Why the sex industry boomed in China – Zhang Lijia

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Zhang Lijia at the BBC

Author Zhang Lijia of Lotus: A Novel, a book on prostitution in China, divided into the current sex industry and explains to Brave Media why it boomed. Earnings can be ten times as high compared to a factory job, she says.

Brave Media:

What kinds of women did you encounter through your research? Had most of them moved from villages into urban areas in search of work, like the protagonist in your novel, Lotus?

They are usually migrant workers, from the countryside; something has gone wrong in their life, they are uneducated, unskillful, and of course there’s the temptation of money. In the vast majority of cases, women enter the trade of their own accord, but often driven by desperate poverty or something gone wrong: domestic violence, dumped by the husband, or falling pregnant as a single mother…

How much more does prostitution pay in comparison to, say, a factory job?

It’s huge. It could be ten times more.

The sex industry has developed rapidly in China in recent years. Why is that?

For many reasons. First, the growing wealth. We have a saying in Chinese: ‘once you have clothes to wear and your stomach is full, you start to think about sex.’ Of course in China for a long time people didn’t have enough to eat.

And also relaxed social control: before, if you had a mistress or an extra marital affair, you probably ended up in a labour camp. China for a long time was sexually repressed. Now there’s freedom. I think some of the old attitudes towards women, which had been suppressed by Mao, have made a comeback. STDs are growing fastest among older men of above 55 or 60… They’ve probably now got some money, and felt they’ve missed out on something, and they are not switched on to how to protect themselves. They belong to the generation that believes that a decent woman shouldn’t have an interest in sex.

Also, prostitution has become part of the business deal. For example I have a friend who is from Nanjing; he has a cushy job and his company does high end products, green energy, high tech stuff. According to regulations, such a company enjoys 15% of a tax deduction. But in order to get that, they have to invite tax bureau officials wining and dining. But these days wining and dining is not enough… Prostitution has become the lubricant of business. It’s very common.

But the fundamental reason is the growing income gap between men and women. Many of my friends find it hard to believe, because within their circle they meet many very capable, high achieving young women. Sure. The reform brought lots of opportunities to both men and women, especially educated urban women. But overall China has shifted from a planned economy to the market economy, and women have shouldered too much of the burden in cost.

When a company has to let off workers, women are always the first to go, and it’s so much harder for them to find jobs. Female graduates – before, they were allocated jobs. Women of child-bearing age are often refused. And sometimes when women get pregnant, they sack them. Sometimes they force them to write, ‘I promise I will not get pregnant,’ otherwise they will not get hired. UN Women did a research: women in the city earn 67.3% of what men make, and in the countryside only 56%. That has driven some of the most vulnerable women to take up prostitution.

More in Brave Media.

Zhang Lijia is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need her at your meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers’ request form.

Are you looking for more experts on cultural change at the China Speakers Bureau? Do check out this list.