March 26, 2013, Bridge Café (Wudaokou)
Speaker: Prof. Dr. HUANG Yingying 黄盈盈, Department of Sociology, Renmin University of China; Deputy Director, Institute of Sexuality and Gender
To provide context for the topic of discussion, Dr. Huang opened her speech by highlighting the contrasting images of sexuality in China. On one hand, imperial practices like foot-binding, court concubines, and polygamous ernai (二奶; literally “second milk”) infuse the concept of prostitution with a sort of artistic and aesthetic beauty. More common to contemporary observers is the asexual, androgynous communist youth portrayed most often by the Cultural Revolution’s Red Guards.
Dr. Huang explained how in ancient China, prostitutes were revered for their numerous talents, which extended far beyond sexual techniques to include poetry, calligraphy, singing, dancing, and playing various instruments. Such views are evidenced by documentation of Tang dynasty brothels as well as records kept by high court officials. The historical shift in views on Chinese prostitution began with the May Fourth Movement and its efforts to erase what many contemporaries saw as poisonous and outdated cultural practices. The ideas that began in the early 20th century culminated shortly after the communist revolution, when Mao declared that the government had successfully eradicated both prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) from China. Dr. Huang noted the political significance of this supposed accomplishment, as modern politicians often invoke it to rile up support for anti-prostitution campaigns: “If Mao did it, why can’t we?” During the early stages of China’s ongoing reform period, the government maintained that foreigners were to blame prostitution’s resurgence, as evidenced by propaganda slogans like “reborn of the dead ash” and “flies from outside.”
The second wave of anti-prostitution, as Dr. Huang argued, began in 1981 with a declaration prohibiting the sale of sexual services. Organizing acts of prostitution is a criminal offense, and buying or selling sex is punishable by up to 15 days’ detention and a RMB 5000 fine for first-time offenders, as well as six months of re-education. Perhaps even more of a deterrent is the notification of family members that is surely meant to incur a shocking loss of face in a society focused on outward appearances. Every year, the government carries out saohuang (扫黄; literally “sweep the yellow/carnal) campaigns that purport to help rid China of its illegal sex trade. In practice, however, the industry continues to thrive.
Dr. Huang then provided a brief conceptual framework of Chinese sex industry workers. Most prostitutes in China are female sex workers (FSWs), though gigolo “money boys” (MBs) and trans-gender workers do exist, too. Many FSWs have managers who solicit clients; these managers are often middle-aged and may even carry babies with them as they look for customers. Dr. Huang stated that outside of those who work in the industry, there are but a small number of grassroots organizations that work with sex workers. As they have no legal status in China, such groups are rare, and none existed as late as ten years ago. Today, Dr. Huang estimates that somewhere around seven such groups operate in China, not including any international organizations. One problem for the shockingly low presence of such grassroots organizations is that sex industry workers do not have a cohesive sense of community identity.
Moving into further detail, Dr. Huang shared some of her personal observations regarding recent changes in the Chinese sex industry, which she has been observing since 1999. Many of today’s FSWs, as Dr. Huang noted, view the prostitutes of the 1970s and 1980s as joining their profession simply for hedonistic pleasure, whereas they view themselves as earning money for their families. Surprisingly, the price of sex is falling: Dr. Huang said that in one area she studied, what cost RMB 250 only ten years ago is now available for RMB 130, a trend that is starkly different from the continued rise in housing prices and CPI. Today, there is a wider range of sexual services available, including pockets of S&M workers, as well as higher mobility not only in terms of regional borders, but also a larger percentage of workers who also have other jobs. One disconcerting development is the increasing overlap with drug use.
To understand the multiple facets of the sex industry in China, Dr. Huang chose three lenses through which the audience could examine prostitution: individual, organizational, and structural levels. On the individual level, Dr. Huang shared her research on how FSWs viewed their profession. There was a strong focus on using not only one’s body, but also one’s brain, in order to survive and make money. Dr. Huang observed stigmas against FSWs who were seen as too erotic, which could mean enjoying work too much or providing services outside of vaginal intercourse, such as oral or anal sex. FSWs were often concerned about abortion-induced infertility as well as general health issues, as well as fear of being discovered by their families. In general, she noted that most FSWs work far from their hometowns. Another common theme that Dr. Huang continually referred to was the desire among many FSWs to live a fashionable, urban lifestyle that was endowed to them through their profession and the money they made by selling their bodies.
On an organizational level, Dr. Huang detailed the hierarchy of venues used for prostitutions. Large hotels and nightclubs rank as some of the most high-end locations in the sex trade. Massage parlors and KTV bars formed another tier, while hair salons came in below that. Standing on the unequivocal lowest rung are street callers, who solicit clients themselves. Dr. Huang noted how an increasingly large segment of FSWs are based on the internet. Lastly, she suggested that the most coveted status was that of the “second wife,” for whom the identity of sex worker begins to fade in some respects. In addition to venues, Dr. Huang also classified the types of working relationships most common among FSWs. One of the most common arrangements, referred to as employment-based prostitution, involves a manager who takes a 20-30% fee for every sex act traded. FSWs with a “housing with work” would be free to leave whenever they pleased, though many felt social pressure and unspoken control yielded by the managers. Lastly, Dr. Huang said that in the 20 red-light districts she has studied, only in two did she find situations where FSWs had been forced into semi-slavery types of prostitution. Another even rarer employment situation involved self-employed FSWs forming a sort of co-op that employed a manger who was subject to the dismissal of the FSWs themselves.
Further broadening the scope of discussion, Dr. Huang approached Chinese prostitution from a structural viewpoint. While many governmental authorities claim that prostitution leads to corruption, she argued that the reverse is true, citing a rumor that European sex workers attracted Chinese clients on vacation by exclaiming, “We can issue you a fapiao!” (发票; official invoice) Dr. Huang argued that compared to 30 years ago, FSWs have much higher social mobility in today’s China. She also cited the work of a colleague, Dr. Pan Suiying, who argues that over the past 30 years, China has undergone a sexual revolution, not only with regards to prostitution, but also views towards issues like premarital sex and gender identity. In the end, however, the stigma towards prostitutes remains strong, contributing a great deal to ongoing physical and psychological violence.
Moving forward, Dr. Huang highlighted two recent policy changes that have significantly affected the sex industry in China. First, she referenced an initiative by the Health Bureau system to move towards 100% condom use and improved health education. While some argue otherwise, Dr. Huang holds that this in no way indicates a move towards the legalization of prostitution. The second and more far-reaching policy change began in 2010, since when crackdowns on brothels have increased in severity and frequency. Unlike the previously discussed policy, this is implemented by the Public Security Bureau system, which has vastly different goals and motivations. While it used to be the case that street workers were the most susceptible to police intervention, government authorities recently shut down Beijing’s notorious “Heaven on Earth” (天上人间) nightclub, where any wallet slimmer than RMB 2000 had no chance of purchasing an illicit service.
Despite such developments, Dr. Huang asserts that the market for purchased sex continues to grow in China, citing a nationwide survey that shows the percentage of sex clients has risen from 7% to 9% of the male population. Furthermore, she observed how the FSWs and their managers have found creative methods to avoid the authorities. Instead of running operations out of the front door of their establishments, many would use the back entrance instead; others wait at home for notification via cell phone or internet. Work hours have changed as well: Dr. Huang told of one street walker who is up at 5am to solicit retirees who rise early to buy breakfast, and perhaps a bit extra. Drawing her listeners back to the personal situations of each FSW, Dr. Huang shared quotations of women who are determined to work despite the hardships incurred by authorities.
Sadly, the new crackdowns have created some unforeseen drawbacks. Of greatest concern is the increased gender-based violence at the hands of police and also local gangs. The health service delivery system, which already faced serious challenges, is now being forced underground, especially as used condoms have been used as evidence to convict FSWs, further lowering the rate of condom use. Finally, the new anti-prostitution campaigns have created more expansive sexual networks as FSWs move from large urban centers into smaller cities and even towns, where enforcement is much more lax.
To finish her speech, Dr. Huang made a policy proposal, one that strives to move beyond the dialogue of rights and legalization. Instead, she argued for increased cooperation between FSWs and local police in order to assuage some of the previously cited problems.
The Q&A session began with inquiries into forced prostitution and human trafficking. Dr. Huang noted that she classifies “semi-slave” FSW relationships as ones marked by physical force; economic force is much harder to define, though she did remind the audience that all FSWs are trying to avoid violent situations, so the recent wave of crackdowns is indeed alarming. One issue with linking prostitution and human trafficking is that in China, trafficking often exists outside the realm of the sex industry, as with imported wives and laborers from Southeast Asia. Responding to a question on public views towards the sex trade, Dr. Huang explained that 40% of respondents believed that the government punishments for those involved in prostitution were too harsh.
Over 220 guests packed themselves into the venue to attend this event, and dozens more left once the room reached capacity. Following the formal discussion was further intellectual exchange over food and drink, strengthening the ever-expanding ThinkIN China community.