Host Club Culture: Worse Than Prostitution?

Last semester, I was enrolled in a class on gender and sexuality in East Asia. Toward the end of the course, we began to study Japanese host club culture, a phenomenon with which much of my class was familiar, but which I had never heard of before. For those who are as unversed in contemporary Japanese pop culture as I am, here’s an extremely basic and probably over-simplified run-down: host clubs are night clubs in urban areas of Japan  in which very pretty men demand ridiculously high sums of money in order to “market love” to their clients, who are female. In other words, hosts speak and behave in such a way as to give the illusion that they are head-over-heels in love with their clients; they go out of their way to make these women feel special and adored. For those of you who are wondering whether or not these relationships ever lead to anything more than lovey-dovey cuddling, my impression is yes—sometimes the hosts do have sex with their clients. However,  hosts seem to often discourage this, or at least to stretch out the relationship as much as they can  before that point occurs, since many of them admit that once sex has happened, many women never return to the host club, having achieved their goal.  For a very good introduction on host clubs, better than I could give, view the excellent documentary The Great Happiness Space, which is pretty much my source for everything I know about host clubs, and from which I will draw heavily in my argumentation  (and which is available on Netflix, I might add).

Anyway, as anyone could have anticipated, host clubs have a dark underbelly. Many viewers of the aforementioned documentary cannot help but feel uneasy as they note how the hosts seem to take advantage of their clients. They “trick” women into paying high prices for continued affection from them; additionally, in most host clubs the food and drink alone are ridiculously costly, meaning that women can’t get out of a host club without spending a veritable fortune. Many of my fellow classmates perceived the host club culture as manipulative and unethical, an institution  that takes advantage of women’s “natural” desire for love and companionship. In fact, I heard one of my classmates mutter to a friend next to him, “I think this is way worse than prostitution. It’s awful how they take advantage of these women,” with which his friend (who was female) emphatically agreed.

I know that this student’s intentions were not malicious in making this statement—I’m sure he genuinely felt bad for the people he perceived as “victims” of host club culture—and  so I am not writing this reflection to indict him. Nevertheless, his comment sat uncomfortably with me, though I wasn’t quite sure why. Now that I have thought it over, I have decided to write this reflection critiquing the assumptions underlying this student’s superficially empathetic comment, which I feel actually points to a fairly chauvinistic attitude. Again, note that this is not a criticism of the student, but of the environment he and I  live in that makes comments like the one he made possible because the assumptions underlying them go unquestioned.

The student’s meaning was clear—while prostitutes only sell sex, hosts sell love. Therefore, the first assumption the student made was in thinking of “love” as worth more, as somehow inherently more valuable, than just sex. This is a claim that could be argued against, and has been. However, it was not this assumption in particular that I took issue with. What I took issue with was the way in which his comment automatically cast the women who frequent host clubs as “victims,” seeing them as helpless captives to the irresistible charms of the hosts.

There is another, more common  kind of club in Japan called a hostess club, which is like a host club for men (for an introduction to hostess clubs, see Anne Allison’s essay “Dominating  Men: Male Dominance on Company Expense in a Japanese Hostess Club”). Superficially, both are the same—hostesses provide more-or-less platonic company for the men who frequent the clubs, just as the hosts of host clubs do. However, in every other respect the hostess clubs differ—first, the profile of the average client at a hostess club is a high-powered businessman, as opposed to the bottom-of-the-rung night workers that tend to frequent host clubs (more on that later). Additionally, rather than seeking out romantic relationships, male clients at hostess clubs generally are paying simply for female company, women who will try to make them feel good and will simply laugh and smile. Meanwhile, men can feel free to openly talk about the hostesses’ bodies, as well as make insinuations about their sexual prowess, experience, and so on. Nobody ever hears about hostess clubs and  thinks, “Oh, those poor men. Those ruthless hostesses are taking advantage of their “natural manly tendency” to act like alpha males around women in order to take their hard-earned money from them and score profit.” Rather, it is the women who are victimized—those poor women, having to subjugate themselves to that kind of treatment simply to earn a living. Yet, the women who frequent host clubs fare no better—they are also the ones whom spectators choose to victimize, this time at the hands of the hosts, rather than of clients. So, what? Women can’t win in this industry, no matter whether they’re the clients or the hostesses? They’re just doomed to be the weaker, more unfortunate, more pitiable party no matter what they do? How is that fair?

To cite an example that may be closer to home for many readers,  nobody ever talks about the men who visit prostitutes as being victims. Sure, people have always debated whether or not men who frequent prostitutes are in the right or in the wrong, or whether that even  matters. Still, it is assumed that these men hold full responsibility for their actions—they know what they are doing when they seek out prostitutes, they know and understand the alleged immorality of such an act, and they are willfully acting without regard for such moral standards.[1] Why, then, should it be any different for women? Why is it assumed  that women who pay large sums of money to be treated “like a princess” (in the words of one of host club frequenters interviewed in The Great Happiness Space) and potentially to have sex must be brainwashed victims of a ruthless masculine enterprise? Why can they not be accorded the same full responsibility for their actions that is accorded to the men who visit prostitutes? Who is to say that these women are not in fact at all times aware of the illusory nature of the host club, that they know exactly what they are getting into every time they enter one, but that they simply don’t care? In other words, maybe an  illusory experience of ideal love is precisely what many of these women are seeking and are willing to spend money for.

In class, we only watched a small clip from the documentary mentioned above. However, I rented the DVD myself to watch the end of it, in which all of the women who frequent host clubs who were interviewed admit, in various direct and non-direct fashions, that they are aware of the unreality of the whole affair. First of all, as many as 70% of the customers at host clubs is constituted by prostitutes and workers from hostess clubs. In pointing out the background of the vast majority of host club customers, I want to highlight the fact that these women would not traditionally be conceived of as “naïve.” As prostitutes and other kinds of “workers of the night,” it can be reasonably expected that they possess “street smarts,” and that they would not be easily taken in by a farce such as that which the host clubs put on.  Secondly, most of the women interviewed in the documentary, while they at first expounded on their love for the one particular host at the center of the film, eventually admitted that they frequent other host clubs and have similar feelings about hosts there. Furthermore, most of them had boyfriends. These two confessions indicate that the women who frequent host clubs are not deceived into thinking of their relationships with the hosts as true romantic relationships—if they did, many of them would not have boyfriends outside of host clubs, nor would they attempt to visit more than one host (that host with whom they perceived themselves to be in love).[2]

The strongest piece of evidence I can present for why we should not think of these women as helpless victims whose “natural womanly desire for love” is being taken advantage of by the big bad hosts is that many of them  in the documentary explicitly talk about how they are aware of the artificiality of it all, aware of how much money they spend to have the relationships they covet with the hosts, but that they don’t care. Many of these women explained that they saw their more-often-platonic-than-not relationships with the hosts as a form of healing from wounds incurred in their difficult jobs. Of course it is possible, though none of the women  in the documentary admit it, that from time to time they fantasize about the relationships they form with hosts blossoming into “true love,” so to speak. But we are all prone to such fantasies, and as long as we keep our feet firmly planted in the reality of a given situation, there is nothing wrong with having them—they make life a bit more tolerable. From the documentary, I saw no reason to think that these women did not have their feet firmly planted in reality—they did not see an issue with paying large sums of money for these artificial relationships that for many of them  hold such great power to heal. In other words, for them the benefits of frequenting host clubs outweigh the costs.

At the very end, the main host who is at the center of the documentary, named Issei, makes a comment similar to that of the student in my class when he suggests that his clients love to frequent host clubs so much that they have been driven into prostitution in order to support the habit (because nobody making normal wages would ever be able to afford going often to host clubs on a regular basis).  This is another way of victimizing host club clients—these poor women are so taken in by host club culture that they choose to sell their bodies to be able to participate in it, all of which the hosts laugh snidely about over glasses of champagne later on as they count these women’s hard-earned money. I see one critical problem with this way of thinking, though—since I am not convinced that a woman would become hooked to host clubs after only having visited once, how would a woman have been able to afford going to a host club long enough to become so hooked that she would be willing to descend into prostitution to keep up the habit? She would have to be extraordinarily wealthy in order to have afforded host clubs on anything other than a night worker’s wages—and  my impression, though not proven, is that extremely wealthy women  don’t tend to frequent host clubs. Even if they did, that would mean that they could afford on their current wages to sustain the habit, and wouldn’t need to go into prostitution to keep it up. Of course, there is always the scenario of the woman who spends all of her savings, yet is so hooked on the host clubs that she goes into prostitution to support the habit—this is possible, and maybe has even happened ocasionally. But I find it unlikely that this is a common occurrence—this would not give women enough credit, most of whom actually do have financial sensibilities, believe it or not, and would know better than to make such a huge financial faux pas.

I find the other implication of Issei’s statement more interesting—that those women who begin to frequent the host clubs as night workers remain night workers, rather than trying to move into other positions, in order to have the funds to continue attending host clubs. This, I am sad to say, seems much more likely. Several of the women interviewed on the documentary more-or-less admitted such, when they pointed out that they could never frequent the host clubs on the salaries of socially-condoned positions. There are several directions in which we could go, given this information. Could this simply be one facet of  the more general situation of people not wanting to leave the sex industry because of the money it provides? I have definitely heard of other cases, completely unrelated to host clubs, where people are reluctant to leave the industry, despite their personal misgivings about it, because it pays well. In that case, it would not be BECAUSE of the host clubs, per se, that the women stay in the industry, despite what Issei may want to believe.

On the other hand, I can’t get inside the head of these women—maybe some of them, though of course not all, DO stay in the industry pretty much because they want to continue frequenting host clubs. Should they be considered victims for this choice? After all, they know what the host club scene can and cannot provide for them, as I hope I successfully argued above. If some of them choose to stay in the high-paying sex industry entirely because they want to continue frequenting these host clubs, this may appear as a pitiable choice to us, but is it really? Don’t they have the same right to spend their money in whatever way they please, without having to be accused of being unwitting victims? Perhaps they are victims—but then again, is there anyone among us who could not in some way or other be construed as a victim of some value, code of ethics, or other idea that whatever he or she defines as “society” holds dear? You say these women are being used—are they being used any more than perhaps I could be construed as being used by the Academy? You say it is worse for these women, because they are “buying love”—but  I say, as long as they are fully aware of the illusion of what they are engaging in, which I believe most of them are, then why not?  So, is host club culture worse than prostitution? If you have your reasons for arguing in favor of that claim, then do so, but please, try to avoid generalizing about and all women who frequent host clubs. Regardless of what each of us may individually think about host clubs, the bottom  line is that the act of going to them could be analyzed  in a variety of complex and interesting ways, and to simply throw the term “victim” at these women  is to do them an injustice.


[1] Note that there have without doubt been instances in which impressionable young men are portrayed as lured to the dark side by the sultry charms of some wayward woman or other—note, however, that for portrayals like these to be persuasive, the man always has to be very impressionable and naïve. The idea is that any man who has some measure of world experience would know more than to be taken in by such a woman, and that thus if he does so, he knows what he is getting into and can be held accountable for his actions. In any case, I take issue with the idea of the young and impressionable man not being held accountable for his actions much for the same reasons I take issue with women at host clubs being victimized, as I will elaborate above.

[2] I know that these assertions make some assumptions, like that the women in question do not consider themselves in non-exclusive romantic relationships. While for some women who frequent host clubs probably do view their relationships as non-exclusive, even my elementary grasp of statistics tells me that this mostly likely does not by any means apply to all host club clients.