Yesterday we looked at the spread of AIDS in China and the impact of having a limited understanding of the disease. Today I want to look at one of the major factors in the spread of the disease: prostitution.
Chinese friends are quick to point out that officially, prostitution is illegal but I’ve noticed that doesn’t seem to mean very much.
On virtually every trip I have taken in the middle kingdom I have been solicited, usually through phone calls to my hotel room. Even the small towns in Guangxi where I lived, with populations around 50-75,000, had something similar to red light districts. If you walk around in the evening almost anywhere in China off the main streets, you will see the faint pink glow of a brothel.
Like many problems in China, it’s not that they are doing something that is completely unheard of in other countries, they are just doing it on a very different scale. Visiting prostitutes is not stigmatized the same way it is in the US, and is even part of the business culture (similar to Japan and Korea). It is a rarely discussed social problem, but has very real implications when it comes to preventing the spread of disease (not to mention ending human trafficking and improving the status of women).
For thousands of years prostitution and polygamy were a part of Chinese culture, and it’s only in the past 90 years that these values have even been challenged. In modern China visiting prostitutes and having a mistress (in some situations) is seen as a marker of status, much as it was in the past. In fact 二奶 (ernai) was used in the past to mean second wife and is now used to mean mistress.
UNAIDS has also suggested that migrant worker populations are more at risk for AIDS because they often leave their wives behind in the countryside and visit prostitutes in the cities. Due to the highly mobile nature of this group, AIDS is a risk in even some of the most remote villages. Men from every level of society frequent brothels, and yet it is only the women who are looked down upon.
The topic of prostitution is so taboo that I even found it difficult to discuss the issue with an AIDS activist. This is roughly what happened when I brought up prostitution at a conference near Ningming, which a Chinese friend told me was “famous for hookers.”
Me: What role do you think prostitution plays in the spread of AIDS? And why do local governments allow prostitution to flourish?
Activist: How do you know there is prostitution? The local governments don’t allow it.
Me: There are several shops with pink lights at night that sell no products and feature several bored looking women on couches next to posters of half-naked couples embracing. I think these are brothels.
Activist: How can you say though for sure?
Me: It just seems to me that if it is this obvious to a foreigner, shouldn’t the police be able to control it? I mean, I see soldiers walk in and out of the pink shop all evening.
Activist: If the local gov’t knew it was there, they would stop it.
A few days later I received a call from the conference leader warning me that I should never have accused soldiers of visiting prostitutes, and that they were very respected in China because of their efforts in rescuing survivors of the Sichuan Earthquake (even though these soldiers had nothing to do with that). While I had never intended to besmirch the reputation of the PLA, my point was simply that soldiers regardless of the country they work for, have a certain reputation for visiting prostitutes (look at Thailand and the Philippines before and after the Vietnam War).
On a number of occasions I have tried to discuss prostitution with Chinese friends and been told that it does not exist. Somehow they think that foreigners won’t notice the pink lights and calls for “massage” in the middle of the night. The message behind the denial is that Chinese people are far too moral to visit such institutions.
After my experiences, the lesson I’ve learned is that by China maintaining the facade of a “traditional” culture with “traditional” values they ignore the reality of China’s past and present and trump the importance of public health.