“I can’t bear the shame” Chinese Sex Worker Opting for Cambodia

“Aren’t there dangers everywhere? It’s all the same,” Liang (pseudonym), a young Chinese sex worker in Cambodia, responded calmly to CLW staff’s question about her choice to come to Cambodia, a country that has recently been associated with organized human trafficking and cyber scams. 

Recently, CLW staff visited Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, to take notes on the local Chinese-run cyber scam operations. Due to the international backlash, the Cambodia authorities have collaborated with Chinese law enforcement to combat cyber scamming and gambling syndicates. At the time of the visit, many buildings occupied by cyber scam syndicates in Phnom Penh have since been vacated. 

However, during this trip, we uncovered another issue: Chinese sex workers living in the fringe of Cambodian society.

During the field trip, CLW staff interviewed a number of Mandarin-speaking Chinese female sex workers sprinkled across massage parlors, barbers’, saunas, and other service parlors in streets and communities frequented by Chinese travelers and businessmen. Escorts are active on certain Wechat and Telegram group chats for Chinese in Cambodia. Their distinct appearance from local Cambodians and inability to speak the local language immediately raised alarms for human trafficking. 

Photo taken in a service parlor where Chinese sex workers worked.

After some questions, a far more complex story is uncovered. According to the women we interviewed undercover in some of these service parlors, most of the Chinese sex workers had been in the industry back home, and came to Cambodia voluntarily to engage in the same line of work. Upon arrival, their Chinese passports were taken away, and many were not allowed to exit their shops. They eat, sleep, work, and rest in the parlors, and the girls around them and the confines of their workplace become their whole world. 

The question is, why Cambodia?

“Because I can’t bear the shame. Here, nobody knows me. No one needs to know what I’m doing.” Tang (pseudonym) is a Chinese woman working as an escort in Cambodia. As her statement shows, the core of the issue, as it turns out, is the individual targeting of sexworkers and public shaming in China. 

“I know about the danger here and I still choose to come,” another young woman, Yan (pseudonym) said. “Because in China, sex workers have no dignity.”

Yan and Tang’s dignity talk wasn’t unique among the dozen women CLW staff conversed with in Cambodia. Many cited lack of dignity and overwhelming shame as motivators for their choice to work abroad. But how much shaming can motivate women to leave home and travel more than a thousand miles to a country they know nothing about, at the risk of being trafficked and sold? The answer lies in the multilayered stigmatization women in the industry experience in China. 

In the increasingly repressive environment in China, the treatment of sex workers is equally, if not even more repressive

The Chinese government defines the sex work as individual behaviors that “poisons social mores,” “disturbs social order,” and are detrimental to “socialist spiritual culture,” as seen in the poster below. Under this official rhetoric, local governments engage in public shaming campaigns to name and shame sex workers in the local community. Such campaigns are not of rare occurrence, either. In many regions of China–especially in smaller towns–public shaming is a standard practice. Individual sex workers are framed as the problem that ‘poisons’ the public and ruins communities. 

Image of a community announcement on a targeted enforcement action against sex work, sourced from the internet.

Examples abound. In November 2020, the community office and police station in the southern city of Changsha engaged in a joint campaign against sex work in the community. Public announcements were posted across the streets and corners of residential communities warning “… those engaged in prostitution” that their “…workplace, community and village officials, family members, and members of the public will be informed of their actions. 

These warnings have been put into action in many cases. One notable example is that, in 2021, the Shanghai law enforcement informed Fudan University that three of its students were in custody due to their off-campus act of sex work. The University subsequently expelled these students and posted their decision citing their full legal names on campus. This incident stirred discussion in the Chinese internet, where the students continued to be doxxed and shamed.

In July 2022, a local police station in the Southwestern province of Jiangxi set up a signboard posting blurred photos of “women going astray” and “landlords who broke the law” in its jurisdiction. In 2023, the police department in Zhejiang province made a post enlisting information including names, charges, and home addresses of those participating in a “…group licentiousness” online. 

In China’s sexually repressed cultural environment, such public shaming is especially lethal to a person’s social life. 

Legally, although sex work does not constitute a criminal offense under the current laws of mainland China, sex workers face constant public shaming and campaign-style government crackdowns periodically. During the law enforcement process, extrajudicial custody, violence, arbitrary detention and fines, and other misconduct are widespread

Under these broad narratives, little room is left for sex workers to live. Yet contrasting the individualizing and stigmatizing narrative and treatment of sex workers in China is a damning image of structural, systemic, and sustained fragmentation in Chinese society. 

China has experienced remarkable growth and a stunning transformation of urban cities over the past two decades. But such developments have also led to increasingly stark inequalities. While the newly emerged middle-class and riches fill the fast-developing cities, under the sparkling lights and billboards of such cities are tens of thousands of migrant workers traveling sometimes hundreds of miles looking for any scraps of opportunities they can land. 

Poverty, lack of opportunity, and underdevelopment push Chinese migrant workers out of their hometowns. Yet in the cities, restricted by their place of birth due to the hukou household registration system, they are of a second-class citizens status, excluded from the urban healthcare, housing, and education system. China’s roughly 300 million migrant workers–male and female alike–make up what senior Chinese government officials called the “low-end population” in China, subject to all forms of ill and unequal treatment including periodic sweeps, low wage, poor living and work conditions, lack of protection, and other undignifying treatments. They traverse the dark corners of the cities doing the dirtiest jobs without the most basic protection and social safety net. According to official statistics, the average monthly income of migrant workers was $630 in 2022, yet they serve as China’s reserve army of labor that sustains China’s remarkable urban development and industrial growth. 

Entering and exiting expensive Chinese cities that will never become their homes, most migrant workers have simple objectives in mind: They leave home for money, and go back home for their families year after year. Whatever the jobs are, as long as they end up home with money in their pockets, they are satisfied. This is especially true as the Chinese economy has entered a tumultuous period and uncertainty filled the market.

Sex work is one of those jobs that pays money. So despite the stigma and intense social backlash, women still engage in this industry of, as a Chinese saying goes, “selling dignity.” Some estimate that the number of sex workers in mainland China has exceeded 10 million. And some, as we see, opt to leave the country to engage in sex work to leave the stigma that weighs heavy behind.

Shame brought women abroad, but working as sex workers abroad has its own downsides. In fact, the Chinese women described conditions that are matching to aspects of sex trafficking. For one thing, it is easy for bosses to control the lives of these foreign women.

Image was taken in a service parlor where Chinese sex worker worked.

Upon arrival, Chinese women are asked to hand over their passports. And their lives thereafter are often bounded by the confines of their place of work and residence. Escorts rely on their bosses for transportation from and to their clients. Depending on seasons and shops, some women may have to work up-to-10-hour days. The news about cyber fraud and human trafficking in Cambodia circulating on the internet also serves to scare the Chinese women from running away. 

Lacking local language skills, legal status, and social connections, most of the women interviewed rely on their bosses for food, rent, utilities, and other living amenities–which all turned out to be debts that the women need to pay off periodically. Money thus also becomes another means of control. Some also borrowed money to cover their travel to Cambodia, putting them under even more pressure to work to pay off the debt.

According to our interviews, Chinese sex workers needed to hand over 30% to 70% of their earnings to their bosses–in addition to paying their bosses for living expenses. If they can’t get a consistent stream of clients, they may end up owing money. The Chinese women also gain contact with their clients either through their bosses’ referrals or walk-ins, and are prohibited from contacting past and new clients personally. Violence can be used to punish those who violate such rules. 

“How do your boss find out if you’re contacting your client?” CLW investigator asked. “They search our phones,” Lin, an escort, answered quietly. “They will beat us if they find out,” she added. 

Lin wasn’t the only one subject to such treatments. All Chinese women CLW staff conversed with reported similar treatment. 

A sense of threat and a feeling of entrapment is constant, as best exemplified by one of the women, Lu in her statement: “I do want to leave. But where else can I go?”

However, facing overwhelming stigma back home, these women appeared resigned to their fate. “It is what it is, as long as I’m making money,” Lu added later in the conversation, calmly. 

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