The sex trade in China

I am a few days late to this, and the story’s already been linked to by several Asian bloggers, but I just read it for myself and I have to say something.

Sometimes a blogger does such an astoundingly thorough and brilliant job covering a complex and difficult topic that we all have to turn to him and say Thank You. That’s the case with Andres Gentry’s remarkable piece on prostitution in China, one of the most thorough, intelligent, best-researched and fascinating posts you will ever read about this topic.

It is simply unprecedented in its exhaustiveness. And it’s a true eye-opener. I had no idea just how many women in China are involved in prostitution. Sure, I knew it was a high number, but Andres’ equations indicating the percentages are astounding. No sense paraphrasing and quoting — just go there. A masterpiece.

The Discussion: 9 Comments

One of the first things Xiufen told me when we got here is “watch out for bad girls….they are everywhere”. And it’s not new. She’s from the Northeast, Jilin Province, and it’s been widespread there for at least 15 years.

Here in Shenzhen, there are so many sophisticated (relatively) girls who look healthy and upbeat, I’m never sure if the friendly ones are just trying to practice their English or pick me up.

September 13, 2004 @ 1:02 am | Comment

The proximity of this post to your last one-on AIDS-is interesting. Your question as to whether or not China will become the next Africa is, I think, answered in this article. As the article observes, 25% of men “avail themselves of prostitutes for sexual pleasures over the course of a single year,” while 3-6% of the female population has, most likely, been employed as a sex worker at some point in their lives. In my little suburb of Shanghai, there were about ten brothels in a two block area–and this was a relatively affluent area. While confronting AIDS may eventually lead to more government openness, it seems that an epidemic health crisis will take place long before that happens. When you consider all of the other potential problems in China in the coming years–including the significantly unbalanced sex ratio, the potential for economic bust, and a very possible war with the US over Taiwan–China is in for one hell of a century.

September 13, 2004 @ 10:28 am | Comment

I don’t believe aids will ravage China as much as it is feared to. If anything a quasi-totalitarian authoritative country can certainly affect dramatic change if neccessary. I’m just counting down the days until aids becomes prominent enough in the society (a long ways down the list behind the economy and politics) that a “People’s Patriotic War against Bourgeois Western Venereal Diseases” is declared.

September 13, 2004 @ 10:40 am | Comment

But in fairness, Kevin, China is finally initiating a massive education / awareness campaign that could make a huge difference, the way it did in Thailand.

Jing says, incredibly, that China’s being a quasi-totalitarian state means they can better control AIDS, when just the opposite is true. The only thing proven to stem the epidemic is openness, tolerance, education, transparency, letting go of old phobias, superstitions and taboos, and making the people feel they will not be threatened if they seek help. Tragically, these run diametrically counter to the strategy China undertook in the 80s and 90s. (See my essay on AIDS for the details.) Now that they are finally opening up dialogue and reducing the stigmatization they themselves encouraged, there is hope. Too bad it took 20 years, the threat of true catastrophe, and the instigation of outsiders like Bill Clinton and Dr. David Ho to turn the CCP around on this.

September 13, 2004 @ 8:29 pm | Comment

Richard, I usually find your “must-read” links well-worth pursuing, but I have to admit I felt you let us down this time.

Andres has some good observations (mixed in with his unwarranted assumptions and shaky conclusions), but he unfortunately tries to support them with figures he arrives at through sometimes laughable means. Then he combines speculation with guestimates, and rolls them up into breathtaking figures of no substance at all.

For example, based on the number of purple light bulbs he counted in his provincial town, he directly concludes that nationally, over 5% of China’s GDP is spent on prostitution! This is your idea of “best-researched”?

In coming up with his surprising claim that 25% of Chinese men patronize prostitutes, his figures appear to assume that each customer patronizes only one prostitute (i.e. he assumes ten prostitutes with ten annual customers implies 100 patrons, when it could just as well be twenty patrons having five visits each). This reasoning seems quite at odds with the reality of the China I live in, yet you refer to it as “thorough” and “intelligent”.

The danger of playing so fast and loose with numbers is that in this medium, through quotation and repetition they tend to take on an unwarranted level of authority. Just look a few posts above mine for an example (“As the article observes, 25% of men ‘avail themselves of prostitutes for sexual pleasures over the course of a single year’ “). Someone who didn’t take the time to check the original article may not realize that, whatever his intentions, Andres is basically pulling numbers from his nether regions. And by referring us to the article in such glowing terms, you have added to the authority of its often completely bogus claims.

But the problems extend beyond creative statistics. At times he appears to be a bit disingenuous. In his town, does one hour with a prostitute *really* cost the same as a refrigerator or a motorbike? If so, that’s a difference of something like two orders of magnitude compared with Shanghai. No wonder you call his figures “astounding”.

Or consider assertions such as “money spent on the sex trade simply disappears” without contributing to China’s economy. It doesn’t disappear at all, it goes into the pockets of sex trade workers and others, who presumably spend most of it in the local economy.

Personally, I also had a hard time with some of Andres’ pontifications, for example when he complains about people spending money on “momentary physical satisfaction” (guess he also disproves of restaurants), or speaks melodramatically of “horribly transfigured psyches”.

I was also disappointed that an essay “simply unprecedented in its exhaustiveness” would completely fail to consider the role played by China’s male-female gender imbalance, and that an article which mentions “gender inequality” five times makes not a single mention of male prostitution (much more prevalent in China than the west).

Richard, next time you refer us to a post using terms like “masterpiece” and an “astoundingly thorough and brilliant job”, I hope you will read it a little more closely first.

September 14, 2004 @ 6:39 pm | Comment

Sorry to disappoint you. I was impressed with the scope of what he did and thought it was well worth reading. I appreciate your observations, and I don’t agree with all of Andres’ points. But I was impressed with his work; I’ll keep your points in mind the next time I make a recommentdation.

September 14, 2004 @ 7:06 pm | Comment

I don’t understand why this post would not be available in China! Is there any other place I can read it?

September 14, 2004 @ 9:38 pm | Comment

I believe it will soon be posted on Living in China.

September 14, 2004 @ 9:39 pm | Comment

Well….I bought the dogfood until the assumption was made that the sample populace was age 15-64 for women involved in the sex trade. hmmmm…perhaps…but given the abundance of supply it seems it would be a buyers market so this wide age group is called into question. I propose the target age group should be listed as 12-35. Who wants to shell out a twenty to shag grandma?

April 5, 2005 @ 9:48 pm | Comment

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