Illustration: Shaye Anderson

Hong Kong's Sex Workers Are Ditching Their Pimps for iPhones

Online forums and chat apps are putting the power back in the hands of "compensated daters."

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Aug 17 2016, 5:40pm

Illustration: Shaye Anderson

When high schooler Kate* was hard up for money, she took a seemingly easy job as a hostess at a nightclub in Mong Kok, Hong Kong's grittier, neon-soaked red light district. But each night, she walked away with peanuts. So when she met a gangster who said he'd pimp her and make her thousands more—to go on easy dates, and just give the experience of a girlfriend—Kate fell in love with the idea.

He took her to a room and made her do shi gong, a Chinese term for trying out the girl before you sell her. Then, he left Kate in the lurch.

This isn't the plot of a 70s triad film—it's just one of many typical examples of why young sex workers in the city are using technology to work for themselves. Soon after Kate ran into trouble at the nightclub—like many other fresh-faced high school girls in Hong Kong today—she discovered online forums to run her own business as a sex worker. On HK Big Man and HK Mensa, where ads are proliferating everyday, so-called "compensated daters" offer their services without the help of a middleman.

Bowie Lam Po-yee, who runs an organization called Teen's Key that provides outreach for these girls, says that it's common for one girl to find an ad she likes, and then copy it—with just minor adjustments. Then, girls leave their contact information and negotiate where they'll meet and how much they'll charge. It's easier to evade the cops that way: they're less likely to be caught for solicitation if they've checked a client out to see if he's legitimate. Police can be obvious as to their identity when it comes to brokering a deal over a chat app.

"With these online forums, it's a bit unique in Hong Kong because these are only young girls," Lam says. "They don't actually recognize themselves as sex workers—they think at first it's a one-time or two-time thing, and that it's convenient."

Mong Kok, Hong Kong. Photo: Paul Wong/Shutterstock

Lam estimates that there are some 2,500 compensated daters in the city, drawing on the organization's records during outreach work. The police have been slow to catch on to these girls now that they've taken refuge online—from July 2015 until July this year, the force has only seen 12 cases of compensated dating. So long as they're not soliciting clients in public spaces, they're not breaking the law in Hong Kong.

For Kate, internet forums jumpstarted her career as a compensated dater after her frightening stint at the nightclub. She copied an ad from a forum that she thought fit her—she only changed her name, age, body measurements, and contact information. The next step is contacting the compensated dater from her post on the forum: girls mostly use WhatsApp and a Chinese chat app called WeChat to negotiate with their clients over the phone, specifying services, price, and location.

With this continued boom in Hong Kong's digital age, compensated daters are enjoying certain benefits of being their own bosses—namely, they're no longer subjected to the sexual and physical abuse from gangster agents. Also, they don't have to give away money for an agent fee, which means they're making more. Forums and chat apps, for the most part, are putting the power back in the hands of the sex workers.

"Now, compensated daters are freelance and it's rare these days to have a triad agent," says Patrick Wong Chun-chin, a former senior superintendent of the Hong Kong Police Force. "It's no longer like in the past, having men escort women; it's not that common anymore for men to control women as prostitutes in Hong Kong."

Wong, also the co-founder of a private security company called Centinel, says that iPhones are killing Hong Kong's once ubiquitous, rowdy karaoke brothels. "Fifteen years ago, these were the places that attracted gangsters and triads—but with the change in today's communication model, this type of thing is diminishing."

He says that compensated daters are clever when it comes to the language they use on their posts to a forum—girls will engage clients by writing that they're "available to make friends," and they don't introduce sexual services until the private conversation through a chat app.

"Compensated daters are freelance and it's rare these days to have a triad agent"

Laura*, who still works as a compensated dater, is a perfect example of this newfound power. The Macau native ditched her agent quickly after realizing that she could negotiate on her own through a forum and WhatsApp. She's since developed what she calls a "menu" for clients, which, for example, says she'll have sex twice in one hour for an extra $130 tacked on—and she doesn't have to give any of that money away.

Laura also says that the internet gives her a trump card that other sex workers don't have in Hong Kong—the right to reject clients. Because she can be choosy when talking to guys over chat apps, she has certain rules she sticks by: check for a nice and calm demeanor, always make sure he wants to use a condom, and usually go for a guy over 30. For the women in Hong Kong's one-room brothels though—mostly prostitutes who emigrate from the Chinese mainland—where a client just shows up, she says the sex workers don't have the luxury of choice. "Those girls have to do everything," Laura says.

Independence doesn't always mean safety, though: While Laura has evaded any brushes with violence, Kate's been raped by a client. As for the legality of the online forums, Lam says the police have closed them before—only to see a new one open just weeks later.

Meanwhile, agents haven't yet completely disappeared from the scene in Hong Kong—mostly, because some girls, especially the studious ones, have difficulty balancing their time. For compensated daters who want to stay in high school and find themselves swamped with their studies—typically a high load in Hong Kong and China—they'll find an agent to help arrange their appointments with clients, Lam says. A small few will also still hire an agent out of fear that their clients might turn out to be dangerous; they can call their agent for protection.

And interestingly enough, some girls just end up pimping each other. "They don't actually realize it's actually illegal to set up their friends with clients and take a finder's fee," says Lam.

*Not their real names.