Research shows that Sub-Saharan Africa has become a hotspot for Chinese sex workers, according to a new study.
Basile Ndjio, a researcher from Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, has been tracking migration trends of prostitutes from China in countries like Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana. In a forthcoming paper for the academic journal Urban Studies, Ndjio calls Africa the “new El Dorado for the prostitution business” and claims that there is an estimated 13,500 to 18,500 Chinese sex workers providing services on the continent.
As China moves into Africa—building highways and stadiums, striking oil deals, and opening special economic zones—practitioners of the world’s oldest profession have followed, catering to both Chinese expatriates and locals. Growing African purchasing power helps explain sex migration. Deloitte estimates that Africa’s middle class has tripled over the last three decades. That means more money for imported televisions, imported handbags and, yes, imported sex.
Ndjio first discovered the phenomenon when working as a casino croupier during graduate school in Cameroon. Behind the scenes, Ndjio was introduced to the world of “Shanghai beauties,” sex workers who often gathered in the back of Chinese restaurants, hotels and lounges. Colleagues and other customers used code languages asking for sex with terms like “stress relief,” “rest” or “acupuncture.”
Sex workers first came to Sub-Saharan Africa during the Cold War for migrant workers. The current phase has been spurred by the mass inpouring of inexpensive Chinese products and services into Africa, as well as Africa’s growing middle class.
Now Chinese sex workers are in direct competition with natives in high-end brothels and on street corners. Competition is so steep that it is resulting in violence as well as a change in local beauty standards.
China is infamous for forced sex work, as the US State Department listed China on the Tier 2 Watch List in its Trafficking in Persons Report for 2015. However, Ndjio’s anecdotal research has found that Chinese sex workers often arrive in African countries with the expectation of working as waitresses or secretaries.
These women generally arrive ready for new opportunities, only to be confronted with a trafficker who forces them into sex work as a reimbursement for plane tickets and visas. Ndjio has also found that other women who are rescued from prostitution rings in Cameroon often stay in the business and travel to more prosperous destinations like Nigeria or Ghana to make more money.
Read more on Ndjio’s research here.