Dark intimacy and the moral economy of sex: Rural migrants and the cultural politics of transgression

SAGE Publications
Publication Type:
Journal Article
China Information, 2020, pp. 0920203X2096380-0920203X2096380
Issue Date:
Full metadata record
© The Author(s) 2020. It is difficult to conduct ethnographic inquiries into how China’s rural migrant individuals make decisions about their bodies and their sexual capital, and to date there have been few attempts to do so. Equally scant are examinations of the moral, cultural, and political frameworks that rural migrant workers who live in poverty and in the socio-economic margins use to make sense of sexual decisions and choices. This article starts with an ethnographic glimpse into the lives of some sex workers in Shenzhen, and proceeds to analyse a range of texts: a novella, a novel, a cluster of news stories (from both commercial and state media), and a feature story in a popular lowbrow magazine. Pitting these texts against sex workers’ own statements, as well as reading the texts in juxtaposition, brings into sharp relief the contradictions, connections, and coalitions between a range of discursive positions. The analysis suggests that a critical socio-economic framework, rather than a normative framework of transgression, may get us closer to understanding the emotional consequences of inequality. The analysis also demonstrates that for investigations into how inequality shapes intimacy, cultural texts may contain useful ethnographic insights that complement more traditional ethnographic methods.
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