Physical and emotional labour

The most obvious form of sexualised labour is sex work, of which seven types have been identified ranging from mistress to karaoke bar hostess to streetwalker. These women, particularly at the higher end of the scale, are often present in the nightclubs and bars where business deals are made and they provide foils for men to show their bosses and clients that they have the necessary social skills to succeed.

“These women’s labour is not just physical labour, it’s emotional labour. Businessmen’s masculinity depends a lot on their ability to socialise and conduct themselves as cosmopolitan subjects and this depends on the co-production and participation of women in different settings,” she said.

“The women are also the lubricant to smooth out tensions, as well as provide beauty, aesthetics and entertainment. Nobody recognises this because they are seen as just cheap labour, but they need to be there so the men can build the profitable relationships associated with the Party-state economic enterprise.”

Sexualised labour also happens in other settings where women step into the gendered or sexualised roles that the new economy demands of them. Wives accept their husbands have to spend long nights on business entertainment – potentially sleeping with other women – because it is good for the family income and the nation’s prosperity. White-collar office workers are expected to dress demurely but are objects of men’s sexual banter. Businesswomen are encouraged to play up their feminine charms to cut deals, but then have their achievements downgraded because of this (they are also often left out of situations where deals are typically made, such as nightclub visits).

Balancing act

Professor Ho said these roles emerged with China’s opening in the 1980s and 1990s and have intensified in recent years. But they have also required the government to perform a curious balancing act. While the current government has signalled that it does not tolerate sex work, its ‘Sweep Yellow’ campaign targeted lower-end prostitution and pornography, not the high-end prostitution that businessmen and officials engage in.

“Women’s work and the way they conduct their gender roles and present themselves as new sexual subjects are all important to China’s economic prosperity and political legitimacy,” she said. “Most people think sex is a marginal topic, but it is an entry point to understanding the whole post-socialist China.”

In that regard, she has been disturbed by the growing intolerance for academic research about sexuality, sexual diversity and feminism in China that has occurred alongside the promotion of Confucian values and the crackdown on prostitution. Recently, Professor Ho has had collaborators and research students on the Mainland withdraw from projects and publications out of fear of the potential repercussions.

“In this climate of increasing censorship, the lack of clarity about what is or is not permissible makes scholars and activists ever more cautious and likely to engage in self-censorship,” she said. For now, studies on the bedrooms of the nation will fall to scholars based outside the Mainland, such as Professor Ho.

The role of the Communist Party in the private lives of Chinese citizens has become markedly more hands-off since the Mao era, when work units monitored and exerted control over people’s intimate relations. People are freer now to make their own choices, but in recent years, the party has been making its presence felt again, according to Professor Petula Ho Sik-ying of the Department of Social Work and Social Administration, who has been studying sex in Chinese societies for more than two decades and recently completed a major review of research in this field.

Under President Xi Jinping, Confucian values are being promoted that tout the virtue of the heterosexual norm and traditional roles, particularly for women – for instance, women who do not marry before the age of 30 are stigmatised as ‘leftover’, LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] and other sexualities are cast in a negative light and even feminism has been targeted with campaigners arrested for such actions as distributing stickers about sexual harassment (as happened in Beijing in 2015).

Yet alongside those constraints, women’s ‘sexualised labour’, in which their gender is considered salient to their work, is playing an important role in business and politics, she said.

“China’s rise to power has been based on economic prosperity, which is one of the most important ways to justify the political regime. The regime wants Chinese people to believe in the China dream, so it has to make sure that the business world is functioning well. And to do that, it has to use women’s sexualised labour,” she said.




Sexual culture and practices help sustain the political economy in China, even when the state is cracking down on them, argues Professor Petula Ho Sik-ying.



Most people think sex is a
marginal topic, but it is an entry point to understanding the whole post-socialist

Professor Petula Ho Sik-ying


November 2018

Volume 20

No. 1