Under the red light: Sex, secrets and regrets

TAIPEI - For women who make themselves vulnerable for a living, the threats of pregnancy, disease and violence pervade their every evening, and while limited precautions can be taken on each of these fronts, true protection is impossible.

"If I don't like a man, I will say 'No, I will not go,'" the young woman named "Rita" says about her potential customers. But she admits that the girls and Mamasan can sometimes misjudge a man, and the consequences can be frightening.

Rita recalls a customer who came into the bar where she works last November. He paid Mamasan the minimum S$124, but when the curtains were drawn he started to become rough, bordering on abusive. "I tell him 'not so rough,' but he keep grabbing my head and pushing me down, so I slap him across his face," she said. The man quickly left, but Mamasan berated Rita for striking a customer. "She said to me 'you can't hit customers,' but I was so angry."

Rita's sister has taken a break from singing with a group of Chinese businessmen and another girl has taken her place. "Rachel" enters through the curtains that protect the booth from prying eyes, sits and checks messages on her phone, then lights a cigarette from Rita's pack on the table. They talk with each other in Chinese for a moment before Rachel stands up, snubs out her cigarette, smiles and then disappears through the curtain.

"She just check on me," Rita says. "But I tell her everything's OK."

Communication between the girls and a minimal vetting process are the only things standing between many of these working women and the men who might want to do them harm. Rita explains that if she is taken back to a hotel, there is no real contingency plan to deal with a violent or unsavory customer. If a man looks like he will become aggressive, Rita says she would first call Mamasan. But in the worst case, "I can only pray, I think." She puts her hands together and pretends to pray. The last option, Rita says, is to run.

"One night my sister came back to the bar with tears ... but she would not say what happened," Rita says. "Her makeup was ... running? Yes, running. And she did not have her shoes." Rachel never said what happened to her that night. Rita can only hope that she was able to run from the customer before he could hurt her. Fortunately for the women of this particular establishment, violence is not a recurring issue. The same cannot be said, however, for every woman who works behind a curtain in Taiwan.

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