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.
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.

Isabel Quan is a China-based journalist.

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