Business models in the sex industry has continually evolved, yet clandestinity of the the trade has remained ever-constant. More than a decade ago, the phenomenon of part-time girlfriends (PTGF) emerged with the rise of social media. While women and girls traded their company for money, they also face multiple risks. Between 2019-2020, STOP (Stop Trafficking Of People), an initiative of the local non-profit organization, Branches Of Hope conducted interviews with PTGFs and relevant stakeholders, to gain an inside view on the industry. It was observed that social support for young sex workers was generally lacking. Not only that, workers frequently encountered immense setbacks in seeking police help. Henceforth, STOP has actively joined forces with partner organizations in recent years to push for local legislation on combating human trafficking, and tougher sanctions for sex exploiters.
Snakes in the grass of Hong Kong’s sex industry: Hostile response from officers
Human trafficking and exploitation in the sex industry may appear to be two separate issues, yet both commonly involve the use of control tactics, such as threat, extortion, and deception to manipulate others. “Not all young sex workers are exploited. However, as existing policies are inadequate to provide protection, engagement in the line of work exposes workers to exploitation risks.” explained Michelle Wong, Program Manager of STOP. Despite sex workers’ voluntary participation in the sex industry, they may still face varying degrees of threats and exploitation during the transaction process, which undermines their bodily autonomy. Wong also indicated that while PTGFs may undertake in intimate acts with clients, not all of them would provide sexual services. Accordingly, STOP’s research interviews targeted only PTGFs who engages in transactional sex.
Between 2019-2020, through referrals from Teen’s Key, a local charity that provides support to PTGFs, STOP and international human rights research consultancy firm, Rights Exposure, conducted in-depth interviews with seven young sex workers. Results showed that all interviewees had experienced different degrees of exploitation, including clients’ refusal or evasion of payment; stealthing, which disregards the worker’s sexual consent, and heightens their health risks of unintended pregnancies as well as sexually transmitted diseases; as well as voyeurism and sextortion. With regards to relatively less severe forms of exploitation, such as payment evasion, some interviewees reflected that they would rather stay silent and not seek help, due to the cumbersomeness of filing police reports and the unlikeliness of recovering the money successfully. Only in the occurrences of grave criminal offences, like rape, would workers consider reporting to the police.
Moreover, even if victims were willing to file a report, the stigmatizing attitude and hostility towards sex workers of some officers often discourage victims from pursuing justice. One of the interviewees who filed a report for nonconsensual dissemination of private sexual images, recalled feeling looked down upon throughout the process of statement-taking, due to the disdainful attitude and language of the male officer-in-charge. “He seemed to believe that because of my job as a sex worker, I deserved to be mistreated,” she added. In another case, the victim reportedly came forward to report criminal intimidation but received no response nor follow-up from the police, and was not even notified when her case was closed.
Veronica Siu, Assistant Program Officer of STOP, urges law enforcement agencies to improve training for frontline officers, and integrate into practice trauma-informed approaches when responding to potential cases of exploitation, so to avoid retraumatization.
Lack of community support
According to Teen’s Key’s 2019 annual report, of the 10,000+ young women and girls screened and assessed for sexual risks, approximately 1,500 cases were identified as high-risk and required follow-up care, which involved incidences of threats of violence, voyeurism and sextortion, cyberbullying, sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies. Despite the staggering number, availability of relevant social support services is greatly lacking. Across the 14 stakeholders interviewed by STOP, it was learnt that in Hong Kong, there are only two organizations that provide services specifically designed to meet the needs of young sex workers in Hong Kong, namely Teen’s Key and Yang Memorial Methodist Social Service.
Founded 10 years ago, Teen’s Key initially focused its efforts on promoting occupational safety and health to PTGFs. Over the years, they gradually expanded their service scope to also support the personal development of female youths in Hong Kong. As opposed to the norm of street outreach, Teen’s Key’s social workers approach youths through various major social media platforms, and regularly message PTGFs about the types of services that the organization offers, such as free rapid sexual health tests for gonorrhea, syphilis, and AIDS; as well as legal assistance if necessary. “Most times, they tend to just leave us on read, but in times of emergency, they know they can call our 24-hour emergency hotline. We don’t lecture people. Instead, we walk alongside survivors as they decide on their next steps,” said Denise Lam, Social Worker and Outreach Programme Officer of Teen’s Key.
Lag in Sex-Ed: Ignorance to condom use in STD prevention
These high-risk cases accentuate the severe inadequacy and outdatedness of sex education in Hong Kong. Findings from STOP’s interview data revealed that prior to connecting with Teen’s Key, some interviewees never knew that proper condom usage could reduce the risk of STDs.
There is more to sex education than contraceptive knowledge. “Oftentimes during outreach, the questions asked aren’t about how to wear a condom. The girls are interested to know ways to say ‘no’ in relationships, and how to communicate openly and honestly with their partner,” added Rachel Chow, Resource Development Manager of Teen’s Key. Hence, in addition to providing sexual health knowledge, Teen’s Key’s sexuality & consent educational classes also use role-playing activities to discuss common relationship queries.
Inadequate laws to protect sex workers
To more effectively protect young sex workers from exploitation, STOP advocates the enactment of a comprehensive human trafficking law in Hong Kong. Currently, the human trafficking law in Hong Kong solely addresses the crime of forced prostitution, while the government’s launch of the “Action Plan to Tackle Trafficking in Persons and Enhance Protection of Foreign Domestic Helpers in Hong Kong” in 2018, only targets to respond to the labor exploitation of foreign domestic workers. As Wong emphasized, the existing legal framework continues to define human trafficking too narrowly, leading to those who were neither forced into sex work nor an exploited foreign domestic worker, but nonetheless a victim of other forms of human trafficking, to be left out of the justice process.
Based on the present law, even if the perpetrator is successfully prosecuted, the penalty tends not to sufficiently reflect the gravity of their crime. “The criminal consequences for rape is relatively severe, yet for voyeurism and sextortion, they are far less stringent. As for the act of grooming, it might even be the case that it is not punishable – unless unlawful sexual intercourse with a child victim under the age of 13 has occurred – which has no deterrent effect.” Wong believes that criminalizing all forms of human trafficking would allow exploited sex workers to better understand their own situation and report for police help without help when in need. The law could also deliver a message to the public that perpetrators require more severe punishment.