Abstract: While scholars and activists often advocate using the term ‘sex worker’ in preference to prostitute, in my research I found that female prostitutes in the Pearl River Delta area, south China, do not like to be addressed as such, and prefer the title xiaojie in Chinese. ‘Sex worker’ generalises the heterogeneity of meanings these women identify and attribute to what they do; it does not capture the complex cultural meanings involved in the term xiaojie. It is stigmatising in that what is exchanged within the transaction is less defined by sexual acts and more by a diversified range of activities. The women employ what is useful to them and infuse new meanings in it to construct gender images and identities to resist the sex worker stigma and to express their desires as rural-to-urban migrants. Using xiaojie becomes a destigmatising and gender tactic. I also found that the women discard the idea of finding alternative jobs partly because of the practical difficulty, and partly because they do not want to work (gongzuo) any more in the future. This study highlights the importance of exploring desire and agency to understand the lived experiences of this particular group of women.
Keywords: desire; destigmatisation; gender; sex worker; South China