Bowie Lam
RNW Media/Bowie Lam

Sex work and the pleasure taboo

Empowering men and women in Hong Kong to enjoy sex and build healthy relationships
“Sex is seldom talked about in Hong Kong. Sex education at schools is limited to graphic images of sexually transmitted diseases and sexual pleasure is seen as a taboo, certainly for sex workers,” says Bowie Lam, 28, a sexual and reproductive health and rights activist based in Hong Kong.

Bowie runs an organisation called “Teen’s Key”, which provides a safe space for young female sex workers to share their stories, learn about sexual health in a positive way and even talk about pleasure.

“Some of these women don’t think of themselves as sex workers; they prefer to use the phrase ‘compensated dating’, as they spend time with their clients shopping, dining or going to the movies,” says Bowie. In her view, this attitude can put these women in serious danger.

No condoms
“The moment they see their clients as friends, they will start to trust them and may be more inclined to give in when negotiating condom use. The clients pay a little more and they don’t use condoms.”

Ironically, no condoms will spoil the fun for most sex workers. “If they can’t be sure that they won’t get pregnant, they can’t enjoy the sex. The girls who have a strong bargaining power are the ones who enjoy sex and their work”.

Another danger is that a girl’s intimate encounter with her ‘friend’ gets recorded by a hidden camera to blackmail her, Bowie adds. “Because they are very young, these girls cannot go to the police for help.”

Meeting at Teen's Key

Open source
Bowie has worked with over 3,000 young female sex workers in Hong Kong since she set up Teen’s Key in 2011. The organisation shares a similar approach and a number of key principles with RNW Media’s Love Matters project, which has a website in Chinese. It offers open, honest and positive information on sexuality so that young people can make important choices about their lives. And it uses pleasure as a hook to discuss sensitive subjects.

At Teen’s Key, young sex workers are able to talk about their experiences and express both their fears and joys. Bowie says that some young sex workers feel guilty after enjoying professional sex: “In one of our groups, one girl said that she had an orgasm with her client, and not with her boyfriend. This made her feel very guilty”.

Health concerns
The sexual rights activist has found that most girls are grappling with health concerns relating to sexually transmitted diseases, contraception and condom use. And with a wider, underlying problem: that of a culture where sex is out of bounds.

“We don’t even have a translation for sexual and reproductive rights,” Bowie sighs. “Mainstream Hong Kong media never speak about sexual pleasure when it comes to young women. It’s all about the problems; sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or pregnancies.”

Sex on the street
The media generally portray young people as ignorant and reckless, Bowie adds. A recent case where two young people were photographed having sex on the street at night sparked a public outrage.

“Nobody in the media addressed the underlying problem: that young people simply don’t have a space to have sex. They have to live with their parents until they have found a job.”

Bowie says the situation will only improve when sex and relationships are seen in a more positive light; as a source of happiness and health, based on equality. Young people in Hong Kong will benefit from a climate of trust, allowing them to engage in open, honest and non-judgmental conversations.

“Adolescents and young adults will find the answers to many of their questions amongst themselves, if they can talk openly about sex and pleasure. Peer-to-peer education is very good if young people have trust.”

Photographs courtesy of Bowie Lam. The story was written by Antón Castellanos Usigli, a sexual rights activist from Mexico who joined the RNW Media Love Matters delegation at the 22nd Congress of the World Association for Sexual Health (WAS) in Singapore in 2015. At the symposium, Love Matters explained the effectiveness of using the language of sexual pleasure in the communication of sexual health information.

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