Background In Sichuan province, the criminalised status of female sex work, coupled with the mobility of female sex workers (FSWs), poses major challenges to gathering information about the organisation of the sex trade.
Objectives This study has 2 main objectives: (1) To document the environmental risk factors in sex work venues; (2) To describe the sex trade industry in relation to political economic factors, including broader economic transformations.
Methods We trained 3 FSWs to conduct participant observation and ethnographic field note writing, including “thick descriptions” (the pealing back of multiple layers of meaning during observations of social scenes). These observations were conducted in 9 sex work venues representing previously mapped FSW venues. Findings were contextualised with secondary historical sources.
Findings Participant observation revealed that FSWs were independent when choosing where they worked and when they shifted to another work site. However, gender power inequalities between sex workers and their clients were also described. These power relationships are tied to structural factors that converge in small urban spaces. Teahouses, for example, have a long history that brings together entertainment, leisure, business and politics. In recent decades, there has been a resurgence of leisure and entertainment venues in Sichuan province in the Dengist era of economic liberalisation. Teahouses, are therefore part of a wider proliferation of small leisure spaces in urban milieus that allow (mostly) men from a variety of backgrounds to enjoy pleasure and “recapture” ideas of freedom that were suppressed under the Maoist regime. For women working in these spaces, however, the unequal social relations they encounter reflect the limited opportunities that women more generally encounter in post-socialist China.
Conclusion Any intervention that seeks to reduce risk behaviours in sex work venues must account for how sexual risk practises and vulnerabilities are rooted in larger political economic realities.
- Environmental and polictical economic perspective
- Female sex workers in China
- Peer ethnography