Policing prostitution in China

Map of China filled with a picture of a prostitute in a doorwayJournalism student Lin Ma talks to researcher Elaine Jeffreys and uncovers the many contradictions in China’s dealings with prostitution and the rising threat of HIV/AIDS.

While studying in China in 1993, Elaine Jeffreys befriended a young Chinese woman working as a hostess in a karaoke bar. It wasn’t long though before the woman’s casual evening job turned into something more.

“When she started it was a very simple clear-cut job about providing drinks and being nice,” says Jeffreys, who is now a professor at UTS’s China Research Centre (CRC). “But within the space of a year there was an assumption that there’d be sexual transactions as well.”

The experience prompted Jeffreys’s lifelong interest in prostitution governance, scandals and sexuality in China. At the CRC, she is now at the forefront of generating conversation about China’s burgeoning sexual revolution. As for the Chinese hostess, Jeffreys has not heard from her since they met 17 years ago.

Despite the controversial nature of her research, Jeffreys says matter-of-factly that she has had no trouble with the Chinese government. In fact, she recently attended a sexuality conference in China, along with other academics, to discuss the proliferation of the sex industry since China opened up its economic doors in the 1980s – not to mention the health and societal repercussions rippling across the nation.

“The introduction of economic reform in China has meant the introduction of labour mobility,” Jeffreys says. “With people moving around, society is less restricted… And things that used to be uncommon, like premarital sex, are now no big deal.

“So China’s social change is fascinating. But [with prostitution] I was really interested in how they govern something like sexuality, which many people consider to be private.”

Up until now, the state had always turned a blind eye to the booming prostitution industry. That’s not to say the police haven’t cracked down on illegal brothels and arrested workers. They have. They’ve even paraded the culprits in public arenas for all to see. Still, their method has been largely out of sight, out of mind.

But decades of wishing it away had led to an even greater problem than the industry itself: the widespread increase of sexually transmitted diseases. It is one thing to pretend prostitution no longer existed since its outlawing in the 50s, but it is a lot harder to ignore a serious outbreak of HIV/AIDS.

“There’s a lot of talk around HIV/AIDS because sexual transmission has just overtaken intravenous drug use as the main mode of transmission in China,” says Jeffreys.

In an attempt to combat the spread of disease, the government now runs community sexual education programs, or ‘Working Girl’ training classes, in some parts of the country.

Through face-to-face classes, and even by distributing cartoon brochures in nightclubs, the government is urging sex workers to use condoms and contraception. “Which would seem like a huge contradiction,” says Jeffreys, laughing. “Their job is to crack down, but there they are, busy helping.

“But HIV is a matter of life and death and that is more important than cracking down.” Jeffreys says her research is not about making policy recommendations, as such. Instead, it highlights the (sometimes humorous) contradictions in Chinese government policies and argues for a more nuanced look at China.

“I guess the research will expose the complexity of debates on prostitution in China, and show that it’s not just a straightforward ‘no’,” she says. “There are a huge range of debates in China, and around all different issues ranging from forced prostitution, through to voluntary prostitution in high-class venues, to male-male prostitution, which is increasing in China, to child prostitution – you name it.

“That’s one of the interesting things about looking at a subject like prostitution. If you look at it broadly enough, it really tells you about how government operates in China – that it’s a lot more open to change, it’s a lot more flexible and it’s a lot more pragmatic than people believe.” 

Words: Lin Ma
Images: iStockPhoto.com/Annedde