NGO report reveals why women choose to work in the sex trade

By Phoenix Weekly – Global Times Source:Global Times Published: 2015-3-17 20:38:16

An alleged sex worker squats in a hotel in Dongguan, Guangdong Province during a police operation aimed at cracking down on prostitution on February 9, 2014. Photo: IC

When asked how her life has been changed by her involvement in the sex industry, Xiao Mei (pseudonym) said that being a sex worker has given her an insight into men's respect and tenderness for women.

 "When I first heard a man call me babe, I was really touched," said Xiao Mei, according to Phoenix Weekly.

Another sex worker named Xiao Qi (pseudonym) also thanked providence for leading her to an "honest, gentle" client from Henan Province in 2010. "He treated me very well. Staying together with him, I felt I was cherished and was very grateful for having met such a good lover," said Xiao Qi. 

The above quotes were taken from a report released by a Tianjin-based NGO, the Xin'ai Female Sex Workers' Home. The report was conducted by the sex workers themselves to look at the reasons why rural women born in the 1970s became sex workers, what changes being a sex worker has brought to them and what factors motivated them to stay in this industry.

Lanlan (pseudonym), the founder of the NGO who herself used to be a sex worker, told Phoenix Weekly that many people think that all female sex workers are the victims of coercion and that they need to be rescued. "However, the fact is that you do not know them at all." 

By interviewing 37 rural women, including 21 sex workers and 16 women working in Tianjin but who are not in the sex trade, the report describes the lives of migrant workers who later became sex workers in cities and aims to help the public understand why these women choose to do what they do.

Why become sex workers?

The report found that all the women had similar childhood experiences, educational backgrounds, and reasons why they chose to come to the cities regardless of whether they now work in the sex trade or not.

Most of the sex workers interviewed worked in low-level venues such as massage parlors, fake hair salons and bathhouses. Their target clients were low-income or migrant workers and the cost of the services ranged between 30 yuan ($4.80) to 100 for each.

The non-sex workers were mainly street vendors or factory workers.

After recording their family backgrounds, economic conditions, employment situations and what government benefits they received, the report said that the two groups were both born into the bottom level of society. They have experienced the fading of the rural economy and witnessed their peers prosper in big cities. Poverty motivated them to flood into bigger cities to seek better lives, but their expectations and reality did not match up. 

When asked about what their opinions had been of sex workers before they came to Tianjin, both groups said they had similar thoughts about such women. Some of them said that they used to look down upon sex workers and "would rather be so poor that I don't have food to eat than be a sex worker" or "felt angry about sex workers in their hometown and regarded them as beasts," while some said they were envious about the money sex workers could earn.

However, there was one clear way in which the sex workers were different from the women who worked in factories or on the street. "Sex workers usually lack support from their families. They were either divorced or formed the backbone of their family," said Lanlan.

The report said that an absence of family support or being trapped in an unhappy marriage drove many of them to enter into the industry.

Half of the sex workers interviewed said they had been divorced or were widows. And most of these women experienced high levels of poverty and had to cope with the pressure of having to raise their children alone.

Although both the sex workers and the women working in other industries face heavy economic burdens, the non-sex workers could rely on their family members to support them, while sex workers often found themselves having to support their whole family by their own.

Why stay in this industry?

Although Xiao Qi still works in the sex industry, she admitted that she hopes to find a different job in the future.

However, what makes women reluctant to leave this industry? Even though many people think that the main reason is that uneducated women can earn more money in the sex trade than by working other jobs, the reality is not that simple.

While many sex workers said that they have to stay in the industry due to their poor educational background, lack of professional training and government benefits, others said that they have seen the positive impact working in this industry has had on their lives. For example, earning larger amounts of money could enable them to gain a higher status in their family.

"Previously, my husband always kept a close eye on his wallet and would complain when I tried to give money to my parents. Now, I call the shots and do not need to report to him before giving them money," said Xiao Mei.

Compared with those working in other industries surveyed, sex workers said that they paid more attention to their bodies, health, self image, emotions and sexual desires than before.

They said that being sex workers helped them enjoy a higher standard of living and better deal with interpersonal relationships.

Pan Suiming, a professor with Renmin University of China and one of China's leading sexologists, said that although Xin'ai's report was based on a limited number of samples, the biggest significance of it is that it was composed by sex workers themselves and their voices could better represent this group than studies done by outsiders, according to Phoenix Weekly.

Fang Gang, director of the Institute of Gender and Psychology at Beijing Forestry University, told the Global Times that more efforts could be made to help sex workers.

For example, the government could invest money in NGOs to provide them with professional training, employment opportunities and sex education and teach them how to prevent and control diseases, he said.

"Rooting out this trade could not be accomplished in a short time. China should not regard sex workers as a despicable group, but needs to enhance punishments for those who visit prostitutes," said Fang.

Fang also suggests authorities make efforts to improve the social welfare system and provide basic living conditions for those with low incomes.

Newspaper headline: Sex workers speak

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