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Thinking beyond the stereotypes: The diverse experiences of Hong Kong’s sex workers

“When my ex-husband and I divorced, he didn’t give me any money, and I had no work experience and bad Cantonese, so I entered the sex industry. It has given me more freedom – I’ve had time to take care of my daughter, who has now graduated! She is going to be a lawyer! But I won’t tell her that her mother is in this industry, because I’m afraid that it’ll affect her future.” – Tung Tung, courtesy of AFRO

“Why did I enter the industry? To forget my emotions! I want to rely on myself, earn money gradually, and not need to rely on any man.” – Yi-man, courtesy of AFRO

Tung Tung and Yi-man are two of Hong Kong’s estimated 20,000 sex workers – including both women and men – who work in the city’s nightclubs, bars, restaurants, and saunas, and rented rooms.

sex workers hong kong

Sex workers hiding their faces to protect their identities, take to the streets of Hong Kong during a march to police headquarters in the Wanchai district, 17 December 2004. Photo: Mike Clarke/AFP.

While Tung Tung, 50, did not intend to join the industry when she first arrived in Hong Kong from the mainland. She found in sex work a means of providing for herself and her daughter in an environment where she did not speak the language. Yi-man, 57, still works as a sex worker today.

As older women, Tung Tung and Yi-man do not fit conventional ideas regarding sex work – where young, local women participate in the industry as a temporary and necessary economic measure.

Nor is sex work widely accepted in society as a legitimate industry – social stigma is embedded in the derogatory language used to describe the act of requesting sexual services: “calling chicken” and “calling duck” for female and male sex workers respectively.

In the midst of prevalent conservative attitudes, advocates in the city are fighting to dismantle stereotypical ideas of the “sex worker” identity, and to uphold workers’ labour rights.

Sex work: Legal but criminalised

Martin Lau is a member of the Hong Kong Sex Culture Society, a Christian-based organisation that aims to “uphold family values.” He said that while people have a right to have open attitudes regarding sex, broader societal tolerance for the sex industry would mean widespread approval of the exploitation of the human body.

“We oppose the commercial exchange of sex – we do not think that sex should be commodified. As a prostitute, you sell your body… we do not think this industry should exist. It’s a matter of human rights – can you violate your own human rights?  Can I sell myself as a slave? This is not socially acceptable,” said Lau.

“Many owners of brothels say that their clients are married men who will visit the brothel after work before going home. We can see that sex work changes family values, and encourages husbands to be adulterous, with wives who then suffer,” he said.

action for reach out sex workers

Photo: Jun Pang/HKFP.

In Hong Kong, commercial sex between two consenting adults is not illegal. But legal provisions targeting people and acts related to sex work create precarious situations.

According to the Crimes Ordinance, individuals may be arrested and prosecuted for “soliciting for an immoral purpose,” “keeping a vice establishment” and “letting premises for use of a vice-establishment” – in other words, participating in organised sex work.

People may also be prosecuted for “living on the earnings of prostitution of another person” – so sex workers are not allowed to hire bodyguards, leading them to work alone in isolated and potentially dangerous situations. Even holding a sign advertising sexual services could lead to arrest.

Police crackdowns on organised sex work have become more common in recent years. In September 2015, authorities arrested 62 alleged prostitutes from mainland China and Taiwan for breaches of their condition of stay. In 2016, local organisation Zi Teng received 615 complaints from sex workers who were subjected to violence from the police and from clients.

No broad brushes

action for reach out sex workers

As part of an art project by AFRO, sex workers wrote their reasons for joining the industry on paper doilies. Clockwise from top left: “My favourite is when clients pay extra money and I can bring more money home;” “I hope that I can earn lots of money in the shortest possible time and then leave, and that I will have the chance to do volunteer work and give back to society;” “I entered the industry for money! Money! Money!;” “I have two sons, I am very happy!.” Photo: Jun Pang/HKFP

Kendy Yim is the Executive Director of Action for REACH OUT (AFRO), a sex workers’ concern and working group established in 1993. She said that misconceptions abound regarding sex work – particularly on the part of conservative groups and organisations. She said such ideas hinder broader acceptance of the industry and protections for workers.

“People’s ideas of sex work fall into certain set categories. For many people, sex workers are always either single, poor mothers or women from the mainland who have divorced their Hong Kong partners because of marriage problems. Of course, these cases do exist – but they are not the only ones,” said Yim.

Sex workers often come from working class and low-income backgrounds, but a free individual’s engagement in the industry is a matter of choice, according to Yim. In comparison with other jobs that require minimal educational requirements, sex workers have a higher income which allows them to support not only themselves and their families but also to accumulate savings.

“We have women who do sex work because they enjoy it, or because they think it’s a way of contributing to society. It’s not necessarily either a situation of dependence versus full agency. There is a broader spectrum than that,” said Yim.

action for reach out sex workers

Kendy Yim, Executive Director of AFRO. Photo: Jun Pang/HKFP.

Yim said the issue of teenage sex workers had more recently come to public attention, with people attributing their existence to the rise of the internet – the emergence of dating apps and discussion forums is seen to have given young women new ways to find clients.

Compensated dating, for example, is a type of relationship formed between typically younger women or girls with older men, where women’s time and companionship, which may include sex, is exchanged for monetary or other benefits.

Stereotypes of teenage sex workers as either vain and unwilling to work while also wanting to buy luxury goods, or as self-sacrificing members of society working to support their families, are prevalent in Hong Kong society. But Yim says that sex workers’ motivations are not so easily differentiated – as a result, society should not be so quick to pity or to judge workers, but should try to understand that the industry comprises people from all walks of life.

“Society often says that sex workers, especially young sex workers, are always victims. But the story is not that simple – whether someone is completely free to do something depends on social factors as well as personal factors,” said Yim.

sex workers solidarity action for reach out

A protest in support of sex workers’ rights. The sign says: “Sisters: stand up.” Photo: Action for Reach Out/Facebook.

“Neither should we try to paint all sex workers with a broad brush, saying that they’re all kind and nurturing. Some of them are quite aggressive and mean! But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support them all the same – they’re doing their job.”

Migrant sex workers

“I am Thai. I don’t know how to read or write Chinese, so I can’t find a job – that’s why I entered the industry.” – Carmen, courtesy of AFRO

Lining Portland Street and other red light districts in the city, signs designating different prices for different ethnicities of sex workers stake out a kind of hierarchy of desire. AFRO said that the influx of women from the mainland, the Philippines, countries in Africa and South America, Brazil, Russia, and Eastern Europe in recent years has led to a more diverse workforce as well as new demands from clients for women from different parts of the world.

However, due to these women’s immigration status – many are in the city under a travel visa and so are not legally allowed to work – they remain difficult to reach by NGOs trying to support their safety.

Dr. Julie Ham, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at HKU, is leading an investigation into the situation of non-Chinese sex workers in Hong Kong, in collaboration with local organisations such as AFRO. She said that there is still much to be learned about the broader sex industry.

action for reach out sex workers

Champagne Court in Tsim Sha Tsui – previously, the building was known for the many sex workers who would operate brothels inside. Photo: Jun Pang/HKFP.

“Whether participants are ethnic minorities or migrants, or temporary migrants or migrant workers who have lived here for many years, they may have different, or similar concerns. We simply don’t know, because of social stigma and lack of access to knowledge about those communities,” said Ham.

Having previously researched migrant sex workers in Canada and Australia, Ham said there is more space in Hong Kong to examine the fluidity of the industry due to the lack of a broad-reaching anti-trafficking framework.

In other countries, migrant women of colour are often automatically assumed to have been trafficked if they are found to be working in the industry. In Hong Kong, however, human trafficking and the sex industry do not seem to be inseparably linked in the public imagination.

The 2017 US Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report placed Hong Kong on its Tier 2 Watch List, saying that the city’s government does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making efforts to do so.

Particularly concerning is the treatment of foreign domestic workers, who are vulnerable to labour exploitation as well as various types of abuse including verbal, physical, and sexual abuse in the private homes in which they are employed.

While there do exist cases of people being trafficked solely for the purposes of sex work in Hong Kong, Ham said that anti-trafficking organisations’ focus on the US Department of State’s placement of Hong Kong on the Tier 2 watchlist may add fuel anti-prostitution sentiments and anti-immigration sentiments.

action for reach out sex workers

Photo: Jun Pang/HKFP.

Ham said that from demographics to the industry itself, sex work in Hong Kong may be more fluid than previously thought.

“There are street-based workers, independent freelancers, professional boyfriends or girlfriends or so on… There’s webcamming, stripping, transactional sex – there are sex workers who work in social settings, in commercial businesses. The divisions are rarely clear-cut.”

Ham said that she hopes that her project will provide the basis for future outreach efforts, and establish trust between different members of the sex worker community and academia.

The fight for decriminalisation

“I don’t have to support my family – the money I earn, I spend. I’m quite young at the moment, so it makes sense to save more money so that I can have savings when I’m older.” – Siu-yan, courtesy of AFRO

“What job can provide you with lots of money, flexibility, and time? Sex work!” – Wendy, courtesy of AFRO

In 2014, AFRO demanded that the Hong Kong government’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women open up the legal definition of “vice establishments” so to allow for sex workers to self-organise and provide one another with mutual support.

action for reach out sex workers

Photo: Jun Pang/HKFP.

The joint submission to the legislature with NGOs Midnight Blue, JJJ Association, and Teen’s Key also urged law enforcement bodies to respect sex workers’ dignity, after interviewees reported incidents of verbal and physical abuse by police. The move was one in a broader fight for decriminalisation of the sex industry.

“At a simple, practical, day-to-day level, decriminalisation would mean that if sex workers are victimised by certain crimes – if they’re robbed, if they’re harmed, and they’re hurt – they can call the police, and make sure that they themselves are not arrested,” said Ham.

“Decriminalisation does not mean you have to take a certain political stance on sex work. All it means is that sex workers have the same right to freedom from violence as anyone else.”

AFRO strives to present an accurate picture of the sex worker community, without judging or moralising over the industry. Yim said that this makes advocacy more difficult, but that the organisation and other NGOs will not attempt to pander to public sympathy in order to achieve their goals.

“We try our best to stay away from absolutes when it comes to talking about sex workers. It is much easier to fight for change and to attract public support through emotional, moving, dramatic stories… But sex workers have diverse experiences.”

“We shouldn’t say, ‘Oh, they are working to support their families, they deserve our help,’ or conversely, ‘Oh, they’re in it for the money to buy luxury goods, they don’t deserve our help.’ Ultimately, it’s an issue of their rights as workers who make contributions to society: they deserve and have a right to compensation and protection for their labour.”

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Thinking beyond the stereotypes: The diverse experiences of Hong Kong's sex workers