The Terrible Lives of Chinese Sex Workers

The arrest of a high-profile investor for soliciting prostitution casts a spotlight on an unregulated industry where women risk social stigma, violence, and disease.
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Police officers watch over prostitutes during a public parade in Shenzhen, south China's Guangdong province. (Reuters)

On August 25, 2013, authorities confirmed that well-known angel investor and social media celebrity Charles Xue had been detained on suspicion of soliciting a prostitute, after police raided his home based on a tip-off from a neighbor. While some speculated that the arrest was part of a crackdown on outspoken microbloggers—Xue is a well-known social commentator on Weibo—few spoke of the consequences for the woman surnamed Zhang who was arrested for prostitution in the same raid.

Sex workers in China face many challenges to making their voices heard. Because of widespread legal and societal discrimination and stigma, sex workers are also particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses. As the rate of prostitution in China has increased yearly since 1982, the problems and dangers sex workers face are becoming an increasingly pressing societal problem.

Thanks to China’s one-child policy and a preference for male babies, men exceed women in China by tens of millions. Owing to this inequality, numerous men aren’t able to find women to marry.  This has not only led to an increase in the human trafficking of women, but also to an increase in the number of prostitutes and the number of men who seek them out for their services. In one survey, 1 in 5 sexually-active men admitted to having paid for sex with a prostitute. 

Prostitution is illegal but it is all-but-openly practiced, especially since the early 1980s, as the government began to loosen controls over society in a series of legal and political reforms. Prostitution in China, as in other countries around the world, has continued despite legal warnings and government crackdowns. Not only has it become more visible, but it can now be found in both urban and rural areas.

Public health officials have estimated that there are millions of commercial sex workers in China. A closer look at seemingly legitimate establishments reveals that many karaoke bars, massage parlors, and hair salons are either fronts for brothels or provide sex services in addition to their advertised fare.

The dangers faced by sex workers also vary. High-class sex workers, usually pretty, young women who exclusively service richer clientele, face fewer dangers. They drive luxury cars and carry brand-name handbags. Lower-class sex workers, or grass-roots workers, as they are known, are often extorted for money by law enforcement, and face legal repercussions if they are not able to pay a “bribe for safety.” As in many other sectors, money and connections can bring protection, while more vulnerable groups bear the brunt of human rights abuses.

Some microbloggers reacting to news of Xue’s arrest questioned why he would consort with one of the “lower class” prostitutes. Wrote @诗人刀哥, “He’s an angel investor, 60 years old, and has tons of money. Why didn’t he just get an actress or a [television] hostess as a mistress instead of soliciting a prostitute?” While ordinary prostitutes must deal with police and perennial crackdowns, China’s growing mistress culture is largely unregulated, and even tacitly accepted by some.

Most sex workers are internal migrants, among the estimated 120-200 million people who have left China’s countryside in search of better-paying jobs in China’s cities. Less educated on average, they are also less conscious of the risks of HIV/AIDS, which means they can more easily be pressed into not using protection. The incidence of STDs including HIV and AIDS have been increasing rapidly, and sex workers are a particularly vulnerable group. In additional to health risks, they are also stigmatized as diseased. Because of uneven sex education, some people even think that it is possible to contract a sexually-transmitted disease simply by talking to an infected person, and as a result, sex workers are isolated from much social interaction.

Intermittent “crackdowns” on the sex industry have not put an end to prostitution in China, but they have led to an increase in human rights abuses. One sex worker who wished to remain anonymous said that she was once detained by police, and a police officer beat her and then raped her while no one was around. What really made her feel humiliated was not the sexual abuse, she said, but that he told her she did not deserve human treatment because she was using immoral money to survive.

Despite lobbying by international NGOs and overseas commentators, there is not much support for legalization of the sex sector by the public, non-governmental organizations, or the government of the PRC. Legalizing the sex trade may not be an option, but outlawing it has proven ineffective. Charles Xue’s highly publicized arrest shows that enforcement of the laws against prostitution can be uneven and used for purposes other than simply preventing prostitution.

Some scholars felt that Xue’s arrest was an unfair infringement on individuals’ right to privacy. Cai Xia, a professor at China’s Central Party School, wrote in an essay circulated on Weibo:

The private sphere is an individual space, and sex rights are individual rights. As long as he did not harm society or the public interest with his sexual activities, it’s just an issue of individual morality, and not within the scope of public powers to interfere. That’s why the gang rape of the female journalist in India was a serious crime that required legal prosecution, while the relationship between the prostitute and man who solicited her was a private transaction that is not within the scope of the law.

Cai further emphasized that Xue’s arrest, though intended to warn outspoken critics that they might easily be publicly humiliated, should actually spark conversation about protection of individual rights and limits to government powers—changes that would be good news for both celebrities and sex workers.


This post first appeared at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.

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Isabel Quan is a China-based journalist.

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