China's estimated six million sex workers are routinely subjected to rights violations and physical assault, sometimes at the hands of law enforcement agencies, rights advocates and sex workers said on Tuesday.
"As a group living in a grey area of the law, they have little hope of help or redress in the face of violence, and sometimes the violence comes from law enforcement officials themselves," said gender studies scholar Lu Pin, who edits the online newspaper "Women's Voice."
Lu was responding to a report issued by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday, which said that the illegal status of China's sex workers makes them vulnerable to routine abuses and discrimination.
The report called on Beijing to abandon repressive laws against sex workers, discipline abusive police, and allow nongovernment groups to support China's army of sex workers, the vast majority of whom are women.
Beijing has shown no sign of moving towards legalizing voluntary sex work in recent years, preferring to regard it as a social problem to be fixed by criminal raids, activists said.
"What they need to think about is how to minimize the sort of harm that comes to [sex workers], and the violence of all kinds that they face," Lu said.
Harassed by police
According to HRW China director Sophie Richardson, Chinese police often act as if women engaging in sex work have already forfeited their rights.
Sex workers who spoke to RFA corroborated the report's findings.
"I have been harassed by the police, who don't want me to walk the streets," male transvestite sex worker Xiao Yu, who has been in the sex trade for more than a decade, said in an interview with RFA's Mandarin service.
"I haven't been beaten ... but some of my friends have," he said. "Sometimes the police will look at [your genitals] to see if you are a man or a woman."
Millions of Chinese women have turned to sex work as a way of earning a living in recent decades, according to the HRW report, titled "Swept Away: Abuses Against Sex Workers in China."
While China's ruling Communist Party views sex work as an "ugly social phenomenon," sex workers are often coerced behind the scenes into providing free sex for police officers in return for "protection," according to HRW.
"One local police officer here said that if we had sex with him, he would protect us," said a Beijing sex worker identified by a pseudonym, Jia Yue.
"Police won’t pay in those cases. If they want sex, they’ll get sex from us. But when we asked for his help once, he didn’t help," she said.
According to Xiao Yu, men who engage in sex work often work alone, and are subject to even greater discrimination from police if detained.
"Whether it's male transvestites like us, or female sex workers, we all need the help of the law," he said.
"Sometimes we run into violent situations ... but there's little we can do. We daren't speak out about a lot of things, because our status is illegal."
He said many female sex workers are forced to seek protection from criminal gangs in the absence of protection from the law.
Meanwhile, Beijing sex worker "Lijia" told HRW she hadn't dared to report several rapes because of the illegal nature of voluntary sex work.
“I’ve been raped several times," she was quoted as saying. "But because I am a sex worker, and selling sex is a violation of the law, I could be arrested."
Not only are female sex workers denied protection against violence and abuse, they are often the targets of violent attacks by police, the report said.
"I was beaten until I turned black and blue, because I wouldn’t admit to prostitution," it quoted another Beijing sex worker, "Xiao Yue," as saying.
'Strike hard' campaigns
Sex workers are particularly at risk during China's "strike hard” anti-crime campaigns, during which police raid entertainment venues, hair salons, massage parlors, and other spaces where sex workers ply their trade, detaining large numbers of women, the report said.
Under the controversial "re-education through labor" camp system, police can send suspected sex workers to labor camp for up to two years without the need for a trial, or to a legal education center, another form of arbitrary detention, it said.
"China’s failure to uphold the rights of the millions of women who voluntarily engage in sex work leaves them subject to discrimination, abuse and exploitation, and undercuts public health policies," the report said.
Attitudes to sex workers can also affect their access to health care and protection, the report found.
Sex workers told the group that they were often subjected to humiliation and disdain at the hands of public health professionals if they sought HIV testing or other care and advice.
"I don’t go to those clinics anymore. They were really disdainful of me when I went last time," said one sex worker, "Jingying."
"Also, I was scared they would report me to the police," she told HRW.
Coercive HIV testing is also routinely employed by the authorities when they detain sex workers, the report said.
A nongovernment activist involved in public health outreach work said the results of HIV tests are often not kept confidential.
Yuan Xiao, director of the Kunming branch of the Aizhixing AIDS and public health NGO, said many sex workers in China are still putting themselves at risk of HIV, although overall transmission rates haven't risen.
"Some sex workers don't carry condoms with them for fear of their being used as evidence of their status," Yuan told RFA's Mandarin service.
"Some of them have got HIV [because of this]," he said.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.