The convenience of social networking
New technology offering different social networking platforms has made it easier for people to connect with each other. But it has also made it easier for compensated dates to be arranged.
'Many years ago, we wouldn't make friends in a chat room or on the internet,' says Lam Po-yee, project co-ordinator of Teen's Key, an online social network supporting young women at risk.
'Now the internet has become the way teenagers meet new people - they add friends of their friends who they've never met. It is a totally different way to make relationships. The online platforms have made it very convenient for men to find girls [for compensated dating] and vice versa.'
Teen's Key has approached and helped more than 100 people since it started in 2010.
'We often find the girls are having many problems other than the issue of compensated dating, and they don't know what they want in life. We try to help them find a goal by offering skills and career workshops, and help them build up their confidence.'
But compensated dating is still one of the greatest worries. Lam's colleague Li Hiu-ling adds: 'The fact that there is currently no specific law against seeking these dates online makes it harder for the police to prosecute people and stop it.'
The reasons behind it
While there are girls who just want to earn quick money to feed their thirst for branded products, some do it for other reasons. 'We have met some girls who needed the money to pay off their parents' gambling debts. And others who didn't have enough money to complete a degree and chose to do it temporarily,' says Lam.
There are others who are drawn in by men and their more interesting lives, says Dorothy Chan Sin-ting, a social worker at the Caritas Youth and Community Service, which runs Mission in the Dark, an outreach group for these girls.
'Usually the men are older and more knowledgeable, and their conversations are more interesting [than those of the girls' peers]. Some can teach them things,' says Chan. 'Most of these girls don't feel successful in school. Some don't feel loved or cared for by their families. But they are pampered by these men who take them to a different world, like private clubs or on overseas holidays. They feel special.'
Chan says it is difficult for the girls to leave the lifestyle and go back to a normal life. Even if they can, there are after-effects.
'They will carry the shame of what they've done. Some will worry about running into old customers or will worry that their partners will find out about their past,' she says.
The story of Fish
She uses the name Fish because she does not want to be identified. She looks like any other schoolgirl - average height, long hair and modest clothing. But she once lived a very different life, earning money at a nightclub and from compensated dating.
'I was 15 then and I wanted to have money to hang out with friends. I also needed it for my dog which got sick,' says Fish, now 18.
Fish is the eldest in a family of six children. Her parents rely on government subsidies and have little extra money for the kids.
'You can't ask your friends to pay for you all the time. Even a bottle of water costs money.'
So she started looking for part-time jobs on the internet and saw an advertisement for a clerk. 'The pay was pretty high, around HK$70 per hour. I thought it was good,' she recalls.
It turned out the job was not in an office but in a nightclub. She hesitated at first, but after a girl she met online took the job, she thought it would be safe.
'I played some games with the customers, who would sometimes take advantage and touch me, but I didn't have to sleep with them.'
She met her boyfriend who worked there and had sex for the first time. Later she quit the job for her boyfriend but the relationship did not last.
When she started looking for another job, she came across an advert seeking 'dining partners'. The post claimed that there would be no sex, just dinners. She signed up and got paid HK$200 per dinner. Money was easy to make and everything seemed fine - until a customer proposed something more.
'He hinted many times that he had this place where we could go and that many girls did the same.' Eventually, she went with him and got paid HK$2,000 after having sex. 'It was quite good money,' she thought.
Then she followed the example of other girls and posted her information and MSN address on public forums. Soon, she was contacted by 'customers'.
'There were all kinds [of customers]: estate agents, police officers, marketing people, and teachers, too,' she says.
She got used to this way of living, earning HK$5,000 per month, enough for her to hang out with friends and buy things. Until one day she met a customer who frightened her.
'He found out my home number when I was taking a call from home while being with him. And he started calling me at home and stalking me. He threatened me, saying that he had secretly taken photos and if I didn't do what he demanded, he would send them to the media, and tell my mum and my school what I had been doing. I freaked out.'
As the blackmail continued, Fish became more scared. Feeling helpless, she planned to end everything by taking her own life.
'I wrote a note and told people on my MSN that I was preparing to die.' Luckily one person who read it suggested she should talk to some social workers. She did so and eventually reported the case to police.
Now she's back at school and living a normal life. She has also been trained to work as a volunteer at Teen's Key, helping other girls involved in compensated dating.
'I want to use my experience to help them. Many of them feel helpless as [they believe] others will look down on them. They need someone to talk to,' she says. 'I didn't enjoy what I did before. I'm happier now, though I don't earn as much as I did. But I'm not scared any more.'
The Yang Memorial Methodist Social Service has been tracking a group of 57 teenagers - 48 girls and nine boys - who have been involved in paid dating for the past four years. More than 70 per cent are students under the age of 17, and the dates sometimes, but not always, included sex. Among them, 22 had divorced parents, and 18 had parents who were separated or had step-parents. Five had a parent living with a partner.
According to Chan Hiu-wing, a social worker with the project, the demand for these paid dates was huge. In the most extreme cases, some teenagers had three compensated dates a day.
Voices: What people are saying
It is shocking that children as young as 11 are involved in compensated dating. I feel sorry for the young victims. They are too immature to make informed decisions. Their lives are invaluable, but they are too young to realise this. They need somebody to tell them the risks of paid dates. For instance, they could contract a terrible disease like HIV, or suffer psychological problems. Parents should give us guidance and teach us the importance of self-respect. Schools should provide moral education to help those who are tempted by the financial benefits of compensated dating understand the terrible risks. If everyone understood how dangerous it was, the 'business' of compensated dating would collapse.
Kevin Wong, student, St Joseph's College
Why do teens nowadays seem to have far more problems than previous generations? I think it is linked to a distorted view of money. Society has become increasingly materialistic. With this kind of mindset, many teenagers put money above everything else, and some try to find shortcuts to make easy money. Young people may turn to activities such as compensated dating or selling drugs ... Many of them struggle to figure out who they are and what they want out of life. Parents should act as their children's advisers and friends. They should instil the correct attitudes and moral values in their children, communicate with them more, and help them get back on the right track.
Loretta Fan, SCMP reader, Tai Tam
The media have released stories about children as young as 11 years old going on compensated dates. It is difficult to express how sad this makes me feel, and how concerned we at Young Post are about you. Men and women the world over have fought and died so that children would not be exploited in this way. Yet now some of them are choosing to be exploited. Children in poor countries do this sort of thing because they are forced to, or to earn money to feed their families. You live in Hong Kong. You are not starving. Your life and your spirit are worth more than anything man can pay. Please, stop before it is too late.
Susan Ramsay, Editor, Young Post