“To be a little more realistic”: The ethical labour of suspension among nightclub hostesses in Southeast China

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Abstract

This article explores the “ethical labour” of suspension––the conscious effort of deferring one’s ethical judgement and reflections in order to avoid irreconcilable ethical conflicts between one’s present activities and long-term goals. While people engage in ethical judgement and reflections in everyday social interactions, it is the laborious aspect of regulating one’s ethical dispositions that I highlight in the concept of “ethical labour.” Although it cannot be directly commodified, ethical labour is a form of labour as it consumes energy and is integral to the performance of other forms of labour, particularly intimate and emotional ones. This formulation of ethical labour draws on my long-term ethnographic research with a group of young women migrants working as hostesses in high-end nightclubs in southeast China. Many of them perform socially stigmatized work with the goal of contributing to their family and saving money for a dignified life in the future. Ethical labour is essential to their hostess work because it enables them to juggle multiple affective relationships and defer the fundamental ethical conflict. They express ethical labour through the phrase “to be a little more realistic,” making sure that they obtain what they want at a particular moment. But ethical labour does not simply mean pushing ethical questions aside. It is sustained by conscious effort and is overshadowed by fears of ageing and failure to achieve long-term life goals. Prolonged ethical labour often fails to resolve ethical conflict and may intensify one’s stress. My analysis of these women migrants’ situation contributes to the sex-as-work debate regarding women’s agency in work and their subjection to exploitation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)307-328
Number of pages22
JournalPacific Affairs
Volume94
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jun 2021

Keywords

  • ethical labour
  • mobility
  • emotional labour
  • hostess
  • sex work
  • gender
  • familism
  • China

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