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If the life of the second wife is not necessarily appealing it’s much easier than that for the ladies on the bottom tier of China’s prostitution game. The Xiagongpeng, “the women who live in a shed” are the least fortunate of all those working in the sex trade in the country. These are women who for whatever reason (age, looks, mental illness, etc.) cannot find work in a better part of the industry.

Comparatively KTV girls have a great job.

The Xiagongpeng service those without much in the way of funds to pay for sexual services, in some cases the fee can be as low as a bowl of soup and most often will not exceed 10 RMB (that’s $1.50 USD, or 1 Euro, or 1 GBP). Her customers will be from the most disadvantaged groups in China, migrant workers on minimum wage, elderly men living on subsistence pensions, etc.

However in a country where 200 million people eke out a living on less than 1,200 RMB a year, becoming a Xiagongpeng can be a more attractive option than any alternative. It can also be argued that these women perform an essential social service – given the need for migrant labour many men, have to leave their families for a year or more at a time and travel to other parts of the nation to work in hard conditions for very little reward. These men are often very lonely and have no chance of securing a mistress or occasional lover because of their financial situation.

However from a public health point of view this kind of sex work is a nightmare, while AIDS is not as common in China as in some other Asian countries – almost certainly because there have been fewer immigrants compared to other nations, it is a growing concern. The national press ran an expose in the last year focused on the spread of the disease in China’s elderly males, almost certainly due to their use of Xiagongpeng services.

Even street walkers have a better deal than those right at the bottom of the pyramid of prostitution.

At this price, condoms simply are not available – the cost of the protection would consume most of the prostitute’s income and thus cannot be offered, even if the clients and women themselves were aware of the risks. And many are not, sex education in China particularly in previous generations has been limited (though this is changing and the Shanghaiist ran a story last year in which a kindergarten group were receiving sexual education classes with anatomically accurate dolls to drive the message home). The problem is compounded by the fact that until recently AIDS was ignored completely as a “foreign problem”.

It is inevitable that in poorer areas and those areas with many poor workers that this type of prostitution will become a necessity and the government is working on action plans to combat the risks but at the moment this is truly the saddest face of sex work in China.