When soliciting sex workers becomes a hot topic on the Chinese Internet
On September 18, Fudan University in Shanghai expelled a doctoral student and two master's students when it was discovered that the three had solicited prostitutes off-campus.
On October 21, the official account of the Chaoyang Branch of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau issued a notice that the famous pianist Li Yundi (李云迪) was seized for visiting prostitutes.
Within a short period of one month, two cases related to soliciting prostitutes were reported, triggering the emergence of online discussions on prostitution.
Awareness of the rule of law and rights
The majority of people commenting on the news agreed that sex workers’ solicitation is an offense; however, they argued that tipping off and publicizing it is a violation of citizens' “human dignity” and “personal privacy.” In other words, the personal information obtained by the police in the course of their work should not be used for other purposes and should not be shared publicly. These concerns indicate netizens’ awareness of and eagerness to discuss the rule of law and citizens’ rights, even in cases as sensitive as sex workers’ solicitation.
The neglected women
Pianists and students from prestigious schools are often considered to be part of society’s elite, which might account for why the consequences of their arrest and the publicization of their names are highly discussed topics. Many people think that the publication of their information means that they no longer have a normal social life and social status and have lost their right to continue to develop in society, i.e., that they are "socially dead" (社死shesi).
However, this view is given from a male standpoint, and it is only the social reputation and status of men that are discussed. The women selling their services, their physical and psychological survival are completely ignored in this discussion.
Soliciting prostitutes or raping?
Others have argued that compared to Chris Wu or Wu Yifan (吴亦凡), a famous singer who was exposed in August for raping a fan, Li Yundi and the three students expelled from Fudan are facing more lenient consequences. It is argued that the person who solicits sex workers does not compel others with power, does not violate anyone, and only has his or her physical needs satisfied by paying money. At the same time, the person who prostitutes himself or herself works by using his or her body as means of production. In that sense, it is often viewed as a simple business transaction and not as an act of sexual violence.
Beyond coerced sexual relations
Some scholars, such as the sociologist Chizuko Ueno, argue that “sex and romance are both skills of approaching another person’s body and can be considered one of the skills of interpersonal communication in the broad sense of the word. Since this is a social skill, it should be learned in society.”1 Thus, according to her, sex is not just about sensual stimulation, as people also need to learn how to relate to others, a type of interaction seemingly absent when resorting to paid sexual intercourse. She then argues that “prostitution … is undoubtedly an act of rape that shortens this gradual process of proximity (sexual intercourse without communication) all at once through the medium of money.”2
In addition, and even though some would argue these women “just” sell their body, one needs to consider the implications of the commodification and thus objectification of an integral part of these women’s identity. Apart from the mental and physical trauma that they may suffer as human beings, they are, in fact, seen as objects and are utilized to serve men’s desires.
Even if we disagree with Chizuko Ueno’s view that all sexual relations without prior gradual social interaction is rape, her argument prompts us to consider the consequences of such “trade” on the women involved. Indeed, the online discussions which followed the three arrests only focused on the consequences the men would face, but none of them took the opportunity of the online debate to draw attention to sex workers’ possible traumas, and more generally, to the effects of objectification of women’s body.
We can only hope that the situation of sex workers’ working conditions will not be further made invisible and that the debate surrounding prostitution will center around its direct consequences on the women involved, and not just on the lawfulness of the practice or the publicization of the clients’ personal information.
References / To go further
上野千鹤子. 厌女[M]. 王兰，译. 上海: 上海三联书店，2015: 47.
上野千鹤子. 厌女[M]. 王兰，译. 上海: 上海三联书店，2015: 47.