Alexia Bloch, Sex, Love, and Migration: Postsocialism, Modernity, and Intimacy from Istanbul to the Arctic.
Since the 1970s, globalizing economies, alongside the withdrawal of welfare provisions in most neoliberal states and a growing demand for transient low-wage labor, have made women worldwide increasingly mobile. Postsocialist women joined the global trend in the 1990s following the collapse of state socialism in Eurasia. Drawing on over ten years of multisite field work comprised of participant observation and semistructured interviews with numerous people in Russia, Moldova, and Turkey, Alexia Bloch's ethnography Love, Sex, and Migration documents post-Soviet women's entry into the transnational migrant work force. The book explores the lives of post-Soviet Russian-speaking women who, being driven largely by inability to find work and liveable wages in home communities decimated by postsocialist economic restructuring, and by their aspirations and even imagination, come to Turkey to work, often undocumented, as domestic servants, entertainers, and shuttle traders. Captivatingly written and rich with thick descriptions that virtually transport the reader to the featured locations and people, Love, Sex, and Migration makes an impressive contribution to the scholarship on gender and transnational migration in postsocialist societies.
Unlike most scholars who have written about gendered mobilities in post-socialist Eurasia, Bloch does not approach the subject in terms of human trafficking and exploitation. Rather, she is interested in the role of mobility in the ongoing transformation of intimacy experienced by her participants, who she calls "consultants." Bloch looks at the close interpersonal relationships migrant women develop and maintain with their friends, families, relatives, and lovers, especially romance, marriage, and parent-child ties. She argues that intimacy is affected by the development of transnational capitalism, labor migration, and border regimes upheld by nation states, as well as by local histories and legacies of state socialism. In the book's six chapters she demonstrates how these structural processes produce new forms of intimate practices. For instance, migrant women engage in serial marriages and divorces to remain mobile in spite of the increasing border securitization policies implemented by receiving states. Moreover, migrants' remittances facilitate extended modes of interdependency and care in multigenerational households. Lastly, some women strategically deploy "sexuality without hang-ups" to benefit from encounters with Turkish men. By emphasizing the significance of local contexts in post-Soviet women's mobility, Bloch complicates existing assumptions about transnational women migrants. For example, she introduces the concept of the "transnational nexus of care" to challenge the common negative stereotype that women migrants "abandon" their children in the care of others and are thus failing mothers. Drawing on the Soviet history of childcare, Bloch argues that historic patterns of combining state support with help from other female relatives are reflected in post-Soviet transnational mothering in such a way that both "othermothers"--relatives taking care of children locally--and "other mothers"--biological mothers who provide material support from a distance--view their contributions to child-rearing as valuable.
The book's strength lies precisely in the privileging of migrant women's own voices and agency. Bloch does not allow her own interpretations to overshadow her consultants' experiences and perspectives. While scholars often construct migrant women as victims, Love, Sex, and Migration stands out in its desire to represent its subjects as those who try to master their own lives. As she does not ignore the role of larger, structural forces at play, such as neoliberalization of post-Soviet societies and the resulting precarity faced by people in Eurasia, perhaps due to a wish to empower post-Soviet women through her writing, Bloch leaves other pertinent issues unexplored. One such issue is the transition between Soviet and post-Soviet gender contracts. It remains unclear how the notoriously sexophobic Soviet culture--best represented in the famous "There is no sex in the USSR" catchphrase--where women's only erotic option was that of being "worker mothers," was transformed into the post-Soviet "sexuality without hang-ups" observed by Bloch among Russian-speaking entertainers in Turkey. Perhaps an exploration of the ways in which the overt sexualization and masculinization of post-Soviet popular culture during the perestroika years accompanied the transition between Soviet and post-Soviet gender identities could help explain why and how some of Bloch's consultants internalize an understanding of their sexuality as a commodity, and the contradictions in their ideals and aspirations. For example, Bloch notes the "protective masculinity" enacted by the Turkish boyfriends of migrant women who, in turn, appear suspicious of "real love" and express a desire for autonomy. One person remarks that all she wants from life is a house with a big kitchen where she could cook food for her husband (155). This is the same woman who habitually capitalizes on her "sexuality without hang-ups" to gain material benefits from Turkish men, and who is jaded about romance and "real love."
What has been missed by this book is the opportunity to explore this tension between women's gendered aspirations such as a desire for marriage and family and their need to use intimacy strategically under conditions of precarity where falling in love might be equal to simply failing as an autonomous and self-reliant neoliberal subject. Besides, as other scholars have pointed out, one of the most significant changes in the intimate landscape of Eurasia under post-socialism has been an expansion in sexual identities and desires. (1) Yet, this work's "compulsory heterosexuality" is unfortunate. (2) It is improbable that in over ten years of fieldwork conducted among numerous women and in various settings the author did not encounter a single woman who was not heterosexual. Therefore, the absence of non-heterosexual subjects could only suggest the author's reliance on heteronormative assumptions about migration. In that, Bloch's research fits in with a well-established pattern in migration research where women migrants are seen predominantly as laboring rather than desiring subjects. (3) As much as a book about intimacy should include desire, desires and intimacies outside of the heterosexual norm remain unnoticed.
Nevertheless, Love, Sex, and Migration offers multiple and complex answers to a question about the significance of mobility for modern life in post-socialist countries. The book can be recommended to academics and professionals working in migration studies and policy development, as well as to anyone interested in quality ethnographic research of places previously uncharted and lives frequently overlooked, such as those of the post-Soviet women on the move and their transnational communities.
Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies
Stony Brook University
Stony Brook, NY, 11794-5356
(1) Francesca Stella, Lesbian Lives in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia: Post/socialism and Gendered Sexualities (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); James Brian Baer, Other Russias: Homosexuality and the Crisis of Post-Soviet Identity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
(2) Adrienne Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Existence," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5, no. 4 (1980): 631-60.
(3) Martin Manalansan, "Queer Intersections: Sexuality and Gender in Migration Studies," International Migrant Review 40, no. 1 (2006): 224-49.
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|Publication:||Region: Regional Studies of Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2019|
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