Sex trafficking is one of the most discussed topics in China today, but does prostitution fall under the same category?
Sex trafficking is a form of business that illegally trades and sells human beings, predominantly women, for commercial sex exploitation. The victims of sex trafficking have no control over their fate. Prostitution, on the other hand, is “sex work,” defined as selling sex for money — seemingly willingly.
In rural China, both are illegal and can be severely punished. As unlawful as these practices are however, both prostitution and sex trafficking are still burgeoning businesses in this Confucian society. But while targets of sex trafficking are regarded as victims, prostitutes are considered disgraced by their profession.
In theory, prostitution in China, as in much of the world, is a career of choice. But upon closer inspection, can it still be a choice if there are no other options?
iFeng, the online news source under China’s Phoenix Network, recently posted a long and detailed investigative report on the lives of sex workers in rural China. These workers call themselves the 10 Renminbi Brothel Sex Workers, because they only charge 10 Yuan per customer. All they need to do to is rent a room in a brothel for around 13 Yuan a day, and they are “open for business.”
While on the surface prostitution in China takes on the face of individual initiative, it is not really a choice at all. Women who are admitted into this “profession” have quite a few things in common: Most of them are from the countryside with little to no education and money. Many of them suffer from broken marriages, riddled with domestic violence and infidelity. But the greatest manifestation of their desperation comes from unrelenting family burdens and pressures – their children need money to attend school, they need funds to build a home for themselves, and sick family members require money for hospital bills. With almost no resources or skills, these women have no choice but to accept the only work that accepts them.
On top of personal pressures, being a 10 Yuan Brothel Sex Worker comes with many risks. One is receiving sexually transmitted diseases from not wearing condoms. Since condoms are viewed as a sign of prostitution, these women specifically avoid them as much as possible. Furthermore, if they suspect that they have contracted something, prostitutes do not seek medical attention because of the financial costs, as well as the risk of exposing themselves as sex workers. Being caught as a prostitute results in a heavy fine, so these women remain constantly paranoid of police raids. Worst of all, they are unable to be with their children because they are always working to provide for them.
Tragically, sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in China. In this Confucian society, their fellow citizens find them shameful for their apparent disregard of self-respect. But what may of these women really demonstrate is a strength and unrelenting devotion to their loved ones, and thus a deep commitment to themselves. This is not only a call for recognition, but also a call for investing in the empowerment of China’s rural women.