In the 1990s, if you were a young woman in any Chinese city, everyone from waiters to taxi drivers would call you "xiaojie." Ten years later, the once-ubiquitous term had become a euphemism for female sex workers. Some government offices even passed guidelines banning their employees from referring to their colleagues as xiaojie.

Though prostitution was outlawed in China in 1949, it has proven to be an extensive and resilient industry. Chinese economist Yang Fan has estimated that up to 20 million people are engaged in some form of sex work — from mistresses in private apartments and “money boys” in high-end clubs to street-based workers of all genders. Massage parlors, karaoke clubs, mahjong game rooms, and hair salons are all common sites for commercial sex.

Ding Yu is an associate professor of sociology and social work at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, and she has spent more than 10 years researching the lives of female sex workers in the dynamic and developed Pearl River Delta region, where the university is based.

Covering Macau, Hong Kong, and the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, the Pearl River Delta is now the world’s largest urban area in terms of both size and population. Millions of migrants from less affluent parts of China have poured into the region, which produces a quarter of the country’s exports in less than 1 percent of its territory. The area is also famous for high-profile raids on its red-light districts, especially in the cities of Dongguan and Shenzhen.

Both in China and overseas, academic research on sex work often focuses on law and morality, with plenty of pages devoted to arguing for either the decriminalization or the eradication of the industry. Ding’s research, however, shifts the spotlight to how xiaojie — as the women prefer to call themselves — see their own lives. As part of her fieldwork, Ding even lived with two xiaojie off and on for a period of six months.

What she found was that while academics and advocates often insist that sex work should be considered a form of labor, many xiaojie understand their role differently — and in fact delight in the ways their lives diverge from women laborers. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Sixth Tone: You write about “xiaojie” not only in terms of business, but also in terms of desire and identity. How did you come to understand the “xiaojie” label?

Ding Yu: Within the community, many don’t especially like or understand the term “sex worker” and prefer the term xiaojie.

I found that the term “sex worker” was mostly used by academics pushing to legalize the industry. Many academics feel that it’s important to respect this community by using a term that classifies what they do as a profession. But in fact, many xiaojie don’t really understand or like this name because they feel the term emphasizes sex.

The term “sex worker” reduces all their work to sex, which doesn’t reflect the reality of what they do. It doesn’t accurately represent the diverse forms of emotional work and entertainment that they’re engaged in; rather, it highlights the one part that’s stigmatized.

Another important reason is that the term xiaojie has a particular context from the period of China’s opening-up [in the 1980s]. Back then, it wasn’t such a common term for referring to women because it sounded so bourgeois. It’s a term that was associated with capitalism and cosmopolitanism.

So xiaojie as a word has few negative aspects for the women. It’s a little bit ambiguous, it can hold rich and varied meanings, and it’s commonly understood.

Sixth Tone: Many of the xiaojie you interviewed come from the countryside. How does this pathway compare to the other options available to them?

Ding: There’s an important class dimension. As migrants coming from the country to the city, they want to be part of this modern, developed world. They want to shed the kind of coarseness that’s associated with the countryside.

The most common other option for migrant women is to work in a factory. Most xiaojie are very well-informed about the conditions of factory work, and they know they’re not interested.

They know other women from their hometowns who are factory laborers, and there are plenty of media reports that show how it is tedious, repetitive, and arduous, how the worker is treated like a machine. They know you’re stuck in dorm accommodation, far from the city center, producing luxury items you can’t afford to buy yourself. They know you are outside the modernity and development as a handmaiden to it.Other options, such as being a waitress or nanny or shop assistant — these positions generally see lower income and worse working conditions than being a xiaojie, which is thus not a particularly poor option.

Sixth Tone: There has been a huge crackdown on sex work in China in the past few years. What has changed for the women?

Ding: The work becomes more concealed. Encounters with clients might be more indirect — instead of regulars who visit the mahjong club or hair salon, they will connect online or through apps.

With more online business, it’s hard to compare how people operate now with the community of xiaojie in the past. There’s maybe more of what the Japanese call “compensated dating” — a sexual encounter in order to pay for a vacation or buy an iPhone. You go out with a guy, he’ll pick up the bill, take you to a film, buy you a luxury bag.

With compensated dating, these people might not see themselves as either xiaojie or sex workers — they don’t see it as work. They might emphasize that it’s a kind of dating or even a hookup. It’s more part of the culture of casual sex than a business transaction.

Sixth Tone: Sex work has a long history in China. How has its mainstream perception changed?

Ding: I think there’s been very little change in mainstream perception over the decades. It’s not that people opposed it in the past and accept it now. There has always more or less been this attitude of having one eye open and one eye closed. People don’t think it’s absolutely corrupt or immoral, but they also can’t entirely accept it. For the most part, people accommodate it.

For young people, their growing openness to sexuality might mean that the overall environment is a little easier, comparatively. With apps and everything, there are more ways for them to express their sexuality or meet sexual needs.

Sixth Tone: You have said that it’s difficult to research sex work in China because you can’t get funding or teach related subjects. What has been the impact of that gap in research?

Ding Yu: The research environment is tighter than it was. From around 1995 to the early 2000s, there was more funding and more freedom for research and publication for work around sexuality. But in the last few years, it has become much harder to publish anything on those topics. Editors will tell you, “We don’t publish things like that.”

The impact is that there has been very little research on the major changes to this industry and this community, or on how their work and needs have changed. We lack a deep understanding of that.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.

TNL Editor: Olivia Yang