Traveler Warning: Prostitution in China

Shanghai bund at night
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The oldest occupation in the world is illegal but as in many countries, prostitution in China is flourishing. After taking power in 1949, the Communist Party of China worked to eliminate prostitution from mainland China. With the changes in policies brought around in the 1980s, prostitution is now very visible and exists in cities, villages, and rural areas of China.

Prostitutes and pimps can be "pushy," bordering on aggressive, toward visitors. It is fairly easy to avoid ladies of the night if you know what to look for but in some places, foreigners stay, especially small or locally-run hotels, it can become a nuisance when the room telephone rings at 11 p.m. and the desk clerk is checking to see if you would like a “massage.” This information can help visitors know what to watch out for so they don’t wind up in an awkward situation.

Avoiding Getting Approached

Ladies of the night typically hang around places where they think clients will be (and where they have been successful at getting them). This includes bars, hotels, and massage parlors.

Men can be approached with what initially may seem to be a friendly conversation or a flirtatious look, but be on guard if the encounter develops into an offer for "paid services."

Bars and Clubs

Visitors report being in some clubs in Shanghai where it seemed like most of the women inside were “working.” Travelers stopping by these bars for a drink and dancing may encounter some fairly aggressive prostitutes and their managers who may approach you. A simple “no thanks” will often do. If you feel threatened or uncomfortable, just leave the establishment and move on.

Hotels

Working girls hang out at hotel bars and lounges. The approach will probably be subtle if you are in an international hotel as these establishments try very hard to keep prostitutes out of their hotels.

In non-international hotels, especially in smaller cities, prostitution is sometimes integrated into the workings of the hotel. For example, the on-site “spa” might just be a cover for in-house prostitutes. You might get calls in your room late in the evening from women looking for clients as well as women knocking at your door with the offer or something more veiled, such as “I’m thirsty, can I come in for a glass of water?” A polite refusal should be enough but if things get uncomfortable, call the hotel management or the police.

Interestingly, some hotels are equipped for the engagement: oils, condoms, and specialty “cleansers” might all available as part of the room amenities.

Massage and “Beauty” Parlors

There is probably a legitimate spa for each one that serves as a front for prostitution and there are some really wonderful massage parlors ranging from high-end to inexpensive “blind-man” massages. (Blind people were traditionally given the vocation as masseurs.)

It would be a shame if you don't experience a proper Chinese foot massage for fear of being approached with offers of the wrong thing (often termed the "Happy Endings" massage). Typically, massage or beauty parlors that give more than just massages or haircuts are staffed with a large number of young women wearing revealing attire that isn’t suitable for massage or haircuts.

Karaoke Bars and Entertainment Clubs

Many businessmen find themselves being entertained by their Chinese hosts. It is common to go from the heavy-drinking banquet to a karaoke bar or club where “hostesses” come to help entertain the male guests. Guests buy drinks for the girls who entertain by singing or chatting amicably with the men. Often, these girls can be paid to accompany the men to their hotel rooms. If you find yourself in one of these clubs, there’s no harm in it. But be firm in your wishes to remain single for the night.

It will not be considered rude.

What to Do if You Feel Uncomfortable or Threatened

If you find yourself in a situation in which you don’t want to be, you have every right to get yourself out of it. There have been many reports of business travelers going to get a legitimate massage only to find themselves being propositioned. Even women can go for massages and be asked if they'd like something more than just a back massage. When this occurs, it’s best to just give a firm “no.” Pay for whatever service was provided and leave the premises.

Notes About Sex Workers

Some of the women (and sometimes young girls) probably did not end up as a prostitute by choice. Many are sold or kidnapped and then forced to work as prostitutes. Often, they come into cities from the countryside on promises of decent jobs as waitresses and then have no way of returning home once they realize what is expected of them.

Demand for prostitutes is, of course, an essential part of the problem and visitors need to be aware of the dark side of prostitution—STDs, sex trafficking as an illegal industry, and the unfortunate victims... the women.