No matter how much make-up You Xia puts on, she can't cover the exhaustion and hopelessness etched on her face. Now 42, she's too old to work as a prostitute and instead runs a small massage parlour in an alley in Wuchang , in the Hubei provincial capital of Wuhan . 'I'm too old to turn tricks but prostitution is the only thing I know,' she says. 'If I go to live with my children I will become their burden. So I rent a small place and let younger girls take up prostitution. I take care of the rent and premises and they pay me 30 per cent of their income.' Police raided her parlour last month, smashing the television, mirrors, windows and doors, as part of a continuing crackdown on the vice trade across the mainland. You was sentenced to 15 days in a detention house for organising prostitution. If detained again on the same charge, she faces three years' jail. You left her rural hometown for Wuhan at the age of 17 after having her first child. She says poverty drove her to prostitution. 'My mother died when I was one. I was forced to marry a man for a betrothal gift that my father used to help my older brother marry another girl,' she says. 'I had my first child when I was 17. You can't imagine how poor my family was. The seven of us all lived in one small room, with the pigs right next door. I was never a lazy woman. I even carried loads of 40 kilograms on my shoulders just before giving birth. 'I decided to come to Wuhan for a better life. The night before I left my baby, I swore to him I would never let him repeat my suffering and poverty. First I earned 400 yuan (HK$457) a month by washing dishes 12 hours a day in a restaurant. Then I turned bad as I needed big money to build a house in my hometown for my child. 'I've always wanted to quit the prostitution game, seeing my children grow up, day after day. But they're also the reason I cannot stop. They need money to study at college, look for jobs and get married. All my life is just a tragedy. I only feel human and happy when my money brings them a better life.' You says there used to be about 50 hair salons and massage parlours in the neighbourhood but only five have survived. She says plain-clothes police often raided her place and others like it, causing havoc. If any condoms were found, they would be used as evidence of prostitution to detain and fine the women, even if they were not with clients. But You says prostitutes hurt nobody and her main goal has always been just to save enough money to support her two children. She says she's kept her suffering a secret from her family. You's massage parlour, along with tens of thousands of other fronts for prostitution, was targeted in a crackdown that started in Beijing and soon spread across the mainland. Beijing police have smashed hundreds of small prostitution rings, usually working out of hair salons, with some 1,100 suspects detained, and even raided and closed upmarket nightclubs such as the Passion Club, better known as Tianshang Renjian (Paradise on Earth), in the west wing of the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel. Municipal governments across the mainland then followed suit to stamp out prostitution in their cities. It's not the first crackdown on prostitution and it won't be the last. The 'world's oldest profession' was officially outlawed after the Communist Party came to power in 1949. The party even won a short-lived victory over vice in the 1950s and 1960s. But when China opened up to the world again in 1978, prostitution resurfaced, giving poor and unskilled women a way to support themselves in times of economic restructuring, unemployment and rural migration. Prostitution is now prevalent in every city and county and at all levels of society, from the grandest hotels to the poorest neighbourhoods and lowliest villages. The World Health Organisation estimates the country has four million sex workers, but academics suggest the figure is higher. You says young prostitutes charged between 150 and 200 yuan before 2008 and could make at least 6,000 yuan a month, while a rural girl working night and day in a factory could make only 1,000 yuan. But now, because of increased competition from younger women newly arrived from the countryside, prostitutes' prices had dropped to 100 yuan, and were sometimes even lower as a result of police crackdowns. Sun Xiaoxiao, another prostitute, said: 'Tricks are frightened now since the police will publish the names of detained prostitutes and the men found with them on big posters all over the community.' Many city prostitutes are migrants from rural areas, reflecting the country's rapid economic growth and urbanisation. In 2008, researchers from Wuhan University interviewed 300 low-end sex workers, mainly employed in small hair salons and saunas in Wuhan, and found most only had a high school education at best and were driven by poverty in rural areas in Hubei and neighbouring provinces to come to Wuhan in search of work. Just over half the women surveyed were between 18 and 25. One in eight was under 18. About half had been doing sex work for less than a year, and the vast majority regularly switched salons in search of better conditions. The best job they could find on arriving in the city was selling sex. But the study found that after three years, all but a few had moved on to other jobs. Ye Haiyan , founder of the China Grass-roots Women's Rights Centre, says many of those entering the sex trade today are younger than in the past. 'A lot of young girls want to get rich so badly and want to make use of their beauty before it slips away,' she says. 'Many new under-age prostitutes are left-behind children. They grow up lonely in their rural hometowns, lacking the care and custody of parents. Many girls quit school in rural areas at 15 or 16 to go to the cities but are enticed or trafficked into prostitution.' While the growing number of sex workers has forced the price of sex to plummet, the distorted gender ratio has created enormous demand among the hundreds of millions of male migrant workers. A survey last year found more than 30 per cent of male rural migrants in Guangdong had had more than one sex partner, while 30 per cent of married male rural migrants had used a prostitute. Ye says all the prostitutes and brothel operators she has met want sex work legalised. 'The market is indispensable and impossible to stamp out,' she says. 'Why not allow prostitutes to do business in a certain, legal area where they could register and avoid HIV and abuse by tricks, gangsters and even policemen.' Zhang Ying , the owner of a low-end brothel with six prostitutes, says police raided her place twice last month. 'All of us need to spend a lot to pay gangsters, corrupt officials and policemen. We'd prefer to pay tax and have a legal, safe environment.' Zhang, in her 40s, was a textile factory worker and then ran a small store after being laid off three years ago. 'I had to shut down the store quite quickly because the rent and tax were too high to keep it,' she says. 'I never think of myself as a procuress. I set up the massage parlour because I'm just a jobless, divorced woman with no skills and two kids to support.' Legalisation remains unlikely. Ordinary people worry that if sex work is legalised, more women would be encouraged to become prostitutes, and the Communist Party regards cadres who visit prostitutes as even worse than their corrupt comrades. China News Service quoted Guangdong Discipline Inspection Committee deputy secretary Qiu Hai as saying the biggest mistake of Chen Shaoji , Huang Songyou and Wang Huayuan was their involvement with prostitutes, rather than the fallen politicians' corruption. The Wuhan crackdown is proof of the authorities' determination to eradicate the sex industry, but most prostitutes and operators say they won't be easily removed. You rented a house in a more remote alley this month and reopened her business. Sun decided to become a street prostitute rather than work from a parlour. She was one of 40 prostitutes working a 100-metre-long street in Wuchang this month. 'We hire a friend and the tricks can pay her,' Sun says. 'If police come, we can run. If they raid the inn or hotel, they can't find any cash and we can say we're just having an affair.'