Chinese sex workers and HIV

Published: September 9, 2013

 Only when sun sets on the southern Chinese city of Mengzi, do the roller doors of the city’s red light district rise. They reveal tiny lounge rooms bathed in pink light where young women put on stilettos and apply makeup. Strangely intimate, domestic scenes where a poster on the wall of a naked couple hints at what’s for sale. In the hours before the men of Mengzi end their workday – and theirs’ can begin – the sex workers gossip and do each other’s hair. 

The rags-to-(relative) riches tale of this 300,000 person city in Yunnan province is textbook modern China, and with prosperity sex follows. Add increased internal migration, where job prospects may put hundreds of miles between husbands and wives, and a gender imbalance that’s left the country with a bride shortage, and China’s sex trade – though technically illegal – is suddenly booming. 
In Mengzi, the 30 or so brothels of Zhao Zhong Rd represent just one, highly visible, portion of the city’s sex industry. And on the sliding scale they – along with hotels, massage parlors and karaoke television (KTV) joints – are considered high end. Their sex workers range in their teens to late 20s, happy to make fast money over slogging for low pay in a restaurant or factory.  
But further back in an older, shabbier part of the city is another class of sex workers. They work out of their homes, earn less and have little support on the occasion a customer is violent or leaves without paying. And with Mengzi just a few hours drive from the "Golden Triangle" of opium-production, some of these women do sex work to feed their crippling heroin addiction. In terms of social status they’re just the gum on the bottom of the nation’s shoe, but a priority for certain groups working to combat HIV. 
Overall, HIV is still a low-prevalence epidemic in China with just 0.058 per cent of the population infected or 92,940 reported cases, according to the government’s 2012 China AIDS Response Progress Report. 
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