BEIJING — Zheng Ting never feels safe walking alone at night. It’s not because she’s visually impaired: After years of orientation and mobility training, the 30-year-old has little trouble navigating the streets of the capital.
But the repeated sexual assaults and harassment she has endured since childhood have taken their toll on the former masseuse, who now works at a disability rights NGO. “I never look behind me, because I don’t dare to check who is there,” she tells Sixth Tone.
Over the 10 years that Zheng worked in the massage industry — the default vocation for blind and visually impaired people in China — she says she faced frequent sexual assault from clients. Male customers would grope her chest or thighs without warning; in one scarring incident from her teenage years, she recalls, a customer barged in and grabbed her breasts while she was resting in the staff lounge. Her colleagues rushed over when they heard her struggling, but the man had already escaped through the back door.
The system has never been kind to Zheng. In a country that struggles to protect the rights of disabled citizens, address urban-rural inequality, and hold perpetrators of sexual violence accountable, she was dealt the worst possible hand.
Zheng and her brother were “left-behind” children, their parents away for most of the year working in the city. Growing up in central China’s Hubei province, she was not welcome at the public school in her small mountain village, as it couldn’t accommodate visually impaired students. Instead, children with disabilities were pushed to learn a trade through apprenticeship. When Zheng was 10, her parents arranged for her to study under a renowned fortuneteller and live at his home.
Zheng remembers feeling safest when the master, a man in his 70s, had company over. But she dreaded the days she spent alone with him, learning to tell fortunes based on the Chinese zodiac and lunar calendar, or helping with housework. Over the five years she spent under his tutelage, Zheng says, her master repeatedly molested her. “He often said he would kill me if I didn’t submit, or if I told anyone,” she recalls. Once, she says, she was raped by a friend of her teacher.
Growing up visually impaired in a rural village, Zheng Ting was apprenticed to a fortunetelling teacher who molested her and threatened her life if she disobeyed him. Joyce Siu/Sixth Tone
When Zheng told her parents about the abuse, they accused her of being a burden on the family. In her village of just 10 or so households, Zheng’s parents didn’t want to sour their relationship with the teacher, who was well-respected in the community. “People from that time thought of such things as shameful,” Zheng says. “As a result, they ignored the fact that their kids were hurt, too.”
At 15, Zheng moved to the southern city of Guangzhou to begin training as a masseuse. Massage is one of two specializations — the other being piano tuning — offered at schools serving China’s estimated 75 million visually impaired people. The vocation was touted as a solution to blind unemployment after the massage industry took off in the 1950s. At least 120,000 blind and visually impaired people work in the industry today, according to the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF). Visually impaired students are funneled into so-called blind massage parlors — while people with rarer disabilities in China face even less vocational support.
Many aspects of the job leave blind massage practitioners vulnerable to harassment — particularly women, who account for around 20 percent of the blind massage workforce according to research from the Changchun University Special Education Institute in northeastern China.
Zheng recalls working until 2 or 3 in the morning for a commission of just 10 yuan ($1.50) an hour, with no base salary. At that time of night, the mostly male customers were often intoxicated and offered to pay extra for sexual favors. The glass walls of each room at the massage parlor were covered with frosted film for privacy. Many masseuses hoped to bring their clients to communal rooms with three beds rather than a private room, but it was ultimately up to clients to decide.
After she was attacked in the staff lounge, Zheng says the back entrance of the parlor was sealed off — but management didn’t take further precautions to prevent future incidents. Official masseuse licensing is done through the CDPF’s Blind Massage Management Office, which told Sixth Tone that it doesn’t address issues of sexual misconduct in the workplace.
In a December 2015 workshop run by Beijing-based NGO Disability Women’s Network, 11 out of 15 female blind masseuses said they had experienced sexual harassment at work. Yet it’s difficult to gauge the scale of the problem, as many masseuses don’t report such incidents. Zheng never went to the police. She expected to be told that it wasn’t a big deal, she says, because “no real damage was done.”
In China’s criminal law, sexual assault falls under an article on forcible indecency and can carry a prison sentence of up to five years — though many cases are dropped due to lack of evidence. For nonphysical forms of workplace harassment, legal repercussions are relatively minor, says criminal lawyer Ma Youquan of Shanghai Rejuvenation Law Firm: At most, the offender can be detained for 15 days.
It can be especially difficult for visually impaired survivors of sexual assault or harassment to document evidence in workplace incidents, but Ma says they can still gather nonvisual evidence, including linguistic accents or physical characteristics they notice during a massage.
Activists say increased video surveillance in blind massage parlors could help prevent and document the rampant sexual assault and harassment masseuses face. Joyce Siu/Sixth Tone
In lieu of legal recourse, blind masseuses devise strategies to avoid unwanted sexual advances from clients. Former masseuse Xiao Jia tells Sixth Tone that the management of a parlor she worked at in eastern China’s Jiangxi province ignored the rampant sexual harassment and assault masseuses faced, so colleagues advised her to employ tactics like informing the customer that she needed to leave the room to wash her hands if she felt threatened.
Unlike Zheng, Xiao grew up in a small city — but the public schools there were no better equipped to handle blind students than their rural counterparts. When she lost her sight at age 16 due to a genetic eye disorder, Xiao enrolled in a school for the blind in Jiangxi’s provincial capital, Nanchang, and was shunted down the path toward the massage industry. She recalls that her instructors told students interested in pursuing university education that doing so was pointless.
The Chinese Ministry of Education began offering the national college entrance exam in braille in 2015, opening paths to higher education for visually impaired students. But Chu Hongbo — a researcher and professor who teaches massage at Changchun University’s Special Education Institute — says that in practice, the education system has been slow to change. When a blind student was admitted to a university in northeastern China last August, he struggled to settle in after the school refused to improve the accessibility of its dormitories.
China’s system of pushing blind citizens down a single career path stands out as a policy anomaly, according to Chu — who is visually impaired himself. By contrast, Chu says, vocational programs for visually impaired students in developed countries like the United States and Japan typically offer an array of career options.
While working as a masseuse in Nanchang at age 19, Xiao says, she was sexually assaulted by a client who seemed to be under the influence of drugs. He threatened to destroy the parlor if she didn’t massage his genitals, she recalls. He then pulled out her hair and ripped her clothes before she managed to escape.
In 2012, Xiao opened her own massage business and devised a set of harassment prevention strategies: She sprayed the entire room with sterilizer and stuck medical diagrams on the walls. She wore a lab coat to look more like a medical professional. “But regardless of what you do,” Xiao says, “you still can’t avoid harassment.”
After six years in the industry, she jumped at the chance to get out when she heard on the radio that a disability rights NGO in Beijing, 1+1, was hiring. Her stint managing a women’s program at the organization showed her alternative career possibilities for people with visual impairments and inspired her to pursue her interest in cosmetology. She learned how to estimate the amount of makeup she applied and to label products in braille; now, she works as a makeup consultant for other visually impaired women.
Yet a mass exodus of blind masseuses from the industry is not the solution to the problems with China’s massage sector, says Peng Yujiao, a program officer at Disability Women’s Network. A longtime disability rights activist, Peng tells Sixth Tone that the blind community will follow an outspoken leader if they urge members to take action, but that encouraging blind masseuses to escape harassment-ridden parlors doesn’t address the lack of employment alternatives.
In the short term, Peng calls for an increase in video surveillance in massage parlors to prevent harassment and catch perpetrators. On a larger scale, greater access to education — and sex education programs for people with disabilities — would better equip visually impaired youth to navigate the workforce and society.
Like Xiao, Zheng left the massage industry for a job at 1+1, after moving to Beijing two years ago to be with a man she met in an online chat room for blind people. She now operates the NGO’s hotline, taking calls from visually impaired Beijingers inquiring about disability resources. She is married with a newborn baby and says she has received plenty of support from her husband — though she doesn’t think her parents will ever be ready to hear about the trauma she endured as a masseuse.
In Zheng Ting’s recurring nightmare, she runs to escape a group of men chasing her down a mountain road. Joyce Siu/Sixth Tone
One day, Zheng hopes to help fellow left-behind teenagers who are vulnerable to sexual violence that can leave lasting scars. She still has a recurring nightmare in which she finds herself in the mountains near her hometown in Hubei. A group of men are chasing her, and she sprints for her life — but they eventually catch her and force her to do as they say. Maybe someday she’ll outrun them.
Editor: Jessica Levine.
(Header image: Blind masseuses prefer communal massage areas over private rooms to reduce the risk of harassment or assault by clients. Joyce Siu/Sixth Tone)