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Sex work and the pleasure taboo

by Antón Castellanos Usigli, September 3, 2015

Bowie Lam, 28, is a sexual and reproductive health and rights activist based in Hong Kong. She runs the organization “Teen’s Key”, which serves young female sex workers. Some of these women do not think of themselves as sex workers; they think that what they do is “compensated dating”, as they spend time with their clients shopping, dining or going to the movies.

For Bowie, the concept of compensated dating is dangerous, because the boundary between the sex workers and their clients gets blurred: “They consider them friends and somehow they trust them, so they loose power to negotiate condom use. The clients pay more and then they don’t use condoms. Other girls might go to their houses thinking that they are friends but then it turns out that they have a hidden camera to record the encounter and to later blackmail them. Because they are young, these girls don’t go to the police for help”. Since 2011, Bowie has worked with over 3,000 young female sex workers in Hong Kong.

Pleasure and guilt

In Teen’s Key, Bowie provides a safe space so that young female sex workers can learn about sexual health and talk about sexual pleasure. According to her, it is common for some of them to feel guilty if they had a positive sexual experience during work: “In one of our groups, one girl said that she had an orgasm with her client, and not with the boyfriend. This made her feel very guilty”.

The most common sexual health concerns that the girls have are related to contraception and condom use: “If they can’t ensure that they won’t get pregnant, they can’t enjoy sex. The girls who have a strong bargaining power are the ones who enjoy sex and their work”. Other girls have concerns regarding the quality of the condoms distributed by the Department of Health, as they are thicker and uncomfortable: “They just want to find condoms that will make them feel comfortable”.

Sex negative culture

Mainstream media in Hong Kong doesn’t facilitate positive views on sexuality: “They never use terms related to sexual pleasure, especially when it comes to young women. It’s all about the problems; sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or pregnancies. Media also portray young people as very ignorant and reckless”. Recently, a specific case caused uproar in Hong Kong: Two young people had sex on the street at night, many took pictures of them, others wanted to report them to the police and the media portrayed it in a very scandalous manner. “Nobody talks about the real problem that young people have: they don’t have a space to have sex. They have to live with their parents until they work. They can not afford to go to a hotel and rents in Hong Kong are very high”. Bowie also mentioned the emergence of a secret Facebook group called “Sex-secret”, ran by college students. Young people post questions there, which are answered by their peers, but some answers are wrong. “Instead of trying to generate a better platform for young people to learn about sexuality, many teachers and adults have advocated for closing this group.”

Schools in Hong Kong are not very open either when it comes to sex education and talking about sexual pleasure: “The teacher can choose if they want to talk about sex or not. If you are lucky you will have one class. However, this class tends to be risk focused, as they invite a person from a NGO who shows the students horrible pictures of sexual organs with STIs. They just relate sex with horrible consequences and they don’t talk about the other part. Even for some activists is rare to talk about pleasure, as we don’t have a translation for sexual and reproductive rights”.

Trust breaks taboos


A meeting in Teen’s Key. Courtesy of Bowie Lam.

For young people to talk openly about sex and pleasure, Bowie believes that confidential and non-judgmental spaces are necessary: “Peer-to-peer education is very good if young people have trust”.

When I asked Bowie about the biggest taboo that she encounters in her work with young female sex workers, she referred to the age of consent: “If they are under 16, they don’t want to talk about their experience in sex work. They only ask questions about health and resources. We had a girl coming for a STI test. First she said she was 25. Then she came back and said she was 21, and in the end she turned out to be 15. She did not want to tell us because she was afraid we were going to report her to the police. But we don’t do that, unless they are threatened or in danger. We focus on the concern first, and if it’s needed, we go to the police with them. Trust is key for us to be able to work effectively with them”.