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Praying for Urban Red-Light Outreach

Exploitation and Restoration

Ding Ding1 is a school dropout in a rural village. Like many other teens, she uses social media to connect with friends and play online games with strangers. It was in this virtual space that she met her boyfriend, who lived in the city. After they dated online for a while, her boyfriend invited her to run away from home to cohabit with him in the city. Driven by overwhelming passion, Ding Ding decided to take the plunge. To fund this journey, she stole money from her parents, packed some clothes and a few other belongings, and hopped on the bus that took her to the capital city, two hours from home.

Her boyfriend treated her like a princess at first, just as she had imagined. He was handsome, he was caring, and he paid for every meal and took her to beauty treatments.

A few weeks passed, and her boyfriend looked downcast—he had spent all his money on her, and it was time to pay rent. Unbeknownst to Ding Ding, this had been the plan all along; her “boyfriend” was merely grooming her to be a money-making machine. He actually had plenty of other girls under his control, so there was no shortage of money.

Desperately, she tried to look for jobs, but nowhere paid enough for her to save six months’ rent in such a short time. The landlord was threatening to evict them. In order to keep their love nest—she saw it as their home together—Ding Ding sighed and decided to do anything for her first love. The only option was for her to work in a massage parlor. “Just for a short period of time,” her “boyfriend” promised. Days turned into months, and months turned into years. Ding Ding became one of the millions of women in red-light districts all over urban China.  

Not many have attempted to reach women involved in the commercial sex trade. Some believe that they are too scary to talk to; others may feel that they are too sinful to be with; still others are concerned about the gang activities, drugs, and crime that are often happening in their midst. And anyway, how can we even start a conversation?

You can actually find them in many cities, especially in “urban villages” clustered around the periphery of cities, where the original village has been torn down and the area transformed into six- to eleven-floor buildings. The villagers rent out the upstairs rooms to migrant workers (mostly men) who work in the city. The ground floor storefronts of these buildings are usually rented out as small and transient businesses: snack shops, phone-repair shops, sex-toy shops, or “massage parlors.” As an outsider, you may not be able to tell which one is a regular massage place, and which one is not. However, if you visit the area at night, you will see pink light coming out of shops where women are sitting around, waiting for business. And if you walk in, you will not find any equipment for proper massages—it is just sofas, and perhaps a bed in the back, with explicit posters on the wall.

Still, the women in these shops are not as scary and unapproachable as you might think. They are just like Ding Ding, all of them ending up there for different reasons. But they are also like us—made in God’s image—and we are all broken and in need of a Savior. If you stop by and they know that you are sincere, they will open up and talk to you.

Perhaps you may wonder, “How did these women end up in the massage parlors?” None of them would say that it was their life’s dream to be a sex worker. In general, there are three main (and sometimes interrelated) reasons: (1) trafficking; (2) financial hardships; and (3) low education.

Sue was a 15-year-old school dropout, wearing cute denim overalls and a white T-shirt. A few weeks before, her classmate had contacted her on social media and urged her to come to the city and work together. She was told that she could get a well-paying job, with no experience or education needed. So she came, and she got locked up in a room with a stranger. She was raped, and her classmate got the commission—10% of the price of her virginity. Since that day, she felt too ashamed to go home, so she stayed, and worked in the shop.

Molly was a high-school graduate. She could not get further education because her family had only enough money for the only son to go to college. At the same time, Molly’s grandfather was very sick in the hospital. Her family borrowed from all their friends and family and still did not have enough money to pay the bills. So Molly decided that she had to sacrifice to make a large sum of money in a short time to pay for her grandfather’s medical treatments. She found a job in a KTV (karaoke bar)—her job was to drink and sing with the customers. She would also get extra tips if she stayed overnight with the customers, so she did, because she knew that it was the only way to help her family out.

Judy came from a very poor family. She went to school for four years but was told that she was too stupid to keep going. She quit school and started to work in the market, carrying goods and doing odd jobs. In her early teens, she met her first boyfriend at a skating rink. However, he dumped her when she got pregnant. She looked for him everywhere but ended up in a strange place and was lured into an abandoned warehouse with a stranger. She was locked up and raped. She kept looking for a way to find true love, but she just kept ending up in abusive and unhealthy relationships. Judy met her second husband in a massage parlor, and they eventually started working together to make money running several parlors.

These four stories are only a small fragment of a huge phenomenon. Girls and women are not educated and protected. They are undervalued and neglected. They have never had a chance to hear the good news of Jesus, or to have a safe place to restart their lives. And we are not talking about hundreds or thousands of them, but millions.

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:14)

Let us pray for those who are still living in darkness and feel so stuck in the massage parlor in the urban villages. Let us pray for workers to reach them, for alternative jobs and safe houses to provide a way out, and for proper trauma counseling to help them process their past.

Pray for:

  • Outreach efforts and restoration programs in every city for women in massage parlors
  • Provision of safe houses, vocational training, and employment
  • Resources, protection, and wisdom for those who are working among these women
  • Local church communities—to welcome these women in their midst, making them feel loved, and helping them reintegrate into society
  • Families restored, relationships rebuilt, and God’s name lifted up in these women’s lives


  1. The names of all the women in this post have been changed to protect their privacy.
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Image credit: Lina Trochez via UnSplash.


Sarah (pseudonym) and her family have served in mainland China since 2009. She is working among trauma survivors and providing one-on-one mentoring for them.View Full Bio

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