights are reshaped in local cultures; how Bangkok's sexualisation was sealed when it became the place of rest and recreation for US troops in Vietnam. We are looking here at unintended consequences as much as design.

Seabrook's tone and style is quite different. As his book's dust jacket proclaims, he has a preacher's talent for prophecy and a capacity for righteous indignation that would not shame Orwell. He made his name in the 1970s with passionate studies of poverty and ageing (and homosexuality), and most recently has been a tireless chronicler of the inequities imposed on the poor of the world by the rich North. His books are filled with the voices of the marginalised - voices heard in casual encounters, but transcribed empathetically from apparently total recall. In this book, the tone is less indignant than in some of his earlier work. The voices of western sex tourists are often as sad and lonely as the voices of their "victims" are nervously ambitious to use the sex trade to support their families or go to the West. The overwhelming impression is of exploiter and victim, dreamer and cynic, master and misfit, all caught up in forces over which they have little direct control.

But it would be wrong to conclude that either book is pessimistic. Seabrook's ends with a list of "useful contacts for those concerned with child sex tourism and sex tourism in general". In the end his book testifies to human agency rather than passive victimhood. Altman's book is yet more energetically upbeat. In the emergent global movement for human rights, he demonstrates that there is a strong component concerned with sexual rights and sexual citizenship. Across the mutual misrecognition of cultures that undoubtedly exists, an international conversation around sexuality is emerging in which difference simultaneously challenges and dances with desire. My Dutch student, despite her moral anger, would surely recognise the potential of that.

Jeffrey Weeks is professor of sociology and dean of humanities and social science, South Bank University.

Global Sex

Author - Dennis Altman
ISBN - 0 226 01606 4
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £15.50
Pages - 216

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