(Re)Producing Gender: The Ant Tribe Part II – The Sexless Class

Why are women from rural China, generally, more open about sex? Rather, why are they more inclined to publicly expose their bodies or to trade their sexuality for money or other opportunities? This question that prompted someone to write an op-ed piece based on her experiences growing up in the rural countryside. To this end, she identifies three reasons of various significance: that it is difficult for them to “form positive mentalities,” that life marked by a presence in the lower classes is defined by competition and these women will do what ever it takes to ensure that they have access to the necessary resources, and finally that there is a distinct lack of mechanisms which afford social mobility leaving the body as the only concrete resource that can be traded.

In itself, all of these points offer an ideological platform for some interesting discussions. But the issue is not that these women are or are not geographically inclined toward this type of sexual expression but rather that such actions are occurring outside culturally sanctioned conditions. Particularly, that of marriage.

Such is the threat presented by the women of the Ant Tribe – that since they are already from the country that they just might regress back into their immoral ways. Or, for those who have been successfully refined, that they might never find an appropriate outlet.

According to certain representations in the media, living in an Ant Colony will dramatically reduce any potential for achieving the pinnacle of heterosexual discourse – marriage. And frankly, it probably will.

Internally, the Colonies lack private, personal space in which to perform acts of intimacy appropriately unseen by the community at large – though such expectations of privacy are themselves a relatively new phenomenon brought in the wake of an influx of globalized cultural mores. Such an influx of puritanical sexual values did not take root in a vacuum of expression. Rather they served to reinforce existing and resurgent (yet still somewhat reticent) Confucian values of morality: subservience, modestly, and filial piety.

Issues of being seen or not-seen aside, the current employment climate also creates another condition antagonistic to the social contract of reproduction. Without a valuable and valued job, the male Ants are unable to consume the material trappings needed to secure a spouse. What else could he possibly offer her in this age of commodified desires?

Much of the available work is not the foundation they expect to build their eventual careers upon. It is instead based on an industrial model of care work, i.e. the service industry that has become the true marker of national and economic development. Of course, there are segments of the service industry that prefer masculine employment, but much of the available work is feminized, either through its association with care work or the need for sexualized bodies to serve as a form of advertisement of the commodities being sold.

According to Lian Si, the author of much of the research on the Ants, the primary Ant Colony on the outskirts of Beijing contain many shops, clinics, internet cafes, and hair salons. These are all consistent labor venues to be expected in a community of about 3,000 villagers that has been inundated with over 50,000 migratory Ants seeking work. At the same time, this list of venues has a veiled subtext: in urban areas of China, hair salons are often fronts for brothels.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that all of the women who belong to the Ant Tribe are sex workers. Nor am I saying that some male bodied individuals would not find themselves in similar situations, likely selling to other men.

However, if we take the account of the woman who wrote of her own experiences and accept them as valid, it is reasonable to accept that Ant Tribe women might seek overtly sexual labor as a form of securing income. But where is the line between sexual labor and sexualized labor? Though more subtle, many of the avenues of potential employment for the women of the Ant Tribe require an appearance of a certain level of sexuality to lure customers. This appearance must be of the right variety, for to stray too far from the norm is to become like those bad rural migrants who might seek actual wages from their sexuality rather than wages contingent upon the illusion of it, in one way or another.

The sexuality that is attributed to a rural upbringing, which is actually far more representative of social conditions than geography, threatens established orders of sexual morality. The threat is that these inherently promiscuous women will seduce and somehow taint young men who are in similar conditions. Because clearly it must always be the woman’s fault. In either case, once tainted they may no longer be able to find ‘appropriate’ mates for their future security.

Thus the real worry surrounding the Ant Tribe is not that they might find themselves members of a class without sex but rather a class that is unable to procure sexual property. The worry is that the collective sexuality of the Ants will be like their lives – cheap, anonymous, communal, and temporary.


(Photo Credit: China Hush)