CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 The relevance of the economic perspective for understanding and critiquing excessively rigid, stereotypical notions of prostitution has already been amply demonstrated. The economic approach, which allows for analyzing the phenomenon of prostitution as part of a process of “disaffiliation” (Castel 1995) implying exclusion from wage-earning society and its social protections (Mathieu 2002) is equally useful for studying processes of migration from Northern China. Since the late 1990s, the presence of Chinese prostitutes has gradually increased. These women say they decided to practice the activity because they were in dire socio-economic straits and had no other choice. Most are in their forties; they are not dependent on organized crime networks or procurers. Living in France illegally, without a residence permit, they adopt the tactic of highly discreet behavior. While their situation can be fully explained in economic terms, we nonetheless hypothesize that it would be reductive to focus the analysis exclusively on the reasons and practices of Chinese prostitutes. In fact, it is by comparing these women’s reasons for deciding to practice prostitution with the aims of other Chinese women migrants with a similar sociological profile who have not opted for prostitution that we can best apprehend how porous the boundaries of prostitution are.

2 Using material from a field study conducted over several years, during which we worked with Chinese women migrants and collected a great deal of ethnographic data, we examine a heterogeneous set of sexual-economic exchanges. Detailed analysis of the life trajectories of women migrants from northern China to Paris, some of whom have become prostitutes, analysis that takes into account a combination of sexual, economic, legal and emotional dimensions, brings to light a continuum ranging from marriage-to- “anyone-as-long-as-he’s-got-residence-papers” to prostitution. Consistent with several studies showing the permeability of boundaries between domesticity and prostitution and how readily women may shift from one of these activities to the other (Karady 1994; Agustin 2000; Oso Casas 2006), our field study shows that what would at first seem very different types of reasoning and practical issues—i.e., those involved respectively in finding a Chinese intimate partner, marrying a Frenchman, and engaging in prostitution—may prove strangely similar. In the case of Northern Chinese women migrants in Paris, it is interesting to note the strong similarity between motivations leading some women into prostitution and others into couplehood. These different situations all involve sexual relations and compensation for them; they may be said to represent three types of sexual-economic exchange. That term, first used by Paola Tabet in connection with “exchanging sex for something else” (1987: 1), allows for widening the field of activities implicated in that definition and moving beyond the stigmata attaching to prostitution, an activity which not only has extremely negative connotations but is also often defined quite narrowly. The fact is that sex is frequently a matter of economic exchange for Northern Chinese women migrants in Paris, though this does not mean that such transactions can be qualified as prostitution in the strict sense of the word.

3 Our aim here is to present the situation of women from Northern China in Paris—prostitutes and others—and show the complexity of their trajectories. To achieve this, it is important to take into account these women’s aims in migrating. To better understand their situations, and why some take up prostitution, it is important to consider the goals they pursue by migrating and the means at their disposal for attaining those goals in France (Berman 2007). We therefore first discuss the opportunities available to these women in an extremely tight, not to say closed job market. Lacking alternatives and constrained by a highly specific migration context, these women end up perceiving their bodies and sex as a “resource” that will provide them with at least a short-term solution to their difficult living conditions and, for some, a means of escaping communitarian confinement and domination by Southern Chinese employers long-settled in Paris. The use of sex as a resource for achieving what one migrated for is a practice not restricted to prostitutes. The kinds of relationships that some of our respondents have with stable Chinese or French partners can also be interpreted as very similar to prostitution—as a kind of instrumentalization of sexual and intimate relations for integration purposes (Fouché and Weber 2006)—in that, for our interviewees, the spheres of sex and emotion are closely related to economic and legal concerns. In our second section, then, we discuss three types of sexual-economic exchange observed in the field. In instrumentalizing particularly restrictive gender relations, these migrant women are thinking of their bodies and sex as one of the few resources with value on three different markets—the marriage, sex and labor markets—and, for some, as the only real asset they have for legalizing their presence in France and improving their current situations. In light of these diverse practices, “doing that”—i.e., practicing prostitution—seems to amount, on the one hand, to resigned adaptation to a context of extreme socio-economic insecurity and, on the other, a means of freeing themselves from what are seen as oppressive relations with other Chinese in France—all in the hope of finally realizing their purpose in migrating: a rise in social status.

How the Research Proceeded

4 It is not easy to win the trust of people living illegally in a country and gain access to empirical information on topics as sensitive as migration, sexual activity and prostitution. Only by means of a practice that could be called “ongoing presence” were we able to get a real idea of the daily life of Northern Chinese men and women migrants in Paris. This article is based on two long ethnographic studies (2000-2007), one by each author, during which we gradually developed—in close contact with the field and free of theoretical assumptions and pressure to validate preformulated hypotheses (Glazer and Strauss 1967)—a theoretical perspective on how sex is used in migration circumstances. The ethnographic method, which consists in being immersed as long as possible in the milieu one is studying and so becoming infused with it, and in winning the trust of people living and moving in that milieu, enabled us to apprehend clearly the types of social logic characteristic of Northern Chinese women migrants in Paris. While we did not actually investigate sexual practices (Handman 2005) (our only source of information on that point are our interviews Chinese women migrants) [1], we were able to establish sufficient trust to collect sensitive material and to understand the many indirect utterances by means of which these women speak of how they use sex.

5 Our knowledge of Mandarin and our involvement in associations for assisting Chinese migrants enabled us to develop special ties with Northern Chinese migrants of both sexes. The possibility of mutual exchange is crucial: it was because we spent considerable time with several individuals and were in a position to assist them personally that we were able to conduct certain interviews and thus to better understand the daily social practices and mental representations of Northern Chinese people living in Paris. After working for over three years teaching French to Chinese migrants in various Paris associations, Florence Lévy worked as a volunteer translator with street social workers from the Maison Blanche hospital involved in an HIV prevention program for Chinese drug addicts and prostitutes. She also co-ran a discussion and support group for Chinese women for a year and a half, in the framework of the Pierre-Ducerf Franco-Chinese association in Paris. Since 2003 she has been working for the Inter-Service Migrants translating service, assisting Chinese migrants in their face-to-face interactions with the French administration. Marylène Lieber also has long-term experience working in support associations. As a volunteer for the Pierre-Ducerf association from 2000 to 2004, she taught French to Chinese migrants and accompanied, and translated for, many undocumented migrants in their encounters with the French administration. [2] She also worked as a volunteer translator for Chinese drug addicts and prostitutes using Médecins du Monde’s Paris methadone bus, during which time she helped set up the “Lotus bus” assistance program for Chinese women prostitutes.

6 This article, then, is based on two field experiences—distinct but similar—comprising numerous observation periods and approximately 50 formal and informal interviews conducted from 2000 to 2007 in Paris with women and men from Northern China. Some of the interviews have already been analyzed as part of a collective research study entitled Les modalités d’entrée des Chinois en France (Cattelain et al. 2002), in which Marylène Lieber participated. Others were conducted as part of Florence Lévy’s doctoral thesis on the migration motivations of Northern Chinese women in Paris. [3]

Being a Woman from Northern China in Paris

7 Women migrants from large Northern Chinese cities are usually in their forties and belong to a generation deeply affected by the economic transition that got under way in China in 1978. Educated under the communist regime, many had worked for approximately twenty years as state company employees, enjoying fairly privileged social status, before being laid off and either left to “get by” on temporary jobs or opening their own businesses, usually with no more than fleeting success. [4] The vast majority are divorced with a child or elderly parents to support; their economic and social situation in China was difficult and they chose to leave it behind; specifically, “to spend a few years abroad making money and then go back” (Lévy 2005). [5]

8 Despite differences in individual trajectories, these women had similar motivations for leaving China, motivations that reveal the economic and social insecurity the country has been undergoing for twenty years now. Economic concerns are uppermost. The women often mention wanting to be able to pay for an expensive higher education for their only child or for the medical care their elderly parents will need, which is just as costly and will not be reimbursed. Others explain that they came “to make money for my old age,” saying that since the state-owned company they were working in closed down, they have no reason to expect their pension will arrive at the set time. Others want to acquire a new apartment; they mention the vast modernizing construction programs in Chinese cities that threaten the buildings they used to live in—with no decent financial compensation. Lastly, some women want to amass capital to start a business. With the exception of a small number of women expressing a wish to settle in France, most of our respondents’ reasons for migrating may be described as economic preoccupations linked to economic instability in their country—to which they intend to return after a few years abroad.

A Brief Historical Review of Chinese Migration to Paris

Though it is not our purpose here to present how the Chinese have immigrated to France—a subject that has been handled extensively [6]—it is still important to understand that contrary to a widespread notion in France, Chinese immigration has been relatively heterogeneous. Historically, there have been three major migration waves. The earliest and most sizable began early in the twentieth century and was from the city of Wenzhou in Southern China (hence the name these migrants are known by: Wenzhou). That wave was (and continues to be) made up primarily of kinship-based migration chains and the main aim is to set up businesses. It was “reactivated” in the 1980s (Béja 2001). Newcomer Wenzhou were (and are) mostly low-skilled young men and women of rural background who entered the country illegally and were taken in charge by members of their extended family, who then found them housing and jobs in businesses within their ethnic economic niche. The first priority of these migrants was to work to be able to pay back the debt they owed for the journey and entry into France; they then sought to obtain residence papers; lastly, to amass enough capital to start their own businesses (Ma Mung 2002). Most business owners and employers on the Chinese labor market in Paris came with this migration wave and settled in the city some time ago.
Another wave was made up of political refugees from former Indochina fleeing the conflicts in Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia. A significant proportion were of Chinese origin, descendents of migrants who had settled in Southeast Asia (Le 1990); many had substantial social and cultural capital. Once in France they quickly set up their own businesses, and they have been gradually moving up the social ladder. This wave, organized by the French state in the late 1970s, is no longer active.
In the late 1990s, a new migration wave appeared, this one made up of people from urban areas of Northern and Northeast China. It is this wave that concerns us here. Composed as it is primarily of city-dwellers in their 40s, a large proportion of whom are women (Pina-Guérassimoff, Guérassimoff and Wang 2002), it is quite different from the previous waves. Once in France, these persons have little in the way of support and mutual aid networks. The women are isolated, have no residence papers, do not know French. They soon find themselves in a precarious socio-economic position while being relegated to the bottom of the “community” hierarchy.

9 Before leaving, then, women migrants from Northern China have virtually no contacts among Chinese already in France. They are poorly informed on the situation they will find themselves in abroad; they think they will be able to “make money easily” and reimburse the cost of the journey by the end of their first year in the country. That cost is viewed as an investment, and for these women, who earned between €60 and €300 a month in China, it amounts to a fortune: it used to cost €4,000 but has now risen to nearly €10,000. They enter the country on Schengen-space business or tourist visas purchased from semi-official travel agencies; [7] they arrive by air, and only once in France do they realize the implications of being in the country illegally. [8] Immediately upon arrival they discover the living conditions of their compatriots without residence permits and start to realize the extent of the difficulties—difficulties they had never really thought about. Crammed into mixed-sex apartments with bedrooms full of bunk beds, Northern Chinese migrants have tremendous difficulty finding a job, to say nothing of a stable, well-paid one. Because of the underemployment situation, particularly acute for persons without a residence permit, they often reduce their expenses to a minimum while waiting to get hired somewhere, anywhere. They seldom leave the apartment and live in constant fear of being stopped by police for a residence permit check and then expelled from the country.

10 This means that as soon as they arrive, Northern Chinese migrant women become aware of the constraints working against realization of their plans and purposes in migrating. Like their male counterparts, they are bitterly disappointed. Lacking residence papers and any knowledge of French or English and finding it extremely difficult to acquire the rudiments of either, they realize they have no access to French society, whose operating modes they understand no better than the language. They feel they “don’t understand a thing” (Mrs Zheng) and say they are incapable of anticipating the future in a country where “the law is constantly changing” (Mrs Xie). Their social network is limited to Mandarin speakers and their choices are shaped by, not to say restricted to, what the “community” can and is willing to provide. On the occupational score, this means their range of employment opportunities is extremely narrow. Women who come with university degrees or accountancy certifications and who thought they would be able to work in their area of specialization or set up in business have to revise their plans immediately. The only solution that seems open to them is to turn to Chinese employers.

11 As explained above, that labor market is dominated by immigrants from Southern China, primarily from the Wenzhou region. While many are likewise without residence permits and are working in extremely uncomfortable conditions, those who came long ago have in many cases obtained the required permits and opened a small business in the restaurant, garment or, more recently, the construction sector. For them the new arrivals represent a cheap, flexible labor supply that they can pay at rates far below French legal norms. And on this informal market a sexual division of labor may be observed, together with a strong communitarian preference for Southern Chinese. These intra-ethnic splits reflect the discrimination practiced against new arrivals from the North, particularly women (Lieber 2007). Wenzhou say that Northern migrants “don’t know how to work hard.” Men from the North have trouble getting hired, and women generally have access to only three types of employment, all unstable and underpaid: sewing, restaurant work and domestic jobs (Gao and Poisson 2005). Furthermore, with the crackdown on illegal labor in the first two of these sectors, employers are more and more reluctant to hire persons without residence and working permits. Less exposed to police checks, jobs such as child-minder and all-around housemaid in a Chinese employer’s private home are therefore the main option open to women from the North. They may have a Chinese high school degree and even a university degree, and they are hired for their skill in Mandarin, the employer’s idea being to have them transmit that language to his children, as he himself is likely to be less educated and to speak only a Southern Chinese dialect.

12 The women describe conditions in these “live-in” jobs as exploitative. They feel there is no limit to the demands they have to meet. For an average monthly wage of €400-600 and no guaranteed weekly day off, they have to take care of the employer’s children, clean the house, shop, cook, wash and iron. Some are also expected to do these tasks for the employer’s business. The women tell of being woken up in the middle of the night to feed their bosses. To this workload, heavy in itself, are added daily humiliations and what they find an unbearable attitude of contempt. As Mrs Xie put it:


The bosses pay you a little money and they want you to do a lot of things. It’s very hard and unpleasant. They have a washing machine but they don’t want you to use it. They want you to wash everything by hand. They think it’s a waste of electricity and water. They’ve already paid you for the month, so…

14 Having to wash clothes by hand, particularly the employer’s underwear, is experienced as degrading by this interlocutress, a feeling aggravated by her sense of being deliberately humiliated, made to feel the employer’s power and domination in an extremely violent, “sour” way. This type of remark is often made by Northern Chinese women, who take very hard the status fall reflected in being a domestic employee and the particularly unpleasant working conditions. Employers’ homes are relatively impermeable to French labor regulations, and child-minders often have no individual rights: they cannot go out, have no fixed day off, and may not even be allowed to receive phone calls. In sum, they have neither personal time nor space, and are thought of as existing in a permanent state of service. To this must be added a more symbolic dimension: these women have to cope with a dramatic overturning of the hierarchical order in that they are serving bosses from rural backgrounds whom they consider “inferior” and less educated than themselves. And the jobs are insecure because the employers can fire them at will. Yet however hard such conditions may be, work of this sort in Wenzhou homes is often the only job they can find, and there is fierce competition for them. The women are increasingly likely not to find work for several months after their arrival; they are compelled to live off their savings. This extremely weak economic situation—down and out in Paris—amounts to an additional hardship and further reduces their already narrow maneuvering room.

How Sex is Used as a Resource for Achieving One’s Goals in Migrating

15 As a last resort for improving a situation in which they have very few other resources, these newly arrived Chinese women migrants often turn to men. “Find someone for yourself,” they are advised by women-friends who came some time ago. So it happens that women who describe themselves as faithful wives to husbands often chosen by their parents, and who say that in China their husband is the only man they know, start having multiple partners once in France. Regardless of whether the men are French or Chinese, with or without a residence permit, for the women they represent a source of hope of being able to improve their situation at least a little. Like other women in precarious legal and economic positions, [9] Northern Chinese women in Paris think of the couple ties they form as guarantees for the future. Sex and emotion-based relations are thus instrumentalized for the purposes of social integration.

16 On the basis of the various trajectories presented to us, we have identified three types of sexual-economic arrangements, which we here present in connection with three different women: Mrs Li, Mrs Wang and Mrs Zhou. The term “arrangement” here is meant to convey the idea of adapting to an unfavorable determining context. Boltanski (2004) thinks of arrangements as a kind of compromise between two sources of tension, a compromise that works to endow practices with legitimacy. In a similar way, the notion of sexual-economic arrangement enables us to highlight our respondents’ real, though extremely limited, capacity for taking action in a context that far exceeds their control. In this connection, the trajectories of Mrs Li, Wang and Zhou are exemplary. They have been reconstituted here on the basis of life accounts; we have selected the most relevant components, after changing names and any other information that would threaten their anonymity. To refine our understanding of these three types of arrangements, we have also supplemented the three women’s accounts with representative testimony from other women migrants.

17 Though these three trajectories have been distinguished from each other for the purposes of this analysis, they should not be seen as mutually exclusive. On the contrary, what we observe in the field is that these three women are not very different from each other sociologically, and that the various types of arrangements may exist simultaneously or consecutively in the lives of Northern Chinese women in Paris.

“Paris Couples” [10]: Mrs Li, or Arrangements between Compatriots

18 After quitting her job as a live-in child-minder and returning to Paris, Mrs Li has once again joined up with a man to form a “Paris couple” (Bali fuqi). She has already had an intimate partner from Beijing and one from Shandong. This time she is living with Mr Chang, from Liaoning province; friends of hers introduced them. Mr Chang is 53, ten years her senior, and has been living illegally in France for seven years. He has stopped moonlighting in the building sector and now picks over the contents of rubbish bins, selling any thing that can be sold at the edges of the flea market. Mr Chang thinks that “to live here, you need a girlfriend. Otherwise you’re too lonely, you think about the family too much. With a girlfriend, you take care of each other.” They have moved into a two-room 20-square-meter apartment in the 11th arrondissement, which they share with eight other Chinese. Mrs Li and Mr Chang’s space is on a sort of dark mezzanine, just enough room to contain a small double bed; they sleep directly above the room occupied by the legal renter, his wife and baby. Mr Chang pays the €180 rent. Mrs Li, who has also begun combing refuse bins, explains: “He helps me repair objects; I cook for him.” In the beginning, she worked alone; then they decided to combine their merchandise and sell at the same stall. They split the takings, and each sends money back to his or her family. Whereas Mrs Li has not mentioned the relationship to her family in China, Mr Chang, who is supporting his wife and 20-year-old daughter, has presented that relationship to them as “an occupational need.” His wife has just moved into a new apartment that cost €23,000, paid for with his money transfers; she seems to accept the situation. But Mr Chang explains firmly: “When we return to China, we’ll separate. We’re not going to shatter two families, both with children—it wouldn’t be moral. I’ll go back to my home and she to hers. We’re a temporary couple!” Mrs Li approves this way of putting it.

19 Like Mrs Li and Mr Chang, the members of most “Paris couples” do not have residence permits; these relationships represent an exchange of various services. And they seem more a reaffirmation of Chinese women’s traditional gender roles than an expression of some new sexual or emotional freedom acquired by these women through the migration process. Men—and among them Mr Chang—are explicit on the point; they expect the woman to provide domestic comforts (including sex): “I need it, I work hard, I’m tired, I need help—cooking, washing, cleaning up.” The emotional aspect is more likely to be present in the women’s discourse: “It’s to help each other,” “to have someone waiting for you when you come home at night,” “to make something like a family,” explains Mrs Liu. The financial aspect is nonetheless present in the exchange; as Mrs Wu explains: “Women do it to save the expense of rent.” Often the man pays daily expenses such as housing and food; the monetary aspect can also cover payment for services rendered. According to Mrs Wu, particularly pretty women request monthly “living expenses” ranging from €300 to €500. Others, like Mrs Li, proudly let it be known that they have never spent a centime of their partner’s income.

20 These relationships are sometimes better than the one with the spouse in China. Unsatisfied couples may split up after a few months; others remain together for the duration of their stay abroad. However, the relationship is seldom formalized through marriage or children (an exception being Mrs Tang, who has had a second child while in Paris). According to Mrs Shao, that would “lay black ice on ice”—in other words, aggravate the difficulties. Migrants, particularly those who did not divorce in the home country, are careful not to let these relationships intrude on the only family considered legitimate, the one back in China. Money-managing and mid- and long-term plans are the individual migrant’s private affair; they are not shared with the partner. Paris couples thus represent a form of sexual-economic trade-off: in exchange for domestic, sexual and emotional services, women migrants are freed from paying living expenses and can send more money home to their families in China.

“Finding a Frenchman”: Mrs Wang, or Mixed Couples

21 The idea of finding a French intimate partner may seem quite different from finding a Chinese one in that the women’s hope is eventually to acquire residence and working permits and start a new family, both of which goals require “finding a foreigner.” Overstepping the symbolic boundary of the Chinese “community” represents a major change in these women’s plans, focusing them on France and requiring them to rethink their ties to China. Most say the thought of getting married in France had not occurred to them before they left. It is after discovering the hardships of living in France, and because they hope that getting “papers” will enable them to work legally and for better pay, that they resign themselves to attempting the only move that will enable them to “regularize” their situation: marriage to a Frenchman. And in this sense, the strategy turns out to have points in common with the one operative in “Paris couples.”

22 Mrs Wang is 35 and has divorced twice in China. Concluding that she could not make it financially alone there with a daughter, she chose to go abroad to “make money and then go back.” Once in France she heard other Chinese women’s stories of successful mixed marriages and let herself be persuaded to give marriage one last try, this time with a Frenchman. She explains: “Frenchmen have a particularity: they have a lot of girlfriends before they get married, but after they get married, their priority is the family. … They fulfill their responsibilities—they are very different from Chinese men.” Her friends introduced her to several suitors, each of whom she rejected, finding one too possessive, another psychologically unbalanced, a third clearly too old and a fourth, on welfare, too poor. Ultimately, she moved in with Pierre, a hapless manual worker of 41 whom she had fallen in love with. After a year she realized that he categorically refused to consider marriage—a disaster as far as she was concerned: “Getting married is very important to me. First, it means you get papers; second, it means you have a family. If you don’t get papers or a family, then it’s like being a vagrant in Paris. It makes no sense.” Reluctantly she broke up with Pierre and took a job in the garment sector in Paris. She also signed up with an agency specialized in the marriage market for Asian women, and after spending time consecutively with several men, married a Spaniard fourteen years her senior, an unskilled construction worker. She was hardly thrilled about the match, admitting before the event that if it were not for the residence permit, she would not have accepted it: “If I don’t get married, I have no family here and no security. If I get married, I’ll get papers, acquire a status, I’ll be able to work legally and I’ll get medical and social security coverage. What’s more, you can look for a ‘French person job’”—implying better working conditions and higher pay. But there was another urgent problem to be solved: bringing her daughter to France before she passed the legal age limit. Mrs Wang did get residence and work permits after marrying, and she found a legal job in a hotel through a temporary agency. She then went back to see her family after four years away and got started on the formalities for bringing them to France. But despite the satisfaction of being able to bring her daughter and sister to France—the sister is currently working illegally as a child-minder—the life she describes is dull and very remote from what she had dreamed of. Her relationship with her husband is not going well; he has become violent, and she is contemplating divorce, but only as a last resort, as she has no desire to experience another failure and dreads both becoming a divorcée again and not being able to get by in France with a daughter to support.

23 Mrs Wang is not an isolated case. Many Chinese women migrants conclude that marriage is the only way to realize the objectives they set for themselves in migrating and to legalize their situation. Moreover it offers a solution to the constant fear of being arrested and expelled, and a means of getting better work—ideally outside the ethnic Chinese market—once one has a residence permit, or at least being in a position to negotiate better working conditions and higher pay. Women with a romantic streak discern in western men all the virtues that seem lacking in their male compatriots. As they imagine it, French men are more respectful; they are incapable of being unfaithful or violent, and much less likely to gamble away the family fortune. [11] But for other women, romantic notions play virtually no part in their decision to get married. And only “pragmatic” considerations can explain the increasing number of women opting for an attempt at marriage. For these women, marriage is a means to obtain “papers” and cease living in France illegally, though many also say they do not wish to get involved in “false marriages” or “deception around papers” or remain in what turn out to be not very gratifying marital unions. The crackdown on illegal immigrants has intensified the phenomenon, in that there are now virtually no other possibilities of getting permits; this in turn works profound changes in adult migrants’ trajectories and has a considerable impact on their personal lives.

24 To meet French potential fiancés, the women turn to friends who already have one, or marriage agencies. Both of these services have to be paid for. Girlfriends function symbolically—and often abusively—as guarantors of the two partners’ “quality” and may demand up to €1,000 from the woman if the match gets made. “Introduction agencies” do not get nearly as involved; as in China, they provide no more than a list of contacts with photos, a brief description of the individual, and his or her telephone number. The fees charged to men are much higher than for women. Started by mixed couples, these marriage agencies are specialized in the particularities of a marriage market where the two individuals may be said to have different aims. Illegal Chinese migrants “need” to legalize their situation through marriage whereas some of the western men, exposed to and perpetuating racial stereotypes, want to marry an Asian woman because they see them as more docile and traditional than local women. As happens with other migrant populations, such as the one described by Oso Casas (2006), this phenomenon skews marriage market rules. Men on relatively low rungs of the social ladder can negotiate on the basis of a new sort of capital—namely their nationality, a potential means for the women to obtain residence and working permits. This enables such men to enjoy the domestic and sexual services of women much younger and prettier than those they could hope to meet on the national marriage “market.” Mrs Chu thus finds herself in the delicate situation of nagging her partner to marry her while feeling that this man twenty years her senior, retired, and relatively uneducated is not good enough to be presented to her family. Mrs Lu, meanwhile, is in a hurry to get married so she can go back to China and see her sick parents. She introduced her fiancé to us, the only man ready to marry immediately. Obese, clearly mentally retarded, the man is making a scant living in a state-subsidized job and living in a dormitory; she later discovered he had been in prison several times. Mrs Wang analyzes the situation with a touch of humor:


I think that at this level, Chinese women are actually resolving the problems of French single men. These pathetic guys, poor, dumb, without money, with nothing at all, do not find wives.… French women are very demanding, so they look for Chinese women. Chinese women don’t look to see if you’re poor or not. They just want a Frenchman, to marry him and get papers.… These men take very beautiful, young Chinese women to satisfy their sexual needs. No need to spend much money, you just give her two meals and a place to live.… So at that level, these men are taking advantage of Chinese women.

26 While the majority of potential fiancés are unskilled with no career prospects, extremely low income and generally much older than their girlfriends, some do belong to more privileged social categories. Mrs Wang married a lawyer, while Mrs Xie dated a retired engineer and Mrs Yi, a bank manager.

27 The distortion affects partner relationships, in that in established couples, power relations often work to the advantage of the men, who impose their lifestyles and maintain gender hierarchies favorable to them. The women seem to have little power to negotiate the sharing of household tasks, how money is used, or frequency of sexual relations. Mrs Zhu has come to accept this situation:


With him, I work, I come home and I do the cooking. He watches television. I put things away. It’s always [like that]; it’s very tiring. I’ve told him so. He’s a good man, but for the housework, it just won’t do.

29 What may be called these couples’ “economy of gratitude” (Hochschild and Machung 1989) in fact amounts to a fool’s bargain: grateful to their

30 Still, women who have managed to get married consider themselves luckier than those who have to play “new concubines.” Intimate partners in the latter situations have very different perceptions of time: the men tend to favor eternal cohabitation, whereas the women, living under threat of arrest and anxious to be able to travel freely to see their child or family, are in a hurry to get married. Moreover, they must sense that with every passing year their chances of finding a French partner diminish (Singly 2002), just as in China, where they say they would be too old to remarry. And most of our respondents have experienced not one but a series of disappointments. Several say they were “tricked”: after one or two years of living with their man they discovered he had no intention of marrying them.

31 The questions asked by women looking to get married show how little experience they have and how uncomfortable they are. Many try, awkwardly, to obtain information on the usual way the sexes behave together in France, asking, like Mrs Shu, if “Frenchmen always kiss women on the mouth,” or, like Mrs Xie, whether “you have to sleep together on the first night.” The pre-marriage cohabitation phase—though they hope it will take place—is experienced as compulsory, and not a very “respectable” practice at that. As Mrs Zhang put it somewhat bashfully:


I was very conservative. I didn’t want to.… There was even a man from the post office who came to pick me up and invited me out to eat, I didn’t want to. I was afraid of everything. It was my girlfriend who told me that it’s different here from in China. Here you have to go and live with people [i.e., cohabit with the male partner and therefore have sexual relations].

33 Accepting this means “adapting” to local ways and customs that constrain some women to reconsider their notion of what a love relationship is.

34 Most are not in a position to negotiate and have to accept the various types of relationships the French partner offers, such as open union or being a “kept woman,” as the man wishes neither to commit himself nor break up. He remains the nominal fiancé and comes regularly to see her and “do it,” but he does not get involved any further; i.e., he does not offer a solution to his girlfriend’s illegal situation. Mrs Chang sums it up bitterly: “I won’t marry you, I support you. I give you money—that’s it.” The women often take this very hard: “What good does it do me that he says he loves me if he leaves me in this situation? What does he mean by it?” Mrs Xie exclaims in annoyance. Still, while the partners may not live together and may only see each other on dates and weekends, the men do often provide financial assistance—in exchange for domestic and sexual services and something like emotional closeness. Some pay rent on a studio apartment or for food and clothes, public transportation passes, mobile phone recharge cards. Jobless women who rely on such “gifts,” ranging from €300 to €500 a month, find themselves in an uncomfortable position of dependence. Like many others, Mrs Shu has but one wish: that the man she lives with will become aware of how hard it is to live without a residence permit, and marry her.

35 Mrs Chu, on the other hand, no longer has any illusions. When she was arrested by the police, the man she had been living with for more than a year refused to come to court to help her out. Likewise disenchanted, Mrs Xie now has several relationships going simultaneously. She will no longer “waste time” setting all her hopes on one man. She has given up all demands and criteria and is willing to marry whatever man is ready to take the step, though her favorite, newly divorced, seems undecided. For her part, Mrs Dong feels no remorse about having the rent paid several times over by different lovers. Some women oscillate between prostitution and love-affairs, using their independent living situation to invite a few customers over.

36 Lastly, involvement with a French partner, though it does in some cases culminate in a marriage that some women consider a success, generally amounts to a kind of sexual-economic exchange based on a misunderstanding and divergent expectations and desires. Sex here is not a directly remunerated “service” but the relationship does imply gifts and sporadic financial aid. As in the relationships between older Italian men and Eastern European women described by Serge Weber, these men do not have “recourse to direct marketing of sexual services; they wrap it up in more ‘respectable’ friendliness and domesticity, behaving as benefactor [s] for women [they] perceive to be in an inferior social position, whereas in fact [they] are taking advantage of the socio-economic differential between the two countries” (2006: 51).

“Doing That”: Mrs Zhou, or Prostitution

37 In the migrants’ collective imaginary, forming a couple either with a compatriot or a “foreigner” cannot at all be compared to prostitution. “Doing that,” as our respondents put it, at pains to avoid the explicit terminology of paid sex, remains an extremely stigmatized activity (Pheterson 2001). Nonetheless, what we were able to learn of these women’s representations and a few of their practices suggests that the boundaries between prostitution and other types of relations are not that clear.

38 Mrs Zhou, a businesswoman with a comfortable lifestyle, decided to move abroad and remake her life after divorce and a dramatic fall in income. The intermediary in charge of getting her into France told her she could “make as much money in one month as I made in one year in China.” She thought she would be able to set up in business and was willing to work hard. So she was bitterly disillusioned when, on her arrival, she found no position in the garment industry or indeed any work other than child-minder, a substantial status fall in her eyes. The working conditions and her successive bosses’ blatant contempt for her deepened this sense of humiliation, and she quit three times. As she put it early on in our exchanges, working in the boss’s home 24 hours a day with a single day off per month was preventing her from accomplishing what she had migrated for:


It doesn’t suit me. I want to study French.… I want to go to a marriage agency. If I work as a child-minder, I’m completely confined. I can’t go out, I have no freedom. I don’t require much freedom, but I have to have a little space, be able to talk on the phone, have a boyfriend…

40 Back in a dormitory once again, watching her savings dwindle, she felt stuck in an impasse. When a girlfriend asked if she wanted to “go out” with her, she resigned herself to doing so. “I certainly wasn’t happy about it, but I didn’t have a choice. Because I wasn’t finding a job.… And after all, I had to eat.” Being with a friend reduced the worry because they would wait for each other while one went along with the customer, and they gradually learned the ropes. Very soon afterwards, having learned how to meet customers despite her uncertain French, she started working the street alone. She does not fully admit to practicing the activity, saying she earns “just enough to live on”—less than €1,000 a month, which she rounds out with a few hours of housecleaning. She is hoping to meet a man who will marry her and “give her papers.” To do this she maintains ambiguous love-affairs with several customers, explaining that she is “not professional,” that the activity is only “temporary.” She says she asks them not to pay her, but they insist and always give her money— “to help her,” “for the child.” Her expenses have risen considerably since her 22-year-old son came to France on a student visa to study in a French private school, and as she cannot allow her income to fall, she now goes out despite police checks, hoping not to be arrested and expelled from the country like several of her friends.

41 It was in 1999-2000 that Parisians first discovered Chinese women selling sex on the street. Since then, their numbers have been rising; they are now working the sidewalks of the Paris districts of Belleville, Place de Clichy, République, Strasbourg-Saint-Denis, Porte de Vincennes and Porte Dorée. Generally in their 40s, these women are self-employed; in contrast to other migrant women prostitutes, they do not have protectors or depend on procurer networks. Most of them do not meet the dominant youth and beauty criteria. They do not dress in a provocative way and their behavior is not necessarily that of a seductress, the kind one might expect from women in the activity. They are visibly new to the profession; the observer is struck by their lack of self-assurance and their discomfort around the practice. Moreover, many simply do not admit to it, speaking of it only indirectly. [12] They “go out,” they “do it,” they say— “it” usually refers to fellatio and vaginal penetration—for rates ranging from €20 to €45. This type of prostitution, which has many points in common with the practices of single women from Morocco described by Nassima Moujoud (2005), [13] is situated at the low end of the prostitution “supply.” In the last ten years, prostitution practices have changed. Chinese prostitutes have developed several tactics for dealing with the increasingly frequent, harsh police raids (Lévy and Lieber 2008). [14] Women who used to stand on the sidewalk of the Boulevard de Strasbourg-Saint-Denis waiting for customers now walk up and down pretending to be passers-by. The police have dubbed them “the walkers.” Discretion is the word, and disappearing into the urban landscape is one of their primary tactics. Their physical appearance and clothes, the way they move and make eye contact, [15] often passively—in sum their overall body language and manner—seem quite remote from the set of features associated with prostitution. Moving continuously along shop-lined streets with a shopping bag on their arm, they look like ordinary women—shopping. “Normally” dressed and made-up, they sit like normal customers at outdoor cafés and in the big windows of fast food restaurants. Sitting around a table in groups of three or four in front of bright-lit restaurant or café windows, they may be viewed from head to toe while sheltering from the dangers and cold of the street. And they too can see—i.e., identify and differentiate plainclothes policemen and potential customers.

42 The eye contact with a potential customer, often a long look, is very discreet, frequently passive. It is usually left up to the customer to initiate verbal contact. Mrs Lu tells how a glance suffices: she finds the customer, waiting for her at the nearest metro station. Mrs Cheng has adapted her daily prostitution practice so as to avoid the police, describing what sounds like a cat-and-mouse game with them: she only goes to her prostitution sites when the police officers are on their lunch break, takes care not to be seen going by the same place more than once, and sits at a bus stop near a traffic light so as to look like an ordinary public transportation user. To give herself enough time to distinguish between customers and plainclothesmen, she may pretend not to understand what the man is talking about, refusing up until the last moment to recognize the prostitute label. When a car pulls up alongside her, she is careful to talk to the driver as if she were a hitchhiker and to ask him to let her off at a metro station. The mobile phone has become a work tool, enabling her to limit her presence in public places and rely instead on repeat customers. While working with “regulars” does not earn these women enough to live on, some, like Mrs Shu, make do with income from that source during prolonged police crackdowns. Clearly then, this way of practicing prostitution is largely influenced by the fact that the women are in the country illegally and afraid to be arrested and expelled. To some degree, this leads them to take greater risks than they otherwise would, and to accept situations in which they are extremely vulnerable to customers in a dominant position who know they cannot turn to the police if there is a problem. These fears are attested to by our respondents’ references to the increasing incidence of unreported rape, even disappearance.

43 Their non-professional appearance is accounted for not only by their fear of arrest but also by their overall trajectories. Thinking of themselves as respectable women in China, they explain that they would never have left if they had known that once in France they would be constrained to do “that.” For them, the activity is “not good” and is linked to their condition as migrants: “because life in France is just too hard,” says Mrs Wu. They explain that they were “forced” into prostitution because they “had no choice”: the legal job market was closed to them and the only job available in the community sector was live-in child-minder. The problems they encounter are therefore first and foremost financial and directly related to not having residence and work permits or any occupational alternative. “I have no papers here, no job. It’s to make do until better times. Otherwise, who would want to do this work? No one!” says Mrs Xie. Many only practice prostitution sporadically, at the end of the month or between two child-minder jobs. While most try to have other activities, a few end up returning to prostitution after a few months. For this minority, despite what they say to the contrary, prostitution is likely to become a permanent, relatively lucrative living that it is difficult to get out of.

44 Despite the moral condemnation, they see several advantages to prostitution. It appears to them a positive alternative to being a child-minder in working conditions that they consider unbearable. [16] Just as for other migrant populations, e.g., the Latin-American women in Spain described by Laura Oso Casas, the difference between strategies available to servants and those available to prostitutes are related to the economic dimension: theoretically, “sex work” allows for amassing resources quickly. However, our respondents did not speak much of earning differences (which are certainly significant), emphasizing instead what they see as the more legitimate fact of escaping the employment conditions and above all the domination and contempt proffered by Southern Chinese employers. Freeing them as it does from this subaltern, dependant position, prostitution gives them a kind of autonomy; suddenly they are free to manage their time and money. “If you don’t want to go out one day, you don’t go out,” explains Mrs Liu, a highly significant argument for her given the many days and nights she spent at the beck and call of her employers. And as Mrs Cheng sees it, selling sexual services amounts to a kind of “freedom.” [17] This explains how it is that these women become self-employed workers: “entrepreneurs of their own selves.” [18] Moreover, doing sex work with “foreign”—i.e., non-Chinese—men may amount to escaping confinement to the community, a community which, as we have seen, is experienced as oppressive by these women. [19] And prostitution, say our respondents, may open up another extremely interesting possibility: marriage. They see it as a good way of meeting Frenchmen—potential husbands. Thus, even though they disapprove of the “work,” many women give it a try as a “temporary” lesser evil that will enable them to get by in the short term and possibly to attain their long-term goals. In a word, they see it as an effective means of pursuing the aims they set for themselves in migrating.

45 This means that while the implications for a woman’s reputation are quite different, prostitution may nonetheless be interpreted in the context of Chinese migration to France as a means for the migrant of reappropriating her future—particularly in the face of exploitative Chinese employers. In order to achieve some correspondence between their goals in migrating and the reality of the Paris context, the women we met with have come to the pragmatic conclusion that the end justifies the means: anything—even activities they see as immoral—will do if it enables you to save money and meet your traditional obligations. They make more money in prostitution than any other work and are therefore better able to send money home to their families in China. Mrs Zhou explains that though at first she regretted her decision to come to France because life was so very hard, she has revised that assessment. “Now that I’ve got papers, I don’t regret coming; I did it for my son.” The money earned enables these women to render their trajectories coherent once again in their own eyes, because in France as in China, money seems one of the rare measures of success. “At the beginning, I too looked down on this work… who would do it?! Now, once you take a closer look… I don’t judge it. It’s for the money.” And our respondents readily cite a Chinese proverb: “People laugh at the poor, not at prostitutes.”

A Continuum between Marriage and Prostitution?

46 In the various situations and the three typical trajectories we have put forward here, none of the women presented their relations with men as entirely bound up in feeling—in contrast to what often occurs in the west when people speak of relationships between men and women other than prostitution—and they seldom spoke of them as satisfying. On the contrary, their attitude is pragmatic, and they think of their exchange-based relationships as a means at their disposal for improving their daily lives. Given the difficulties they run up against in France, and in order to attain the objectives they determined for themselves before leaving China, they are led to make use of the few assets they possess: their body and sex. Whether they move in with a compatriot to overcome daily hardships, seek marriage with a Frenchman to get residence and work permits and start a family, or engage in prostitution to earn more money and meet their family obligations, these women are engaging in economic transactions, exchanging their bodies for remuneration. In this sense, their ties with the men amount “simultaneously [to] violent gender submission and utilitarian strategies in the service of their migration objectives” (Weber 2006: 55).

Moving beyond Merely Noting the Existence of Relations of Domination

47 In “Du don au tarif” [From gift to pay rate], Paola Tabet, citing the overuse and stigma attaching to the term prostitution, chose instead to speak of “sexual relations between men and women that imply an economic transaction,” thereby highlighting that, in addition to practices and situations that society calls prostitution, there are others that resemble them in that they too are based on an exchange of sexual services for material resources (1987: 2). Tabet’s purpose was to denounce the stereotypical opposition between marriage (with a “good woman”) and prostitution (with “loose women”: women who sell their bodies) and bring to light the “male domination” implied by various types of female sexual services. In a migration context strongly marked by socio-economic insecurity, the trajectories of Northern Chinese women in Paris provide a good illustration of this statement, especially given that in contrast to the cases Tabet cites to support her reasoning, the ones we have presented pertain to a homogeneous population—once again, we observed strong similarities between the sociological profiles of these women, regardless of the option they choose.

48 In the case of Northern Chinese women in Paris, the fragility of the boundaries between the different situations is patent and has as much to do with the attitude of these women’s male partners as their own—e.g., in the vague situation maintained by men when they suggest that a woman move in with them or regularly offer her financial support, as both these practices enable them to “do it” whenever they want without committing to marriage or helping the woman acquire legal status. And what of “regular” prostitution customers, some of whom are described as “nice” by some women because they regularly invite them to share a meal, send them text-message declarations of love and keep alive their hopes of marriage? And what of the economic arrangements of “Paris couples?” All these relationships display a combination of emotional, economic and sexual elements, in some cases including domestic services, as some prostitutes say they cook for their regular customers.

49 In examining what these sexual-economic relations have in common, however, we need to go further than noting the obvious existence of power and domination relations. In fact, those relations enable us to account for how persons in socially disadvantaged positions take action. We have seen that despite the diversity of their trajectories, these women often make use of sex to stabilize their situation. Mrs Li, the first woman studied here, linked up with several Chinese men consecutively in order to improve her living conditions in the short term. The second, Mrs Wang, wishing to stay in France, never engaged in prostitution; instead she signed up with a marriage agency to meet Western men, hoping one would agree to marry her. This led her to have relations with several men, all with low economic and social capital; the only advantage they offered—a decisive one—was their nationality and the hope this sparked of being able to legalize her situation by means of her relationship with one of them. At a serious disadvantage on the French marriage market (Singly 2002), these men take advantage of women migrants’ precarious situations; meanwhile, the women themselves are willing to turn a blind eye to several of these men’s “bad points” in order to remain in France in less insecure conditions than the ones implied by their illegal presence. [20] Despite appearances, the trajectories of Mrs Li and Mrs Wang are relatively close to that of Mrs Zhou, who simultaneously engages in prostitution and other ambiguous relationships with men she thinks of as potential husbands. Moreover, some women shift from one strategy to another, given that the temporary, non-professional nature of their prostitution activities enables them to remain vague about the nature of the many liaisons they maintain. Mrs Li, Wang and Zhou have therefore all sought to meet multiple partners in the aim of improving their situation in France despite the profoundly unfavorable context. They have all engaged in various modes of sexual-economic exchange in order to accomplish what they migrated for.

50 Paola Tabet (1987) explains that in a general context of male domination, the line of demarcation is in fact to be drawn between sexual-economic exchanges in which women are partners (and therefore subjects) and exchanges entirely managed by persons other than the women themselves. In this connection, our field work clearly shows that the maneuvering room of our interviewees is slight. Most who have opted to find either a French or Chinese partner only partially control the rules of the game; they are making do with situations that often do not provide a gratifying emotional balance. As for women working as prostitutes, Tabet says that in some cases “women can … position themselves as partners and subjects in the transaction rather than as objects, a fact which greatly differentiates such transactions from marital relations on the one hand, forced labor relations on the other” (2004: 84). Northern Chinese women engaged in prostitution, however, still seem only to partially control the way the exchange develops. While some monographs on prostitutes have shown that they compartmentalize emotional life and contact with customers (see Gil 2005 and Sala 2006), thereby taking control of this “emotion work,” [21] the Chinese women we met with do not distinguish between sex (a personal activity) and sexual services (an occupational one). The distinction between the two spheres is blurred, and the women readily lump together customers and potential husbands, a situation from which both the Chinese women and their male partners hope to benefit. The continuity between the two types of sexual and intimate relationship resides in how these women imagine their ideal future: prostitution should lead to marriage, and marriage in turn will enable them to cease their prostitution activities. This is not always confirmed, because some of the prostitutes we met with are married and have already obtained residence and work permits. [22] In this case, we are dealing with a belief that is keeping alive the initial illusion with which these women migrated; i.e., becoming a player in a genuine love story that will resolve all material and emotional difficulties. Like other migrant and prostitution populations, [23] women migrants from Northern China living in Paris, whether or not they practice prostitution, dream of finding a husband in order to have better economic and social lives. It becomes clear how these women’s extremely insecure situation works to strengthen gender hierarchies: the best solution they can find for getting out of their difficult situation is to hook up with a man or men, and in those relationships, the traditional gendered division of labor is in no way called into question; on the contrary, it is reaffirmed by the socio-economic differential between the countries to which the respective couple members belong.

Variable Operating Modes of Sexual-Economic Arrangements

51 While all three sexual-economic arrangements are ways of using sex as a resource in a precarious situation, they are not identical. In “Paris couples” or mixed Frenchman-Chinese woman couples, the emotional dimension is said to be of primary importance. The sexual dimension of the domestic services exchanged in these two ways of forming a couple is taken for granted. In prostitution, however, the order is reversed, in that sex is what gets paid for, and the exchange only comes to include occasional domestic services (meal preparation, housework, a hospital visit, etc.) if there is some kind of emotional closeness. In the case of prostitution, then, what would indicate non-commercial closeness is the woman’s performance of domestic services.

52 What’s more, couple relations between compatriots are different from those with “foreigners” in that they seem based on relatively clear contracts concerning the temporary, context-constrained nature of the relationship—though this does not mean the relationship cannot continue indefinitely. On the other hand, looking for a French husband implies an entrenched malentendu between the couple members wherein the woman is made vulnerable by her illegal situation. Power relations crystallize around the relationship’s potential to provide the woman with residence and work permits, and this instates inequality between the partners. In such conditions, some women—though not the majority—try to reach their objectives by pitting potential husbands against each other. [24] For these women, relationships with the men in question are similar to the ones occasional prostitutes have with their clients—as we have seen, the latter set have the same hopes as women in search of a French spouse.

53 However, prostitution is still much more profoundly stigmatized than the two other sexual-economic arrangement operating modes (Pheterson 2001). And “the Chinese of Paris” tend to judge these women very harshly. All say that prostitutes hurt the general image of the Chinese in France, while suggesting that the dishonor affects the Chinese nation as a whole; some accuse the women of “selling their own country.” The focus of the condemnation here has shifted from the activity itself to personal identity: the issue is not just paid sex, but the identity of the women practicing it (ibid.). By choosing not to see the external constraints that affect these women’s choices, the other Chinese, whether from Wenzhou or also from the North, recast prostitution as an individual choice linked to a personality trait. They think of our respondents as “bad girls” or “lazy women” who refuse to “work hard” and want to make “easy money.” In doing so they deny the existence of the social context that pushes the women to act as they do, as well as the particular know-how required to practice the activity and the risks it involves. Moreover, the stigma attaches to all Northern Chinese women in Paris, regardless of whether or not they practice prostitution, and this in turn explains in part why, for these women, engaging in prostitution ultimately has little or no effect on their reputation, because before taking that seemingly decisive step, they were already considered women of easy virtue by the other Chinese (Lévy and Lieber 2008).

54 The distinction between finding a stable male partner and engaging in prostitution—a distinction that ordinarily seems obvious—no longer is. The boundaries are porous though the activities are distinct. Similar tasks are performed in both cases, but these sexual-economic arrangement modes are not “otherwise equal.” Moreover, the trajectories of Northern Chinese migrant women in Paris are often characterized by persistent hesitation, and shifting back and forth between the two options: getting married and surviving by “doing that.” As Mrs Liao puts it, prostitution remains “a choice when one has no choice.”

55 For Northern Chinese women who have migrated to Paris, particularly those who find themselves in situations of intense socio-economic insecurity, sex becomes a genuine alternative resource. In the various sexual-economic arrangements we have identified, it enables them to moderate extremely insecure living conditions and in some cases to resolve the crucial problem of not having a residence permit. Up against a closed labor market (in France overall and particularly for Chinese), the choices of the women we met with are tightly constrained: “finding someone” seems to them one of the few solutions, if not the only possible one, to their economic and legal difficulties. Women who choose to live temporarily with a compatriot who has no residence permit, and those who seek a French husband in order to get that permit and reside legally in France, both engage in sexual-economic transactions comparable to that of women practicing prostitution on the street. The difference is that the first two sets of women are not at all as sharply stigmatized as the third. In the three cases here presented, relations between men and women are situated at the intersection of several concerns. For divorced women dreaming of remaking their lives, romance remains a concern; the other concerns are legitimate social status, marriage being one of the only possible means of becoming a legal resident, and money, to be procured by selling or exchanging sex, in the sense that money makes it possible to cope with economic hardships but above all functions as a yardstick of success and social prestige. These three aspects—romance, legitimate social status, money—combine or follow upon each other in these women’s representations of their own sexual practice; all tend to reveal a continuum between marriage and prostitution. This perspective in turn upsets the traditional dichotomous construction of a difference between “good” women and “loose” ones (Goffman 1977) and indirectly reveals the labor of normative construction that made it possible to represent them as opposites in the first place.

56 When we compare our results to those for other populations of migrant women who shift back and forth from domesticity to prostitution, we observe first and foremost how social sexual relations, as well as the other types of power relations that are part of them, get reconfigured in the situation of migration. Given the sexual and ethnic division of labor at the international scale, and the persistent grip of various forms of gender-based segregation, women immigrants are generally confined to jobs such as cleaning and domestic services that represent socially non-valued activities, understood to be low-skilled and mere extensions of the tasks women ordinarily perform in the private sphere (Catarino and Morokvasic 2005; Hochschild and Ehrenreich 2002). The specificity of these “care”-related jobs is that they involve emotional closeness; it is this that is likely to erode boundaries. For many women migrants, the difficult conditions implied in domestic work are likely to lead them directly into prostitution (Agustin 2000; Robinson 2002). This explains why, excluded from the job market as both non-French-speaking foreigners without residence permits and as women, their bodies become their only saleable commodity. It is because socially determined sexual relations greatly disadvantage women and work to “sexualize” them that using sex becomes a resource for our respondents—and not because they are moved to it by a “depraved” nature, as other Paris Chinese are likely to put it. These women are induced to have relationships with men because such men represent the only means of reconciling their situation in France with their initial migration aims. Gender inequalities can be reproduced precisely because the women find themselves in a situation that is highly unfavorable to upward social mobility (Weber 2006).

57 The fact is that in doing as they do, these women manage to some degree to adapt to and juggle the constraints of their situation. This is underlined by our use of the term “arrangement.” While prostitutes selling sexual services outright are more sharply stigmatized, using sex can likewise be considered their way of reappropriating their futures. Indeed, many of our respondents see their emancipation from the yoke of Southern Chinese employers as a great good. Each of the sexual-economic arrangement modes they choose and describe enables them to send money home to their families in China or, in the case of women who do manage to get “papers,” to bring their children to France. Lastly, such arrangements enable them to validate their reasons for leaving and legitimate the hardships endured in France. In a highly unfavorable context given their illegal status, regional origins and their sex, the women we met with during our field study have ultimately turned sex into a resource that allows them to attain their ends—on condition of course that we assume, as they themselves do, either that they are only living in France temporarily or that living in France is the only way to secure a decent future for oneself and one’s child.


  • [*]
    Our thanks to Paul Jobin for his attentive reading and constructive comments; also to Lilian Mathieu for his support and judicious suggestions.
  • [1]
    See Brochier’s discussion (2005) on ways of ethnographically studying prostitution and, by extension, sexual practices. Theoretically, participatory observation can focus on the point of view of (male or female) prostitutes, customers, or procurers and thereby bring to light the codes, techniques, and know-how involved in this activity. For obvious reasons, our study is not of this kind.
  • [2]
    Translating for Chinese migrants in their relations with the French administration or NGOs may include helping get their children enrolled in school, translating at medical visits, following legal proceedings, helping lodge a complaint against an employer, assisting in the obtention of welfare benefits, etc. While this form of observation requires a great deal of time, it is also what creates trust, as in many cases our presence made it possible if not to resolve at least to clarify complex situations. Helping persons who speak very little if any French fosters close relations and makes it easier to talk about subjects as intimate as sex. Clearly if we had not spent the amount of time we did with these women, we would never have had access to the information presented here.
  • [3]
    One woman was interviewed in the framework of the FeMiPol European Commission research program ( While this article concentrates on women’s perspectives and situations, we also occasionally cite the views of Chinese or French men encountered in our field work. We did not conduct any formal interviews with Frenchmen.
  • [4]
    For additional information on the Chinese economic reforms and how changes in the productive model have destabilized social ties, see Kernen (2004) and Rocca (2000).
  • [5]
    Quotations are translations of interviews conducted in Mandarin. We have chosen to give only the French [and here English] version.
  • [7]
    In addition to the administrative formalities involved in leaving the country, obtaining a visa and purchasing a plane ticket, the service provided by the intermediaries may include being picked up at the airport and taken to an informal community dormitory.
  • [8]
    For further details on how these people got to and into France, and differences between Northern and Southern Chinese on these points, see Cattelain et al. (2002). Contrary to Southern Chinese migrants, persons from Northern China do not usually come by land but rather directly by air with visas, which they then overstay.
  • [9]
    See for example the case of Romanian migrant women in Italy analyzed by Weber (2006).
  • [10]
    In these subsection headings we have reproduced the categories used by the migrants themselves. Since “Paris couples” are the only ones made up of two Chinese persons, this is the only case in which we also present the men’s perspective.
  • [11]
    Dominican women prostitutes have a similar understanding: they hope to marry western tourists on vacation on the island, their assumption being that through such a marriage they will be able to obtain a visa for Europe, material comforts, and more equitable gender relations (Brennan 2002). Romanian housemaids in Italy share these hopes and assumptions (Weber 2006).
  • [12]
    For more information on the how Chinese prostitutes justify what they do, see Lieber and Lévy (2009).
  • [13]
    On women from North Africa see also Musso (2007).
  • [14]
    Officially, police checks are supposed to combat prostitution, namely “passive soliciting.” However, it seems that this is often used as a pretext for combating illegal immigration, since most of the women arrested without residence papers are not indicted for prostitution; their cases are redefined as illegal presence and many are expelled.
  • [15]
    Following Brochier (2005), we prefer this term to the police term “soliciting.”
  • [16]
    This analysis is not specific to Chinese women migrants but also applies to women migrants of other nationalities; see, among others, Agustin (2006); Constable (2006); Lisborg (1999); Robinson (2002).
  • [17]
    On cost-benefit calculations, see Huang and Pan (2004); also Agustin (2000).
  • [18]
    Entrepreneuses d’elles-mêmes”: Liane Mozère’s term for Filippino housemaids in Paris (Mozère and Maury 2002), here applied to an entirely different context.
  • [19]
    The working conditions they find in Chinese employers’ homes are felt to be exploitative and to allow no space for private life.
  • [20]
    It should nonetheless be noted that not all these women are ready to marry extremely disadvantaged men. Mrs Wang turned down a suitor after discovering he was on welfare and having trouble meeting his own needs. Another woman we met with, who practiced prostitution, explained that she would very much like to marry a Frenchman, but not if it meant losing social status—i.e., marrying a man below a certain poverty level.
  • [21]
    Hochschild’s term (1979). In research on prostitution, the notion of emotion work has been used in two opposed ways, some women authors bringing to light, as we have for Northern Chinese women migrants, both the weakness of distinctions between customers and potential husbands and migrant strategies on this point (see Brennan 2002 and Oso Casas 2006), others insisting on subjects’ ability to distinguish between sex work and sex for personal pleasure. According to Chapkis (1997), for example, persons doing sex work do not “lose themselves” in these activities; on the contrary, they learn to control their emotions and construct distinctions between their work activity and private lives.
  • [22]
    For Northern Chinese women migrant prostitutes as for others (Mathieu 2002), the difficulty of finding work in legal occupations that will ensure the same income level as prostitution is an obstacle to entirely ceasing the activity. Chinese women speak French poorly and have trouble getting beyond low-paid “ethnic sector” jobs. The occupational skills acquired in China are not recognized on the legal French job market, and, as explained, the women are generally confined to “live-in” care and domestic employment, where the work is unpleasant and low-paid. Moreover, many women married to Frenchmen actually support their “French family” because their husbands, they say, are jobless, retired, or contribute nothing to household expenses. In these conditions, some women choose to return to prostitution or to practice it in addition to their legal job.
  • [23]
    Again, see Brennan (2002); Oso Casas (2006); Weber (2006).
  • [24]
    A parallel comes to light here with the example given by Pierre Bourdieu in his article, “La domination masculine” regarding the ruses used by Kabyle women, the only means they have to obtain a degree of power in a context that is highly unfavorable to them: “[As if that which is curved (courbe) called forth the sly (fourbe), woman, ] symbolically condemned to resignation and discretion [, ]… can exercise some degree of power only by [way of that dominated power (force soumise) known as cunning, capable of] turning the strength of the strong against them” (Bourdieu 2001: 32; bracketed additions are translations of components of the sentence in the 1990 article that were omitted from the corresponding sentence of the 1998 French book of the same name).

Faced with scarce employment opportunities in Paris, a number of the women who migrate from northern China to earn money and counter the effects of a status fall in their native country start looking for alternative solutions. Some turn to prostitution, while others try to find a Chinese intimate partner or a French husband. The article discusses the strategies open to these women for accomplishing the goals they set for themselves in migrating. It examines a heterogeneous set of sexual-economic exchanges that reveal the porosity of the boundary between prostitution and other intimate relationships and suggest that marriage and prostitution may be seen as the endpoints of a continuum, two different ways of making a sexual-economic “arrangement.” In the precarious socio-economic situation these women migrants find themselves in once in Paris, sex and emotion-based relations become a genuine resource.


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Florence Levy
Centre d’Études sur la Chine Moderne et Contemporaine (CECMC) – EHESS-CNRS 190-198, avenue de France 75244 Paris Maison d’Analyse des Processus Sociaux (MAPS) – Université de Neuchâtel Faubourg de l’hôpital 27 2000 Neuchâtel – Suisse
Marylène Lieber
Maison d’Analyse des Processus Sociaux (MAPS) – Université de Neuchâtel Faubourg de l’hôpital 27 2000 Neuchâtel – Suisse Centre d’Études Français sur la Chine Contemporaine (CEFC) Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences Academia Sinica – Nankang – Taipei – Taiwan 11529 Previously published: RFS, 2009, 50-4
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