China’s Commercial Sexscapes: Rethinking Intimacy, Masculinity, And Criminal Justice

Author: Eileen Yuk-ha Tsang
Publisher: Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019. 179p.
Reviewer: Tiantian Zheng │ July 2020

Based on in-depth interviews with female sex workers and male clients in Dongguan, China, Eileen Yuk-ha Tsang, in this book, explores the experiences of male clients and female sex workers in the low-tier, mid-tier, and high-tier sex work sectors in the globalizing China. Through an analysis of the dynamic relationships between the male clients and female sex workers in the different sectors of sex work in China, Tsang argues that sex work is “edgework” for the female sex workers in her research, which is a “voluntary risky activity that leads to new adaptive behaviors enabling the individual to continue that activity” (p. 10).

Tsang conducted an accumulative 36 months of fieldwork in an industrial city of Dongguan, Guangdong, China between 2010 and 2017. Through the help of three friends, Tsang worked in three different bars as a bartender to interview sex workers and clients between 2013 and 2017. The book is drawn from her interviews with 195 female sex workers and 150 male clients, obtained from both her fieldwork and online chatroom interviews on QQ and Wechat. Tsang offered cash coupons and non-cash gifts to the interviewees and informants for their contribution to the research. The cash coupons were provided by the General Research Fund project of the University Grant Council in Hong Kong.

This book comprises seven chapters. Chapter 1 discusses the setting of the ethnography and the methodologies employed in the fieldwork. Chapter 2 focuses on the life of the low-end sex workers in the low-tier and mid-tier bars. Chapter 3 examines the experiences of male migrant workers who purchase sex from low-end sex workers in the low- and mid-tier bars. Chapter 4 explores the long-term romantic relationships between high-end sex workers and foreign and Chinese male clients in the high-end sex work sector. Chapter 5 delineates the ways in which high-end sex workers and their clients negotiate and navigate sexual intimacy.

Chapter 6 applies the theoretical framework of “edgework” to sex work, and argues that edgework is the reason behind many sex workers’ choice to continue in this line of work. Chapter 7 argues that the “Re-education through Labor Camps” program where low-tier and mid-tier sex workers were sent failed at the purported goal of retraining the sex workers — instead functioning like factory sweatshops, and made the women feel exploited and abused. The concluding chapter encapsulates the existing knowledge about sex work in modern China, and argues for a new approach to intimacy, masculinity and criminal justice in China’s sex industry.

This book contributes to the literature on the variegated levels of sex work in urban China. Its ethnographic approach offers readers an in-depth scrutiny of the dynamic interactions between clients and sex workers. On the other hand, it suffers from the lack of a more extensive literature review of existent research on migrant sex work and a discussion of how this book advances and contributes to this literature. Nevertheless, the book should be welcomed by scholars who have an interest in Chinese studies, gender studies, and sexuality studies.

Tiantian Zheng, State University of New York, Cortland

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