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Back in 2009, Insight China magazine ran a survey to determine the most trusted professions in China. In first place, somewhat unsurprisingly were farm workers (given that almost everybody in China comes from a farming background), in second were religious workers which is more astonishing given the general absence of faith in China. And which group took third place? Prostitutes.

Prostitution ranges from the subtle to the completely in your face - here two ladies are trying to drum up business from inside a window.

That’s right in China, prostitutes are trusted more than the police, more than doctors and nurses and more than teachers. This is strange because China is definitely not Thailand and sex work here is illegal. However, despite being against the law , in most towns and cities prostitution is practiced openly.

If you take a walk through Luohu in Shenzhen, past the Shangri La hotel as you arrive from the station the first words of English you hear are likely to be; “Missy Massage?” Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is an actual massage – there are plenty of massage parlors in town and most do not specialize in happy endings but none of them send hardened criminals out to pull punters in from the street.

In fact once you get used to the idea you can find ladies of the night everywhere, that girl propping up the bar in your hotel who’s making a single glass of wine last a lifetime? Probably. That hairdresser with the traditional barber pole spinning outside? Pretty likely. The nice woman who serves your drinks in KTV? If you ask nicely there’s a pretty good chance.

It’s so common place that people who aren’t used to the idea are often completely shocked to find out that lady they spent the night dancing and having fun with, now wants paying to “seal the deal” before she accompanies them home.

Estimates of how many people work in this trade are overwhelming, official figures put the number at a million sex workers but other estimates range as high as 20 million! If that latter figure is correct there are as many sex workers in China, as there are people in Sri Lanka which is the 57th most populous nation on earth!

Despite the tolerance normally shown for the profession, prostitution really is illegal in China and crackdowns like this one are commonplace.

The truth is probably somewhere in between, with 1-2 million women involved in the sex trade on a daily basis, and many times that number occasionally trading in sex in exchange for gifts or other benefits.

This topic is so big and broad, that I’m going to split it up into a number of posts as part of this series. I thought it was important for people to understand the scale of prostitution in China first, before going into more detail. So today this is where we leave the subject, but there will definitely be more tomorrow.