|Credit Courtesy of Ms. Zheng|
Four women, dressed in T-shirts and panties, lined up in a row before the camera. One of them, Ms. Zheng, dropped down on one knee, revealing a message boldly written in red on a whiteboard behind them: “My vagina does not come free with my labor.” More words were written on the women’s thighs, reiterating: “Not freebies.” And then, a food deliveryman who was briefly detained to serve as cameraman released the shutter.
The resulting photograph is the centerpiece of an online campaign by a group of feminists in response to a recent fatal rape case. In June, a 20-year-old woman at a state-owned company in Chongqing was asked by her boss to a dinner. She was sexually assaulted by her boss’s friend and died as a result of her injuries, the Chinese news media reported this week.
The feminist group, which is based in Guangzhou and says it has more than 100 volunteers across China, asked not to be named, and Ms. Zheng declined to provide her full name to avoid drawing government scrutiny. The Chinese government has long been suspicious of advocacy groups, wary of their potential for political organization.
The group posted the photo on the Twitter-like site Sina Weibo on Wednesday evening, and within a few hours, it was reposted on Weibo hundreds of times and shared on online forums and on the popular instant-messaging app WeChat. The message accompanying the photo is that women’s bodies have long been regarded by employers as a free benefit that comes with their employment. It says that recruiters usually prefer women who are “a pleasure to the eye in the office” and alongside their bosses at social events.
One social media commenter, described as a social worker, agreed with that characterization of work culture: “If bosses ask female employees to ‘drink with them,’ women might lose their jobs if they say no. But they will be judged as frivolous if they say yes, and may probably fall victim to sexual assault.”
It is common to see female employees accompanying company officials to social events outside office hours in China, where business connections are cultivated over interminable toasts over banquet tables. According to news accounts of the Chongqing case, the boss’s friend and the woman were heavily intoxicated, as has been the case in many similar rape reports in recent years.
Ms. Zheng, 24, acknowledges that invitations to after-work gatherings do not always lead to forced sex, and some commenters on the group’s post questioned whether accompanying officials to social functions could really be equated with sexual exploitation. One noted: “Male employees are asked to drink with bosses even more than female ones.”
Ms. Zheng countered: “When it comes to men, it’s not an exploitation of their sexual body.”
Later, in a WeChat message, she said: “But asking women to go to such social events is itself exploitation of women’s sexual capital. Women’s appearance has been used to help employers attract more clients and better investment.”
Ye Haiyan, an advocate of women’s and children’s rights who attracted headlines in 2013 when she started an online campaign raising awareness about the rapes of six students, agrees. She reposted the group’s photo and commented: “Don’t ask your staff to provide part-time escort services.”
“Women should only be asked to provide knowledge or technical skills in the workplace, but not other things,” she said in telephone interview from Hubei Province. “Of course, it would be a different story if you are a sex worker.”
“Going to various social events frequently takes up women’s spare time, and they are used to pleasing other people,” Ms. Ye said. “But they don’t get paid for these extra endeavors.”
Ms. Ye thinks that as long as the balance of power in the workplace tips in men’s favor, the exploitation of women will continue, especially because it is difficult for women to defy the unwritten rules.
“If you say no, you lose your job,” she said. “That’s why we see things happening between employees and bosses, and even between attractive news anchors and senior officials.”
In a 2011 case, a secondary school teacher was raped by a local land administration official after the school’s principal forced her to attend an after-work gathering at which she drank with eight officials, according to news reports.
“Men have to change their mentality,” Ms. Ye said. “A man should be ashamed if he thinks having a beautiful woman by his side at business negotiations” enhances his status.
A project manager at a state-owned construction company says female workers are called in to various business-related social occasions and indeed run the risk of ending up in bed with their bosses. He asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the news media.
“Pretty women get pursued everywhere, don’t they?” he said, adding that employers would not promote female staffers who refused such invitations.
Dr. Ralph Litzinger, an anthropology professor at Duke University who has studied labor conditions in China, said that the latest online campaign was an outlet for women. Because taking action against sexual harassment by employers is difficult in the workplace, he said, women “can take their grievances and outrage online and attract attention and support there.”
“These four women send a powerful message to male bosses and managers: Our bodies are not yours to play with,” he said. “In the Chinese context, rarely have we seen activism that so explicitly links the laboring female body with workplace harassment and sexual exploitation.”
In the Chongqing case, the family of the woman who died has reached an agreement with her employer for compensation: 1.3 million renminbi, or $210,000. In the end, the company recognized her death as work-related.