Something telling about teenagers selling their bodies
A group of Shanghai teenagers found themselves on the wrong side of the law over a little scheme they had for making a bit of 'pocket money' - pimping themselves and their classmates out in cheap hotels.
The 20-odd juvenile call girls were mostly well under 18, media reports say, and shockingly included two who were 'not yet 14 years of age'. Young and underage women getting drawn into the seedy world of vice is by no means a new phenomenon - it's not called the oldest profession for no reason - but atypical aspects of this case reflect a novel and seemingly growing trend.
There's no indication, from what prosecutors told the Shanghai papers, that these teenage hookers - most still in secondary school - had been coerced in any way or even tricked into the trade by some nefarious charmer.
They took the initiative and actively sought out clients on their own. Nor were they selling their bodies to pay the rent, put food on the table or even to feed some chemical addiction (be it their own or a deadbeat boyfriend's).
By and large, the girls were from families with 'decent economic backgrounds', but decided to make a little extra on the side because their pocket money didn't stretch far enough.
Quotes attributed to one of the teenaged ringleaders are telling.
'Xiao Wen', the nickname of one of three girls accused of starting the ring, told prosecutors she felt studying and finding a career were neither 'realistic nor worthwhile' and she didn't want to be 'a normal worker like my parents, living a hard life to earn money'.
To them, it was simply the quickest way to get their hands on hard currency, and they didn't seem to see any shame involved in the trade.
And it seems they're not alone, as their case comes hot on the heels of a series of sex scandals involving materialistic students.
Just last month, a university student in Nanjing was outed after offering to exchange five nights of carnal pleasure for an iPhone 4S - or 4,500 yuan in hard cash.
Her aggrieved boyfriend apparently posted the chat record after 'discovering' it on his computer. Reading the conversation, the girl involved comes across as a sexually inexperienced na?f who sees it as a necessary chore in order to get her hands on the latest must-have gadget.
Parking any thoughts of judgmental morality to one side for a moment, is it any surprise they think like this?
Materialist consumerism is inescapable in Shanghai and other mainland cities, with a constant barrage of advertising creating incessant pressure to buy this gadget or that designer frock.
And though the prices of luxury items are even higher than in the developed countries, people are being brainwashed into emulating luxury consumption - but wages for the impressionable young are no match.
Even university graduates in Shanghai today consider themselves lucky to find a job that pays more than a few thousand yuan a month.
Add to that the fact that sex and the sex trade are almost everywhere you look in Shanghai nowadays. Sleazy adult shops can be seen all around the city, from rundown backstreets to affluent neighbourhoods. Pharmacies post handwritten notices in their windows advertising cheap deals on Viagra pills. Few people really believe clients visiting the ubiquitous massage parlours - staffed with slender young beauties in ultra-short cheongsams - are looking to sort out their back pains.
Stay in a cheap hotel - any of the chains alleged to have been used by the teenage sex ring - and the chances are handfuls of shiny business cards will be slid under the door several times a night, with pictures of scantily clad women ready to make the evening a little less lonely.
In today's 'honest-we're-not-capitalist' mainland, sex has been well and truly commoditised. Can one really blame a young girl for making the 'wrong' choice when she can earn more lying on her back for perhaps an hour or two than she could slaving in a restaurant or a shop in a week?
Xiao Wen and two pals seem to have been the real smart cookies in the Shanghai venture. They allegedly started whoring themselves out three years ago, but realised in early 2009 that they could make money without needing to get their hands - or anything else - dirty.
They then began recruiting friends and classmates, and handled the logistics, picking up a commission on each trick.
Local media have blamed the influence of the 'depraved culture' of Japan and Taiwan, particularly the former where the 'compensated dating' phenomenon started out.
From the details available, though, it doesn't seem like there was any 'dating' going on.
In fact, it all sounds pretty organised and upfront.
The junior mama-san contacted a client over the internet, arranged to find someone for him to 'play' with, then booked a rendezvous at a cheap chain hotel.
That they recruited classmates so young with such apparent ease - and that their clients weren't bothered about it - is not so easy to reconcile. But in the grand scheme of things, it's hard to tell whether these girls' actions are the symptom or the disease.