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China and Inner Asia
“Improvised Intimacy”: Female Sex Workers (xiaojie) in Post-Socialist China
Individual Paper Presenter(s)
Yeon Jung Yu
Western Washington University, United States
Building upon more than two years of ethnographic fieldwork in red-light districts in post-socialist China, this paper demonstrates that women in the sex trade (xiaojie) are integrated into the fabric of mainstream society in urban China, as opposed to maintaining status as abject figures on its margins. Through symbiotic and dynamic—but often conflicting and fragile—relationships among various social actors, women in this illegal and stigmatized industry make themselves significant urban community members. Through a detailed ethnographic account of xiaojie’s interpersonal relationships, this paper illustrates how their social networks emerge, evolve, and shape sex worker communities in southern China. These social networks actively weave these disadvantaged women into expanded networks in urban society. The collaborative nature of the xiaojie’s networks is also leading to a rapid increase in the female sex worker population, which now stands at an estimated four to ten million women.