Sex workers in Wuhan vulnerable and exploited

Young, poorly educated sex workers in the central Chinese city of Wuhan are routinely abused by clients but have little or no recourse to justice. Most do not trust the police and the vast majority (about 80 percent) have no knowledge of their legal or civil rights, according to a recently published survey.

Researchers from Wuhan University interviewed 300 low-end sex workers, mainly employed in small-scale hair salons and saunas in the city’s red light district, and found that around half had been the victims of crime, with clients usually stealing money or mobile phones. Most “leisure” (休闲) establishments in Wuhan had a “pay first” policy but, nevertheless, 37 percent of the interviewees said they had been cheated by their clients.

Over half the respondents said they had been verbally abused by clients, while 20 percent had been beaten or physically abused, and small number were even raped or abducted while working.

For the majority of sex workers, their only recourse in these situations was to go to their boss or their boyfriend for help, but in the majority of cases there was little the boss could do. Only 26 percent of respondents said they would definitely report an abusive client to the police, 37 percent said they would not go to the police, while the remaining 37 percent were ambivalent. Two thirds (64 percent) of the respondents said they’d never had any dealings with the police, and over half thought the police were of no help, while 16 percent considered the police to be a hindrance. Only one third (31 percent) thought the police could provide any help.

The majority (56 percent) of the 300 interviewees were aged between 18 and 25 years, 12 percent were younger than 18-years-old, while 15 percent were over 30 years of age. Most (62 percent) only had a middle school education at best, 21 percent had been to high school, and 16 percent had attended technical high school, while only one interviewee had been to university.

The survey indicated that many sex workers were driven by poverty in rural areas in Hubei and neighbouring provinces to come to Wuhan in search of work. However, their lack of education meant they could not find any better jobs in the city. About half (51.8 percent) had been working the sex industry for less than a year, and the vast majority regularly moved from salon to salon in search of better conditions. Only three percent of those interviewed had been in the industry for more than three years.

The vast majority worked irregular hours, between eight and ten hours a day, and earned up to 3,000 yuan a month. Nearly half (44 percent) earned less than 1,000 yuan a month, while only 16 percent could earn more than 3,000 yuan.

The plight of Wuhan's sex workers is largely representative of China as a whole, and is indicative of the many dangers that young women from the countryside face when they travel to the city in search of work.

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