Can humiliation stop men from hiring sex workers? The Chinese internet debates

Society & Culture

A police department in Changsha, Hunan Province, is trying to stop the sex industry by shaming those engaged in illegal sex work and their customers. The unusual tactic, however, has raised public shaming concerns among experts in privacy and civil rights.

china sex worker

A police department in Changsha, Hunan Province, is trying to stop the sex industry by shaming those engaged in illegal sex work and their customers. The unusual tactic, however, has raised public shaming concerns among experts in privacy and civil rights.

The regional initiative attracted national attention last week when an internet user shared a police information poster he came across in Changsha’s Yuelu District. “In a bid to seriously curb illegal acts such as prostitution, gambling, and drugs, sex workers and their clients will face a new, additional penalty — their offenses will be disclosed to their employers, residential communities, and family members,” said the notice, which was posted in the Shangmaocheng Residential District and signed by a local police station.

In an interview (in Chinese) with Xiaoxiang Morning Herald, Péng Mànqún 彭曼群, a government official in the Shangmaocheng neighborhood, revealed that similar posters had been up in the area for several weeks. The objective was to crack down on illegal sexual services and make potential customers “think twice” before engaging in “indecent behavior,” he said.

Tán Bō 谭波, a community police officer in the district, told the newspaper that the punishment was part of a regional effort to combat rising sex trade crime rates. “The initiative is intended to serve two purposes: one is to make prostitutes more aware of legal consequences, and the other is to cause a sense of shame among people who hire sex workers, prompting them to consider how much damage their behavior will do to their reputation and family harmony,” Tan said, adding that the policy has yielded desirable results so far and received positive feedback from local residents.

On social media, proponents of the tactic believed that it would spread fear in perpetrators who had thought they could stay anonymous after an offense. “Since morality means nothing to those who are convicted of solicitation crimes, we need a form of humiliation to deter them from going to prostitutes again and to serve as a warning to others,” a Weibo user commented.

But detractors argued that the policy could unjustly ruin lives of people around sex offenders. “There’s no guarantee that those who get notified by the police won’t spread information further,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese), while another said (in Chinese), “The practice is branding someone with no regard to the collateral damage of the label. The offenders’ family members may have to live in shame forever for something they didn’t commit.”

Despite its alleged effectiveness, privacy advocates and legal experts also cautioned that the controversial penalty was an “unchecked invasion of privacy” and an “over-broad criminal policy.” In an opinion article (in Chinese) published by Sohu News, author Xú Yuán 徐媛 warned that the penalty has the power to cause an individual’s death in the court of public opinion. “This practice is harsher than detention and fines in a sense. For someone facing this penalty, the price he has to pay for his crime is too steep,” she wrote.

According to Chinese law, all aspects of sex work — including solicitation, sale, and purchase — are illegal. Most sex-work-related offenses are treated as administrative violations, punishable by fines and short periods of police custody or administrative detention. While public security bureaus are obligated to tell offenders’ families in cases of administrative detention, the detained people have the right to withhold contact information for family members.