If you're cruising along a desolate highway in Taiwan in the dead of the night, chances are you'll run into scantily-clad women sitting in glass cubicles decorated with neon signs. They'll totter out in their micro-skirts and super high heels, waving and smiling to male drivers.
But they're not selling sex. They're selling betel nut, an addictive tobacco substitute.
Although the legal stimulant is chewed all over Asia, only in Taiwan are they sold by "betel nut beauties," a practice which has been around since the '90s. Despite growing awareness of the health risks surrounding betel nut consumption — for instance, it may cause mouth cancer — much of the debate in Taiwan is still centered on the women.
Some decry the practice as morally reprehensible. Others believe that women have the right to dress however they please. While I do not support betel nut consumption, because of the health consequences, I believe that as long as no one is being harmed or forced to dress in skimpy outfits, there is no problem with women choosing to use their bodies to sell a product. Not in Taiwan, at least.
Unlike other societies, Taiwanese culture does not normally conflate hyper-sexualized images of women with objectification. Nor is it used to justify violence towards women. Instead, overt expressions of female sexuality are normalized, even to the point of being devoid of sexual meaning.
At first glance though, it's easy to form presumptions about betel nut girls. Since the majority of them do not come from well-to-do backgrounds, some critics believe that they're being exploited. According to Audrey Wang from the Taiwan Review, it's an "unwholesome" practice that uses women as "titillation." In addition, the fact that betel nut is consumed mostly by truck or taxi drivers adds to the belief, especially amongst Taipei City dwellers where the practice is banned, that it is a social ill confined to the lower classes.
However, these perceptions can be misleading. It's true that there is still some social stigma attached to being a betel nut girl, explains Tobie Openshaw, a South African filmmaker who has worked in Taiwan for 14 years. He explains that while many of these girls enjoy doing it, many still feel the need to hide their professions from their families, although this is changing.
If the men get too touchy, the girls will reprimand or slap them. As Openshaw notes, betel nut girls make sure that boundaries and rules are enforced. Far from being exploited victims, betel nut beauties are active agents in their field of work. Hsiao-wei Lin said in the Taipei Times that she believes it is it a good job because she gets to runs her own business and wear beautiful clothes to work.
Moreover, there's not a lot of slut-shaming involved in the debate surrounding betel nut girls; instead, most people are indifferent towards it. When T-Life Magazine listed betel nut girls as one of the top five tourist attractions in Hsinchu County in 2010, residents were not proud of this publicity, but they did explain to the press that there's nothing special about the practice. It happens everywhere in the island and it's simply a part of Taiwan's "betel nut culture," they insisted.
Their nonchalance can be difficult for people to comprehend. As outsiders, we like to let our imaginations run wild: What if betel nuts are a thinly-veiled cover for prostitution and the girls actually lure customers inside to perform sexual acts? What if they're connected to some kind of underground criminal network run by pimps?
Despite what a few films may have you believing, there's nothing more to it than entrepreneurial-minded young women selling betel nuts to earn a living. Some of the more perverted customers may try to expose themselves to the betel nut beauties. But that's usually as dangerous as it gets. In almost any other country, they would likely be vulnerable to sexual assault or violence.
The Los Angeles Times attributes the low incidents of attacks to Taiwan's "nonviolent, reserved culture," but as I mentioned before, it has more to do with the normalization of female sexuality. More specifically, people in Taiwan are relatively open or used to seeing women flaunt their sexuality in situations that others might not deem appropriate. Take for instance the tradition of having strippers at funerals (yes, it's a real thing). In Taiwan, a sexy girl strutting her stuff does not necessarily have to evoke sexual connotations.
Amidst the recent crackdown on betel nut addiction in Asia, there's the question of whether Taiwan's betel nut beauties will soon be out of jobs. But even if betel nut consumption is curbed, this is a culture that prides itself on thinking outside the box (in addition to funeral strippers, Taiwan is also home to Hello Kitty airplanes and singing garbage trucks), so I imagine that the girls will simply turn to peddling other products. As a betel nut beauty told the Global Post, what others find strange is simply "Taiwan's culture".