It is a typical picture of modern dating in Hong Kong; they meet on the internet, head to the movies and then to dinner. The small talk begins, the drinks flow and laughter follows. She is petite, young and pretty; he is older, more affluent, and happy to shower her with gifts.

But there is a twist to this date: the woman (often still a girl) is being paid up to HK$1,000 an hour for her company. And if they wake up together tomorrow morning she can expect a bonus payment.

Yet this is not prostitution – not, at least, in the minds of the two people involved. Welcome to the legally shady world of “compensated dating”, an offshoot of internet dating that criminologists say peaks in Hong Kong this time of year, as the holiday period fuels loneliness in some troubled souls and a desperate need for cash in others.

To many young and innocent minds, compensated dating and its more contemporary offshoot – part-time girlfriends and part-time boyfriends - is little more than money in return for company, at most a modern twist on the old concept of the sugar daddy. But to more sceptical eyes – Hong Kong police, social workers and academics among them – it is nothing less than prostitution and a gateway to child abuse. And they warn compensated dating – along with all its associated vices – is on the rise, fuelled by social media, just as government funding to tackle the issue is in short supply.

EASY MONEY

Among the greatest challenges facing social workers is teenage practitioners being in denial about the nature of compensated dating, with even those who offer sexual services often unwilling to recognise it as a form of prostitution.

At one end of the scale are girls like Momo, a 15-year-old Hongkonger still in high school, who says she sells dates to pay off shopping debts, and sees nothing wrong in what she does. She promotes her services on social media using a photo of young girls captioned “SOO YOUNG”, but is keen to emphasise her services are strictly non-sexual. Still, she admits that she’s “scared people will discover what I’m doing” and limits her dates to Mong Kok or Yau Ma Tei during school hours to ensure she is seen by neither friends nor family. She makes HK$350 an hour for a shopping date and an extra HK$50 per hug.

Social workers warn arrangements like Momo’s tend to spiral into ever more risky and criminal behaviour.

Then, there’s Crystal. She was 17 when an article on Facebook convinced her to try her hand as a “part-time girlfriend” – strictly on the basis she would not offer sex. Earning pocket money was her original incentive but she found it hard to give up the extra income even after she found a full-time job as a secretary. Now she sells sexual favours through an Instagram account on private mode. She insists she doesn’t offer full sex but earns between HK$2,000 and HK$3,000 a day and says her clients are “nice” to her. “So far the experience has been very pleasant and good,” she says.

Linda Chan, a veteran social worker who for two years operated an outreach programme for girls involved in compensated dating, says most start out looking for “easy money” and are blinded by the possibility of earning HK$1,000 just to see a film. “They don’t see it as wrong,” said Chan. But if entry into the industry seems appealing, the clients soon become more demanding and the girls become trapped.

“What we worry about is that some girls are very young … and they are very weak in rejecting people. Their naivete is being exploited,” Chan says. “Some of the girls with stronger self-esteem can say no to unacceptable requests. But most of them are from difficult backgrounds and it is hard for them to reject a client.”

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Before the funding for Chan’s outreach programme dried up, she would see girls as young as 13 advertising their services.

“It is evil,” Chan says. “Most of the girls at that stage are still young and green in this industry. They don’t really know what sexuality is or how to protect themselves.”

Sexually transmitted diseases are among the first problems the girls encounter but Chan says many will go on to make even more dangerous lifestyle choices. Some will become involved in pornography, willingly or unwillingly, while others may end up prostituting themselves in nightclubs.

Occasionally, the media highlights the dangers. The murder of a 16-year-old girl by one of her compensated dating clients in Sham Shui Po in 2008 shocked Hong Kong, as did another killing in similar circumstances six years later – this time a 15-year-old girl was the victim. And in April last year, fears were raised for the safety of more than 1,000 girls working in compensated dating when a hacker released their photos on the online forum “LIHKG”.

Much of the time, though, judging by the relative openness of some online compensated dating forums, the issue can be swept under the carpet. “It’s too shameful,” says Esther, a former compensated dater. “In Hong Kong, it seems people turn a blind eye.”

ESTHER

Esther knows full well the harm compensated dating can do. She drifted into the industry in her teens after a troubled childhood in which her parents divorced and she was sent to live in the care of an aunt. An older male cousin who was addicted to Japanese manga pornography repeatedly raped her and she attempted suicide on several occasions, overdosing on pills and slashing her wrists. By the time she reached her teens, she was drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana and having one-night stands.

“I began to believe men just wanted my body and that only money could provide my sense of security,” she recalls.

From such a place, compensated dating seemed almost a no-brainer, she says: “One man or two dozen men, it was all the same. If you can exchange for money, even better.”

She soon grew used to the luxury handbags and the easy cash that was more than she could have earned in a regular job. Yet she still did not see herself as a prostitute – and, significantly, neither did her clients.

“The average age of my clients was 40. They were lonely … or did not have good sexual relationships with their wives or girlfriends,” she explains. “They didn’t want a prostitute but normal women and girls. They tended to think compensated dating girls were more clean. It was more like an affair to them … a fantasy relationship.”

But there were clear dangers. “You don’t know who you’ll meet,” Esther says. “You could get very violent clients. When you get into a room, you don’t have power.”

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Some clients would refuse to use condoms or would try to take photos of her to expose her, she says: “After my first client I took a shower but I never felt clean again. I washed my body really hard but whatever I did the scent from the man seemed still to linger.”

The growing shame soon outweighed the designer bags, but by then Esther had found herself trapped, too afraid to tell the truth to her family and friends yet aware that this isolation was putting her at even more risk. She contracted sexually transmitted diseases on two occasions and had an abortion.

The final straw was when her fiancé left her after finding out about her secret career. Now 35, she has found spirituality, turned her back on the industry and is eager to stop others making the same mistakes as she did.

“Compensated dating is like slavery,” she says. “You lose your humanity and become an object.”

A HIDDEN WORLD

Social worker Chan estimates that 60 per cent of the girls she met had been abused as children.

“These girls have a difficult time trusting others,” she says. “Our cases have said: ‘I’ve been dirty once, so it doesn’t matter if I’m dirty 10 times’. It’s how they see their body that is difficult. They feel it’s dirty, it’s a tool of men.”

However, research by T.Y. Lee, an Associate Professor at City University, suggests it is not only victims of abuse, like Esther, who are at risk of drifting into compensated dating – which he regards as a euphemism for “juvenile prostitution” and “child sex slavery”.

His findings show that people from various backgrounds drift into the industry. And perhaps even more surprisingly, it is not always about the money – even children from wealthy backgrounds are at risk.

In interviews with 30 young people, he found the reasons given by those selling “dates” and their bodies varied. Some said they wanted to “idle away their time pleasure-seeking”, others had been spurned by a lover, some were impoverished or trying to help family members in debt. Still others blamed their parents – some for their “authoritarian parenting styles” and some who blamed their parents’ emphasis on material wealth for setting a bad example.

As another social worker, Melissa Lee, says: “Some teens see compensated dating as a part-time job. Some of them regret it, some don’t”.

This range of victim profiles and the ever changing role of technology makes it hard for police and frontline workers to estimate the number of people involved in compensated dating. However, the issue is serious enough that an entire police unit in Kowloon West is dedicated to compensated dating and related issues such as part-time girlfriend services. It has had its hands full.

In March, the unit arrested 19 people, aged between 16 and 40, on charges related to compensated dating. The offences included rape, controlling people for prostitution, sexual intercourse with a minor and procurement of persons under 16 for making pornography.

Last spring, following a seven-month sting operation, the unit busted a compensated dating ring that was being run through a website called “hklovely”. In the past six years, the ring had grown to 100,000 members and made more than HK$20 million in commission from women and underage girls selling dates.

Police arrested 19 men and 11 women aged between 17 and 67 on charges that included “living on earnings of prostitution of others” and “soliciting for immoral purposes”. It later emerged that the founder of the website, a 33-year-old IT technician, had been arrested on similar charges in 2015, in connection with a compensated dating website called “hkbigman”, which had 90,000 members.

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However, the police face an uphill task in making arrests thanks to the rise of encrypted messaging apps and the legal grey areas surrounding compensated dating. This meant they were able to make only 22 arrests in the first 10 months of 2018, though they believe the true number of cases is far higher.

Still, legal grey areas or not, the police do not mince words in describing the dangers that face “teenage girls tempted into compensated dating”. A section on their website warns: “such risky encounters have resulted in physical and sexual assault, rape, robbery and murder.”

VICTIMS – AND CRIMINALS

While there may be some legal grey areas surrounding compensated dating, on some points the law is crystal clear. Anyone having sex with an underage girl or boy – defined as under 16 – is committing a criminal offence and if convicted faces a five-year prison sentence. If the minor is under 13 it could be life imprisonment.

One of the most high-profile people to have been prosecuted under this law is Henry Chui Che-hung, a man with close ties to some of Hong Kong’s biggest tycoons. In 2009, the married 60-year-old was convicted of seven charges including “unlawful intercourse with a girl under 16 and buggery of three young girls” and sentenced to four years and eight months in jail. The judge described Chui as an “internet predator” who had manipulated his victims, aged 14 and 15, by offering them payments of HK$300 and free meals.

But it isn’t only clients like Chui who can be prosecuted. Those people offering the services can be charged too – no matter how tragic their backstory.

Melissa Lee, the social worker, recalls one girl who had been raped by her father and forced into prostitution since she was eight years old. When she turned 16 she reported him to police and her circumstances briefly improved as his case made its way through the courts. But the wait was long – three years – and the girl struggled to cope, eventually turning back to the only way she knew how to fend for herself. She was later arrested on compensated dating offences.

Lee says the case is an example of how, even with the best intentions, Hong Kong sometimes fails the victims of this crime. She says the traumatised young woman simply did not receive the care she needed to prevent her engaging in at-risk behaviour.

“She needed safe attachment figures and intensive support,” Lee says. “Child abuse, parental abuse victims are not offered enough services for intensive counselling and support.”

Like her fellow social worker Linda Chan, Lee says funding for such counselling is running low – and that will mean only more such tragic cases in future.

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE?

While the court of public opinion puts most of the blame on the clients, mostly male, it reserves condemnation for the young and vulnerable girls some perceive to be greedy gold-diggers. Far less often is the spotlight turned on society itself.

“It is a really serious issue in Hong Kong and everyone is blaming the girls,” Linda Chan says. “It’s a Chinese morals concept of blaming the girl because culturally they should be good girls. But it’s not an individual problem, it’s a societal problem. Their family failed them. Society and culture failed them.”

As society becomes ever more transactional – and as the digital world plays an ever greater role in human relationships – some experts fear compensated dating-style arrangements could even become the norm.

“The line between compensated dating and non-commercial relationships is getting blurred,” says Cassini Chu, an academic at HKU and the author of Compensated Dating: Buying and Selling Sex in Cyberspace. “One female told me that she had already had numerous casual sex affairs before starting compensated dating. She said she had made a wise choice because she could make money from compensated dates but nothing from one-night stands.”

This shift in attitudes is being driven in part by the rise of technology and encrypted apps like Telegram, Line or WhatsApp, according to William Sin, an assistant professor at the Education University of Hong Kong.

“These tools and operations are perplexing and difficult to manage from the viewpoint of traditional educators and social workers,” Sin says. “They just have no idea what kind of life young people may be living in the world of social media.”

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With the march of technology unlikely to slow, experts are left struggling with the biggest question of all: what can be done about it? And there are, of course, no easy answers.

Many commentators say the only way forward is through education, but the Education Bureau says it is already doing what it can. Since 2011, it has taught students from Primary 1 to 6 about the dangers of compensated dating and “internet indulgence”. Meanwhile, the Moral and Civic Education curriculum of junior secondary schools addresses “love, sex and marriage” and the “principles of setting limits of intimacy”.

Chan, the social worker, says this should go further and there should be a self-esteem programme for girls and boys from difficult family backgrounds.

Others say any solution needs also to deal with the mostly male customers who create a demand for compensated dating. Travis S.K. Kong, Associate Dean at Hong Kong University, notes health and social services in Hong Kong cater mainly to young people and women, while the social stigma attached to buying sex prevents men from seeking the help they need. This perpetuates the problem as the root cause is never addressed.

One model that has been suggested is for Hong Kong to follow Sweden in punishing the buyers of sex and protecting the women involved in prostitution.

“The Sweden model is by far the best way forward but arresting all these men or putting them in jail will not solve these complex issues,” says Sandy Wong, chairwoman of the Anti-Human Trafficking Committee of the Hong Kong Federation of Women Lawyers.

She argues advertising and media that portray girls as sex objects must also be addressed: “There has to be a better mechanism to complain about and take down advertisements that objectify women. For instance, why a naked body selling perfume or why a 13-year-old in suggestive motion or posture in selling clothes?”

NO LONGER FOR SALE

Experts may differ on the best way forward but most agree on the first step: getting the young people involved in compensated dating to recognise the trade for what it is: prostitution.

The loss of her fiancé triggered something in Esther. She recalls looking in the mirror one day and being unable to recognise herself. She had become lost in the lies she had told her clients and herself and felt trapped. Feeling suicidal, she remembered learning about God in primary school and though she was not religious, a strange peace flooded over her. She began to pray.

Esther remembers this moment as her first step in leaving the past behind. It was a long road and one Esther says she could not have taken without the support of her new-found religion and the church she later joined.

Today, Esther is an image consultant and fashion designer. Her monthly salary is twice what she used to earn by selling dates to men. She has come far but has not forgotten her past. In fact, reminders are all around her: she knows of other women at her church who have also been involved in compensated dating and prostitution. Unlike her, most are too ashamed to speak out, fearing their husbands’ reactions.

She hopes to help these women and others feel beautiful from the inside out – something she had always struggled with. And she has a message for anyone confronting the issues she once did.

“Compensated dating is like a drug, it numbs,” she says. “Sooner or later, it will kill you. But you’re not alone, you can have a brighter future even if you don’t see any hope. If I can get saved, you can too.”