Reinventing the Self under Socialism

Migrant Male Sex Workers ("Money Boys") in China

Author: Travis S.K. Kong


As part of a massive rural-to-urban migrant population in post-Mao reform era China, rural male migrants in their early twenties are increasingly entering the sex industry, which offers same-sex sexual services to other men. These young men, known as "money boys," form a new urban subject. From continuous ethnographic research on the male sex industry in China since 2004, the author argues that this new urban subject represents the site of multiple contradictions in China's continual transformations, which are at once authoritarian and neoliberal. The neoliberal reconfiguration, such as development strategies, commercialization of bodies, and liberalization of identities, opens up new social and sexual spaces and nurtures in them a new enterprising and desiring ethics of the self. However, their pursuit of needs, wants, and desires for work, love, and sex remains constricted by authoritarian codes such as the hukou system, antiprostitution measures, and the stratified cosmopolitan tongzhi community. Money boys are new urban subjects, but city outcasts; they are new labor subjects, but illegal dagongzai; they are new queer subjects, but "improper" tongzhi. Using the narratives of three money boys, the author argues that they, though endorsing neoliberal "ways of doing things" to create viable spaces for survival, do not embrace neoliberal political projects that tend to reinforce the hierarchical structure of urban-rural divisions, legal/illegal labor relationships, and illicit/licit desires. This article contributes to studies of migration, prostitution, and homosexuality in China, as well as to an understanding of the relationship between capitalism, state governance, and subjectivity in post-socialist China.

Regions: East Asia
Countries: China
Topics: Labor | Migration

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