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Section II: Living in China continued—Dating, Sex, and Relationships

Prostitution in China

Prostitution is illegal in China but is relegated to the status of a misdemeanor unless the participants knowingly have a “serious venereal disease,” or physical violence, injury, or a minor child under the age of 14 is involved. It is technically punishable with a warning, a fine up to 5,000 yuan, a signature on a "statement of repentance," "re-education through labour," or 15 days in prison. However, due to the relatively high rate of unemployment and the absence of any meaningful social welfare infrastructure, it is—as a matter of practice—openly tolerated barring occasional politically-motivated police sweeps. (See Article 30 of the Regulations of the PRC on Administrative Penalties for Public Security, 1986).

If you are an unmarried male foreign teacher with a steady girlfriend, it would be highly advisable for you to make that fact well known to your prospective employer.

Some researchers have conservatively estimated that there are as many as 10 million active prostitutes in China at any given time who contribute as much as five percent to the country’s annual GDP as most of the earned income, although not taxed, goes back into the economy through consumption. (Dougherty, 2006).

The social structure of prostitution in China is quite complex comprising as many as seven and more tiers that have strong ties to historical and cultural antecedents. These tiers or levels range from the maintenance of long-term second wives and temporary “indentured wives,” (èrnai and baopó, respectively), at the highest end, to “down-the-work-shack” prostitutes (xiàgongpéng) who primarily service poor migrant workers at the lowest end.

Generally speaking, foreign teachers in China will have access primarily (if not only) to those prostitutes who comprise the mid- to lower-tiers unless their Chinese is excellent and they are residing permanently in the country. The fourth to sixth tiers of prostitution, in descending order, constitute: “ding dong” girls (dingdong xiaojie), so named because they operate out of hotel rooms and will ring the doorbells of hotel patrons they think might be interested in their services; “hair salon sisters” (fàlángmèi) or massage girls (ànmónu) who operate out of storefronts that appear to be either barber shops or massage parlors from the outside, and finally; streetwalkers (liúchang) who congregate outside of entertainment establishments or in certain designated areas. (ibid, pp. 16 - 17). Barring a few isolated districts across the country, street prostitution is usually highly controlled, especially in major cities such as Beijing as it currently is in New York City for example.

Prostitute in China Courtesy of Dougherty, Niklas (2006). Prostitution in contemporary China: The case of Shanghai Jiading.

By far, the most visible and plentiful prostitutes in China are those who comprise the fifth tier or the fàlángmèi. Most of these girls come from the countryside, are extremely poor and illiterate, and are completely at the mercy of their madams (laobanniáng) who provide them with housing, clothing and food, as well as a cell phone and monthly subscription. Their monthly salary tends to parallel whatever a masseuse would earn in that particular area (generally 600 to 1500 yuan depending on location). They are allowed to keep whatever tips (xiaofei) they may receive but as tipping is not customary in China, that tends to be a negligible amount (ibid, p. 33). Virtually none of them has a boyfriend (for obvious reasons) and they are, for all intents and purposes, unmarriageable for the remainder of their lives (in a country that highly values—and literally defines itself by—the importance and central social role of marriage and family).

While it is true that this type of work provides a means of self-support that would not otherwise be available to a significant percentage of the population, it appears to come at a very high personal cost. Although there are small pockets or sub-groups of freelance prostitutes in China who can accurately be described as having made a real choice (for example, better educated and narcissistically-damaged college students who are looking for a quick buck and, more likely than not, lack the capacity for genuine relationships based on anything other than fulfilling mutual needs and obtaining immediate gratification), the girls in the lower tiers of prostitution are doing it solely to escape homelessness and starvation. The psychological damage incurred from long-term "forced choice" prostitution is well-documented by psychologists and sociologists alike, both in Western and Chinese research literature. (See, for example, a study of pervasive suicidal ideation among Chinese prostitutes in Hong et al., 2007 and A report of the Nationwide Sex-Civilization Survey on 20,000 subjects in China, Ng et al., 1997, also referred to as the "China Kinsey Report.") The common argument, if not rationalization, that prostitution is a victimless crime is simply not borne out by the findings of what empirical research there is.

Renting and Buying "Wives"

We have confirmed two reports of foreign teachers in China who have actually rented a "wife." Renting refers to the process of retaining the full time or live-in services of a prostitute: She serves as both a domestic helper and concubine. In the two reported cases we could confirm, one in Shenyang, Liaoning province and the other in Rizhao, Shandong province, the fee for engaging such services was disclosed as 4,000 yuan per month. One foreign teacher in Inner Mongolia was even approached by a "broker" who was trying to sell him a wife for 10,000 yuan.

Obviously, it is highly illegal to sell and buy women in China. The majority of these women have been abducted from poor provinces and are entirely unwilling victims. It has been reported that approximately 30 women in search of work go missing every day from the Nine Eye Bridge labor market (Adler, 2008) and that is just one example of what is happening in near epidemic proportions throughout the countryside.

In many cases, the women are unofficially sold by their poor families, especially in the west and northwest of China. In discussing this social problem with Chinese academicians, we learned that often the purchased "bride" is simply part of a scam, such that she will run away and return to her family of origin as soon as possible to be sold again. In other instances, the illegal sales were intended as final: The young women are simply terribly unfortunate victims of circumstance and will typically try to kill themselves as soon as no one is watching, usually by ingesting pesticide. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, one woman kills herself every four minutes in China (Allen, 2006). No sane and decent foreign teacher should ever contemplate purchasing a wife in China. Aside from the grave moral and legal issues involved, it makes absolutely no sense in the context of the millions of women who are genuinely looking for real boyfriends and husbands.

Although engaging the services of a live-in prostitute is no more illegal than engaging her for one hour, and, once again, momentarily setting aside the moral and legal issues, the arrangement is an entirely risky one. Several Chinese colleagues have informed us that these girls often steal the men blind. Over time, once the man is at ease, the girls eventually obtain a key to the apartment and will even be given the security code (password) to the man's ATM card. One day the unsuspecting man returns home to find both an empty apartment and bank account. Women who sell themselves to strange men in any capacity are thoroughly desperate and that reality needs to be remembered at all times for anyone even contemplating the use of their services.

Prostitution Leading Cause of AIDS in China

In addition and of serious concern to healthcare workers is that prostitution has now replaced intravenous (IV) drug abuse as the leading cause of AIDS in China, accounting for 55 percent of all new cases of HIV infection. According to a 2008 study conducted by the municipal public health bureau, 53 percent of Beijing's 90,000 sex workers admitted that they do not use condoms and that by the end of 2007, there were 700,000 people inflicted with AIDS in China (Xinhua, 2008). There is also a strong negative correlation between the tier of prostitution occupied by the girl and her risk of contracting (and transmitting) venereal disease, i.e., the lower the tier, the higher the risk. By contrast, the same studies reported that new cases of AIDS attributable to drug abuse were no higher than 12.8 percent (China Daily, 2007).

Despite its abundant availability, often within just a few hundred yards from one's apartment, it must be kept in mind that foreign teachers who frequent prostitutes play right into the racist stereotype of Western men as morally depraved. They are looked down upon by their foreign affairs officers and school owners (even though, quite hypocritically, it is obviously true that the rest of the patrons in the adjoining rooms are not foreigners). In a country with such a high preponderance of emotionally healthier and less desperate girls who are genuinely looking for Western boyfriends and husbands, it is no small wonder to us why any foreign teacher would risk both his health and reputation by patronizing prostitutes.

So strong is the sentiment against Western men who frequent Chinese prostitutes or, in the alternative, have a string of different girls coming in and out of their apartments several times a week, many schools and universities are extremely reluctant to hire single, unattached men, and this is often the rationale behind job advertisements that seek women only. If you are an unmarried male foreign teacher with a steady girlfriend, it would be highly advisable for you to make that fact well known to your prospective employer. If your primary interest in living and working in China is to pursue sex tourism, you will be gravely disappointed by the overall experience (in terms of quality, breadth of services offered, and relative cost, especially when compared to other Asian countries), and it would be best for you to consider another destination altogether.


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Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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