Sex in a China Shop


‘China Suspends TV Programs that Promote Slimming, Breast Enlargement Products,’ read a recent headline from China’s Xinhua news agency.

And fair enough turn the tele on here and some channels seem entirely devoted to tummy-tightening, breast-enhancing, buttock-lifting technologies, like the pair of running shoes going for AUD$100 that guarantee a slimmer body in a matter of weeks, and the breast-building creams and ‘medicines’ which are all ‘fully guaranteed’ to make you more zhang dian or ‘sexy.’

Among some of my female friends in Beijing, there’s certainly a fascination with big breasts and slender curves. But then it’s all just part of the bigger picture sex, sexiness, sexuality. Talking about all things sex-related is big, particularly among the generation that grew up in the 1970s and 1980s when the internet was still a distant dream.

My former neighbour fits into this category. Now in her late 20s, she went through the horror of getting her period without actually knowing what was happening. Neither her parents nor her school had informed her about menstruation let alone about sex. Her first real understanding of sex, she says, came from her first boyfriend who knew the basics but not much more.

Since then, my former neighbour has been on a self-education mission. Her most recent drive for knowledge led us out on the streets in search of one of the numerous black market DVD sellers who deal in huang pian literally ‘yellow discs’ or porn. It wasn’t hard to find a vendor: a small, nervous-looking man who pulled out three porn DVDs in dog-eared covers. My neighbour snapped up a US-produced DVD with some golden-haired, big-breasted beauty on the front. I was less impressed with the choice, and wanted to know why the vendor didn’t have any Chinese porn. The man just smiled, shook his head and muttered something about me not understanding China.

While demand for porn in China is high, it’s a risky business. Under criminal law, it’s illegal to ‘make, sell, publish or disseminate’ pornography. Those caught profiting from illicit material can find themselves serving a life sentence. The National Anti-Pornography and Anti-Piracy Office recently started a 100-day campaign aimed at tracking down video pirates and porn peddlers. And, according to the People’s Daily, a person from Harbin was recently sentenced to 11 years in prison and forced to pay 30,000 yuan (AUD$5000) for operating a porn site.

But the thing that stands out straight away, if you’re after smut, is the lack of home-grown porn (or even what you might call ‘erotica’) on the market. The women featured in porn publications are from the United States or Japan, sometimes from Hong Kong or Taiwan but rarely from the mainland. Long jail sentences are obviously a good deterrent, but sometimes you hear more shocking stories like that of a man who was apparently executed in the 1980s for selling pictures of his nude wife.

Along with its internet ‘firewall’ aimed at blocking access to politically subversive sites, the central Government wants to build a ‘green internet’ for the 100 million or so net users in China. Local newspapers spouting the Communist Party line, talk about the need to ‘block lewd overseas sites’ in order to ensure a ‘clean cyberspace.’ When it comes to laying blame for the popularity of net porn, the finger is often pointed at uninformed youth. According to People’s Daily Online, ‘ experts’ believe that ‘rampant web porn services’ are ‘partly the result of weak ethics education among the young people, particularly minors.’ No acknowledgement whatsoever that attitudes towards sex have changed here significantly.

Back in 1989, a survey in Beijing showed that only 15 per cent of respondents had engaged in pre-marital sex. In 2005, this figure had climbed to between 60 and 70 per cent.

Li Yinhe, a sociologist who has spent more than 10 years studying the sex lives of the Chinese public, says that now teenagers are becoming sexually active much younger, often around the age of 13 or 14. Alongside this, the age at which people choose to marry is getting older. Kids these days have more time to experiment in bed, and with more people. According to Yinhe, 20 years ago, ‘virginity was very important’ and having multiple sex partners was looked down upon. But today in China’s bigger cities, it’s become something of a norm.

Li Yuchun

Being publicly ‘straight’ is also no longer a given. On the same strip as some of Beijing’s biggest straight dance clubs, the city’s largest gay club attracts a huge crowd.

And it’s not just on the streets. In the Chinese Pop Idol-style competition, SuperGirl, the audience voted 21-year-old Li Yuchun the winner. Reports that Yuchun might be a lesbian, and a photo which apparently showed her with her girlfriend, only seemed to increase her popularity.

It’s this younger Supergirl-watching generation which is pushing for change and greater access to information about sex. But they’re squared off against the Government and an older generation which can tolerate a lesbian TV star, but would never accept it if their own child wavered from the straight and narrow.

I asked a young friend what his parents would say if he told them he was gay. He laughed at me and mimicked having his throat slit. He then told me that he wouldn’t even talk generally about sex with his parents, let alone broach the issue of homosexuality. It’s a familiar story discussion about anything sex-related between parents and children is, in many cases, out of the question.

So while the Chinese Government worries about the lack of ‘ethics education’ among Chinese youth, and spends money on implementing its ‘green internet’ plan, it seems they might be better off worrying about the gaps in young people’s sex education.

Yinhe is particularly worried about the lack of information provided in schools. She says that while students are given some scientific information about ‘making babies,’ there is little formal sex education to help young people understand sex and sexuality. Yinhe says research indicates that 28 per cent of Chinese women never experience orgasm, compared with an average of 10 per cent in the UK or US. Part of the problem, she believes, is that schools aren’t providing even basic information, aren’t even ‘letting students know there is a thing called the orgasm.’

Other problems are also emerging. Back in 2004, there was a run of articles in the local press talking about the increase in teenage pregnancies, particularly in rural areas where even basic sex education is not offered. In some cities, like Chongqing in the south-west, clinics have been set up to specifically give teenage girls advice on pregnancy, abortion, and contraception. But, as one worker told People’s Daily , the clinics are not the real remedy ‘we don’t want to see facilities like ours thrive we hope to see fewer and fewer girls come to our clinic for help.’

I have another Chinese friend who asked one day in hushed tones if it’s true that Western men are more ‘well-endowed’ than their Chinese counterparts. When I asked what made him think that, he replied that he’d seen some porn featuring not only busty women, but some ‘big’ non-Asian men. It reminded me of the breast-enhancement ads on television, and made me wonder whether I’d just missed the equivalent ads promoting penis-enlargement.

Professor Lu Zizhi from the Department of Social Medical Science and Health Education at Peking University, also told People’s Daily that sex education needs to do more than just talk about ‘physiology, conception, procreation or puberty.’ He said it should be a ‘tool to enlighten youngsters about sexual ethics and behavior, gender consciousness, love and marriage.’

Add ‘self-esteem’ to that list and the concept of a ‘healthy body image’ put it in the school curriculum and who knows what might happen. The Government’s green internet plan is pretty much bound to fail porn is here to stay. But at least with good sex education it’d no longer be viewed as a primary teaching aid by Chinese youth.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.