Maizidian, the old “wheat sellers” street in Beijing. This neighborhood near the embassy district hosts the largest concentration of massage parlors within the city, of both the chaste and erotic varieties (many more such establishments can be found in the suburbs). The main locale of German businesses, it’s known to foreigners as Germantown; the Japanese are also active in the area. One of the more popular restaurants in Maizidian is Baoyuan Dumplings. It fills up fast during the lunch hour, though you can reserve one of their private dining rooms, as personnel often do from the American Embassy a short taxi ride away. The dumplings are succulent but their unique attraction is your choice of orange, green or purple wrappings—the dough infused respectively with the juice of carrots, spinach or red cabbage. Like the colorful food, the waitresses change into a different folksy costume each day. Their cheerfulness and low turnover bespeak good management. The owner plays cards with friends at a table out front on the sidewalk when the weather is warm. Since I order the same thing every time and the waitresses know me, I need merely sit down at my favorite table and am soon served.
One day a woman with high cheekbones and sexy almond eyes fixes her gaze on mine as I step into the restaurant. Despite her cheeks’ youthful bloom, the shadows around her eyes suggest her early thirties. She is much too aware of her attractiveness to be a migrant, yet her unlikely rustic quilted cotton jacket and matching pants coincidentally resemble the outfits the waitresses are wearing. She is eating alone and finishing up her meal. A minute later I casually glance over at her. She’s packing up an order of dumplings to go and meets my eye again. Not the type to affect prudishness and plainly at ease in dealing with men. She gets up to leave. As she passes by my table, she slips me a note with her cellphone number and the English name Melody and says with a smile, “Call me.” I have a good look at her on her way out—tallish with a narrow waist and full hips.
Rare is the woman handing out her number to a strange man. Perhaps I’ve lucked out on my ultimate catch, a female with a radical artistic consciousness who takes each day as an erotic challenge (the closest I ever came was an affair with a professional Chinese acrobat I met on a bus, a porn connoisseur who could eat herself out and in performance rotate her body from supine to prone and back again while balancing lighted candelabra on her head, hands, and feet; I told her she really needed to perform in the nude). More likely, she is a prostitute. But prostitutes don’t have a habit of frequenting good restaurants. The lower tier are served cheap boxed lunches or stir-fried cooked in their dorm-style premises—breakfast actually, as they are just getting up from late-night work. The more independent freelancers, by contrast, are too persnickety to waste money on something like fancy food: they expect to be treated to that by their clients.
I text her. She responds right away and can meet in the evening. She is not from the neighborhood and prefers to rendezvous at 10 pm in the lobby of the classy Marco Polo hotel in a northern part of the city some distance away.
“Can we make it any earlier?”
“No. I have to visit someone in the hospital and won’t be free until then.”
“What are you doing in Maizidian, then?”
“Delivering lunch for a friend in the hospital.”
“The same hospital? Why come all the way down to Maizidian?”
“What are we going to do at the Marco Polo? It’s pretty expensive.”
“I live near the hotel.”
After a late dinner, I ride up to the Marco Polo on my bike and wait in the hotel lobby. I’m worried her face in brighter lighting won’t live up to my initial impression and in fact, am already regretting the long excursion when Melody walks in. Now brashly dressed in a low-cut black top, black tights, and an unbuttoned yellow sweater showing off her hourglass figure and big breasts, she’s stunning. Far more attractive than on the first encounter and unmistakably beautiful. We move to the lounge, where I order Campari and sodas.
Her Chinese name is so common as to render it anonymous; not even Jane Smith or Susan Jones conveys its prosaicness, but in deference to privacy I’ll stick to Melody. She is 29 and a graduate of the Ocean University in Qingdao with a degree in marine biology. She married a fellow student and went off with him to Germany while he worked on his doctorate. They fought a lot and got divorced. Upon returning to China, she found a gig as a music teacher in a primary school in Beijing.
She shifts closer to me. We caress each other. She gets to the point. Her father just had a stroke and the medical bills are skyrocketing way beyond what she and her parents can afford; it’s with them she’s spending every evening in the hospital. She knows I want sex. She wants money—2,000 yuan to be exact. No way, that’s too much. The most I ever spent on a prostitute was 500 ($75), which is what you used to be able to bargain things down to at the Pig & Thistle in the Lido Hotel or Maggie’s in Jianguomen, with its midnight hoard of Mongolian hookers descending on expat males.
I tend to find sex with prostitutes boring and a waste of time and money, due to the lack of any genuine friendliness in the transaction. I must have a very good reason to bother, exceptional beauty for instance. The other reason I now feel myself teetering on the edge and willing to pay four times more than I have ever shelled out before is there’s something uncanny about her. I can’t read her; nothing about her makes sense. As a writer I thrive on such ambiguity, the raw puckered fold of mystery to wiggle my finger into and work into a story, perhaps an unpleasant one but one nonetheless worth writing about. She lowers the price to 1,500. If I agree, she promises to give me a freebie or two after that.
We walk over to her place. She has me wait outside for five minutes before going in separately, to keep her guests out of sight and “maintain a good relationship with the guard.” The complex is in a decent-enough neighborhood and her apartment is what might be termed luxurious by average standards. The entrance opens onto a dining room. The centerpiece of the spacious living room is a king-size bed rather than the usual sofa and chairs—many Chinese like to turn their biggest room into a master bedroom. There’s also a bedroom proper with another king-size bed, and a second smaller bedroom for her seven-year-old daughter, as I discover when I open up the room by accident (she told me she was childless).
The flat looks like a tornado hit it. Clutter and dust and unaccountable debris are everywhere: wooden planks from detached furniture frames, piles of long rolls of some paper product that might be inventory in some kind of business. I am relieved at least that it isn’t rented by a madam or pimp and shared by rotating girls. She owns the place, she says, and I have no reason not to believe her, yet I can’t figure out her circumstances. If she’s still paying a mortgage she might indeed be in financial straits, but such a large apartment can only mean she’s better off than most. For all I know, she gives men the same spiel about her father’s stroke every time in order to keep the money she’s invested in the stock market rolling in.
She emerges after showering with her robe hanging open, lies back on the bed, and spreads her legs wide to show off a freshly shaved vulva. “Chinese guys don’t like it shaved but I know you foreign guys do. Here, eat me out.”
“Oh, no! I need bush. I need unshaved. Why didn’t you ask me first?”
I hastily put on a condom while I am still hard. She straddles me, which happens to be my favorite position, but she insists on keeping my hands on her breasts when I want to grab her ass and makes me maul them in a furious circular motion, apparently the only way she can get off. She yells loudly, and I yell at her to slow down. The mechanical contortions deflate my erection in seconds.
Apologizing for the fiasco, she invites me to spend the night, while warning me I have to leave early in the morning before she gets her daughter up at seven, not wanting us to get officially acquainted.
Her alarm goes off at 6 am and she gets up. I doze for another thirty minutes. After washing up, I find her fallen back asleep in the other bedroom. She jumps up and runs to her daughter’s room to wake her up. I slip out the door into a cold November morning pouring rain and have to ride the hour and a half back home because while my folding bike can fit into the trunk of a taxi, finding a taxi in Beijing during rush hour in the rain is like winning the lottery.
I contact Melody a few days later to see if she’s amenable to honoring her promise and stopping over at my place for a freebie. She agrees. But an hour before she’s due to arrive she calls me. “It’s too far to go to your place. Come over here instead. You can stay the night again.”
Now we are at a crucial juncture, a battle of wits. It’s not that she can’t manage to make it over to my place. The problem is my proposing something, and that won’t do. She feels it to be her prerogative to propose and my duty to accept. For if she can get me to agree to go back over to her place in spite of my reluctance, it means she can get me to do anything, including forking over more money on our next encounter and every encounter thereafter, despite the original terms of our so-called arrangement.
“Oh, yeah, come and fuck me! I know you want it. Oh, yeah, ooh, ooh, ooh, fuck me! Ooh yeah, ooh! ooh! ooh!”
I hang up on her.
As quick as a wink and we’re enemies (a view I will later revise). But why should I be perturbed about it, when her actions merely confirm the eternal law of the prostitute, which I knew all along? A law that in its purity and logic can be described as a thing of elegance: the more unsatisfying the experience for me, the more satisfying for her (another view I’ll later revise).
The ease with which instant sex can be summoned at the snap of a finger and a little money likens prostitution to a magic act. But the real magic is for the prostitute: the ease with which instant money can be summoned at the snap of a finger. The caressing of sensuous banknotes in exchange for a few minutes of fucking is more erotic than fucking. You’ve now succeeded in getting the world’s two most tangible pleasures—sex and money—to realize each other. Once you habituate to this formula, there is no turning back. Once sex and money bind in this powerful chemical reaction, once sex is monetized and money eroticized, they can never be sundered. Money doesn’t debase sex; it improves it, transfigures it. The sex-for-pay equation liberates precisely through its power to corrupt. You are compensated by a new form of pleasure that’s more exquisite than sex itself. Once corrupted, you enter the exhilarating landscape of transactional sex, the heady sphere where it’s men, not women, who are seduced and conquered.
The catch is that the sexual transaction obliterates all generosity. There are never any freebies. This is the central problem that I wish to investigate and work up a solution for.
Anti-prostitution feminists have fastened on this same problem but approach it differently, and I must first address this discrepancy to clarify my own stance on the issue. As they argue, the prostitute’s loss of sexual innocence, her inability to enjoy sex without the expectation of payment or to enter into loving relationships, constitutes a grave violation of her human rights, even when she violates them of her own volition. They claim there is no legitimate form of sex work even under ideal circumstances—where the sex worker controls the conditions in which she enters into sex work—due to the psychological consequences of working in a profession whose nature is to grind away the very capacity for intimacy.
In addressing this argument, let’s start with the tricky notion of intimacy, the deep, loving relationship. Most would agree that intimate love is precious, but must it be regarded as obligatory? If intimacy is a human right, so is the right not to be intimate. Intimacy is far from universal. There are many people who are not particularly fixated on love and relationships, or on the need to start a family, and would regard the pressure to do so as an imposition, indeed a violation of their individual autonomy. The same goes for sex. Everyone knows people who are utterly uninterested in their own sex life and are just fine being celibate, single, “asexual.” They may have different preoccupations or obsessions—their work, adventure, sports, spirituality, creativity, health or even sanity and just getting through the day. For countless others as well, money is more important than love or sex. What’s wrong with that? How is the sex worker’s avarice, or business acumen, any different from the entrepreneur’s?
Nor does it follow that the absence of intimacy entails the loss of the capacity to enjoy sex. On the contrary, some of the most orgasmic women I have ever slept with have been prostitutes. A truth too few people realize is that sex can’t be fully experienced and enjoyed except as hot sex, cleanly cloven from love. There is something contradictory between liberated sexuality and intimacy. When you cultivate sexual technique and enjoyment for its own sake, you arrive at the insight that the point is not to please the other but to use the other to please yourself—which, paradoxically, is the best way of pleasing the other.
The act of prostitution actually engenders a unique intimacy of its own. When two strangers take their clothes off in front of each other without any of the usual preliminaries of dating, acquaintance, talk or seduction, a special intimacy is revealed in its barest essentials, stripped down and purer than any other type. It’s an edifying intimacy, one that teaches you how to deconstruct yourself gracefully in front of the other. This is what you can practice and work on when paying someone for sex or being paid to have sex. In the process of humbling yourselves as equals, of giving up a little of the natural shame shoring up your sense of self and sharing it in mutual humility, you form a bond.
Why are sex workers so despised by the public and elicit so much contempt? It surely can’t be because they earn money, like the rest of us. It can’t be because they have sex. And it can’t be because they happen to combine these two activities in the most logical way, which many of us already do in more subtle or indirect ways (“payback” for a man’s dating expenses; the wealthy man who effectively buys his wife of choice). It has something to do with the violation of intimacy, but it’s more basic still than intimacy. What I suggest really underlies social contempt for the prostitute is her flagrant violation of privacy: not so much her ability to relinquish her personal privacy at a moment’s notice as the rejection of the very idea of privacy, the whole tradition and ideology of privacy which has had such a grip on the bourgeoisie over the past couple of centuries. That the prostitute, and her client as well, are able to do this with ease flies in the face of virtually everything conventional society holds dear.
For a distinct minority, myself included, privacy doesn’t have that aura of the sacrosanct about it. Indeed, the notion of “privacy” is itself unsettling, this at once so human and yet strange and artificial thing that is imposed on us, the violation of which, beginning with one’s own privacy, becomes attractive and fascinating. What more effective way of outraging privacy, or rather liberating it, than turning it into an object of exchange?
Underpinning bourgeois sexuality and forming its fault line is the contradiction between two opposing ethical frameworks: that which regards sex, on the one hand, as a sacred commodity in short supply and that which regards it, on the other, as abundant and freely available. Conventional morality is obviously aligned with the former. People cannot handle this contradiction between everything they were brought up to believe and the contrary that keeps getting flung in their face. How can sex be so scarce and unattainable for some while so readily accessible for others? The tension between these two incommensurables creates a psychosocial schizophrenic split, an intolerable ambivalence. Hence the universal urge to resolve the split, to equalize and level the playing field, namely by eradicating not only prostitution but free sexual expression altogether, which of course never has and never will be achieved, unless through extreme draconian measures reminiscent of seventeenth-century Salem or the anti-prostitution campaigns in China in the 1950-70s. Such campaigns can be effective, but the price to be paid for total sexual repression is an intimidated and cowed population in whom fear of sex is so deeply automated that they lose the ability to engage in even conjugal lovemaking without shame.
Short of this goal, anti-prostitution feminists resort to casting aspersion on the entire sex industry, reducing it by association to the worst manifestations of sex work—the exploitation and violence of pimps, or the appalling practice, evidently common in some countries with extreme poverty (India, Bangladesh), of enslaving women in the sex trade from childhood—and lumping together in an implicational chain all those who aid the industry in any capacity, from child sex traffickers and pedophile tourists to the lonely guy who consumes porn or goes for a handjob, as fellow conspirators and “traffickers.”
I categorically condemn the enslavement or coercion of sex workers whether by threats, violence or any other means. I also condemn the yoking together of incompatible phenomena that this fallacious argument is based on. The horror stories are a separate issue and should not be identified with sex work in general. Anti-prostitution activists refuse to acknowledge or understand that the vast majority of prostitutes are content in the sex trade, and if they don’t exactly love their work (how many among the rest of us are lucky enough to?), they like the money.
This is apparent if you talk to the average prostitute, or to the men who sleep with them. If anything, their customers are a richer source of information about prostitutes than prostitutes themselves, since their variety of encounters gives them a wider-ranging perspective than any individual sex worker can provide (for the same reason, prostitutes are a better source of information about clients than the clients themselves).
Those who espouse an intolerant position on sex work predictably scorn to talk to either group—and betray thereby their general apathy toward the very issue they claim to be concerned about. They are suspicious of the men involved since as self-interested actors, men supposedly cannot be trusted to provide objective accounts or are pegged as perpetrators of violence by their very patronizing of prostitutes. They are suspicious of sex workers as well, assuming them to be victims of deluded thinking and false consciousness, even as they sympathize patronizingly with the worst-off victims.
Sex workers for their part are little inclined to open up to activists or researchers who appear to be hostile towards them. Nor will it do to approach them with a microphone, pay for their time and interview them disinterestedly in the manner of sociologists or ethnographers, with their sanctimoniously clear conscience. The only real way to get into the lives of sex workers, obviously, is to try it out and become one. But with all the legal and ethical barriers in place, female academics and journalists are locked out of this option too. Thus, a veritable wall exists between the world of sex work and the rest of society, with the patrons being the only mediators.
Men who write about their experiences with sex workers are invariably treated with derision. A recent example involving Chinese prostitutes is the critical hysteria that greeted Tom Carter’s account of a brothel visit in his Unsavory Elements: Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China. The author and some friends were driven to a so-called “teen street” in a shabby neighborhood on the outskirts of Beijing, where the taxi driver boasted there were no girls over the age of twenty. Though the women they hired seemed adult-enough from the account, the ambiguity about their age invited accusations of sex with underage girls, who moreover, it was assumed, were likely employed against their will—given the tenacious misconception in the West that all Asian prostitutes are enslaved. It didn’t help that the author adopted a slapstick style of narration that worked quite well on its own but only seemed to trivialize what some readers took to be a serious offense.
When Carter’s taxi driver boasted of teenage girls, he was probably exaggerating. In the usual career trajectory, rural girls leave home after graduating from junior or senior middle school to find work in factories, restaurants or shops in the cities. Some subsequently get interested in sex work through the persuasion of friends or peers and all the gossip about the money that can be made. If many are still virgins by the time they enter the business, it’s not so much a result of the high value placed on virginity as the constraints of living in sex-segregated work dormitories (and high-school dorms before that) and the lack of leisure even for dating, due to the grinding schedules of factory and service jobs—typically twelve-hour workdays with one or two days off a month. When these girls finally do start their sex lives, as prostitutes or otherwise, they are already well into their twenties. In my own acquaintance with hundreds of Chinese sex workers, I recall only a single teenager among them, an enterprising girl from Anhui Province who had started up her own massage business at the age of eighteen when I met her.
China is not immune to human trafficking and its own varieties of slavery, though these primarily involve the underground “wife” trade (adult women kidnapped and married off to single rural males), the theft and sale of babies to childless couples, and the confinement of the mentally retarded in brick-kiln factories. These are horrendous problems, but they are distinct from the sex business. While inevitably there are pockets of degradation and abuse in the world of Chinese prostitution, the norm is a fluid migration to and from sex work by free agents acting of their own accord, moving from one job to another, returning to the factory when they’re tired of the work and back into it when exhausted again on the assembly line. They move in and out of a thriving industry of spas, bathhouses, KTV salons, massage parlors, nightclubs, and hotels in every neighborhood of every city on a scale that few Westerners can comprehend. The misplaced insistence among certain Western feminists that the millions of Chinese women who seek to better their material conditions through sex work should give it all up and go back to their lowly jobs or the farm, all for the sake of ethical considerations, smacks of the snidest variety of cross-cultural contempt, an insidious brand of “We know you better than you know yourselves” racism.
Many Chinese prostitutes I have met not only enjoy the work, they seem quite happy and at peace with themselves, and this shows in their typically cheerful manner. They may even be more psychologically sound than “normal” women. Not one has ever caused me any trouble. Some have gotten annoyed or angry due to a misunderstanding, but it was always a momentary issue we then resolved. They don’t carry grudges. None has ever called me out of the blue to complain about something or harassed or stalked me. They show interest in me to the same extent I show interest in them. On the other hand, I have had more than my share of depressing, drawn-out, and frightening involvements with so-called normal women.
The pressure to be “normal” imposes enormous unconscious stress on a woman. The “normal” or “good” woman is above all she who is sexually irreproachable. Those who succeed in living up to this onerous standard and internalizing its strictures—monogamy, sexual fidelity, the sacrificing of self for family—are easily thrown into shock when things don’t go their way. Males, for whom normality is defined in financial rather than sexual terms, tend to act out psychological stress (e.g., over career frustration or failure) with destructive aggression, domestic violence, or criminal activity, whereas females tend to blame themselves and self-destruct. The contradiction, the almost psychotic tension, between naive expectations and the crushing reality that follows when such expectations don’t accord with reality makes many women desperately confused or frantic and pushes some over the edge.
Sex workers free themselves from this bind in one fell swoop. What is the most unforgivable thing a woman can do? What single act thrusts her more decisively into the worst of all categories, worse even than adultery? Engaging in prostitution. Becoming a whore. Yet this simple act of crossing over the red line into whoredom, or rather freedom, of receiving one’s first payment for sex, has the power to effect something amazing on her psyche, puncturing and exploding the big bloated burden of guilt: guilt over letting society down morally, guilt over letting herself down sexually. It all washes away like so much placenta and a new self is born. Her new status won’t absolve her in other people’s eyes, but it re-rights her own internal balance. The rest of society can take it or leave it: she has emancipated herself. Freed of the burden of being “normal” and “proper,” she can now relax into psychological health as if for the first time.
Invariably some prostitutes are influenced by all the relentless negativity, meanness, and humiliation (not to mention what jail time does to you) and reflect these attitudes back in mocking form or take a perverse satisfaction in their male conquests. We all too easily adopt the same cynical attitude, myself included, as when I earlier described sex with prostitutes as “boring and a waste of time and money” due to “the lack of any genuine friendliness in the transaction.”
A more philosophical consideration of these issues over the course of writing about it has led me to reconsider my experience with Melody more sympathetically. After all, she invited me to see her again. It would have remained wholly on her terms, but who’s not to say we might have taken to each other once we agreed on the financial arrangement? And then there have been the unaccountably friendly encounters appearing out of the blue, like the prostitute I once met in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province…
When we arrive in the city, we have no idea where to go, so the taxi driver takes us to a brothel street in the outskirts. On the way, he recommends stopping off at a pharmacy for some “sex medicine.” My friend Jianwei goes in with him and returns with a box of erythromycin, a generic and largely useless antibiotic cheaply available over the counter. Jesus. Their medical naivete.
The strip was hastily erected on what had been recent farmland. The candy-colored prefab structures seem so flimsy that leaning against one of them, I fear, might send the entire street collapsing like Queen Carlotta’s pasteboard castle in John Waters’ movie Desperate Living. We check out the brothels one by one. It is still too early in the day, the madams outnumber the girls, and those who do appear aren’t very attractive. One of the larger venues has a second floor, and drawn into its open mouth we go up inside, emerging into a dark karaoke room lined with black vinyl sofas. The house pimp apologizes that only one room for services is available at the moment but another will be free shortly. I tell him I want a voluptuous woman. He brings in a slim one for Jianwei, always readily available, as lower-echelon sex workers tend to be short and skinny. She leads him through a trapdoor in the wall into a crawl space large enough for an army cot—the hideaway designed with the hopeful intention of being overlooked during a police bust.
The pimp manages to produce a woman to my liking, surnamed Wang. While we sit on the sofa waiting for a free room, she unbuttons her shirt for me and massive breasts spill out.
Our room is scarcely larger than the trapdoor hideaway. Where a bed should be there is a dresser with toiletries on top and a wooden table, half the length of a bed, draped with a blanket. Wang doesn’t want to strip but to just drop our pants without taking them off in case we need to pull them back on in the event of a bust. I lay down with my lower legs dangling off the table while she squats over me. Her nervousness is contagious and we fumble about for a few moments before I lose my erection. For the fiasco, she refuses to accept the fifty yuan she originally asked for. The price is so low I make her take 100 yuan anyway.
Back in the karaoke room, the sneaky pimp has doubled our house fee to 200, claiming we overstayed our session when in fact he purposely held up our room.
“Get out now, quickly,” Wang says, shoving us down the stairs as she argues with the pimp and follows us out onto the street to hail a taxi. The pimp runs after us shouting. Wang jumps in the taxi with us.
“So you don’t work there?” we ask her.
“No. I freelance. And it doesn’t look like I’ll be going back.”
We treat her to dinner. She got into prostitution to pay back debts incurred by her family’s failed nightclub, she says. I like her and we hold hands under the table and exchange addresses. I invite her to spend the night at our hotel but she has previous plans and leaves after the meal.
Months later, a letter from Wang arrives. I suspected she was illiterate when she got the waitress to write down her address for me at the restaurant. The generic style of the letter confirms this, a form love letter she must have paid someone to write with a few requisite personal details:
Respected Mr. Isham:
How are you? I’m writing to wish you good health and 10,000 other lucky things.
I don’t have a high education, let alone any knowledge of a foreign language like English. I have to express my feelings in my limited and simple Chinese.
When everyone is celebrating the new millennium during this Spring season with the blooming flowers, it was such a pleasure to meet you in Taiyuan. This was the greatest joy of my life. Because China is now under reform and opening, the word xiaojie always brings dirty looks. Out of so many xiaojie’s, you chose me. Maybe this is what in Chinese we call “fate.”
The minute we separated, I had a strange and inexpressible feeling in my heart. Perhaps through my job as a xiaojie, it was the first time I had contact with a foreign friend, that is you, Mr. Isham. These days when it’s very quiet at midnight, why do I toss and turn in bed? It is because I hold your small name card in my hand and can’t stop reading it, remembering our beautiful time together, “Like fish in water.”
I have so much to say but let’s keep it short. I will come to Beijing to see you if I have time, and I hope you write back.
This touching letter from a sex worker, full of simple friendliness, sparks in me a wild chain of thoughts and a modest proposal: to radically level the playing field by making all sex remunerative. That’s right, every act of sexual intercourse should be paid for. The price would be determined strictly by the market, by supply and demand, or by whatever price one person is willing to pay and the other accept. Since males tend to have a greater need for spontaneous sex with a variety of bodies, they would continue to serve the main role of customers, while attractive men could sell their services to gay men and older women, and why not younger women as well? As expected, some females could command a higher price than others based on their youth, appearance or other assets (education, fame), though sexual value would stabilize according to these market forces, and everyone would know what to expect over a general price range. A woman’s price would nonetheless be elastic and negotiable; she could raise it and lower it at will, rising with wealthier or unattractive men and falling with men she found more to her liking. Once a new generation grew up and adjusted to this new arrangement, upon reaching legal age girls would proudly announce their price in their online profiles and whenever meeting new friends—and potential customers (teenagers of age could operate in their own closed sexual economy).
Married men would not be exempt. Wives could command a price in line with their sexual worth, namely what any man would be willing to pay, and a husband would have to shell out for each session in bed. This would make clear economic sense for housewives, who deserve to receive a stipulated wage for their work, which they are routinely denied even in developed countries. For married women who work full-time outside the home, their sexual fees would be welcome compensation for the extra housework they almost invariably perform on top of their day job. In the event the husband loses his job or both come under financial hardship, their marital economics would adjust to make her price more affordable.
In general, though, there would be no sex on the house. All women would benefit from their increased revenue from domestic sex, rectifying the gender income imbalance across the board. It would also, paradoxically, improve the quality of sex among couples who have wearied of each other. Each payment would inject the woman with a rush of joy, and her excitement would be contagious for the man. He would put out more as well, to make sure he got his money’s worth.
In this new sexual ethic, with a quantitative value put on the sex act, the concept of sex for free would invert to something undesirable, even unthinkable. An exception would be volunteers devoted to providing gratis services to people unable to provide for themselves—the indigent, the disabled—just as some people currently take on volunteer jobs to help the disadvantaged or the poor. Outside this sphere, unpaid-for sex would be treated as an eccentric form of altruism.
The comprehensive monetizing of all sexual relations would have a number of salutary results. Putting a price tag on sex would restore value to it, not just in the abstract but more importantly in each particular instance. You’d feel you were getting what you paid for. You could still be ripped off, as we are in any case with cheap or shoddy goods, but this would be the exception among wiser shoppers. With all sexually active adult women participating, the economics of scarcity that enables sex work and its exploitation would disappear. With sex fully sanctioned and brought out into the open, the culture of shame would likewise vanish, sexual education in the schools would flourish, and STDs and unwanted pregnancy would plummet. Prostitution as we know it would cease to exist or to be more precise, there would be no more need for pejorative terms to describe the selling of sex. Sexual negotiation and exchange would lighten up and become a friendly affair, given the greater degree of transparency now involved and the ease with which everyone could shop around with their dignity and morals intact.
 E.g., the February 2014 clampdown on the sex industry in Dongguan in Guangdong Province cost the city estimated losses of US $8 billion (more than half the sex trade revenue for the entire USA) and up to one million sex workers temporarily out of work. Curiously, only 300 establishments were closed and a mere 67 arrested.
 If Wang did indeed have someone write the letter for her, she didn’t seem to have any qualms about admitting her occupation as a xiaojie; her embarrassment was thus for my sake. Literally “young lady” or “miss,” xiaojie is a euphemism for prostitute, and in the 1990s the term of address for female restaurant servers as well. As the association became politically incorrect in restaurants, xiaojie was replaced by the neutral fuwuyuan (server). Yet it’s still not uncommon for females to address waitresses and young women in public as xiaojie, on the assumption it’s only inappropriate for men to use the term, while males tend to address young women as guniang (“young lady”). Ironically, another popular term of address for young women, meinu (“beauty”), is also falling into disfavor for its implicit sexism, and xiaojie may sound like a more neutral alternative to some ears. Due to this confusion, address terms are increasingly avoided in favor of a simple nihao (“Hello”). This return to a gender-neutral term of address brings us back full circle to the old term of tongzhi (“comrade”), used for both sexes in the 1950s-70s.
* * *