Understanding a Chinese city: map out its sex trade

Ethnographer Tricia Wang, whom I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing in the past, describes herself as:

an ethnographer, sociologist, and researcher. I am passionate about demystifying the ways non-elite or edge communities (i.e. migrants, rural villagers, or informal workers) make use of digital tools in everyday life.

As part of her studies of city life, she writes an intriguing post about how she maps out a new city she visits with the help of local taxi drivers. One of her first steps in getting to know a new city, in this case Wuhan, struck me as novel:

One of the ways I map the city is to quickly figure out where people go to pay for sex and have sex. In China, the sex worker industry encompasses all economic levels. It’s a bit complex to figure out which hotels and karoke bars are for high-end clients to which ones are for every day citizens.

There are several levels where people pay for sex in most first to second tier Chinese cities:

1. super high end brothel (10,000RMB and up)
2. the mayor’s brothel (based off of conversations I estimate it to be around several thousand RMB)
3. the policeman’s brothel (based off of conversations I estimate it to be around 200-1000RMB)
4. the business person’s (200-1000RMB)
5. the citizen’s brothels (5-100RMB)
6. street walkers who charge around 20-50RMB – client pays for hotel

When the police do sweeps and arrest sex workers, only those who work in what I call the “citizen’s brothels” get arrested. Street walkers can be easily arrested anytime and they are the most vulnerable because most of the time they don’t work with the protection of an overseer.

Pity the poor streetwalkers, who work under the constant threat of being arrested at any moment. The low-end brothels are also in danger of raids, as they can’t pay the big bribes the higher-end establishments can. The latter often work in cahoots with the police, and are tipped off in advance when higher officials decide to do a major raid of local sex parlors.

Tricia’s field notes about how she mapped out the city of Wuhan with the help of a taxi driver and secretly observed a prostitute in action are intense and well worth a read. (I could blockquote them here, but better to read it on her site, with all the photos.) Great work.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China’s sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.