28 Jun 2005

josephine ho

Fridae chats with Josephine Ho, an English professor and founder of the Center for the Study of Sexualities at the Taiwan National Central University, and keynote speaker at the upcoming International Conference of Asian Queer Studies in Bangkok.

Well-known Taiwanese sexuality researcher and activist Josephine Ho, 53, established the Center for the Study of Sexualities a decade ago after earning a doctorate at Indiana University some 40 years after Alfred Kinsey conducted pioneering research on Americans' sexual practices. She has been an outspoken supporter of rights for sexual minorities, including gays and lesbians, Taiwanese sex workers and "betel nut beauties," young women who use sex appeal to draw customers to betel nut stands in Taiwan.

æ: You're one of the keynote speakers at the upcoming International Conference of Asian Queer Studies to be held in July in Bangkok and a member of its Advisory Committee. What do you hope for the conference to achieve?

Josephine: This is the first time queer activists, scholars, and students from all over Asia will be gathering at one conference. As my keynote address demonstrates, conservative forces are already in place and in fortified legal forms, which has created a formidable alliance against anything queer. I am hoping the conference will work toward a counter-coalition so that marginal subjects and groups can work together to organise their resisting forces.

æ: The topic of your keynote speech is: "Is Global Governance Bad for Asian Queers?" Can you briefly define the term global governance and how it affects Asian queers?

Josephine: Global governance denotes the multiple and flexible interaction among the network of inter-governmental organisations (IGOs, such as UN, WHO, WTO, World Bank, etc.), non-governmental organisations (various NGOs), multi-national corporations (MNCs), etc., in collaboration with existing state governments, through which global politics is organised and negotiated in the post-Cold-War era. It is a complex, explicit, implicit, and evolving system of interlocking unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral body of rules and documents that are gradually assuming the role of global principles and values. The structural complexity of this expanding "global civil society" and its consensus-building negotiations have tended to favour mainstream visions and values that are quite inhospitable to queer existence. In fact, heavily promoted by conservative NGOs, legislations that aggressively regulate sexual conduct, sexual contact, and sexual information have already come into place all over Asia, including regulations over sexual harassment, sexual assault, surrogate mothering, artificial insemination, HIV-status, new sex-related drugs such as RU486 and viagra, and most importantly sexual information and interaction on the internet, etc. The new legislations have greatly exacerbated already existing social/sexual stigma against marginal sexualities, not to mention bringing actual litigations against many of these individuals. On the other hand, Asian queers, like queers everywhere, had hoped that new anti-discrimination legislations would mitigate the social ills of homophobia and sex phobia, yet in more than one country in Asia, such proposed legislation is facing serious backlash, if not total frustration, in the hands of sex-phobic women's NGOs and conservative religious groups. These latter groups, making up the most active elements of global governance, have mobilised the child-protection imperative to purify social space and thus making queer existence all the more difficult. While delivering this analysis, my paper also calls upon Asian queer activists and queer theorists to work together against such conservative onslaught.

æ: You founded the Center for the Study of Sexualities at Taiwan's National Central University in 1995. The Center is highly regarded for its intellectual stamina and noted for its international conferences that have featured celebrated activists/ scholars including Cindy Patton, D. A. Miller, Eve Sedgewick, Neil Garcia, Judith Halberstam, Leslie Feinberg, Anne Bolin, and Jamison Green. Why was the center set up and what does it do?

Josephine: The Sex Center, as we fondly call it, was established in 1995 when mainstreaming Taiwanese feminists made known their conservative positions on female sexuality and other social differences. We established the Center so as to advocate a more complicated and dynamic view of gender/sexuality related matters, and to gather forces so as to actively intervene in emergent social issues. Over the years, we have maintained a vital voice of resistance in Taiwan's rigidifying social environment, as well as continuously opening up social space to acknowledge marginal existences. The list of invited speakers to our Center's conferences and other functions attest to our efforts of intervention.

æ: It was reported that in 2003, religious groups in Taiwan publicly accused you of promoting sex between humans and animals when they found a web link - in your online databank on deviant sexual behaviours - to a site containing a gallery of photographs of bestiality. Despite voluntarily shutting down the databank to avoid subjecting your university to further distress, the Publications Appraisal Foundation, which lobbies the government to censor publications that the organisation deems "harmful to children," filed a legal complaint on behalf of your critics including several religious-based groups. The complaint with the Taipei District Court resulted in you being charged with violating the island's obscenity laws, an offense punishable by a two-year prison term or a $30,000 fine. In September last year, the High court upheld the District Court's not guilty verdict after an appeal by the prosecutor. Why do you think your critics are so determined to take you down? What are your thoughts about the incident?

Josephine: In a way, the lawsuit culminates my ten-year continuous debate with conservative groups on all things related to sexuality: in particular, on female sexuality in general in 1994, on gay and lesbian sexuality from 1995 to 1996, on sex work and women since 1997, on transgender rights since 2000, on teenage sexuality since 2001, on freedom of sexual speech and sexual information on the internet since 2001, etc. My activist friends and I have been quite vocal about these issues and must have successfully interfered with the conservative groups' pastoral project of social purification. The fact that the legal charge was filed by 13 conservative (religious, child-protection, censorship, parent) groups together demonstrates their eagerness to silence sexual dissidence by picking on the most articulate speaker for marginal sexualities in Taiwan. I feel honoured. Though their effort was defeated, thanks to the support of local activist groups and my students and of course by a warmly responded international petition, other cases are still pending. A lesbian broadcast that had been fined by the Information Bureau for improper content last year had just won its appeal, but the gay bookstore that was charged with "dissemination of obscenity" lost its case and is in the process of appeal. Increasingly, social differences are no longer dealt with through communicative reason; instead, the force of the law is directly applied. Disciplinary management has now replaced communication. This is an alarming sign and needs out continued attention and effort.


æ: Other than that incident, what other difficulties has your center faced?

Josephine Ho, 53, nglish professor and founder of the Center for the Study of Sexualities at the Taiwan National Central University.
Josephine: The Center itself has not suffered much in the past years, considering all of us the members have done impressive work academically to make the Center a needed asset to the University. We know there are people on campus who would like to see us fail or give up, but we never gave them the pleasure. We believe it is important to maintain a progressive and liberating voice in the academia for marginal issues, and we work very hard to fortify our forces of persuasion by our research. We may not have much in resources - the Center is supported only by the research grants that its members won from the National Science Council annually - but we have enough to get by with and we are quite good at making do.

æ: It's observed that in Asian societies as well as the United States especially under the Bush administration, religious groups, more specifically conservative Christian groups, have become increasing vocal in their opposition towards mainstream acceptance for sexual minorities. Conservative Christian groups wrote to the press and have petitioned the government when the former PM advocated acceptance of gays and lesbians in Singapore, more recently in Hong Kong, one umbrella group took out a 4-page ad in the newspaper to oppose anti-discrimination legislation on the basis of sexual orientation. Why do you think this is so? And what do you think gay groups and individuals can do?

Josephine: I think several factors are converging here: (1) Queer activism has won some grounds for alternative lifestyles and identities; that makes the mainstreamers edgy, who then invoke the emotional nexus of the family ideology to create a sense of crisis; (2) Social change and shifting capitalist deployment have disturbed the reproduction of class positions, leaving middle-class parents quite anxious and eager to contain these changes; they tend to be the staunchest supporters of conservative positions; (3) Ironically, multiculturalism is now interpreted as a license to utter even the most blatant hate discourse in the name of freedom of speech. Gay groups and individuals need to look into this development and seek out ways to dismantle the state-supported structure of power that upholds these onslaughts as well as to demystify the deep-rooted emotional nexus surrounding ideas such as the family and child-protection, which are now being mobilised to dampen gay and lesbian activism.

æ: Taiwan is host to one of the most progressive movements of sexual radicalism in Asia, yet as the same time it is a major center of Confucian tradition. In terms of Taiwanese society's sexual mores and acceptance of sexual minorities, how do you think that's changing over the last few decades?

Josephine: I am not so sure that we could summarily say that Taiwanese sexual mores have changed in any dramatic way in recent years. I think what we are witnessing is an acceleration of struggle among different sexual mores and practices, a struggle that has been made possible by the engaging progressive moments. It's a constant tug-of-war. As the movements have little resource and are at a disadvantage when it comes to legitimacy and social approval, we have to work double hard to keep up with and resist the rigifying measures that the conservatives are constantly introducing to take advantage of social anxiety. We often feel short in human power, in time, and in energy, while the conservative NGOs enjoy hundreds of full-time staff and lots of state funding. But that's the way things are, and we must continue to fight under these circumstances. So when people say that Taiwan's acceptance of sexual minorities is phenomenal, we can only respond by pointing to the hours and hours of hard work that the limited number of activists have put in. We would like to affirm that Taiwan is moving toward the progressive side, but I am afraid most of that impression is the work of a Taiwanese state that is eager to upgrade its international image. The announcement by the Taiwanese government in 2003 that it would legalised gay marriages is one of those fašades.

æ: You've described yourself as being a feminist sex radical. While most other prominent feminists are against prostitution and pornography, you are known to advocate the empowerment of sex workers. Where do you stand on prostitution and pornography?

Josephine: Yes, I am all for the empowerment of those who suffer social stigma. And as a feminist who wondered about the formative powers of sexuality over women's lives, I have advocated in 1994 that women get to know and even use pornography to their own benefit and pleasure. I personally know lots of women who do and I admire their courage in face of social blockage and stigmatisation of sexual information. Besides, banning pornography has always worked only to leave women further segregated from learning about desires and pleasures, as the ban always accompanies other restrictive measures. As to sex work, I have had the honour of meeting Taipei sex workers in person during their struggle for their right to work in 1997. Their struggle has taught me a lot about class, about sexuality, about the real conservative nature of mainstream women's groups, and I am grateful for that. I stand with the varied and multitude of women who have very different life experiences and thus different emotions toward these deeply-entrenched issues, but I am against any willful censorship of information or job choices. If we are unhappy with how pornography and sex work are run, let's get in there and change them, rather than delivering another chance to the conservatives to set up more restrictions. Just give yourself a chance to listen to women who have different ideas about pornography and sex work. You owe them that basic respect.

æ: Other than the upcoming conference, what else are you currently occupied with?

Josephine: Too many to mention and things keep coming. There is no end to struggle. Once we stop, we have given in and we have lost.

Josephine Ho is the author of the following books (in Chinese): The Gallant Woman - Feminism and Sexual Emancipation 豪爽女人 (1994), Gendered Nations - Sexuality, Capital and Culture 不同國女人 (1994), Sexual Moods: A Therapeutic and Liberatory Report on Female Sexuality性心情 (1996), Radical Sexuality Education: Gender/Sexuality Education for the "New Generation" 性/別校園 (1998), and The Admirable/Amorous Woman 好色女人 (1998).