Research finds that many sex workers in China are not using condoms, because prostitution is illegal and if they are caught the condoms are often held as evidence against them.
In three major Chinese cities, Asia Catalyst conducted a study consisting of 518 questionnaire responses and 74 in-depth interviews with sex workers, including males, females, and transgender females, as well as interviews with 18 key informants.
The study found that sex workers are less likely to use condoms after having experienced a police interrogation. 67.8% of those who had not been interrogated reported consistent condom usage, compared with just 47.7% of those who had been interrogated in the past.
In the interviews, sex workers said that the possession of condoms was enough to elicit arrest, even if law enforcement officers had not caught them in the act of actually using one.
A transgender sex worker identified as Shasha is quoted as saying that one evening the police picked her up from the street and ruled that she was a prostitute just for the condoms and lubricant found in her bag, although she had done no business on that day. “I was very angry at the time. They had no evidence, and hadn’t caught me in the act or chatting anyone up, so on what basis could they say I was engaging in prostitution?” she said.
Entertainment venues are hindered from dispersing condoms also because of police scrutiny. A health department worker identified as Zhao Ke told Asia Catalyst that despite provincial AIDS regulations that mandate condoms be made available, venue operators do not dare to put the condoms out because then the police will start asking questions. Ke said he once saw a police officer question a manager, “Do you have illegal activities going on here?” and made him gather up all the condoms quickly.
One manager said that as a result, many venues put condoms out when health authorities come and put them away when the police arrive.
“Not only is this increasing HIV vulnerability, but it is making a mockery of parallel government condom distribution efforts among this highly marginalized group,” said Karyn Kaplan, Executive Director of Asia Catalyst. HIV is on the rise in China, particularly among the urban youth, most of the new cases involve men having unprotected sex with other men.
In China, sex work is an administrative offence often punished through fines and detention. According a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2013, sex workers are more often released with a fine than incarcerated. HRW quoted the Ministry of Public Security as saying that “the fines help supplement the operational costs of local law enforcement.” Because the fines are not officially recorded and published as prostitution case data, there is no knowing how much that police have collected through fining sex workers. In the past, there have been calls for prostitution to be legalized in China, for the sake of sex workers’ health and safety.
By Victor Fung
[Image via Asia Catalyst]