Most of the heat in conversations about commercial sex goes to the idea of prostitution – whether it can ever be a normalized 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.

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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.” …

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…

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…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…

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?

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Laura Agustín writes at Border Thinking on Migration, Trafficking, and Commercial Sex! Laura wrote the book Sex at the Margins and investigates the complexities and contradictions of commercial sex.

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