From Parlor to Back Alley: Tracing the Migration of Prostitution in Response to Legal Changes

Image Created by DALL-E with the following prompt: “On the far left, depict a brightly lit KTV establishment with clear, vibrant neon lights and a lively atmosphere, showing peopl”


Can tougher laws effectively deter criminal activities? Legislative efforts aimed at combating crime often result in the unintended displacement of criminal activities. Leveraging a prostitution-related judicial interpretation in 2017, which specified the minimum number required to qualify as organized pimping to three, we evaluate the Chinese government’s recent legal efforts to combat organized prostitution. While the judicial interpretation aimed at reducing prostitution activities through the crackdown on pimps, we find that the judicial interpretation is more effective at facilitating prosecutions against pimps operating in previously conspicuous establishments. This differential impact, instead of uniformly curbing organized prostitution, has led to the displacement of prostitution. Drawing upon novel datasets consisting of more than 110,000 administrative penalties imposed on sex workers, clients, and other third parties, along with 3,300 criminal case judgments entered against pimps, we find that previously conspicuous establishments, such as clubhouses, massage parlors, and karaoke bars, which were overseen by pimps, have undergone a transformation into more obscure and diffuse forms due to heightened susceptibility to criminal repercussions. The segmented nature of crime markets and the varying impact this judicial interpretation has on law enforcement efforts call into question the effectiveness of legislative initiatives aimed at deterring organized prostitution. Therefore, when dealing with norm-violating behaviors and their associated criminal activities, imposing strict legal measures solely on criminal intermediaries may prove inadequate in curbing these behaviors without addressing the underlying social phenomena that drive them.

Work in Progress