Elevate Difference

Red Lights: The Lives of Sex Workers in Postsocialist China

It’s easy to disregard sex workers, to relegate them to the margins of society and pretend that they don’t exist in the perfect little world that is uncomfortable with the idea that there are members of our population who have sex for money. Often considered an untouchable part of society (no matter what culture we’re talking about), sex workers are often overlooked in anthropological or sociological studies with many researchers content to look at the more accepted members of society rather than delve into the seedy underbelly of urban life. Luckily, the sex workers of Dalian, a bustling metropolis in Northern China, had their voices heard by Tiantian Zheng who writes a beautiful study of the realities facing these women.

Red Lights shows that not only are these women a vital part of society, their work is inextricably entwined with China’s rapidly changing economy. The hostesses that Zheng follows are not the stereotypical submissive Asian sex goddesses that are so often a fixture of the porn industry. Nor are they unwilling sexual slaves, sold into a world they don’t understand. Many of the women enter the trade willingly, seeing hostessing as the only way to make enough money to support their families back in the rural villages that they call home. But, this is not a female empowerment story either.

Zheng does an excellent job of showing the reader all sides of the story. The struggle to stay safe in an incredibly unsafe profession. The violence and fear that are often a daily part of life for the hostesses. The conflict between their new lives in the city and their rural pasts and the difficulty of “going home again” when the city has hardened the hostesses view of life and the way the world works. The thrill of making their money versus the shame of a profession that isn’t looked kindly upon by family—even though for some of these families, it’s often the only source of income.

Like so many decisions in life, the decision of these women to become hostesses and to willingly serve men isn’t an easy one and it isn’t easily understood. This book adequately portrays these women as real people. We learn how they feel about their jobs, how they relate to their families and how they survive in the dangerous world of sex work. Unsurprisingly, the real world is quite a bit more complex than the stereotypes let on.

Given the serious nature of the subject, one would expect Red Lights to be a tough read. However, Zheng handles her subjects with a delicate touch, showing readers the hostesses’ pain, as well as their happiness. While the lengthy breakdowns of the Chinese economy and the effect of decades of socialist beliefs on the Chinese citizen may be a little too long and too in-depth for a casual reader, overall I found the book engrossing. The hostesses’ stories scattered throughout added a human element to what could have easily been an overly academic tome. Those interested in the social ramifications of sex work or the effect the post-Socialist economy has on Chinese women should pick up this book.

Written by: Jennifer Lee Johnson, August 31st 2009

This book looks crazy interesting, and I really enjoyed this review. I passed it along to a close friend who currently lives in Beijing. Thanks!