There is no prostitution in China – The world’s oldest profession in the Middle Kingdom

Yesterday we looked at the spread of AIDS in China and the impact of having a limited understanding of the disease. Today I want to look at one of the major factors in the spread of the disease: prostitution.

Chinese friends are quick to point out that officially, prostitution is illegal but I’ve noticed that doesn’t seem to mean very much.

On virtually every trip I have taken in the middle kingdom I have been solicited, usually through phone calls to my hotel room. Even the small towns in Guangxi where I lived, with populations around 50-75,000, had something similar to red light districts. If you walk around in the evening almost anywhere in China off the main streets, you will see the faint pink glow of a brothel.

Like many problems in China, it’s not that they are doing something that is completely unheard of in other countries, they are just doing it on a very different scale. Visiting prostitutes is not stigmatized the same way it is in the US, and is even part of the business culture (similar to Japan and Korea). It is a rarely discussed social problem, but has very real implications when it comes to preventing the spread of disease (not to mention ending human trafficking and improving the status of women).

For thousands of years prostitution and polygamy were a part of Chinese culture, and it’s only in the past 90 years that these values have even been challenged. In modern China visiting prostitutes and having a mistress (in some situations) is seen as a marker of status, much as it was in the past.  In fact 二奶 (ernai) was used in the past to mean second wife and is now used to mean mistress.

UNAIDS has also suggested that migrant worker populations are more at risk for AIDS because they often leave their wives behind in the countryside and visit prostitutes in the cities. Due to the highly mobile nature of this group, AIDS is a risk in even some of the most remote villages. Men from every level of society frequent brothels, and yet it is only the women who are looked down upon.

The topic of prostitution is so taboo that I even found it difficult to discuss the issue with an AIDS activist. This is roughly what happened when I brought up prostitution at a conference near Ningming, which a Chinese friend told me was “famous for hookers.”

Me: What role do you think prostitution plays in the spread of AIDS? And why do local governments allow prostitution to flourish?

Activist: How do you know there is prostitution? The local governments don’t allow it.

Me: There are several shops with pink lights at night that sell no products and feature several bored looking women on couches next to posters of half-naked couples embracing. I think these are brothels.

Activist: How can you say though for sure?

Me: It just seems to me that if it is this obvious to a foreigner, shouldn’t the police be able to control it? I mean, I see soldiers walk in and out of the pink shop all evening.

Activist: If the local gov’t knew it was there, they would stop it.

A few days later I received a call from the conference leader warning me that I should never have accused soldiers of visiting prostitutes, and that they were very respected in China because of their efforts in rescuing survivors of the Sichuan Earthquake (even though these soldiers had nothing to do with that). While I had never intended to besmirch the reputation of the PLA, my point was simply that soldiers regardless of the country they work for, have a certain reputation for visiting prostitutes (look at Thailand and the Philippines before and after the Vietnam War).

On a number of occasions I have tried to discuss prostitution with Chinese friends and been told that it does not exist. Somehow they think that foreigners won’t notice the pink lights and calls for “massage” in the middle of the night. The message behind the denial is that Chinese people are far too moral to visit such institutions.

After my experiences, the lesson I’ve learned is that by China maintaining the facade of a “traditional” culture with “traditional” values they ignore the reality of China’s past and present and trump the importance of public health.

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About T

I have been working in China for nearly five years now. I have traveled to more than 30 cities and towns, and have lived in 3 provinces. I am interested in issues concerning development in China and the rest of the world. I hope to provide a balanced look at some of the issues facing China as it continues its rise to power.
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23 Responses to There is no prostitution in China – The world’s oldest profession in the Middle Kingdom

  1. C. Custer says:

    This is interesting to me, because I haven’t personally come across the denial phenomenon much. Perhaps it’s just because I have sluttier friends, but most of them not only don’t deny it exists, but seem to take great pleasure in pointing out to me the various barbershops and KTV parlors that are basically just brothels (or so they claim).

    It does seem kind of foolish to deny something so obvious, though. Even here in our apartment in Beijing (where I live with my wife) we get prostitute cards (collect ‘em all!) posted on or shoved under our door on a pretty regular basis. Or rather, “massage” cards with pictures of women in bikinis offering 24-hour service in the comfort of your own home…..

    • Tom says:

      Interesting, perhaps that’s more of an urban rural divide than a slutty friend difference. Not everyone in the countryside denied that they existed, but for the most part they did try to cover up the fact that they weren’t really hair dressers.

  2. sinostand says:

    What? Some people just like to get massages or haircuts in the middle of the night from women in lingerie and fishnet stalkings in the back room in 10 minutes or less. Don’t be so quick to jump to conclusions here.

  3. Hugh Grigg says:

    I really am surprised that even an AIDS activist, who presumably would be interested in being frank and open, still denied even the existence of prostitution.

    It also sounds like that kind of non-denial that seems to crop in China when something is “not convenient”. The issue never gets directly refuted or refused, just questioned or circumvented enough to avoid actually commenting on it.

  4. I’m sorry but this is a hopelessly naive article.

    Everyone in China knows what is going on. They may not be willing to discuss it with a nosy, insensitive foreigner, though.

    And are you seriously saying that no soldiers rescued survivors in Sichuan in 2008?

    • Tom says:

      I’m saying that the soldiers I saw visiting the brothel in rural Guangxi were probably not the ones rescuing people in Sichuan.

      I’m sorry you didn’t like this post, is there something you would like to add about prostitution in China?

      • OK. I accept that perhaps the particular soldiers you saw may or may not have been in Sichuan in 2008, but that is something you don’t know, either, or you wouldn’t have qualified it with “probably” , “Possibly” might have been better. Purely a guess.

        But surely you realise that the military in any country tends to defend itself as a homogeneous entity. I don’t think they should, but they do, and American people’s defence of their military is just as nationalistic and stupid.

        I suggest you take your article and change every reference to Chinese people to American people and vice versa, then read it and see how you feel about it. Then ask yourself how you would react if some Chinese people turned up outside your local home town brothel (don’t tell me there isn’t one) demanding to know why the government weren’t doing anything about it.

        Of course there is rampant prostitution in China. I have written it about it often. But there is in the US and everywhere else , too.

      • Tom says:

        In my article I did acknowledge this fact “Like many problems in China, it’s not that they are doing something that is completely unheard of in other countries, they are just doing it on a very different scale.” I come from a town in Indiana with a population of 50,000, roughly the same size as the one in Guangxi. While I cannot say with absolute certainty that there is no prostitution in the town, I did live there for 5 years without being propositioned a single time. In China the visibility of the industry is more surprising than the fact it exists. I believe this would be true for virtually every town this size in the US.

        However in American cities there is prostitution and in some cases brothels, nobody is denying that. But the attitude towards prostitution very different.

        As for the military, I also acknowledged the effects of US soldiers visiting prostitutes in Thailand and the Philippines during the Vietnam war, and how it created a sex industry that is still booming 40 years later.

        I can also say that the soldiers who were visiting prostitutes in my town probably did not assist with rescue efforts after the Sichuan Earthquake for one important reason, I lived very close to the boarder with Vietnam, and so the soldiers were occupying something of a defensive position. Roughly 2% of China’s active troops were deployed in the rescue efforts, and I’m assuming most of those were already in the area so that they could respond quickly to the disaster. I’m applying the same standard here that I would in the US. If you saw a firefighter in Indianapolis visiting a prostitute, would you be told to ignore his behavior, because firefighters did a lot of great things on 9/11?

  5. FrankL says:

    I was solicited on Wangfujing dajie one night. I was sitting on a bench waiting for my wife who was in the souvenir shop for some time. I was looking rather bored. I didn’t have to go looking for it. It came to me. Also should mention i come from Chinese parents, so they seemed to think i was a local at first.

  6. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Even I was “solicited” for a night massage at my hotel when I was staying in Chengde, near Beijing. They could not tell if I was male or female from my name and hung up when I spoke! I had a good laugh, but honestly, it’s only happened to me in China and I have lived in a few different countries over the past half century (never lived in Japan or Korea but remember the “hairdressers” establishments in Singapore when I lived there). Interesting and informative two Posts, Tom.

  7. kingtubby1 says:

    China in reality spends about 4.3% of GDP on health care, which is below the 6% of GDP generated by its sex industry. The latter figure is footnote 30 taken from this dense ARTICLE.
    Taken from my site.
    The ARTICLE
    “Numbers range all over the board, from the official estimates one sees from time to time of 3 million prostitutes nationwide, to U.S. State Department reports that have placed the figure at 10 million, to a Chinese economist, Yang Fan, who has estimated there are 20 million sex workers in the country, accounting for fully 6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.”
    Howard French. Letter from China. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/14/world/asia/14iht-letter.3901844.html

  8. Okay, guys, whatever some of us might think about the size of prostitution is in China, I tell you it could be HUGE, judging from my own experience. I sometimes get solicitations HERE in Hong Kong by PHONE CALL from across the border – and I’ve never used my Hong Kong phone number outside of Hong Kong. Plus, I’ve never even travelled to the mainland before!

    I’ve only ever been personally solicited 2.5 times in my life. The first “1″ time was by a Polish girl in London and she looked in a pretty sorry state. The second “1″ time was in Hong Kong by a dishy mainland woman a full 5 inches taller and 20 lbs heftier than me who gave up the ghost because I couldn’t speak Mandarin. The “0.5″ time was in Hungary and I wasn’t sure if the two chicks were soliciting or just being plain friendly to me. I’m pretty sure the phone calls from China were solicitations because because they were pretty to the point in pitch-perfect Cantonese. The phone calls also stated they do ‘home catering services’ – whatever the hell that means!

  9. Sasha says:

    DENIAL!!! That word pretty much sums up everything that is ‘off’ in Chinese society. It’s one thing that really frustrates me about China is public denial of things, people always will deny that ‘negative’ things are going on even if they know otherwise. The problem with denial is that it leads to public ignorance and public ignorance leads to large scale social problems.

    In Shanghai prostitution is a big problem and it’s clear as daylight. No matter what bars or clubs you go the prostitutes are right there in your face! Not at all inconspicuous even soliciting ‘clients’ right in front of the security guards and police and let me tell you they do not care! In fact I’ve heard of police even laughing at foreign guys who have run into trouble with prostitutes even telling them if you want her to go away just pay her. Also considering many hotels have warning signs implying that you should stay away from prostitution proves that it’s a problem.

    I find it crazy even despite how denial is so embedded into the culture that people would so openly try and deny the existence of prostitution in China. Considering it’s role in Chinese history, considering the role in the history in man kind that it continues to play today, surely denying it just makes you look ignorant and backwards!

  10. Prostitution is rampant in China for two reasons: 1) Money – the police/mafia collect up to 50% of proceeds earned from KTVs, brothels, pimps. etc. and the rest is divied up by the KTV establishments, the mama sans, and the hookers; 2) It is a thriving business for pretty girls who don’t have an education or for those who know they can make more money selling their body than by using their brain to earn a living. A very popular phrase in China goes like this: “It is better to be a whore than poor.” It goes without saying that the CCP does nothing to stop prostitution otherwise it would be absent from its society, just like guns and drugs are.

    I have been told by foreigners living here for many years that all of China is a “red light” district, and after living here for over 5 years myself and having traveled to most all major cities in China, I agree with them 100%. So, anyone who tells you that prostitution doesn’t exist in China because it is illegal or immoral is uninformed and ignorant. I think it’s important that you continue to post stories about your experience with the Chinese so that more people reading your blog become more aware and are encouraged to help others understand the importance of getting and following proper advice on matters of sexual activity and its related diseases.

  11. M says:

    nothing really surprising that brainwashed people will try to deny any prostitution even when is part of chinese culture and they will accuse foreigners to be spoiled, while prostitution industry here is much bigger here with massage studios or KTVs on every corner

    the funny thing about them is that even people working in these places will try to convince you they are not offering this kind of services even when they are open in night and you must be brought by some chinese/taxidriver they know or it must be really slutty place when it would be real joke trying to tell you they don’t offer these services.

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  15. Pudding says:

    I wonder if there is another reason that prostitution is all over.

    China is pretty much still traditional. You can’t have “casual” relations. I know that is changing in the big cities but overall for the most part you don’t have sex with just anyone. I am going to guess from what I have seen, heard, and experienced, that you are not to engage in relations until you have a boy/girlfriend and that means you are committed. One night stands are out the window for the most part. Couple that with the fact that, guys just want to have sex, again, generally, then you get the much easier solution then trying to find a girlfriend, committed relationship, and the trouble it creates with you have to break up, so on and so fourth.

    Girl friends and wives are expensive. They are emotionally attached. It’s a whole lot of mess when you break up. So what better way to get sex then just pay someone that only wants to give you sex. No hassle. This is pretty much what the Chinese and Taiwanese people know say. The ones that talk about this at least.

    So girls, being super traditional, and crazy after a break up, have drove men to seek sex else where for less effort.

    The USA would be the opposite. Yes there is prostitution, but less than here in China. One night stands are more prevalent, thus you can find sex with girls that just want sex and for free.

  16. jesse says:

    I have been In Beijing and Shanghi and stayed a nice hotels and been to bars and NEVER
    have been propositioned….I am nice looking man …….where are these Whores …I’m missing out…

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