Reporting from Beijing — The girls from the drama academy cost the most. Actresses are pretty, after all, and pretty is the point. Steady access to their sexual favors could cost a man more than $25,000 a year, not to mention the perks and gifts they would expect.
The gentleman on a budget had better browse through students at the tourism institute, or perhaps the business school. Women there can be had for as low as $5,000 a year.
Those are the prices advertised by the young man who calls himself "Student Ding," a senior at Shanghai University who, in the grand tradition of Chinese entrepreneurship, is earning his money by working as a pimp.
Ding calls himself "an agent, a fixer," but his job is all pimp. He started out small: fliers passed on the street to the chauffeurs of expensive cars. He has found his niche arranging long-term, cash-for-sex arrangements between wealthy men and aspirational students, taking a 10% commission off the top.
He is nonchalant about the work, even vaguely proud. He insists that he is doing a service to the men who don't want to hire streetwalkers, and to his middle-class, ambitious and frostily pragmatic college friends.
"Most of the girls are financially comfortable, but they see their classmates carrying Louis Vuitton or Gucci bags, and they're jealous," he said on the phone from Shanghai. "These girls want to have better lives."
He is feeding on a wave of prostitution that, academics and sex workers say, has spread throughout universities and among young, would-be professionals in recent years. This semester, at least two universities introduced rules banning students from working as escorts or mistresses.
But the motivation is strong. The young women are coming of age at a time when China's family structure has eroded and staggering class divisions mean living, for the first time, in a country where shiny things are dangled carelessly under the noses of those who can't afford them.
In China, everybody seems to be selling something these days. Advertising crowds the skyline and the roadsides. A closed country has opened up in a span of decades, and is experiencing an economic boom that has introduced new desires and an "anything goes" mentality.
"More and more students are making this choice, taking a shortcut to a better life" said Lan Lan, a former prostitute who now advocates for the rights of sex workers in China, where prostitution is technically illegal but often tolerated. "They find a rich lover, post services on the Internet or just walk into a high-end club and sell themselves. The end result is the same."
Lan Lan has years of street-level research in China's sex trade; today, she runs an organization that raises HIV awareness and distributes condoms to sex workers.
Just a few decades back, premarital sex was looked down upon by respectable families. Now, some members of those families are not just having premarital sex; they're selling it.
Lan Lan calls the Chinese prostitution market "very complicated," with various manifestations of sex work at each economic level, from relatively cheap streetwalkers catering to migrant workers to the students. Many in the latter group are reluctant to think of themselves as hookers and are therefore lax about protecting themselves.
"If they're trying to become a mistress, they won't take a condom when they go to meet this man," she said. "They want to show their purity and loyalty."
The women are generally careful not to get trapped in a life selling their sexual favors. This is paid sex as a strategy, a way to look more elite, get a better job, find new opportunities.
"They move on to other jobs after a while," Lan Lan said. "It's not that they're too poor to make a living. The younger generation wants to wear all the brand names, the expensive cosmetics, use the newest cellphones and computers."
But even if that's true, few women want to admit it. And, perhaps, sex and love aren't quite so simply parsed.
Xiao Yi, a 27-year-old woman from the southern province of Guangdong, insists that she and the other young, paid mistresses are misunderstood.
She met her lover when she was an intern at an advertising agency, and he was a much older boss, nestled in the comforts of money and family. In the years since, she has taken his money, and he has set up profitable business opportunities and what she calls "financial aid" for several of her relatives. (Her family, she insists, doesn't realize that she's sleeping with this man, and takes him for a friend.)
"He can look after people," she said. "And as a very independent girl, when I'm with him, even I can rely on somebody."
But she insists she is drawn by something deeper than the cash and perks. She says she has fallen in love with him. Sometimes, she says, she even takes him out for a meal.