To what extent is the international flesh trade the result of nefarious criminals using deceit, threats, and violence to control women and how much of it involves women voluntarily choosing to join the profession and stay in it? Ko-lin Chin, a professor of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, decided to conduct an empirical study to find out.

 Chin’s focus was on Chinese prostitutes working overseas. Between 2006 and 2008, he traveled to nine cities in Asia and the United States, interviewing a total of 149 female Chinese sex workers. Although it sounds like difficult, even dangerous, fieldwork, it was relatively sedate compared to some of Chin’s previous studies. Among the subjects he has undertaken and written about are the drug trade in the Golden Triangle and Taiwanese gangsters, the latter leading to the excellent Heijin: Organized Crime, Business, and Politics in Taiwan (2003). Finding and talking to prostitutes was easy in comparison. Chin paid the prostitutes for their time, typically for an hour, and reassured them about revealing their true identities. To make them feel at ease he did not ask for their real names, took no pictures, used no recording devices; he didn’t even carry pen and paper, instead writing the details down post–session.

Chin’s research findings of the sex trade were published in an academic book, Selling Sex Overseas: Chinese Women and the Realities of Prostitution and Global Sex Trafficking, co-authored with James O. Finckenauer. Chin, however, wanted to publish a book with more general appeal, one that gave voice to the women, with them telling their stories in their own words. He also wanted to give a behind the scenes look at ethnographic fieldwork on a sensitive issue. Going Down to the Sea (2014) is that book. The title refers to a Chinese euphemism for the sex trade (xaihai or “going down to the sea”).  

Of the 149 women interviewed, Chin chose eighteen to profile in the book, two of whom were prostitutes in Taiwan, and the cases I was most interested in. As Chin explains, the sex trade in Taiwan is dominated by Chinese women who have come in on fake marriages and so it was with the two cases profiled.  

In Chapter 5 we meet 28-year-old Mi Mi in Taichung City, the daughter of dirt-poor farmers in Hunan Province. She voluntarily went to the city of Dongguan to work in the sex industry when she was eighteen. She spent time in Shanghai, Hong Kong (from where she was deported), and then came to Taiwan on a fake marriage to a Taiwanese man. She was now doing “outcall” work. This usually involves being sent by a “company” (a pimp) with a “jockey” (driver) to an apartment provided by a middleman who has typically found the customer.

Chin’s second interviewee is a 32-year-old from Shanxi, again from a poor rural family. She had been working as a nightclub hostess in China, but was frustrated by her low earnings ($360 a month) when she met someone who said there was easy money to be made in Taiwan. And thus began in 1997 the first of six trips to Taiwan in ten years, flying in as a wife of a Taiwanese citizen the first four times, smuggled in by boat the last two (because of tighter airport security). Being smuggled in across the Taiwan Strait cost her $6,250 – the same as coming by plane on a fake marriage.  

Both women earned a little under $40 per session with a customer, and although they didn’t consider they were being cheated, thought that the amount they received – about a third of what a customer paid – was unfair. There were just too many people taking a cut; the pimp, the person finding the client and supplying the premises, the driver, and the agent who had arranged the trip to Taiwan (despite getting reimbursed for the initial cost, they still took a small cut of each session).

Neither woman saved much money – in Mi Mi’s case, having a mah-jong gambling habit didn’t help matters – and, sadly, had very little to show for their years of hard work. They disliked the sex trade (but obviously not enough to leave it). The author quotes Mi Mi:

After I make enough money here, I would like to go back to China. I am really tired of this type of lifestyle, and this job. After returning to China, if I have the opportunity to go to another country, I will consider going. After all, I do not know what I can do in China.

I really do not like this line of work because it is hard work and it can also damage your body. Customers here can also be quite deviant; perhaps they watch too many X-rated movies. I am doing this just for the money, nothing else. I am from a big family, and my parents were not able to make much money, so, as the eldest child, I have to be the one to take the responsibility.

Looking at the all the Chinese sex workers’ experiences, the general picture that emerges is different from what I had expected:

According to the women’s accounts, the vast majority of them were not deceived, coerced, or forced into the sex trade abroad. Only Molly in Thailand said that she felt like she was tricked into the sex business by her aunt. However, there were five cases whereby the women (Kitty, Dong Dong, Ruby, Chloe, and Cola) were coerced into prostitution by their boyfriends or chickenheads in China. In these cases, they can be considered as victims of domestic—not transnational—trafficking.

Chin says that although none of the women in Taiwan would be considered trafficking victims under a strict definition of the term, their plight was still serious; arriving under debt, being “owned” by agents, and often being financially exploited.

The findings of the research behind Going Down to the Sea raise an interesting dilemma. Cracking down on the trafficking of sex workers in some ways makes the situation worse for the women because it increases their expenses (in getting travel documents, paying off connections, doing jail time etc.) and puts them under greater control of the pimps and agents.

Chin ends the book with this thought-provoking paragraph:

We think that we are combating human trafficking and providing humanitarian aid to victims, yet in reality we might be exacerbating the very problem we are trying to solve. Perhaps, after a decade or more of misjudgment, we should try to understand why these young and not-so-young women are so willing to leave home and travel abroad to sell sex. Only then will we develop policies and measures that really help these women who are selling sex overseas.

Going Down to the Sea: Chinese Sex Workers Abroad is an excellent read, commendably free from sleaze, sensationalism, academic jargon, and polemics. Without making any fuss, the author lifts the veil from the secretive world of the sex trade. The idea of putting out a spinoff book for the general reader is one well worth emulating.

Going Down to the Sea is published by Thailand-based Silkworm Books. It’s also available from and various other retailers.