China: Sex workers demand legalization, organizer detained

Sex workers and their supporters in south central China's Wuhan took to the streets with red umbrellas last Wednesday to collect signatures calling for the legalization of prostitution.

Among them was Hooligan Sparrow, who several years ago made a name for herself by posting nude pictures of herself online, and today runs a women's rights organization; her Twitter profile describes her as a “feminist, member of the prostitution movement and sex worker”. Just before noon on Sunday, Hooligan Sparrow reported on Twitter that she had been taken away by police.

On Friday, Hooligan Sparrow uploaded video of the petition action:


[link2 **08/06 update: the first video was mistakenly embedded twice, this has been corrected. Thanks, Juan!]

As well as photos and a blog post which have since been harmonized:


I don't know if this counts as the first time a Chinese NGO has taken to the street calling for the legalization of sex workers, but for our working group, it was a very solemn decision to do so.


Previously, I had no intention of making demands for legalization, I had only hoped that under the current state of things, the rights and interests of our sisters would receive greater protection.


But the crackdowns this year have been insane and leave me feeling hopeless. Every day when you look at the news, you see sex being criminalized everywhere across the country; when they see the cameras, sisters will hang their heads our cover their faces as they get paraded around, exposed and publicly humiliated. So, I decided I could no longer hesitate or be wimpy about this, that there needs to be a forceful voice in opposition to people being treated like this.


Yes, I'm pro-legalization, and this fight is against the persecution of sex!


For decades, these kinds of vice crackdowns have just been performance; cracking down on sexual vice has never seen any social change, it's always been a crackdown one day, another the next, crackdowns in the east followed by crackdowns in the west. Short of obliterating human rights, or humanity, this kind of suppression will never last. With the gender ratio out of proportion, sexual constraints on single [men] has created enormous social demand.


So today we took to the street.




Many people don't understand what it is we're advocating, and some passers-by gave us strange looks—this most likely being their first time to encounter people calling for, of all things, legalization of sex work—and feeling strange about it. Some middle-aged women were even less understanding, saying “legalize it? Wouldn't that turn society upside down?”

You see, nobody has confidence in the capability of state organs and authorities to keep order; the way they see it, if sex work were ever legalized, all the women across the country would go and become prostitutes.

Legalization, combined with management, would allow for control over the numbers and age of practitioners, and would never result in all women becoming prostitutes. Besides, the market self-regulates; if all women were to go and become prostitutes and sex became cheap as a result, such that the wages equaled that of a white collar worker, women would still naturally gravitate toward the more mainstream option.



Legal is not the same thing as unrestricted or unchecked. What it does mean is this current profession would be brought into the open.

But these women, for whom social problems have never been given much consideration and whose minds went rusty long ago, would engaging them in discussion be of any use? The only thing they're concerned with is, were it legalized, whether or not their husbands would start visiting prostitutes openly and flagrantly (the law being, after all, unable to help them control their men).







One middle-aged woman, though, adamantly supported us. A roadside newspaper vendor, she asked, “is there any point in you doing this? It's useless, society is already messed up, and officials, all they know how to do is make money for themselves, why would they give a crap about us?”

“Not even just useless, you're gonna burn yourselves out if you keep going!”

“Will the government pay you for what you're doing? Would they even thank you?”

All I could do was laugh.

But she was really angry.

“Who are you, anyway? Who do you work for? Are you students?”



I told her that I'm a community organizer, that I've been at this for five years. I also told her that I don't expect immediate change, and the fact that officials are so corrupt is precisely the reason why citizens need to stand up and monitor them, make their voices heard, that only then will they change. A year from now, if nothing has changed, then we'll spend five years fighting; if five years doesn't change anything, then ten years, or a hundred years if necessary; things will change eventually.

At that, she suddenly went quiet, and then she said, it's too bad that she can't read, otherwise she'd quit selling newspapers and come join us in our fight.






I hadn't expected that an uneducated middle-aged newspaper vendor like herself would be so brave about tackling social issues. Compared to the knuckleheads standing around smiling stupidly as they read our posters, these so-called highly educated folk, she's a hundred times stronger.

A few youngsters signed our petition in support; in their view, it ought to be legalized, and some even pointed out that a similar campaign is now underway in Taiwan.

Still, a broader view is needed. Chinese people are too closed-off in their lives, too cut off from information, many don't even know what it means to be alive, never mind embrace their own rights and interests or respect the rights of others. My going to the street today to call for the legalization of sex work was merely me exercising my right to free speech and right to be heard!

Regardless of whether or not you support them, sex workers still have the right to make their voices heard and to express their own demands.

Please don't try and stop us. Instead, please try and give sex workers a place to speak up.

Sina blogger Li Gong touched on the subject of legalizing sex work in his lengthy July 18 post, ‘At present, China needs to be arresting corrupt officials, not prostitutes‘ in which he expands on a number of reasons why China today is ready for just such a move:


本人认为;惩治腐败是政府目前的首要工作,[…] 基于目前社会现状,我认为打击卖淫嫖娼不是政府的要务,应修改现行法律,允许卖淫嫖娼合法化,具体理由是:(1)卖淫合法化可以使我国性服务行业由非法隐蔽转向合法公开,有利于政府加强对卖淫人员健康的管理,防止艾滋病以及其它性疾病的传播;(2)卖淫合法化可以改变我国性服务行业长期受公权力庇护而得以非法存在的现状,减少国家权力腐败;(3)卖淫合法化有助于重塑国家法律权威,不至于再出现“小姐”集体宣誓,公然挑逗国家法律的尴尬局面。

Historically, the reasons behind the majority of dynastic changes have been related to corruption, not prostitution. Recently, Beijing has launched a crackdown on prostitution, followed by crackdowns across the country. Judging from netizens’ responses, the level of support for this is not high. It seems that the majority of netizens are sympathetic to prostitutes and those who procure their services, at the same time demanding that corruption be stamped out.

Personally, I feel that fighting corruption is a priority for the government at present. […] Based on the current social status quo, I feel that fighting prostitution and solicitation should not be a priority for the government, which should alter the existing laws and allow for the legalization of prostitution and solicitation. The reasons for this are: 1) Legalization of prostitution, allowing China's sex service industry to go from being illegal and underground to legal and in the open, would make it easier for the government to better manage prostitutes’ health and prevent the spread of HIV and other STDs; 2) The legalization of prostitution would alter the status quo in which China's sex industry is allowed to exist illegally under the protection of authorities, thereby reducing state authority corruption; 3) The legalization of prostitution would help restore the authority of state laws, preventing a recurrence of “ladies” making collective oaths or other awkward situations which overtly challenge state laws.


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