Subjectivity, Hygiene, and STI Prevention: A Normalization Paradox in the Cleanliness Practices of Female Sex Workers in Post-Socialist China


This article illuminates the principal mechanisms that increase the risk of STIs for female sex workers in China. It draws primarily on my 26 months of ethnographic fieldwork (2006–2009) in red-light district neighborhoods in Haikou that have become centers of internal migration in post-reform southern China. Chinese sex workers here challenge dominant representations of them as illegal, immoral, and unclean subordinates and understand themselves also as sacrificing, capable, and modern women. I show how the women’s conflicted subjectivity, continuously shaped through social networks, affects their personal health decisions and, significantly, leads them to adopt clinically risky practices. I conclude by arguing that public health interventions in southern China in and around certain red-light districts should take these conflicted subjectivities into account in working to improve sex workers’ health.

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