Sex workers in China failed by the state and society

14 May 2013

The sex industry in China has grown rapidly over the last two decades and there are now an estimated four to six million sex workers in the country. However, they are all too often demonised by society as immoral and diseased. They are abused by clients and police alike and subject to arbitrary fines and detention for up to two years.

A new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), out today, calls on the Chinese government to rectify these abuses by formally de-criminalizing adult, voluntary and consensual sex work and supporting the development of civil society organizations that address the needs of sex workers throughout the country.

“In China, the police often act as if by engaging in sex work, women had forfeited their rights,” said HRW China Director Sophie Richardson, “The government must abandon its repressive laws against sex workers, discipline abusive police, and end the suppression of sex workers rights advocates.”

The HRW report, based on 140 interviews with sex workers, clients, police, public health officials and NGO workers mainly in Beijing, showed that the main concern of sex workers was client violence and the failure of the police to take any action. Indeed in December last year, a coalition of Chinese sex-worker organizations published an unprecedented petition denouncing the failure of the police to protect sex workers who were victims of crime. There are now several non-government organizations (NGOs) in China that support sex workers but their activities are tightly controlled and constrained by the authorities. These civil society groups perform a vital service and HRW stresses that they must be allowed to develop and flourish.

Periodic police crackdowns on prostitution are another major concern. During raids on hair salons, massage parlours and other sex work locations, workers are often beaten, detained and fined by the police. Participants at a roundtable discussion on sex work in China organised by HRW in Hong Kong on 13 May pointed out further that fines are now by far the most common punishment used by local police because this helps to boost their revenues. However fines can also force sex workers to borrow money from their brothel owner, which in turn forces them into a position of indentured labour.

Current state policies also violate sex workers’ rights to health and privacy, the report said.  Sex workers interviewed by HRW described how they were subject to forced HIV/AIDS testing and how the results of those tests were routinely disclosed to third parties. The attitude of health officials discourages many sex workers from getting tested or seeking treatment, especially if those health officials work closely with the local police.

HRW’s Sophie Richardson pointed out: “Abuses by law-enforcement agencies deter sex workers from seeking help from the police when they are victims of crime or from public health services when they are in need of assistance. This makes them more vulnerable to abuses and exploitation. If China is serious about protecting and promoting women’s rights, it cannot ignore the millions of women who engage in sex work.”

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