“It’s like they just refuse to look at this group in society or acknowledge their existence,” said Ye Haiyan, one of the few and perhaps the best-known activist on behalf of sex workers.
Last year, in an effort to attract attention to their plight, Ye publicly announced that she herself would work briefly as a prostitute. Shortly after, she recounted, she was attacked by thugs.
More recently, most of her volunteers quit after police visited at their homes and warned them to cease contact with her, Ye said.
“We’re barely functioning anymore,” she said. “The only income we have is from online donations, and all we’re trying to do anymore is give away condoms and paper towels to sex workers.”
Under Chinese law, all aspects of prostitution are illegal, but the sex trade would not exist in most cities without the tacit approval of authorities in return for bribes, activists and experts say,
“The goal of some corrupt police isn’t to wipe out the sale of sex, but to allow sex workers to survive so they can keep imposing fines on them,” said Li Yinhe, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “The fines become a kind of corrupt income for the police, and the police become a protective umbrella for certain brothels.”
For many sex workers, fines, bribes and abuse by authorities have become routine parts of the job.
The sex worker from Wuhan said she came to the city like countless other migrant workers looking for employment. But widowed with two children and few opportunities, she began working as a prostitute two years ago.
She makes about $10 a night, she said, more than she would as a low-wage restaurant worker.
“I never think about the future now,” she said, describing a life of constant fear of violent clients and police. “I just live from day to day.”
Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.