Oldest Profession Flourishes in China

A woman is questioned by police at an entertainment center in Beijing. Prostitution is branching out onto college campuses and moving into private residential compounds.
A woman is questioned by police at an entertainment center in Beijing. Prostitution is branching out onto college campuses and moving into private residential compounds. (China Photos Via Getty Images)
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 5, 2007

BEIJING -- The 22-year-old was a freelance prostitute. Henna-haired, eyebrows painted and dressed no differently than a college student, she moved from beauty salon to beauty salon, taking calls on her mobile phone from salon managers when they couldn't find enough girls for all their customers.

She said she wasn't as well paid as call girls in some of Beijing's toniest hotels. Nor was she as poor as the women on construction sites, who sometimes service scores of migrant workers a night for barely more than $1 per customer. Two years ago, when she worked in her native Shandong province, she charged $27 for a session.

By the time she came to Beijing last June, the market price for women like her was $20. With a couple of customers a day, she could make $1,350 a month, save most of her earnings and still send money home, she said. But now, because of increased competition from younger workers newly arrived from the countryside, her price has dropped to $13.

"I'm getting older," she said over a simple dinner of vegetables and spicy chicken in a Beijing suburb, a slim gold ring on each middle finger. "Though the price has gone down, the number of customers is up. I used to receive two visitors before, and now I have three to four a day. My income is the same, I just have to work a little harder."

No longer limited to well-known bars or a growing number of karaoke parlors, prostitutes are everywhere in China today, branching out onto college campuses, moving into private residential compounds and approaching customers on mobile phone networks.

Most are from the countryside: rural women placing all their hopes for the future in China's increasingly competitive urban centers. Some entering the trade are older than those in the past, and some are much younger. The changing demographics reflect the country's rapid economic growth and make a statement about the insatiable quest for money that permeates Chinese society.

"There was no open prostitution 25 years ago," said Jing Jun, a sociology and AIDS policy professor at Tsinghua University. "Fifteen years ago, you didn't find sex workers in remote areas and cities. But now it's prevalent in every city, every county."

Estimates of the number of prostitutes in China vary widely, from 1 million who earn their primary income from sex, to eight or 10 times that, including people who sometimes accept money, gifts or rent in exchange for sex. That the numbers have been allowed to increase illustrates the tricky relationship officials have with the ancient profession.

The Communist Party is embarrassed by the thriving trade, which goes against everything it stands for. Occasionally there are highly publicized crackdowns, and prostitutes are rounded up. But widespread prostitution does not exist without tacit police approval; the trade brings in money that helps support poor rural families and lines the pockets of everyone who helps protect the business -- often including local authorities.

Prostitution flourished in 14th-century China as wealthy Ming Dynasty officials visited mistresses, kept concubines, registered brothels and taxed courtesans. But by the late 1940s, Communists were campaigning against prostitutes -- along with other "socially unreliable" groups such as bandits, opium-smokers and adulterers -- by monitoring people's housing, hairstyles and makeup.

Though prostitution was officially outlawed after the Communist Party came to power in 1949, it was never truly stamped out.

Some experts say a complete evaporation of social values caused the explosion of the trade, and they cite the young sex workers who are in the business for easy money and fancy clothes. But the majority of prostitutes have violated old social mores out of desperation to help their families, Jing said, and an important change in perception may be underway.


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