Mathews’ rendering of his participant-observation research on the use of digital technology by the sex industry indeed as the writer himself says, "raises more questions than it answers".
My interest, after reading his book has turned towards exploring the motivation of the researcher and his methodology rather than the substantive result of his research.
The first thing that strikes me is the huge imbalance in power relationship between the virtual sex tourist/researcher and the ‘CAM model’. Paraphrasing Schweitzer (2000:74), Mathews claims that “somehow the ACM intuitively recognizes that she is both the “lived” body of the self and the “object” body seen by the other.” (p. 31)
What needs highlighting in this sentence is the transformation of the ‘subject’ into an ‘object’ (the CAM model) to satisfy the prurient interest of the more powerful consumer. In this sense, the boundary between the objective researcher and the virtual sex tourist has, from an ethical perspective, become blurred.
The way the photographs were employed in his book appears to me more like an advertisement for a type of cybersex than a serious exploration of the structural, political economy and gender disempowerment that enables such a global-local industry to thrive.
An interesting comment Mathews made is worth a reflection (p. 11): “Maintaining a strong sense of detachment and researcher identity during the very lengthy periods I spent on the site and during sometimes rather intimate exchanges was also difficult, particularly as I became more familiar with some ACMs.”
Mathews is human after all. The relationship that ensues between the researcher and his informants takes centre stage. In his interaction with ‘Avril’, he gave her marketing advice on how she could better present herself by looking at other ACMs who used cosmetics and a scripted choreography to improve their ability “to attract customers”. When Avril lost her job, Mathews sent her a PC to enable her to set up her own studio and run her own business. She subsequently asked him to send her more money to help her out when her father became ill and later when her grandmother died and she needed further help for funeral expenses. He obliged but when her request for money continued unabated, his generosity reached its limits.
What this interaction reveals, in my view, is less a question of Mathews’ empathy with Avril and more of a positioning in relation to the sex industry that prevails in the Philippines. The sex industry does not have legal sanction in the Philippines. In contrast, some in Australia see sex as legitimate work or work that some people choose for themselves. Mathews’ motivation in line with the view of sex as work, it seems, was to help Avril become self-employed and improve her own marketing skills (aided by his credit card).
But what interests me is Mathews’ research positioning in regard to the market forces’ utilization of the ICTs (information and communication technologies).
He views Filipino women’s individualized “nature” as “designed to support the structured inequities”, and “exploitation, of global economies and hegemonic cultures”, and this ‘nature’, one might argue (he says) is their cultural capital - “the reputation and Orientalism of the Philippines and of Filipinas” (pp. 39-40). It is a country, he writes, that is “known for its human sacrifice” through overseas contract workers and “mail order brides”, and their women who are “"known" how to care, to be subservient, to be passionate and sexy.”
Even if we grant that Mathews, as an academic, has twenty-five years experience in the Philippines and is married to a Filipina, his opinion regarding the inherent ‘nature’ of Filipino women certainly colours and compromises any conclusion his research might reach.
Indeed what we encounter in Mathews’ positioning is a curious inversion of perspective over ‘sexploitation’ in which he rationalizes the white man’s burden of “First World Civilization, even as they retain all its economic and political privileges and collect their “natural” dues as “civilized” (white) men.” (p. 146) Although he puts “natural” and “civilized” in quotes indicating an ambiguity he attaches to these notions, I suspect that in undertaking this type of participant-observation research in the way that he did, he willingly enjoyed the advantage of the ‘white man’s burden’.
For me, the rest of his analysis such as comparing the Asian CAM models “cottage industry” to the exploitation of vulnerable populations prevalent in the labour relations of the 18th century, receded in the background considering his view of the “nature” of Filipino women. Any attempt at structural analysis seems to me to have become a mere distraction to the real object of his research.