Chinese sexologist sparks debate on 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.

China’s mainstream TV channels are prudish about sex, thanks to official censorship. But this doesn’t mean sex isn’t talked about – just that the discussion goes online! Via internet, the Chinese can also access films and shows nowhere to be found on TV.

Yinhe Li, a prominent Chinese Professor, sexologist and activist, recently posted a review of the British TV series Secret Diary of a Call Girl on the Love Matters blog of RNW’s China Desk. The article attracted almost half a million views and hundreds  of reactions.

Sex work illegal
The series is based on the diary of a sex worker in London and the article, compares Chinese sex workers and their British counterpart in terms of legal status, social stigmatisation and personal happiness. In China, as Li points out in “Are sex workers happy with their job?” prostitution is illegal and sex workers are forced underground. If caught, sex workers are fined or jailed. Soliciting and loitering for the purposes of prostitution carry even heavier sentences, including the death penalty.

The ban on prostitution also makes sex workers vulnerable to criminal syndicates. Sex workers can’t rely on the police or legal system for protection so they turn to criminal gangs. But there is no guarantee of their personal safety and the syndicates in turn abuse and exploit sex workers.

Immoral earnings
Li observes that sexual workers in the series are in a much better situation than their Chinese sisters who earn low wages in a dire working environment. It’s not illegal to sell sexual services in Britain and prostitutes are protected by law. There is no doubt, declares Li that British legislation is way ahead of that in China.

Not only legislation in China lags behind but also social attitudes, Li continues. In Secret Diary of a Call Girl the protagonist Belle insists that prostitution is hard work, requiring skill whereas many Chinese believe it’s easy money and hence immoral. Prostitution can also have social benefits, providing sexual services for the disabled for instance.

Finally, Li asks whether prostitutes can be satisfied by their work. She concludes that it is possible if women choose the profession voluntarily and are not subject to abuse and exploitation. If she is happy with her profession as Belle is, then it is her right to choose to work in the sex industry.

Lively debate
Although there are discussions on prostitution in China and there have been calls for it to be decriminalised, no-one asks what prostitutes themselves think or whether they enjoy their work. Sex workers are invisible in the mainstream media, and it is often assumed that a woman chooses prostitution because she has no other means to make a living. Sex workers are usually portrayed as immoral, lazy and unskilled so it’s not surprising that Yinhe Li’s column sparked heated debate on the internet.

Li’s supporters praised her for speaking-up for sex workers and shedding a different light on this controversial topic. Some netizens noted that gender imbalance is growing in China, especially among immigrant workers. It is reported that the sex ratio at birth has climbed to an alarming 120 males born for every 100 females in recent years. It is a human right to have sex and prostitution can offer a solution to China’s staggering gender imbalance, as long as prostitutes and their clients don’t harm others.

Social collapse
But there are also plenty of critical reactions and even posts attacking and insulting Li. In addition to the prevalent view that prostitution is immoral, many netizens claim that legalising prostitution would lead to social instability and the collapse of traditional values. Some also criticise Li for taking a TV series as a realistic depiction of the British sex industry. Social critiques should be based on solid research, not artistic representations says one commentator.

Others are ambivalent: they agree that decriminalising prostitution may have positive effects, but doubt whether China is ready to adopt the British system.