Working Girls, without Exoticism

The New York Times (9/28/2003 issue) did an review by Philip Gefter of Reagan Louie’s photography exhibit currently on view in SF MOMA. The title of the exhibit is “Reagan Louie: Sex Work in Asia”.

According to the review:

PROSTITUTION may be the world’s oldest profession, but you’d never know it from Reagan Louie’s pictures of “working girls” in Asia. Young, stylish and playful, their freshness is an unexpected departure from the haggard patina of the all-night sex worker.


It was his intention to dispel the Western stereotypes and myths he had carried around about “exotic” Asian women.

MR. LOUIE did not take these photographs to titillate viewers. “The photographs of these sex workers were collaborations,” he explains. “I was very aware of the nature of the relationship I had with the women, the power I had as a man and as an outsider, and the power of photography. I wanted to make clear to these women that I was photographing them for reasons other than sexual gratification. How much they understood or believed this would be evident in how willing they were to step out of expectations and present themselves as people.”

You can clicking the thumbnail on the left to see a larger version. I was surprised at how the photographer made it seem so clean, smooth, and… yes, young. It is merely another occupation. Similar to other white collar women going to work. They dressed maybe a little sexier, but not obviously so, considering today’s fashion trend. There is a matter-of-factness in it. They are selling labors and skills just like us “skilled labors”. If they, themselves, don’t associate lots of emotional or morality bagadge with their job; what’s there for us to say? Is there any reason for us to feel superior? Look at them, do they need to be saved? or to be pitied?

But then again, is it just the photographer’s point of view? Is he only letting us see what he intended us to see? Is he only seeing what HE wanted to see, what he wanted to believe? Or is it because he is a man, so this is more of a man’s point of view?

4 thoughts on “Working Girls, without Exoticism

  1. This will be a difficult topic to discuss. I want to go see the exhibit this weekend. Aftwrwards, I should have more idea what the photographer meant by “Working Girls”.

    I myself hasn’t figured out a good set of argument regarding prostitution. Reading the review made me realized there could be a different entry point. What if we start by thinking of it as an occupation? Can we compare it to a series of other jobs, and listing out pros and cons and decide whether it is a viable option for young woman with lesser means? Can we NOT start by thinking of it as dirty, humiliation, and morality inferior to all other jobs.

  2. The terms are not well defined.

    I tried to define prostitution and came up with the following:

    a) another person
    b) sex
    c) money

    I thought this would rule out models, actors, and performers. But then some people regard these people as prostitutes. Also, what exactly qualifies as prostitution-style sex. Is a phone sex worker a prostitute? I think this is very subjective.

    My take is that sex between consenting adults is ok. Sex without those who don’t or can’t consent is wrong. Sex with children is wrong.

    I have a little trouble with the words you associate with prostitute.

    1) dirty

    Define ‘dirty’. What exactly is dirty? I.e. the act? The thought? The money? The client? The prostitute? Does the act become clean when the fee is waived? Is a prostitute dirty when he/she has sex with a girl/boyfriend. Is there some way to compare levels of ‘dirtiness’. Does bartering (= no cash) ‘cleanse’ the act, eg. sleeping with someone for benefits?

    2) humiliation

    Humiliation is a subjective reaction. I might be humiliated by something but you might have no reaction to it. Of course, I might not realize that you’re not humiliated and instead believe that you have the same reaction as me.

    I believe this is where education about sex, individual rights, and critical thinking comes into play. Anyone involved in any industry should be informed of the nature, extent, and history of their work.

    The more education you have, the more informed a choice (and consent) you can make.

    3) Morally inferior

    What moral system do you suggest?

    Flame away!

  3. Why make it so complicated? I have a simple test. Imagine you have a daughter and one day she came home from school and told you, “Dad, when i grow up i want to be a prostitute.”

    How would you feel and what would you say?

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