This study follows the oceanic routes of female migrant laborers as a way to reconsider the geographies of queer theory through the colonial port city. In so doing, the author highlights feminized forms of migrant labor, including sex work and care work, as a central facet of the history of sexuality beyond the nation-state. This history begins in the 1920s and 1930s, when the League of Nations sponsored a massive investigation into international sex trafficking, through surveillance of port cities across the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. These investigations reveal the ways that female migrant laborers were constructed as nonnormative sexual subjects, both through their transient status as citizens and for performing reproductive labors outside the context of the white nuclear family. In this way, the league investigation offers an early case study for technologies attending to the biological specificity necessary to detain individuals at the border. This biometric archive lays the groundwork for a theorization of queer femininity, often ignored by historians of sexuality focused on the criminalization of sodomy. Through attention to an early biometric database, rather than criminal archives, what follows offers a geography of feminized labor and queer femininity based across a transoceanic network of port cities. A consideration of sex work in the midcentury novel, including Jean Rhys's Voyage in the Dark and J. G. Farrell's Singapore Grip, more closely establishes the biometric and aesthetic categories used to construct female sexual deviance at the midcentury.
Oceans, Archives, Perverts: Sex Work in the Colonial Port City
Juno Jill Richards is assistant professor of English and affiliated faculty in women, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale University. They are the author of The Fury Archives: Female Citizenship, Human Rights, and the International Avant-Gardes (2020) and a coauthor of The Ferrante Letters: An Experiment in Collective Criticism (2020).
Juno Jill Richards; Oceans, Archives, Perverts: Sex Work in the Colonial Port City. GLQ 1 October 2022; 28 (4): 541–566. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10642684-9991327
Download citation file: