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China’s Commercial Sexscapes: Rethinking Intimacy, Masculinity, and Criminal Justice

By Eileen Yuk-ha Tsang
Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2019. pp. 192.

Commercial sex is a topic of interest to sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, and cultural studies scholars. China’s Commercial Sexscapes by Eileen Y.H. Tsang is a critical, investigative and sociological inquiry into commercial sex in the city of Dongguan which lies on the southern cost of China. Based on observations and interviews over several years, Tsang discovers significant hierarchies and inequalities in commercial sex economies and practices.

The sociology of sex work is a conflicted field of study, with political and polemical positions entrenched on one side that sees commercial sex as exploitation and another side that views commercial sex as emancipation. The biggest compliment I can pay an author working in this area of study is that they manage to avoid this minefield of allegiances and polemics that the sociology of sex work is known for. Offering ethnographic detail and a steady commitment to the description of social practice and processes, Tsang avoids the sex wars battle and instead provides methodological and empirical contributions that should be of interest to many scholars and activists.

Tsang conducted fieldwork in multiple commercial sex establishments in Dongguan in 2012-2013 and then again in 2017. Tsang gained entry to the sites through a key informant who helped her gain the confidence of respondents. It was not always easy to gain trust or establish rapport. One of the sites was what Tsang calls a low-end bar (p. 31). More fieldwork was conducted at a higher-end establishment. Comparing and contrasting these sites provides some interesting results. Notably, though sex work is illegal in China, higher-end bars and more affluent clients and sex workers can avoid criminalization and displacement by paying bribes and fees to local criminal justice and government officials.

Chapter 2 examines the migration of mostly rural Chinese women from farms to factories and sweatshops to commercial sex sites. Tsang is careful to note that these women lack real free choice and instead are engaged in a kind of “indentured mobility” (p. 38) in exchange for remuneration. Of course, the allure of big cities and a more cosmopolitan lifestyle is part of the motivation of these respondents (p. 47). However, these women are limited in their ability to seek work and independence, and they work at the lower-end bars.

Chapter 3 explores the motivations and desires of clients of women at low-end bars. Men outnumber women in China by a significant percentage. Tsang argues that the gender imbalance in China creates a form of masculinity that involves Chinese men who tend to be alone and work in factories using commercial sex to affirm their masculinity and disguise their insecurity and anxiety (p. 51). Such masculinities are entangled with social change and upheaval in post-socialist China. These men tend to be excluded from consideration for marriage. This creates situations where lower class men play out “masculinity phantasms” (p. 55) based on machismo, competition, and aggression. However, these men and these sex workers are poor, and the fantasies being played out can crash up against club policies on unsafe sex and the occasional need to bribe the police to avoid criminalization. Tsang argues that policy is needed to make sure this commercial sexscape can be regulated to snuff out sexual violence and coercion (pg. 68).

As Chapter 4 explores, commercial sex in higher-end establishments is very different. The workers (and the clients) tend to be more highly educated and upwardly mobile. The level of cultural capital and cosmopolitanism is also higher. The women and the men seek not only sexual but also an emotional connection. There are also foreign tourists and visitors present in this scene. Tsang suggests that the encounters in this scene are based less on coercion and more on the notion of “bounded authenticity” (p. 82) that can lead to affection, friendship, and even dating outside of the bar. In other words, these encounters can be oriented more toward “reciprocating desire” (p. 91), which is very different than what happens in the lower-end bars.

To begin with, there is surface acting and emotional labour being performed, and there is commercial sex happening, but sometimes affection, friendship, and dating replaces this. There are some slight differences in the kinds of sex and desire, depending on whether the client is Chinese or whether they are foreign visitors. The workers know how to capitalize on forms of desire articulated by clients. Nonetheless, based on follow-up phone interviews over time, Tsang was able to stay in contact with some clients and sex workers who began longer-term relationships after meeting in the bar. Drawing from the sociology of sex and intimacy, Chapter 5 explores the idea of reciprocating desire between workers and clients in more detail.

Chapter 6 conceptualizes sex work in China as a form of risk-taking and ‘edgework’. For an activity to be considered edgework, it must involve risk, fun, danger, control, and transcendent experience. Tsang argues that risks of criminalization and health problems coupled with fun and pleasure make sex work in China akin to edgework. Chapter 7 examines China’s Custody Education Program for Sex Workers, which involves detention and re-education. Assessing living conditions in these custody centres and the length of detention, Tsang uses the concepts of biopolitics and homo sacer to theorize these arrangements. Some of the centres involve more or less intense labour. All the women who were coerced into detention at the Custody Education Program for Sex Workers said that they disliked the experience. Tsang also reflects on the Sweeping Yellow or Yellow Crackdowns that targeted commercial sex in the city of Dongguan in 2014 and lead to arrests. The Yellow Crackdowns happened after Tsang’s interviews, and when she returned for additional interviews, the city and the dynamics of commercial sex there had changed. Although some higher-end establishments and even some government officials were hit in the crackdown, the lower-end bars and sex workers were criminalized to a higher degree. Some women involved in commercial sex had to move to other cities to try to survive.

Overall, Tsang suggests the Chinese government should create policies that do more to protect women involved in the commercial sex industry, especially those working in lower-end establishments. For Tsang, it is contradictory to force women to undergo detention and re-education for involvement in commercial sex while allowing male desire and police payoffs to continue unhindered. Arrest, detention, and charging of women involved in commercial sex creates harm, and the absence of formal regulation means women “lack protection” (p. 154) when they must contend with aggressive clients. 

China’s Commercial Sexscapes is a clear and persuasive text. Any scholar interested in studying sex work should want to read this book. There are a few limits to the book that I should note. First, Tsang never develops the idea of sexscapes that appears in the title. This is a concept that I think could have analytical value in analyzing sexuality and culture, but this work is not done here. Second, I wondered whether these dynamics in the city of Dongguan play out in similar ways in other cities and provinces across China. As Tsang notes, this would require a much more comprehensive study with multiple researchers in multiple cities across China as well as other countries in Asia. Third, I think the deployment of the concepts of edgework and homo sacer in Chapters 6 and 7 may have been less persuasive and convincing than the claims advanced in the earlier and more traditionally ethnographic chapters. Still, readers should make up their mind in this regard. Finally, I think readers would have benefited from hearing more about policing of sex work in China and from learning more background information on how criminal justice works in provinces across China. Nevertheless, China’s Commercial Sexscapes is a wonderful book that I hope will be widely read.


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