Local newspaper Apple Daily has been criticised for violating privacy after it published secretly-taken photos for a series on male sex workers that ran on its front page on Sunday.

The tabloid published an expose on a massage parlour that allegedly tried to “lure in” young men to perform sex acts for money. The parlour was originally advertising a receptionist position with a monthly salary of HK$18,000, according to the paper’s source.

As part of the series, Apple Daily sent different undercover reporters to pose as a job seeker and as a client. Photos and footage of sex workers were taken on the premises with a hidden camera. A therapist who provided a massage to the undercover reporter was also identified by his English first name and his age in the report. Footage of him speaking to the reporter was included with his face blurred but without disguising his voice.

apple daily footage male sex work
A student speaking about his experiences interviewing at a massage parlour.

Midnight Blue, an NGO that supports male sex workers, issued a statement strongly condemning the report and calling on Apple Daily to retract it and issue a public apology. The NGO took issue with the photos and video that accompanied the reports, saying they violated privacy and portrayed male sex workers in a negative light.

It said the story could have accomplished its goal of warning the public against such job postings by focusing on the tactics used to lure in unwitting job seekers. But, instead, the paper published secretly-taken footage and photos of the sex workers and their clients in their workplace and on the streets, only blurring out their faces and making no attempt to disguise their voices or other features.

apple daily footage male sex work
Photo: Screenshot/Apple Daily footage from a hidden camera.

“Sex workers and gay men still face a serious stigma in Hong Kong – many are afraid of coming out and revealing their identities; for them, their privacy is as important as their lives,” Midnight Blue said.

Those who were filmed secretly were not involved in the organisations’ dubious hiring practices, and neither their jobs nor their identities are related to the public’s right to be informed, the NGO said.

The NGO also accused the paper of demonising male sex workers in its choice of language, which the NGO said insinuated that the reporter was putting himself at risk of being violated by posing as a client at a massage parlour. It said other language served to stigmatise gay sex acts, including the phrase “horrible experiences,” and “unmentionable things” – the latter being a quote from an anonymous massage therapist who spoke to the paper.

It criticised the paper for capitalising on the sensationalism of male sex work and catering to the biases of homophobic, sex-phobic readers.

“It is important to expose employment traps for the sake of the public good, but it’s a pity that Apple Daily has used this as an excuse, and used methods that violated the privacy of sex workers and discriminated against the sexual desires of gay men to report the matter, causing sex workers and gay men to face increased stigma.”

In Hong Kong, it is not illegal to use or provide sex services, but laws prohibit acts of organised prostitution including soliciting, living on earnings of prostitution, keeping a vice establishment, or detaining someone in such an establishment.

Catherine is a Canadian journalist and photographer who lived in Beijing for almost two years, working in TV and online media. Aside from Hong Kong and mainland affairs, she is also interested in urban spaces, art and feminism. She holds a BA in Literature and Art History from the University of British Columbia.