That’s the question raised by a sign seen at Zapata’s Mexican Cantina in Shanghai.
I’ve been worrying about prostitution qua prostitution only since the early 1990s. Before that I didn’t read books about it— I didn’t go to conferences, I had no academic acquaintances of any description— and I didn’t know it to be a big issue," either in Latin America, the US, or Europe. You could say I was uncontaminated by ideology; any opinions I had were casual and uninformed.
On the other hand, I have had people in my life who sell sex going back to the 1960s, way before I began to think about prostitution.
My friend Mona had sex with a lot of men and took money from them to help with her rent. But she didn’t call herself prostitute, hooker or call girl, and I doubt she’d call herself a sex worker now that the term is available. Mona had special talents that suited her to a certain kind of prostitution, but she never earned much money— and, many will point out, she scarcely had a professional attitude. Her tenement studio was tiny and dingy, so the rent she got guys to help her with was low.
Another of my friends of that era, Scotty, played the piano in joints all over town, changing his appearance and repertoire to get more gigs. I admit that once, after running into him looking like Count Dracula with purple hair on the corner of 57th Street and Broadway, the thought that he was prostituting his talent crossed my mind. Not fair, but then I didn’t think prostitution was anything bad, either.
I invented a new field of study called the cultural study of commercial sex, in which any type of exchange involving sex and money (or benefits, gifts, etc.) can be examined without moralizing and without calling and condemning everything as "prostitution." My idea is that we need a lot more information about what goes on in sex-money exchanges before we rush to pass laws and regulate everyone involved in all of them. A special edition of the journal Sexualities is full of examples written within this liberating framework.
Most of the heat in conversations about commercial sex goes to the idea of prostitution – whether it can ever be a normalised profession called "sex work" or whether it is by definition "violence against women." Some people think marriage is prostitution; others think all paid work is.
For myself, I wonder how people imagine there to be a clear line between commercial and non-commercial sexual transactions, since all of life seems saturated with both.
My curiosity was piqued when I saw the above photo from Zapata’s, a middle-class bar-restaurant located in Tongren Lu, a popular Shanghai nightlife area. It’s not the kind of place where I’d expect to see a sign about prostitution. Trying to figure this one out led me into the expat world, where only insiders— most of the vocal ones men— understand what’s going on. I hung around Internet forums where this sign made the rounds and explanations ranged from "it was the bar manager’s private joke" to "the place is filthy with prostitutes; decent girls won’t go there."
There are discussions of the many types of predatory women loose in the city. ISpyShanghai mentions "entertainers,Tiger girls, bar girls, butterflies, hostesses, chickens, and those girls on Tongren Lu who will literally jump into the taxi with you if you don’t shut the door quickly enough."
Discussants at forums like Shanghaiexpat say too many "pros" get past bar bouncers and warn each other about falling into the clutches of girls who try to get you inside talk-talk bars, where they will only flirt and promote your buying of drinks.
Some call such bars fronts for prostitution. Others make a class distinction between talk-talk bars and hostess bars, the latter being more upscale. There are also warnings about ladyboys, transvestites and other "non-real" women, who are even said to form the majority of female-looking customers in some places.
Could Zapata’s managers be trying to keep single women out? Certainly not; Ladies’ Nights are common in Shanghai, where each time the door opens, hundreds of eyes fix on the arriving guests, hoping that they have breasts.
So, what have we got? A commercial bar scene where men with money want females to be available to them for picking up, flirting, and perhaps going somewhere to have sex. Yes? Those women may accept gifts of drinks, food, taxis, and flowers without losing their shine. In another popular, mainstream, local example, KTV (karaoke television) venues invite men to come in groups and hire the services of women to drink and sing with them in small private rooms.
The taint comes when women do exactly the same things with the addition of asking for cash.
It’s subtle and confusing, isn’t it? When is it legitimate for women to take money or accept drinks? What about the customers— why is there no distinction amongst them? They take out their wallets in all kinds of situations— and that’s considered fine— except when they position themselves as victims of predators. On the other hand, they discuss which KTV place has the "hottest/most fun girls."
Zapata’s managers and bouncers are male, so maybe it makes sense that they would put up such a blunt, sexist sign telling prostitutes to keep out. But what does it mean to say If you are unsure whether or not you’re a prostitute, please ask one of our friendly security guards to sort it out for you?
Presumably a professional knows that the sign refers to her or him-self and has no need to consult anyone about it. Which leaves whom?
What if I go to Shanghai alone, get dressed up, and appear alone at Zapata’s bar? Is it okay as long as I don’t talk to any men or am seen to be paying for my own drinks? What happens if the barman brings me a parasol-decorated margarita on behalf of the guy across the bar, who's already paid for it? Should I now feel worried about being bounced? In case anyone thinks this is unlikely, one of the expat discussions involved a woman who was asked to leave Zapata’s although she was there with girlfriends.
She was said to be "Taiwanese." Some of the participants in expat forums specify that they are Chinese. Bouncers might or might not understand different kinds of regional Chinese. Someone said prostitutes don’t have to look Asian. Since ho-style is in fashion, clothes aren’t the key to this conundrum. I think I’m better off not going out, or sticking to an old-fashioned hotel bar where I’m allowed to accept a drink from a stranger— or offer one to someone else.
P.S. Zapata’s is still supposed to be the place to be on Wednesdays – there are free martinis for girls.