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New Perspectives from the Oldest Profession: Abuse and the Legal Consciousness of Sex Workers in China


  • Margaret L. Boittin

  • I am indebted to the women who shared their stories with me for this project, and to my research partners in China who facilitated access to them. Jon Goldberg-Hiller, David T. Johnson, and four reviewers provided feedback that improved this article in important ways. I am grateful for thoughtful suggestions from Sarah Boittin, Jennifer A. Choo, Jordan Gans-Morse, Matt Grossmann, Miguel de Figueiredo, Rongbin Han, Robert M. Kagan, Amalia D. Kessler, Kevin J. O'Brien, Seung-Youn Oh, Deborah L. Rhode, Rachel E. Stern, Christopher Sullivan, Steven K. Vogel, and Toni Wang. I also wish to thank participants at the 2012 Workshop on Human Trafficking at the University of Goettingen, the 2012 Berkeley-Stanford Contemporary China Network Meeting, and the 2011 Law and Society Association Meeting for commenting on earlier versions of this article. The Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship and the National Science Foundation provided financial support for this article.

Please direct all correspondence to Margaret L. Boittin, Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-6055; e-mail:


Although prostitution is illegal, millions of women sell sex in China. In the process, they experience significant abuse and harm at the hands of clients, madams, pimps, the police, and health officials. This article examines the legal consciousness of Chinese sex workers through their interpretations of these abusive experiences. It reveals how they think and talk about them, and how their reactions sometimes translate into concrete actions. My evidence shows that sex workers name abuse as harmful, blame others for it, and occasionally make claims. They also have strong opinions about prostitution policies, and the relationship between these regulations and their experiences of abuse. These findings place scope conditions on previous theories of marginalized people and the law, which suggest that powerless individuals perceive a more peripheral role of the law in their lives. In addition, this evidence enriches our understanding of legal consciousness in China by showing how debates around the concept apply more broadly than previously recognized.

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