“China can’t duck the issue of prostitution”

RNW archive

This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

RNW’s Love Matters project is dedicated to issues around sexual rights. It aims to take an open, honest and non-judgemental “Dutch” approach to sex and sexuality.

There are various grass roots organisations active in China dealing with sexual health and the rights of sexual minorities, but there’s little attention for such issues in the mainstream media. RNW’s China desk maintains a blog focusing on Love Matters topics. This recent article on prostitution by prominent Chinese Professor and sexologist Li Yinhe attracted almost 700,000 views and hundreds of reactions and shares.

“China can’t duck the issue of prostitution”
Three decades after China began to introduce reforms and open up, prostitution has become rampant. It’s become an issue that Chinese society will have to tackle, say some Chinese sociologists. Here are five proposals to solve the problems relating to prostitution, and a discussion of the pros and cons of each proposal.

1. Introducing legislation to criminalise and stamp out prostitution. This policy is destined to fail simply because, among other reasons, there aren’t enough police officers in the country to enforce the law. The legislation would cause social ills even more serious than prostitution itself. History has shown that it’s impossible to stamp out prostitution. If the law were to be tabled, it would violate people’s privacy and ignore their physiological needs and desires.

2. Partially criminalising prostitution, for instance, by making it an offence to solicit and loiter for the purpose of prostitution. This is the current practice in Great Britain, but it allows some prostitutes and their customers to get away with the law. So this legislation would be biased when laws should apply to everyone.

3. Legalising and regulating prostitution. The main argument in favour of this is to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. But legalising prostitution does not help curb the spread of STDs. Furthermore, it would lead to other problems, such as making prostitution a legalised industry, turning many short-term sex workers into long-term employees. Also, the law would grant too much power to the police. Since they would issue licenses, they could prevent women from changing professions and blackmail them if they tried to do so.

4. Establishing “red light districts” to make it easier for the police to control prostitutes. There are two downsides to this policy. First of all, residents would protest against the establishment of a red light district in their neighbour rhood. Secondly, if prostitution were controlled by the police in certain areas, illegal prostitution would move to other areas. This would lead to a chaotic situation in which prostitution would be legal in certain areas and illegal in others.

5. Decriminalising consensual sexual activities between adults, regardless of whether money is involved or not. The advantage of this policy is that the police could focus on fighting other types of crimes, rather than wasting time and energy on dealing with prostitution. They could find their customers in massage salons, adult bookshops and brothels. They could also start sex clubs, making it easier for customers to find them.

Generally speaking, the fifth option is the best one by far. Decriminalising prostitution would mean accepting a reality that many people, particularly conservatives, would like to deny. Free and consensual sexual relationships are obviously the ideal, but in reality there are many paid and involuntary sexual relationships between the sexes. In these relationships, women play the following three roles.

Type 1: Prostitute. She sustains a short-term relationship of exchange with clients, without marrying her clients.

Type 2: Concubine. She does not have a source of income and is therefore economically dependent on the man with whom she has a sexual relationship. She is not married to him.

Type 3: Wife. She does not have a source of income and is dependent on the man economically. She is married to the man.

There is no fundamental difference between the three types of women. Therefore, it would be illogical and even unjust to punish one or two of the three types. Nobody in their right mind would think wives who are dependent on their husband should be prosecuted. Following the same reasoning, the other two types should also not be prosecuted.

Moral choice
Society tends to believes that only free and consensual sexual relationships are morally just. However, people are free to live according to their own moral standards. If people choose to have an immoral lifestyle, they should not be punished by the law, regardless of how morally wrong they might be. The fundamental principle of modern legislation is that laws should not be based on the moral standards of a minority. As long as an individual’s immoral acts do not do harm other people, he or she should not be subject to prosecution.

The only effective means to curb the problems associated with prostitution is the increasing emancipation of women and to make prostitution socially unacceptable rather than criminal. To conclude, we should not duck the issue of prostitution and the people involved. We should approach the issue in a systematic fashion to find a comprehensive solution.