The current Taiwanese sex industry has its roots in Japanese colonialism. During the Japanese colonial period (1895—1945), licensed prostitution was adopted to make sex available in a regulated manner to both the Japanese colonisers and local Taiwanese men. According to Lin (1995), during the colonial period, prostitution was organised in terms of race and social class. Prostitution was divided into two systems: one was Taiwanese prostitution which provided sexual services for Taiwanese men, and the other was Japanese prostitution which served Japanese only. Both systems were further divided into hierarchical systems (that is, yi dan [geisha] and tu chang [prostitutes]) by services provided and the social classes of clients. Usually yi dan were expected to provide all kinds of entertainment to please the gentry, while tu chang provided explicit sex only and their clientele were mainly lower-class men. To some extent, the body-selling (mai shen) and pleasure-selling (mai xaio) in the current Taiwanese sex industry can be tracked back to the differentiation between yi dan and tu chang.

When the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek came into power in Taiwan after the Second World War in 1949, attempts were made to abolish prostitution, but they succeeded only in driving commercial sex underground and making it more difficult to control sexually transmissible diseases (Lin 1995). Moreover, there were many young ‘snatched soldiers’ from mainland China who followed Chiang Kai-Shek’s army as it retreated to Taiwan after the war. In the name of ‘counter-attacking the communists and recuperating the nation’, these soldiers were forbidden to get married throughout the entire 1950s in Chiang’s regime (Chao 2004). Reasoning that these soldiers had sexual urges, the Taiwan Province Council passed laws in 1951 decriminalising ‘special bars’ (te joong jeou ba) to meet their needs. These special bars were in effect licensed brothels of another kind, and the special-bar waitresses were licensed prostitutes. The government passed the Act of Management of Prostitution in Taiwan Province (Taiwan Sheng Chi Guan Li Ban Fa) in 1956 to control commercial sex. Thereafter, Taiwan shifted back to adopt licensed prostitution where commercial sex was rigidly confined to licensed brothels where only licensed prostitutes were allowed to provide sexual services. From 1962, the Reg­ulations of Management of Special Businesses (Te Joong Hatng Yeh Guan Li Ban Fa) have regu­lated the bars, tearooms, special coffee shops and dance halls that make commercial sex available to Taiwanese men. Since then, (licensed) brothels and ‘te joong hatng yeh’ (‘special businesses’) have constituted two different sex sectors in Taiwan. The former provide explicit sex in terms of ‘mai shen’ (‘selling body’), while the latter subtly combine urban leisure and sexual services in terms of ‘mai xiao’ (‘selling pleasure’). In many cases, mai chuen (buying sex) takes place in the body-selling sector, while he hua jeou (literally ‘drinking flower wine’ in which men hire women to play, chat, sing and dance with) happens in the pleasure-selling sector. As these facilities cut across age, class and ethnicity, both sectors are well-developed to cater to their different clientele (Chen 2006).

While Taiwanese men can legally buy sex from (licensed) prostitutes and seek sexual enjoyment from special businesses, the women who sell sex without being registered as a licensed prostitute are criminalised (according to Article 80 of the Social Order Maintenance Act [SOM], enacted in 1991). This sexual double standard of policing prostitution confirms the male right to buy sex, while criminalising the women who sell sex to them. This remained unproblematised until late 1997 when the Taipei City Government decided to abolish licensed prostitution in its jurisdiction — leading to both heated debates and the development of a prostitutes’ rights movement. In 2009 The Justices of the Constitutional Court overruled the SOM declaring that it violated both men’s and women’s equal rights as protected by Article Seven of The Con­stitution of the Republic of China. Thus currently, both buying and selling sex are criminalised in Taiwan.

Taipei’s abolition of licensed prostitution encouraged debates among Taiwanese feminists about sex work. The ways in which clients were thus theorised is deeply linked to the ways in which Taiwanese feminists tended to perceive commercial sex. For example, thinking of prostitution as an institution oppressive of women, Hwang (2003) argued that Taiwanese men’s sexual con­sumption served not only as a means of male-bonding, but also as an embodiment of male domination and female subordination. Chen (2003) and Peng (2007), however, in describing sexual services as sex work, argued that clients differed greatly and thus different clients might invest different meanings in their visits to sex workers. Most of all, both Chen and Peng concurred with Anglophone scholars (McIntosh 1996; O’Connell Davidson 1995, 1998; Plumridge et al. 1997; Chapkis 1997; Sanders 2008) in terms of emphasising the clients’ emotional demands in commercial sex and that clients might consider their relations with sex workers to be reciprocal rather than exploitative.

It is important to locate clients’ usage of commercial sex in the context of modern con­sumption practices where the diversity of the marketplace means that some individuals can transgress traditional social divisions (class, race, gender and sexuality) by engaging in specific types of consumption (Featherstone 1991; Evans 1993). As far as race or ethnicity is concerned, Han-Chinese are the majority ethnic group of Taiwan while indigenous people and newly arrived marriage migrants (mostly women from Southeast Asia and China) constitute less than four per cent of the total population. Thus, it is claimed that Han-Chinese constitute the vast majority of sexual consumers in Taiwan (Hwang 2003). Social class is also a major element that shapes heterosexual men’s differing usages of commercial sex. When locating class at a local level, Chen (2003) argued that upper – and middle-class men not only use commercial sex for erotic pleasure, but also as a way to demonstrate their social status, power and tastes. Meanwhile their working-class counterparts may treat it as a part of social life.

Conversely, in studies which situate class in global processes (as global sex tourism grows rapidly) there is a tendency to analyse the ways in which first-world men use sex tourism to pursue sexual pleasure in third-world countries (Truong 1990; O’Connell Davidson 1995, 1998; Singh and Hart 2007; Brennan 2004). Taiwan was once one destination for sex tourism for American soldiers on so-called ‘rest and recreation leave’ between the 1960s and 1980s; even today it is still a popular destination for Japanese sex tourists. Since the mid-1990s, however, Taiwan has become a prosperous country which sends tourists overseas, some of whom travel to purchase sexual services.