Sex for Snacks
In cities like Shanghai and Chongqing, a handful of high school girls have been exposed working as professional ‘escorts,’ apparently by choice. NewsChina looks into the motivation among young, educated girls to voluntarily walk the streets
Downtown Shanghai never sleeps, with the bright neon of its countless nightclubs shining into the night. The dance floor of Richbaby in the northeast of the city throbs with young people, among them short-skirted local girls out to catch the eyes of male patrons. Suddenly, three girls carrying schoolbags are singled out and asked to leave by the club’s security. “No under 18s,” they are told.
The Shanghai police began tightening enforcement of formerly lax age restrictions in the city’s teeming nightclubs after an embarrassing case of child prostitution broke in early November 2011. The case involved 20 or so high-school girls, including one 13 year-old, some whom had been acting as pimps for their classmates.
Police claimed that a sting operation had “unmasked a prostitution ring of high school students who provide sex services to selected clients in the manner of ‘escort girls’ in Japan.”
Han Konglin, the prosecutor responsible for the case, blames the breakdown of families for this apparently voluntary engagement in prostitution among teenagers, though, by his own admission, only a few of the girls came from what Han termed “broken homes.” Of the more than 20 girls charged, one was from a single parent family, one was adopted, and three were “abused or spoiled by their parents,” said Han.
Other critics have pointed to materialism as the root cause, and with new cases of teenage prostitution, many involving government officials and celebrities, being exposed by China’s active online media, this embarrassing social trend looks set to continue.
Escort services sprung up in Japan shortly after World War II as an offshoot of the mainstream sex trade. Women were paid to “accompany” male clients, their services centering on dinner conversation, but later including sexual services. Since the 1980s, escort services began operations in Taiwan, Hong Kong and, most recently, the Chinese mainland.
While the commercial sex trade is nothing new in China, escort services remain an unfamiliar cultural phenomenon. According to social researcher Tong Xiaojun of the China Youth University for Political Sciences, the fact that most female escorts don’t fit the social stereotype of sex workers as poor, uneducated or disgraced women has led to confusion. Tong and her research team have spent two years investigating escort services on the Chinese mainland.
“It is quite difficult to locate escorts, and even when we do, it’s even harder to interview them,” Tong told NewsChina. “Those we meet are neither poor nor social outcasts. On the contrary, they seem no different from other girls.”
Among the 16 escorts Tong’s team has interviewed, Xiaoba left the deepest impression. A high school student from a white collar Chongqing family, Xiaoba was a docile and obedient child in the eyes of her father, a police officer, and her mother, a doctor. However, Xiaoba told Tong that outside of the home, she “went wild,” running with street gangs and drinking.
“She looked simple and shy… I could not imagine such a girl could be a sex worker,” Tong told our reporter. Even more incredibly, Tong added, her engagement as an escort stemmed from nothing but a love of eating. “She could not resist stealing glances at the snacks on the table during our interview,” Tong said. “Yet she refused snacks I offered her, and even asked us to remove them from the room.”
The girl told Tong she was so addicted to eating that she had to spend about 100 yuan (US$15) every day on snack foods, an expense her parents’ 20 yuan (US$3) weekly allowance came nowhere close to covering. By her own admission, she found “easy money” working as an escort. At 17, Xiaoba met another escort who introduced her to the trade.
“How ridiculous that she would sell herself to buy snack food,” remarked Tong.
Like Xiaoba, most of the girls involved in the November case in Shanghai were not from poor families, according to Han Konglin, the prosecutor. “They did it just to get more money for shopping and socializing,” he told NewsChina.
“My parents both work at State-owned enterprises and earn regular pay and they give me pocket money every month,” another escort, Xiaowen, testified in court. “But the money was far from enough to cover my daily expenses on clothes, jewelry, having fun and eating.”
“A regular salary comes too slow for me,” she said. “And I can’t stand the toil of a regular job.”
Sex and the City
Face-conscious Shanghai has been rocked by the escort case, with local media desperately trying to reassure citizens that underage prostitution is “isolated” and generally involves economic migrants. “Even if some [escorts] are locals, they must have been led astray by bad outsiders,” an anonymous academic told local media, claiming that the percentage of the city’s criminals who are non-locals, according to official statistics, has exceeded 70 percent since migrants began to flood into Shanghai in 2000.
However, these reassurances were bluntly contradicted by police, who revealed that most of Shanghai’s professional escorts are locally-born girls from well-to-do families. “Escorts are generally not forced into the trade. They do it just to satisfy their material desires,” Tong told NewsChina. “Consequently, escorts are more common in urban areas, especially those enjoying an economic boom.”
His words were borne out by Xiaoyun, a 20-year-old escort who had left her hometown for Shanghai two months before. “Everything here is new to me. In Shanghai, I can get things that I could not even dream of in my hometown in the northeast,” she told NewsChina. Visiting her apartment, our reporter saw shelves of high-heeled designer shoes and boots. Just several days before, Xiaoyun told NewsChina, she had added another 1,000 yuan (US$147) pair of boots to her collection.
“I do escorting once or twice a week and get 200 yuan (US$30) a time. I only call my clients after I run out of money,” Xiaoba told Tong Xiaojun. “Each time I would tell myself, ‘This is the last time. I’m done with this.’ But I always do it again. I simply cannot control myself … The thought of running out of money makes me crazy,” she continued.
In addition to money, sex itself can be a motivator for young girls, according to Tong Xiaojun. In November 2008, a research project conducted by the Shanghai Family Planning Education Center targeting 1,700 students in five middle schools showed that nearly 60 percent of the respondents said they would be open to “intimate contact” with the opposite gender “in a natural way,” a euphemistic description of sexual contact. In the survey, over 10 percent of high school students admitted that they had had “intimate contact” with the opposite gender, including penetrative sex.
“I cannot imagine a girl going without any sexual contact until her twenties,” Maomao, an escort in Guangzhou, told a Guangzhou-based researcher, quoted in the local media. Now a law student at a prestigious university, Maomao has been an escort since high school. “I felt happy about my first deal, the boy was so cute,” she reportedly told interviewers.
Tentative statistics seem to suggest that Maomao is not alone. In 2010, a professional team of sex researchers from Hong Kong surveyed 3,000 Hong Kong high school students with an average age of 15 about their sexual experience. 32 percent of respondents said they would have sex with a stranger for money, 137 of whom admitted working as escorts. The survey coincided with a local scandal whereby a local teenager placed an online ad offering to sell her virginity for HK$10,000 (US$1,285).
Typical of such social debates in China, the Shanghai escort case has led to a war of words online. While some netizens have chosen to moralize, calling the case “a shame,” others have defended escorts, arguing that they have every right to “earn a crust.”
“Don’t you feel ashamed that you are still dependent on your parents in your twenties?” asked Maomao, the Guangzhou-based escort, when asked whether or not she felt ashamed to trade her body for money.
Like many other escorts, Maomao prefers the term “freelancer.” “Come on, it isn’t that shocking. It is just a job, and I can earn 10,000 yuan (US$1,568) a week,” she told researchers. “But look at my schoolmates. They are doing a dead-end job with meager wages. How miserable they are.”
“Escorts choose their trade, They’re not forced into it,” explained Tong Xiaojun. “In some cases, they pick a client who resembles their imagined Prince Charming. This helps dispel any sense of shame.”
Although many police officers and public prosecutors dismiss escorts as “teenage prostitutes,” claiming that there is no legal classification in China for an escort, a poll conducted by Tong’s team in early 2010 found that 72 percent of 1,800 respondents believed that working as an escort was fundamentally different from working as a prostitute.
“Imagine a girl has already made 2.4 million yuan (US$3.5m) at 24, simply from working as an escort since she was 17,” remarked one netizen in an online forum, describing their own “envy” of such wealth.
In the opinion of critic Xu Ben, this increased tolerance of materialism as a justification for prostitution is symptomatic of China’s social decay. An old Chinese idiom disparaging those tolerant of perceived “immoral” behaviors claims that such people “sneer at paupers, not prostitutes.”
In 2009, China Youth Daily launched a survey entitled “What are we striving for?” which was completed by nearly 10,000 persons. “Houses and cars” topped the priorities list with 53.5 percent, followed by “a better life” (43.7%) and “a good job” (23.9%). In another survey carried out by www.ycwb.com, a popular news website based in Guangzhou, 66 percent of respondents said they would take “any short cut” to satisfy material cravings.
“Shame would work only in a morally binding society,” commented Xu. “But at present, this society is losing its traditional moral binding. Too many people are lost in their exclusive pursuit of material gains they have confused with ‘happiness’ and ‘success.’”
“When these so-called ‘successful’ adults are violating traditional ethics, the degeneration of the young is guaranteed,” he continued.