Cai Yifeng is a Ph.D. candidate at Brown University’s Anthropology department. He recently traveled to China to study the country’s gay male sex trade.
“When I went to China in May to study ‘money boys’–male prostitutes providing sexual services to male clients, known colloquially as MBs–I imagined that I would be seeking entry into a world of darkness, violence, and suffering,” Yifeng writes in a fascinating new piece published by Sixth Tone.
To his surprise, it wasn’t like that at all. Many of the MBs he spoke to weren’t just happy in their professions, they were making serious bank.
For example, Yifeng spoke to a man named Nan.
A former spa employee, Nan works as a personal trainer at a well-known local chain of gyms. He also has a solid customer base to whom he provides regular sexual services. Even back when he was working at the spa — in truth, a massage parlor whose workers frequently administered “happy endings” to paying customers — he was already making close to 40,000 yuan (about $6,000) a month.
Though prostitution is technically illegal in China, Nan told Yifeng he still makes several hundred yuan per encounter.
“But you see, my main income doesn’t come from sex, but from tips,” he says. “Sometimes people will tip me thousands more. That’s nothing. I have a friend whose client bought him a house in his rural hometown and a small apartment in Shanghai. It all depends on how lucky you are in getting wealthy clients who will take care of you.”
Most MBs’ prices, Yifeng notes, range from 400 yuan ($60.00 U.S.) for a massage with a happy ending to 7,000 yuan ($1050.00 U.S.) for intercourse. And that’s not including tips. Their annual salaries often exceed those of many of white-collar workers in China.
But their earning power was not the only thing that surprised me. I was also intrigued by how blurred the line between selling sex and hooking up often became during these men’s sexual encounters. Most people in China still assume that people who sell sex don’t enjoy it; it is taken for granted that they endure the work to make money. Today, though, many customers who pay for sex are in fact young, conventionally attractive men. MBs themselves are frequently drawn to some of their own customers. In these cases, it becomes complicated to separate transactions between MBs and customers from sex between two or more mutually attracted men.
So what was Tifeng’s ultimate takeaway from the experience? Put simply, not all MBs are miserable, abused, poverty-stricken individuals struggling to get by. Many are happy and healthy and enjoy what they do.
“I left China with totally different data from what I expected, pondering the fluidity of my interviewees’ lives and my newly confounded sense of social justice,” he writes. “Back in the city, [these men] carried on with their jobs, wealthy, fulfilled — and not asking to be ‘saved’ from anything.”
h/t: Sixth Tone