The Price of Sex. Directed by Mimi Chakarova. New York: Women Make Movies, 2011. 73 minutes.
Remote Sensing. Directed by Ursula Biemann. New York: Women Make Movies, 2001. 53 minutes.
Geographies of Labor and Exploitation: Discursive Limits to Women’s Safe Labor Migration
The Price of Sex, a documentary film by Mimi Chakarova, and Remote Sensing, a video essay by Ursula Biemann, explore the topics of the global sex trade and of sex trafficking. In gathering their visual documents and developing analyses and theories, the two filmmakers follow routes of forced mobility that stretch across the globe in multiple directions and trace the geopolitical geometries of the hubs of sex trafficking. They also share a critique of the lack of reliable data on sex trafficking and an interrogation of the boundaries between terms such as sex trafficking and prostitution While they converge with respect to their topic of analysis and their visions for gender justice, Chakarova and Biemann opt for different aesthetic and representational approaches. Chakarova, a photojournalist by training and profession, develops The Price of Sex within a realist representational framework. By contrast, Biemann’s departure from documentary realism makes room for experimenting with representational modalities that capture and render visible the evasive mechanisms of globalization: processes of global deregulation, transnational flows of finance capital, and the proliferation of communication and information technologies.1
Chakarova’s politics of visibility rests on the premise that sex-trafficked women are what she calls the “faceless victims” of the post-1989 global economy. The strength of The Price of Sex lies in its ability to show the overdetermined character of sex trafficking. Specifically, Chakarova bypasses the confined arguments that tend to explain sex trafficking as solely the product of the male sexual appetite or as a profit-maximizing form of prostitution by setting side-by-side testimonies from women who were trafficked; interviews with anti-trafficking and human-rights activists and public administrators; a representative of the Hellenic Police; a former club owner from the red-light district of Aksaray (Turkey); two Turkish police officers who were both customers of the red-light district and avid travelers for the purpose of sex tourism. Most of the interviewees point to disappearance of work, the severe poverty across Eastern Europe, and the sharpened asymmetries in economic wealth across the globe as causes of sex trafficking. Finally, Chakarova’s several conversations with those few older people who didn’t leave their childhood villages reveal that parents know little about the whereabouts of their migrant daughters and sons.
The Price of Sex concludes with the presentation of the protagonists’ final steps in their struggles with sex trafficking. For example, together with her mother, Olesia opened a legal case against her traffickers; on the trial day, the traffickers did not show up in court and the prosecution did not pursue them further. Another woman, Jenia, is permanently disabled after a desperate attempt to escape captivity. The final word goes to Vica, who escaped Dubai with the help of a client and was eventually deported to Moldova. Her advice to young women who are considering working abroad is to rethink their plans by trying to make do with local work opportunities.
Geographic information systems, scanning, radiography, and remote-sensing are the current optical technologies employed to track the flows of global economies. In Remote Sensing, Ursula Biemann takes the visual outputs of these technologies and juxtaposes them with images of women in order to account for the invisible gendered dimensions of globalization and to propose a feminist counter-geography. Hand in hand with her critique of digital technologies of visualization, Biemann constructs a thought-provoking visual rendering of instances of national impoverishment as well as of the strategies for economic development that rest on the exploitation of women’s sexual labor.
Remote Sensing does not capitalize on imagery or testimonies of violent coercion, captivity, immobility, and deportation. Rather, Biemann’s video essay abounds in images of women on the move as she visualizes the digital information that gets generated with their journeys (bus, train, ship, and flight schedules, GPS trackings of moving vehicles, as well as visas and fingerprints), although she makes no distinction between the trajectories of those who travel safely and voluntarily and those who change hands from one sex-trafficking criminal cell to another.
During the follow-up discussion that we had in one of my Women’s Studies classes after the screening of Remote Sensing, one of my students exclaimed, “But those girls, they knew nothing. All they knew is that they did it for money.” She was reacting to the interview with Naomi, a young woman who positioned herself as an entrepreneur—a subject able to make financially savvy choices. My student insisted that the young sex worker’s outlook was determined by her lack of access to education and economic opportunities. The student’s view is similar to the views of both films in that they all foreclose efforts to frame human trafficking as a human rights violation and to formulate solutions within the paradigm of labor and migrant rights.2 In both projects accounts by NGO experts overpower the voices of the sex-trafficked women and sex workers, which reflects the NGOization of this field of activism.3 Furthermore, it renders invisible the fact that sex workers associations have proved to be the most successful in reducing the risk of trafficking.4
Chakarova and Biemann do get across the views of sex-trafficked women and sex workers. However, the scope of their expositions is limited by interview questions that frame the women through the lens of victimhood (Chakarova) and through a lens of unrestricted agency (Biemann). Nevertheless, watching the two projects side by side prompts students to engage critically with the concepts of agency, inequality, poverty, and uneven global development. Such conversations can further lead to more localized and in-depth case studies that are likely to shed light on the contemporary political economies of safe and unsafe transnational labor migration.
1 Ursula Biemann, “Reorganizing Women on a Global Scale: Remote Sensing,” in Ursula Biemann, Mission Reports: Artistic Practice in the Field, Video Works, 1998-2008, ed. Jan-Erik Lundstrom, Angela Dimitrakaki, and Wendy S. Hesford (Bristol: Arnolfini, 2008), 35-46.
2 Kamala Kampadoo, “Introduction: From Moral Panic to Global Justice: Changing Perspectives on Trafficking,” in Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered: New Perspectives on Migration, Sex Work, and Human Rights, ed. Kamala Kampadoo (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2005), vii-xxxiv.
3 Amy Foerster, “Contested Bodies: Sex Trafficking NGOs and Transnational Politics,” International Feminist Journal of Politics 11, no. 2 (2009): 151-73.
4 Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, Maria Cecilia Hwang, and Heather Ruth Lee, “What Is Human Trafficking? A Review Essay,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 37, no. 4 (2012): 1015-29.