Book Review – Parreñas, Rhacel. 2011. Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Written by Rosie Inwald

How can we reverse the historical flattening of hostess experiences that emerged from the US-led global anti-trafficking agenda? Concerning these moralistic norms of anti-prostitution, where does individual agency emerge? Under what circumstances is the migrant hostess vulnerable to forced labor, and how can we aptly understand the multiplicity of hostess experiences? Rhacel Parreñas’s Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo, debunks universalized misconceptions surrounding the hostess experience, answering these questions through reframing migrant Filipina hostesses as able to “negotiate, challenge, and reconfigure” moralistic norms. Rhacel Parreñas, an ethnographer and Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of South California, focuses her research on gender, international migration, and labor studies. A recipient of the 2019 Jessie Bernard Award, Parreñas’s Illicit Flirtations draws on work by Zelizer, Nussbaum, Rubin, and Foucault to construct an overarching thesis which argues that one must use “morals to examine how gendered and sexualized hierarchies shape the experiences of migration,” and that it is essential to reframe human trafficking as a labor and migration issue.   

Structured thematically over eight chapters, Parreñas begins with an exploration of the processes by which migrants enter Japan, outlining the role of the middleman broker, the technicalities of employment and earnings, and the importance of disregarding consent in misidentifying hostesses as trafficked. In problematizing the technicalities of migrating to Japan from the state and migrant broker levels, in her next chapter Parreñas shifts the focus to internal structures of the club. Differentiating Philippine hostess clubs via class categories of A, B, or C, Parreñas notes the complexities existing within the hostess community regarding temporal and spatial control, a point she develops later in relation to agency in Chapter 3. An interesting comparison with Ngai’s Made in China can be drawn here. Ngai argues that factory labor removes bodily meaning from the body itself and alienates the worker. Instead, Parreñas argues that this alienation emerges from “lack of autonomy over displaying emotion,” differentiating surface-level and deep-acting. In the next three chapters, Parreñas explores various manifestations of sexual titillations – buttressing masculinity, ideas of love through courtship situating these cultures of flirtation within morality frameworks. Lastly, in chapters seven and eight, Parreñas explains the position of the hostess in both national society and local migrant communities, highlighting invisibility and segregation. Here, migrant hostess communities are a contrasting binary to non-hostess migrant communities. In her concluding remarks, Parreñas calls for a redress of labor migration policies, both on a national and transnational level.  

Parreñas asserts that punitive policies implemented via the global US-led anti-trafficking campaign, and subsequent national policy intended to protect vulnerable migrants, merely exemplifies the structural constraints of migrant hostess work. Rather than misidentifying Filipina migrant hostesses as, universally, victims of “human trafficking,” Parreñas uses the framework of “indentured mobility” to argue that policy must be situational. Similarly, Mohanty also criticizes methodological universalisms, arguing that over-simplification of the individual is problematic. Hence, conducting extensive analysis into the circumstances of vulnerability, attention is drawn to financial constraints such as accumulated debt from entertainer training, forced moral compromise within labor systems of hostess clubs, and visa status or lack thereof. Parreñas contends that these policies of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries increased the segregation and invisibility of migrant hostesses, furthered by the lack of institutional support from non-governmental organizations such as the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration. By being both unauthorized and unrecognized, Parreñas shows the risks of hostessing as existing on all levels, noting the social, temporal, and spatial impact of being tago-ng-tago.  Relating this argument to within the hostess club, Parreñas covers systems of surveillance without diminishing individual capital and agency. Here, Parreñas goes onto argue that bodily and temporal control play salient roles within the club. Yet, to further critique the TIP Report, Parreñas highlights the importance of bodily, emotional, and cultural capital choosing to foreground individual agency. Notably, this is seen through self-identification of hostesses themselves, with interviewees such as Irene citing nasa kanya to denounce their international categorization as a victim of human trafficking. Parreñas’s amusing discussion of Amanda ordering dinuguan depicts the existence of agency as able to exist within the structural constraints of many hostess clubs. Thus, through delineating differences in social position, concerning legal statuses and the subsequent impacts on vulnerability to unfreedom, Parreñas successfully argues for policy to begin with understanding actual conditions of labor. Critically, in acknowledging the lack of universality of hostess experience, Parreñas decenters the sex-as-money narrative, highlighting sexual titillation and intimacies as varied and dependent on the morality framework of the club and hostess herself. In conceiving of morality regimes within the hostess clubs existing outside of the national “hostile worldview,” Parreñas provides a thorough and convincing argument.  

Illicit Flirtations employs a fieldwork-based methodology, using interviews with various characters involved in the hostess industry, from hostesses to various stakeholders. Parreñas then utilizes her findings to construct a framework of “indentured mobility”. The collection of interviewees comprises fifty-six migrant hostesses made up of: forty-five female, eleven transgender women and seven co-workers working in both high and low-end clubs. With this, Parreñas expands her scope of evidence, engaging with participant observation through her own role as a hostess in Tokyo for nine months from 2005-6, whilst also adopting the role of customer on some occasions. Thus, Parreñas provides substantial and convincing arguments for policy focused on the quotidian. Further, Parreñas uses academic scholarship to translate feminist concepts onto the issue of sex-work and hostesses. In doing so, her publication ends with the statement that “if migration is indeed liberating […] the near eradication of the migration flow of hostesses from the Philippines to Japan threatens female empowerment”. Interestingly, in questioning methodologies, Parreñas’s ability to leave her job as a hostess in response to changing moral regimes weakens her position as an author and researcher. Unlike Rie, a moral conservative without choice but to work in an amoral establishment, Parreñas was able to refuse work under similar circumstances when forced to negotiate morality. Further, the visibility issues that lead to a lack of concern for the Filipina migrant hostess through ideas of citizenship and representation within transnational legislation does not consider the hostess wanting to be visible on a transnational scale.  

Illicit Flirtations proposes a novel and convincing approach to reframing Filipina migrant hostesses on a local, national, and transnational scale. Parreñas persists with an argument for policy redress as to gauge with the liminalities of belonging, temporal dependencies, and the discrepancies of power structures, from middleman broker to supranational. 


Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. 2003. Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham; London, Duke University Press. 

Ngai, Pun. 2005. Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Workplace. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Parreñas, Rhacel. 2011. Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 

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