They refuse to use femidoms because they are too big to swallow. In a raid, sex workers will swallow any condoms they have on their person, because condoms (used or unused) will be used as hard evidence by the police.
I spoke with Lijia Zhang in December 2016, just weeks before the publication of her long-awaited first novel, Lotus. In part one of this interview, we discussed her personal reasons for telling this unparalleled story, how she learned to relate to Chinese sex workers, and how her own struggle for self-improvement informed her character, Lotus.
In in part two of this interview, we talked about how women are faring in China’s sexual revolution, Chinese attitudes toward contraception and reproductive health, and the lengths some women go to in the fight against the patriarchy.
Here, in part three, we discuss China’s turn towards hedonism since Mao’s era of sexual purity, how sex workers approach reproductive health, and how migration and class-based oppression create problems for already disadvantaged women.
Lotus provides a close look at the southern city of Shenzhen. What does your novel convey about greater Chinese society?
Every society has prostitution. There is a saying in China: 饱暖思淫欲 温饱而思淫欲 [bǎo nuǎn sī yínyù wēnbǎo ér sī yínyù]. It means once you have food and clothing you start thinking about sex.
Society has become hedonistic after Mao’s regime of sexual purity and sexual repression. China has become materialistic, restless. Other reasons for the growing sex industry include growing wealth, relaxed social control and the resulting growth in individual personal freedom. Plus of course, China’s population is increasingly mobile. Young migrant workers often can’t bring their wives with them or establish a relationship.
Prostitutes are real people, and I wanted to expose that. They are not always sexually appealing, but they know all the tricks of how to flirt and attract men. The oldest sex worker I met was a woman in her middle 60s. Another middle-aged sex worker had a grown-up daughter who was married. Some women really get stuck in the trade and cannot get out. Like any job, there are drawbacks. But their lives are not totally bleak either.
The Hukou system is effectively China’s apartheid system. The Hukou prevents migrant workers getting really good jobs. It is because of the Hukou that migrant workers and urban residents live such separate lives.
When she becomes a prostitute, Lotus has no idea about sexual health. Her clients pay more for sex without a condom, and one man even washes out an expensive “Golden Gun – Never Flops” condom for later use. What are the pervasive attitudes and challenges to sex education?
The legislation states sexual education should be taught in schools, but it is not compulsory and it is not enforced. It is not on the government’s list of priorities. There aren’t calls from the public for sexual education but there are non-governmental organisations providing information on a wide range of things, from HIV/Aids clinics to promoting openness about sexuality.
Many prostitutes are not educated about sexual health. Their bosses often tell them that it is ok not to use a condom, because they get more money that way. They will say, “it looks clean” and agree to sex without a condom. Many men will refuse to wear a condom.
One NGO promoting sexual health suggested prostitutes start using femidoms, because then the women themselves could have control of the contraception and they don’t have to rely on the clients wearing a condom. But the prostitutes said they cannot use femidoms, because they are too big – in a raid, they will often swallow the condoms they have on their person, because condoms (used or unused) will be used as hard evidence by the police. But femidoms were too big to swallow so they would not carry them or use them.
The detail about Family Treasure washing out the condom for later use is true. I heard lots of stories like that. That brand, ‘Golden Gun – Never Flops’, is a real brand of condoms, you know!
Migrants tend to live on the outskirts of cities where they can find cheap temporary housing, occupying a liminal space between urban and rural, where they find it hard to integrate. Lotus’s status as a migrant seems to compound her existing problems. How do migration issues compound women’s problems in China?
The Hukou system prevents migrant workers getting really good jobs. The Hukou is effectively China’s apartheid system. It is partly because of the Hukou that migrant workers and urban residents live such separate lives. In the novel, Lotus tries to become a salesperson, she even buys the clothing for it. But she cannot because she doesn’t have the correct residence papers.
How does the legal position of sex workers reflect patterns of class-based oppression in China?
Most women come to prostitution through personal choice. There is very little trafficking, there are very few women who are sold into prostitution, there are not many pimps. However, there are some cases where the pimp is the woman’s husband or brother.
Prostitution is illegal. The government does not really know how to tackle the problem so the police do big raids and crackdowns. The police arrest as many women as they can. The police will use any evidence they can to prove the women are prostitutes. Condoms – used or unused – are considered hard evidence.
Crackdowns are a big problem. The police will beat up the women and force them to confess. If the woman goes unconscious, they will force her to drink water mixed with wasabi so they wake up. A woman I know was sprayed with a high-pressure hose with cold water, and then they put the air conditioning on. When she vomited, they made her eat her own vomit.
If they can prove that a woman is a prostitute, they will repatriate her, take her back home. Repatriation means that the woman will be sent back to her hometown in shame, and her family will have to pay the fine. That means everyone will find out the truth. They will do anything to avoid this. I know a woman who slept with the policeman but still had to pay the fine before they would let her go. They would rather borrow money to pay the fines, lose all their savings and go bankrupt, than be sent home in shame.
There was a woman who worked at a high-class place in Beijing, who was killed – they don’t know exactly how but it could have been one of her regular clients or her boyfriend. When they searched her apartment, they found 200,000 yuan in cash hidden all over her home.