Let's find a better way to deter prostitution

By Gabrielle Pickard
0 CommentsPrint E-mail China.org.cn, August 7, 2010
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The media is circulating images of young girls, barely out of their teens, shoeless and handcuffed, and it's undoubtedly a harrowing and disturbing vision. According to police, these young women are prostitutes, and as part of a crackdown on the sex trade prior to the 2010 Asian games, they’re being marched through the streets like wild beasts.  Surely, parading women like meat is not the way to "clean-up" prostitution.


From 1949 there was almost a complete eradication of prostitution in China, which was part of a social experiment that lasted for almost three decades. During this time men and women were often segregated, and Mao’s government launched a harsh crackdown on prostitution. In 1978, when China broke its isolation, prostitution resurfaced almost immediately. Since then prostitution has been rising steadily in China, although latterly, with an expanding economy and more Western values surfacing, illegal prostitution has been increasing with a renewed vigor in China. Red-light districts are now a common burden in most towns and cities, and brothels are apparently tolerated and call girls regularly try to entice travelers to succumb to the services they offer by ringing them in their hotel rooms.


Like it is elsewhere, prostitution in China is a mostly an affliction of the poor and socially deprived, as they wrestle to make ends meet through the use of their bodies. As it is globally, prostitution is a threat to social institutions such as marriage, is synonymous with crime and drugs, is a potential health hazard, particularly with the rise of HIV and AIDS, and is a menace to community standards. In spite of all the potential social damage the illegal sex industry can cause, how should China, or anywhere else for that matter, attempt to deal with the problem? Are police in the Guangdong Province right to shackle and remove the shoes of prostitutes to prevent them running away? Or would taking a more subtle and less humiliating approach be more effective?


After she witnessed two young girls being forced to remove their shoes and handcuffed, Wan Yu was so infuriated that she took photographs of the women. The images have since been distributed to the global media. Wan Yu’s sentiments that, "parading [these girls] through the streets like animals in full view of the public is not the way to treat them," echoes the beliefs of many. In their defense, police in Guangzhou said the public humiliation these women were forced to endure is a deterrent, aimed at dissuading others from prostitution.


Nobody could disagree that using such degrading and humiliating methods would not act as a deterrent. Yet one vital component is missing from the Guangzhou authority’s reasoning behind their tactics. Most women and men mixed up in prostitution do not have any alternatives. Drug addiction is the biggest factor that leads adults and even children to the streets week by week, unfazed by the prospect of violence, rape or imprisonment. While being reduced to a shoeless and shackled display of embarrassment and sympathy may not be a welcoming prospect, the mortification of being raped, beaten or even worse, must be even more humiliating. These people are so desperate that they are past caring, or at least numbed of any feelings. And this is what the Guangzhou police are up against, reckless, desperate individuals who are devoid of emotion.


Although one advantage of using such aggressive tactics is that they may deter the clientele. Men (and sometimes women) who use prostitutes essentially do so in secret, therefore being publically  humiliated and marched to a police station may indeed act as a valuable deterrent to those who, unlike the prostitutes, are not plagued by desperation. In the recent images of the incident in Guangzhou, it is interesting to note that the unidentified man, who was arrested alongside the prostitutes, looks more shamed and embarrassed than the girls. 


But what is the solution? Legalization? Decriminalization? Harm-reduction measures? All have been tried and tested, but none have been the definite answer by any means. While Mao is definitely not making a comeback, prostitution in China is back for the long term, and the crux of the debate is how to control it. Certainly, humiliating young, socially disadvantaged girls, shackled and shoeless, in an attempt to “clean” a city of its social sinners ahead of a major sport tournament cannot be the answer. 


The author is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit: http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/node_7077604.htm


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