China / Cover Story

Speaking up for those who inhabit a world of shadows

By Tang Yue (China Daily) Updated: 2012-06-05 07:21

Defending the rights of sex workers means sharing their experiences, Tang Yue reports from Guangxi.

The shattered signboard may suggest that the four-story building is an ordinary hotel, but a glance inside reveals an odd similarity between the residents.

All are female. Most are in their 40s, but some are older. Most are from poverty-stricken rural areas in neighboring provinces. They don't stay here for days but for months, sometimes even years. They don't just live, but work here, providing probably the cheapest sex service in China, at a charge of 10 to 30 yuan ($1.50 to $5) a time.

Speaking up for those who inhabit a world of shadows

Ye Haiyan stands at the door of her support center in Yulin, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. The center, which cares for local sex workers, was recently attacked by unknown assailants. Photos by Huo Yan / China Daily

Each pays 15 yuan a day to rent a darkened 6-square-meter cubicle with yellowed, peeling walls and the heavy smell of damp. There is no window and no shower. After finishing with each client, the women wash with the limited boiled water provided by the hotel - one bucket in the morning, another in the afternoon.

During this year's Spring Festival holiday, this dingy hotel in Yulin, Guangxi, welcomed a new face. But she was only 36. And she was doing it for free.

Speaking up for those who inhabit a world of shadows

Her name is Ye Haiyan, although she's better known as Liumangyan, or Hooligan Swallow, the name she's used online since 2005. Having worked to promote HIV prevention among sex-workers and advocating their rights, Ye said she came to the hotel to "better understand and speak for the most unprivileged rural sex workers".

Ye volunteered for a two-and-a-half-day stint, and served four men, aged 18 to 50. She then related the story on her five micro blogs. The tale quickly became an Internet phenomenon and sharply divided opinion, with some netizens applauding her "brave and conscientious behavior" while others labeled her "immoral and shameless".

Tensions rose recently. On May 23 and 24, eight men broke into the support center that Ye established last year to care for local sex workers. They smashed furniture and threatened Ye with a knife. She reported the incidents to the local police, but so far, there have been no arrests.

"I expected the controversy," admitted the diminutive Ye. "Despite all the challenges, the positive note is that the public is paying more attention to the plight of sex workers. I'm happy to see that."

These low-paid women not only endure terrible working conditions, they also have greater exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, because the customers don't always use condoms, and are more vulnerable to violence and abuse.

However, their biggest concern is not the poor sanitary conditions or strange clients, it's the police.

Prostitution is illegal in China, but the World Health Organization estimates that there are some 4 million sex workers in the country, and some experts suggest that the true figure may be higher.

If caught, sex workers face a fine up to 3,000 yuan. For those working in these shabby hotels, that equates to the earnings from about 150 clients.

Poor, illegal, helpful

The banner on the wall of the working center states Ye's goal: To exempt underprivileged sex workers from economic punishment.

"It's easy to be a moralist and ask 'Why don't they choose a decent, safe job?' but the reality is much more complicated," said Ye. "Those who haven't gone through what these sisters have experienced really have no right to judge or offer opinions."

Speaking up for those who inhabit a world of shadows

Ye Haiyan and two of her volunteers at the support center she founded last year.

Some of the women have escaped from domestic violence, while others are widows or their husbands are in prison. Many of these illiterate women shoulder heavy financial burdens, such as medical bills and tuition fees for their children, she said.

Even charging the lowest rate, a sex worker can earn about 2,000 yuan per month, at least twice the salary in other jobs, if they can find them.

"Stories of migrant workers slaving for months and not being paid are not uncommon. That helps to explain why the sex workers here are willing to take the risks they get paid immediately. That is very important for those with a family to support," said Ye.

She believes these low-rate sex workers are providing a social service because many of their clients are lonely migrant workers, while others are local widowers whose sexual appetite has been heightened by long periods of solitude.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China now has more than 150 million migrant workers who are away from their hometowns for at least six months each year.

"They are very poor and don't even have shirts without holes. But they are also human beings. They also have desires. They have to find a way to satisfy their needs," said Xiaolongbao, meaning "Small steamed bun", a sex worker for 12 years.

Chi Susheng, a lawyer and a deputy to the National People's Congress, agreed: "The reality is that a lot of migrant workers need this service. If the anti-pornography campaign makes it difficult for them to find such places, it will increase the likelihood that they will harass other women and force them to have sex," said Chi, who proposed the legalization of prostitution during the NPC session in March.

She said legalization would ensure that sex workers undergo regular health checks and better prevent the spread of AIDS.

There are also voices against the proposal. If prostitution is legalized, at the current time when the wealth gap is so wide, men will feel less guilty and more women will be encouraged to do it and are liable to come to harm, according to Zhang Hongping, a women's rights researcher at the China Cultural Institute in Beijing.

"Ye may think that she is promoting women's rights, but feminism has never promoted doing anything in the form of sexual services," she said. "Feminists pursue freedom and equality, not 'sacrificing' oneself to save others."

A change of attitude

Ye has not always been supportive of sex workers. She ran a (legitimate) massage parlor in Yulin for a couple of years in the late 1990s, next door to a hair salon that provided sexual services.

Speaking up for those who inhabit a world of shadows

Ye during her time as an unpaid sex worker. Provided to China Daily

Every time the sex workers came by and sat for a while, Ye and her staff felt uncomfortable and carefully cleaned the chairs after they left. "At that time, I looked down on them, too," she admitted.

In 2001, she divorced and became a single mother. A friend of a friend, a sex worker, offered Ye and her 1-year-old daughter a place to stay. As a result, she heard a lot of "heartbreaking stories" about sex workers and started to defend them online.

She set up a website to speak on their behalf in 2005, but later closed it because of public pressure and attacks by hackers.

Ye was about to give up, but the murder of Yaoyao, a 23-year-old sex worker and supporter of the website who was killed by a client in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, made her determined to continue.

In 2006, Ye founded the China Grassroots Women's Rights Center in her hometown of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. When she started promoting HIV-preventive measures among sex workers, she discovered that some were reluctant to use condoms for fear they would serve as evidence of prostitution.

Last year, she moved back to Yulin and opened the working center, surrounded by hair salons, massage parlors and shabby hotels, most of which house sex workers.

The less-than-10-square-meter center already has three diehard volunteers.

Xiaolongbao, who helps to build up the network, calls Ye "Brother Yan" because "no single man treated us equally, cared and protected us like her". But every day she worries about being arrested.

Liangzi, a local cleaner, is the "housekeeper, security guard and accountant". An enthusiastic charity worker since the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, he has worked with volunteers in local orphanages and schools. So far, however, he has failed to persuade any of them to join the center, because they "only like to do volunteer work in the sunshine".

Mo Diandian, a 19-year-old school student in charge of the center's micro blog, said that some classmates know he is a volunteer at the center and are OK with it. But his parents, who "hold very traditional views", have no idea about his involvement.

The center doesn't just provide condoms and encourage the women to take HIV tests. The volunteers also try to deliver as much comfort and care as possible.

Earlier this year, they organized a Spring Festival dinner for those women who didn't go home. Now, as the Dragon Boat Festival approaches, the volunteers are counting the zongzi (dumplings made from bamboo leaves and glutinous rice) they will have to buy for the sisters.

The women have inspired Ye so much that she named the center Fuping, meaning "Duckweed", because "the plant is just like the sex workers, who are always floating but are also strong and vital".

Ma Liyao contributed to this story.

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