When Kate* was 15, she had three pets: a dog, a cat, and a bird. She wasn't your average teenage girl in Hong Kong—instead of stressing about her college entrance exams, she found herself more taken with a life outside of high school. She'd already worked in a nightclub serving beer to support her hobbies. Taking care of animals was one of them.
So when her pets cross-infected one another with an illness she just couldn't figure out, she didn't know what do any more. Her mother tried to give the animals antibiotics for humans, but it didn't work. She knew she needed money to bring them to a veterinarian—and fast—so she searched online to find quickly paid odd jobs. That's when Kate first stumbled across online forums for compensated daters: young girls who are paid per hour for sex and talking, who meet their clients at love motels.
In Hong Kong, compensated dating is a trend in sex work that still remains strong. While it was popular in Tokyo about a decade ago, it has since died down there—but in Hong Kong, the ease of the internet means it's on the rise.
Hong Kong's compensated daters aren't analogous to America's sugar babies—their differences come down to the clients and what they get from them. Clients usually aren't older, wealthy, or willing to see the girls more than once. These men tend to be in their 20s, and strikingly ordinary. They never give expensive gifts or pay more than a few hundred dollars.
Po-yee "Bowie" Lam, who runs an organization called Teen's Key, helps compensated daters stay on their feet with sex education, STD tests, and counseling. Lam says that these clients tend to want to fill an emotional void just as much as a sexual one—even if it's a one-off.
"Once I had a 25 year old [john] call us up regarding an HIV test," Lam says. "When I talked to him, he said that he hired a compensated dater because he was busy, and he didn't want to deal with meeting her parents, giving her gifts, and making her happy emotionally."
Lam explains that many girls in compensated dating start off as part-time girlfriends, in relationships that don't involve sex—they just offer emotional companionship. They listen to male clients' common complaints: angry wives, over-time at the office, and coping with loneliness. Others begin as bar girls in nightclubs, but eventually leave because the job involves guzzling beer with patrons—a task many 15- and 16-year-old girls aren't up for. Some compensated daters use an agent to find them clients—but these middlemen require a fee, so others opt for listing on Chinese-language internet forums and posting their contact information there.
Some guys refused using condoms and then forced me to have sex. But I was paid after, so I was confused. Was this rape?
For Kate, compensated dating started off all right—she was making $200 to $250 an hour for sex and then listening to clients offload their daily complaints, at locations safely and surreptitiously agreed upon over the phone. She always met her clients at the train station first to be safe, to check them out before bringing them to a hotel. Sex without a condom was an unequivocal deal-breaker.
Compensated daters also have to stay underground—in Hong Kong, the stigma and shame of sex work, especially for a girl who should be studying in high school, is hard to bear. As in so many sex worker–client relationships, this often allows clients to manipulate young women. "As a compensated dater, I discovered the world had a lot of bad people for the first time," Kate says.
One of Kate's regular clients refused to pay her. When she wanted to stop seeing him, he called her on her home phone number—which she had never given him—threatening to expose her to her family. He said he had photos of them from the love motel where they'd met, where he said he had set up a secret camera. He said that if she didn't come out of her house, he'd give the photos to her parents—and that she should take his threats seriously, because he'd driven young sex workers to suicide before.
Kate, terrified, wrote a suicide note, and then posted a status on MSN chat that she was going to kill herself. Just in time, a friend—involved with Teen's Key—intervened and got her the help she needed. Kate eventually filed a report with the police, who didn't blame her, saying she had been victimized by blackmail and was also underage. While they also never arrested the man, Kate says, they scared him enough that she never encountered him again.
Unfortunately, this wasn't the end of Kate's difficulties as a compensated dater. "Some guys refused using condoms and then forced me to have sex," Kate says, "but at the time, I was paid after, so I was confused. Was this rape?"
Kate says that since she left compensated dating three years ago, she understands that what she experienced was violent rape.
Candy* grew up as an avid churchgoer in Hong Kong's suburban New Territories. She started taking ketamine and meth for fun at 15 years old; her straight-laced Christian friends first ridiculed her for being a delinquent. The next year, alienated and frustrated, she started taking jobs as a part-time girlfriend: She got paid a little bit of money for going on walks, eating dinner, and listening to guys talk about problems with their jobs and with their wives. The next year, annoyed by how much time it took to provide the girlfriend experience and the little bit of money she scraped out of it, Candy became a compensated dater, meeting for sex and charging by the hour.
But Candy was assaulted, too. Through the phone—like with all clients—she had agreed to meet a man at a hotel, and the service they negotiated on was a hand job. When they entered the hotel room, he grabbed her, forced her down, and raped her without a condom. Candy's been with other clients who have gotten violent—she says they've bitten her, and thrown her head against the wall.
"Being a compensated dater wasn't a good experience, but it made me grow up," Candy says. "Now, I've learned about love and self-respect." She says she was drawn to sex work because of the money; she grew up in a wealthy family, but towards her teens, her parents lost most of their money. She didn't know how to cope in this new environment, embarrassed and lacking the material things she once had. "Eventually, I left compensated dating because I just couldn't accept having sex with so many guys," she says. That was last year.
Neither Candy nor Kate ever dealt with an unwanted pregnancy during their time as compensated daters, but Lam says getting pregnant from a client is not uncommon. Often, she says, girls must travel to clinics in China for cheap abortions, because undergoing the procedure in Hong Kong just isn't an option: To get an abortion at the city's public hospitals, there's a waiting list of at least two months. And, counterintuitively, Hong Kong's public hospitals will only complete an abortion if the fetus is less than ten weeks old. A private hospital will consider an abortion if the fetus is older, but this will run a tab of at least $2,600.
I've only dated bad guys who've mistreated me and cheated on me. Why not choose them and make money?
On the Chinese mainland, some doctors offer "student discounts" for abortions—and the surgery is cheap to begin with. Lam remembers a compensated dater she worked with who said she was asked by a doctor for $130 in the middle of a botched abortion—he said he wouldn't continue otherwise, and she was barely conscious. She says she's seen many girls come back to Hong Kong with infections or other complications; some are still pregnant.
"In Hong Kong, the situation is difficult for these girls," Lam says. "Dreams are difficult to reach here." Lam is happy to say, though, that one girl she worked with is now a wildly successful insurance agent.
But the situation for compensated daters is not always so bleak. Christy*, who Lam says has "direction and no shame," is a 22-year-old now who has been a compensated dater for almost a year. She dreams of becoming a truck driver full time, and she puts the money she earns towards language lessons and auto mechanic courses. She knows that she only wants to continue compensating date for a maximum of one more year.
"Some girls don't have a good plan," Christy tells me. "It's very easy for girls to get lost if they can make a lot of money, and then they won't leave the industry. But I don't want to be like that. I want to get married."
Christy is strong when it comes to not crossing her personal boundaries—when one client offered her around $13,000 for a threesome with no condoms, she says she turned him down. Christy says she's also very good at selling what she calls the "emotional experience," making it seem like she's part of a normal couple with her client—at least for an hour. Once, in fact, Christy developed feelings for one of her clients—she says that they had common interests and they were compatible in bed. He rejected her, though, because he didn't want to date a sex worker. Beyond saving for her trucking career, she sees sex work as a way to make lemonade out of lemons. "I've only dated bad guys who've mistreated me and cheated on me. Why not choose them and make money?"
Unlike Kate and Candy, Christy hasn't had any bad experiences during her time as a compensated dater. "I thought it would be a dirty job, and that all the girls and guys would be bad, but everyone has been good or at least fair to me," she says.
Indeed, because of organizations like Teen's Key, it's not all unhappy endings for Hong Kong's compensated daters—in fact, it's anything but. Kate, who is 22 years old now, is a happily married new mother, and while she's taking time off to care for her baby, she plans on becoming a makeup artist. As part of a new program at the organization, she helps other young mothers at Teen's Key plan their lives. Candy is now a part-time model, mostly at exhibitions—meaning: She does cosplay—and she's even told her mother that she was once a sex worker. This, in Hong Kong, is nearly unheard of because of the stigma and shame that surrounds sex work. She appreciates that she can have such close family bonds, despite her tough adolescence. And Christy is still working hard on getting her trucking license.
Still, Teen's Key is pretty much alone in its fight to help. While there was previously a small handful of other organizations supporting compensated daters, they've been since closed down. It's not easy for a non-profit like Lam's to survive in real-estate hungry Hong Kong; a barebones cubicle she rents upstairs from the office for HIV testing runs her almost $400 a month.
"If there's support for compensated daters now, it's underground," says Lam. Adding insult to injury, sex education in Hong Kong "really sucks," she says. She remembers tales of girls douching their vaginas with Coca-Cola to prevent unwanted pregnancies after sex.
"Hong Kong is a world city, it's developed, so why is it so behind?" asks Lam. "There's no support."