Overcoming the Taboo – The Evolution of Sex in China

Overcoming the Taboo – The Evolution of Sex in China
Aug 11, 2011 By Bobby Finkelstein , eChinacities.com

As soon as the word left my friend’s mouth his university classroom went deadly silent. The students which were laughing and carrying on just moments before now stared at their desks and nervously fidgeted with their pens. The silence lingered.

"Is there a problem?" my friend asked.

After a few moments the class monitor slowly rose and said, "I think we all feel uncomfortable talking about that."

"Why? Chinese people have sex and sexual desires just like anyone else," my friend said.

"Yes, but sex in China is different, it’s one of those things that is an open secret. I don’t know if you understand," the monitor said as he sat back down.

An open secret is a good way of putting it. Sex is everywhere you go in China, from the glossy magazines of newspaper stands to officials being caught posting naked pictures of themselves for their lovers on Weibo. There are hundreds of KTV clubs and massage parlours in every major city that offer customers "special services", yet a group of intelligent university students find it hard to even form the word "sex" on their lips. Sex is accepted but off-limits, needed but shunned, seen but unspoken. Why?

Sex scandals exposed on the internet.
Police raided a night club in Beijing Photo: google

Don’t Forget the History

China has a bit of a checkered past in regards to sex. Sometimes it was more open, sometimes it was more closed. China’s two most important philosophical influences of Taoism and Confucianism have differing views on sex. Taoism tends to view sex as more natural and needed in order to balance the masculine (yang) and the feminine (yin). In fact, if you were someone like the emperor that had massive amounts of yang then you needed more than one source of yin, hence all the concubines. However, Confucianism looked at sex much more practically as a duty for procreation.

While both of these ideas have altered the perception of sex in China over the centuries, the more recent revolutionary history is more relevant in understanding the current values. An older Chinese friend of mind once told me he felt that leaders like Mao tried to put their libido in a bottle and burry it in the ground.

During the revolutionary years women had to wear unisex Mao suits and army uniforms and they couldn’t get stylish haircuts or wear makeup. Men and women were not supposed to be lovers; they were supposed to serve the state as comrades.

While there were certainly many that didn’t follow this, including Mao himself, it was a culturally excepted norm. Love and sexuality were pushed to the periphery and sex itself was viewed more as a necessity for procreation.

Sexual Revolution

Today many say that China is in the middle of a sexual revolution, but compared to the sexual revolution that swept through the West in the 1960s and 70’s, this one is much tamer. When faced against the China of the recent past however, attitudes towards sex are much more open today. In the 1950s few dared to engage in premarital sex, by the 1980s it was estimated that 16% of Chinese had engaged in premarital sex and by 2005 that number, according to some family planning agencies, had risen to 70%.

It was not until 2001 that China declassified homosexuality as a mental illness, but now on Chinese reality TV shows, like the popular "Super Girl" singing competition, there are homosexual participants and you can easily find gay and lesbian communities in China’s big cities.

Twenty years ago there wasn’t a legal sex shop in Beijing; now it has more than New York City, and instead of being found in dark alleyways they are on major streets with neon "Sex Shop" signs.

No grandpa, it’s not like the old days.
No grandpa, it’s not like the old days. Photo: Upi

A friend of mine visiting from America a year ago was shocked by the prevalence of sex shops. After passing one almost daily for a week he finally decided to go in and look around.

"What’s going on?" He said as he picked up a sex toy. "Are Chinese suddenly the biggest sex freaks in the world?"

It is a good thing I didn’t take him to have a ‘massage’ or he might have had a heart attack.

If you look at the numbers and observe what is around you it is obvious that sex is big in China, yet at the same time there is a strange connection and even reverence to the traditional sexual norms of the past that is causing many to second guess sexual openness.

Sex with a side dish of tradition

Sex isn’t the only thing that has changed in China, and sometimes it seems that all the new openness is a little too much for some people. Nowhere else is this more clear than with the government, which has gone on anti-porn initiatives and has moved slowly to address sexual issues that have confronted a changing China.

Sex might be around every corner, but it is still not taught in many classrooms. Homosexuals might be coming out of the closet but they are still frowned upon, especially by parents wanting grandchildren. Children might be having sex at greater frequency and younger ages but their parents still won’t talk to them about it. Chinese men might want to spread their wild oats but they still expect the women they marry to be virgins. 

Need a new hymen?
Need a new hymen? Photo: sodahead

Such contradictions have created their share of strange stories. One of the oddest is the new boom in hymen replacement surgery, so girls can appear to be virgins on their wedding night. One of the most popular brands is the Japanese "Joan of ARC Red". 

Wait a second…

However, the desire to ignore the influx of sex by dreaming of the past is causing some major problems. According to a national survey done in 2010, only 4.4% of respondents were considered to have adequate knowledge on sex and sexual health. Considering that 70% of Chinese are having premarital sex that is a very scary number indeed.

Unfortunately, longing for some dated notion of sexual purity is creating a condition where many young Chinese are ill-prepared to face the realities of their own sexual activities. Many still don’t know about STDs and some even believe that AIDS can be spread by kissing.

My teacher friend once had a female student who didn’t know why she was menstruating until she got to college. He also used to complain about some of his male students turning to pornography to educate themselves sexually.

As mentioned above, China is in the middle of an elongated and rather quiet sexual revolution. A revolution that is a strange mix of the past, present and hope for the future, a revolution that influences the common person yet one which they rarely talk about. Maybe they want to save face, maybe they just didn’t grow up in an environment where sex was something people talked about. Whatever the reason, shying away seems a puerile effort – the sexual revolution in China lies in open view, for all to see.

Related Links
Language Lovers: The Pros and Cons of the Pillow Dictionary
The Chinese Virgin Complex (According to a Blogger)
The 8 Degrading Ways Chinese Police Battled Prostitution in 2010

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Keywords: Sex in China Sexual revolution China traditional sex China sex shops China hymen surgery China


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All they have in their mind is simply MONEY, MONEY, MONEY, and how to get RICH.

Aug 20, 2011 19:41 Report Abuse


david cornan

How about leeds united? Lost their opener and the next, so bloody sad!

Aug 18, 2011 17:39 Report Abuse



And you're sad David. I've watched my team Plymouth Argyle plummet from the Championship to the bottom regions of Division 2 and lose their latest game at home to Rotherham 1-4

Aug 18, 2011 17:44 Report Abuse



Chinese TV is a laugh [ in a way]. Plenty of violence and no sex. It makes it look like the Chinese were too busy killing each other to have time for sex. Some times they fight over women and then dont know how to go on from there, at least the communist [?] party prefers it that way. Western TV to my Chinese wife is a revelation.
Her pet hate is the show "Deadwood" in which every other word is a sex reference. I try to explain to her that the acting is good, but she will have none of it.
S.B.S. TV [ Australia] features the types of films that would make the communist[?]party collective hair stand on end.
Never has that famous phrase " dont talk about sex, politics or religion" been so apposite as in China, and never forget you can receive the death penalty for talking about 2 of those!

Aug 17, 2011 23:25 Report Abuse



Though I have to agree that "sex education" should be reserved for the appropriate setting (unless an “English teacher” is teaching context and the difference between clinical\proper and obscene\street vocabulary and language, which may touch on the private anatomy of men and women, and even the act of sex itself); I think there is a bigger picture being missed.

That bigger picture is China’s adoption of the capitalist economic model. In truth, it is the catalyst for this perceived new openness toward sex—a byproduct, if you will. As they say, the mo’ money, mo’ problems, and that’s definitely the case with China’s economic prosperity. With that, with regard to sex, it appears that “modern” Chinese are intent on mimicking the cultures of the west, including sexual expression (or exploitation) via the media that somehow but eventually crosses over to the mainstream, into society.

However, by some comments here, one may be misled to think there is a sexual revolution underway in China. I beg to differ, given the long history of China, which I’m pretty sure the culture has evolved to deal with sex and sexuality. It’s just that the current times and the capitalist model would present itself as the “new and improved” way, which is recognizable by some, as they have likely grown up in the same economic model in the west, and it is those individuals that speak of sexual revolution in China. Those and anyone who is unfamiliar with or unlearned of the history of China, or should I say the history of sex in China?

This is probably too deep for some, especially those who just want to be a part of the “sexual revolution” and score some with women—including Chinese men in China. It’s easier to just go with the flow of the times and label it however one wants in order to be comfortable. But I say look at it for what it is, because even though sexuality is being expressed more and more in China (because sex sells in the "free" market place), if one is really paying attention, one would see that the “moral” or conscientious woman who dresses sexy is mindful not to reveal to much or go too far--perhaps a result of cultural upbringing. Case in point, my girlfriend will don a bra with a bra-top shirt (which has built-in support) everytime, even though it doesn’t require it. In fact, the one time she went bra-less was in Hunan when she wore a maxi dress, and she did so because we were on vacation there and no one knew her. It took her some time to get comfortable, but in the end, she doesn't wear such clothes in her home city though she would like to. In fact, she gave up on bikinis because her parents scolded her. Apparently, it revealed some of her pubic hair at a bathhouse. (In her eagerness to try something new, she didn’t know to shave her bikini line.) Still, I enjoy shopping with and for my girlfriend, careful not to “dress” her as I would like, but being very mindful of her taste and style and culture, sometimes trying to compromise with her about certain styles. Any way, getting back to the subject, I think my girlfriend represents a majority of women in China, in that like any other woman in any other part of the world, they like to be admired for what they have on and how they are dressed rather than to feel sexy for the benefit of hungry eyes, especially for men they do not know. Though they I'm sure they would find such attention exhilirating and gives them affirmation of their beauty (both facially and body-wise). Still though, at some point, who likes to be looked at like a piece of meat?

But what will happen, probably down the road at some point, is that sexual harassment and women’s rights will come to the forefront of China’s social politics, and all because its society got carried away with emulating the west with it adopting the capitalist model, which a fraction of that problem would be the thought and action by some to talk about sex in a classroom setting.

Aug 15, 2011 05:41 Report Abuse



A kettle,teaching the pot how to look in the mirror? Ran out of ideas?

Aug 13, 2011 20:00 Report Abuse



Renren, your are such an angry young person. I think you need to fix up your grammar and spelling mistakes, wipe your mouth and look in the mirror and comb your hair!!

Aug 13, 2011 13:50 Report Abuse



alex,you need to rethink how much english you know,then you would have shame to ask others to fix up grammers,alex,shameless,i am also chinese,but i put my shame for you!go back home,i wish you will never go abroad!
rude shanghainess woman!you ashame being chinese educateless woman!dont make me lose face whist you ask other to fix up their grammers,how many english words u learnt?ignorant shanghainess woman

Aug 17, 2011 19:20 Report Abuse



How about, Fantasy you get some english lessons, I don't know what you are trying to say because it seems like dribble! Why are you attacking me? What have I done? Where is my grammar wrong?
Have you been taught by an American? Their english is actually, english second language for most of them. Have a look at their school system!
Maybe you want me to say it is okay for foreign teachers to teach sex and have it with their Chinese students? Is that what you want??Tell us all now, so we are informed!
You seem to be as low as some foreign teachers, that post here!

Aug 18, 2011 02:26 Report Abuse



" Despise" is a very pregnant word that intellectuals don't toss around arandomly! "Go back home" that you have turned into a weapon against those you disagree with shows you off as some despot,sitting on a throne and ordering people to get lost. If I don't like something,I will say "no" not "leave"."Leave" is not the same as "no" and it is condenscending.You talk as if China is the country that has or hasn't got professionals.You despise those who say they work as professionals,and you like those who do not make it known they are professionals.These are immature musings of a confused man. You will never succeed to give diktats to people online,whether you are at home or abroad! Sex is older than you,and the way people go about it cannot be dictated by you either.

Aug 13, 2011 06:17 Report Abuse



Ren Ren, I am not trying to shout anyone down at all. Your allowed your opinion. You seem to think I am not open to opinions at all. Please read what I write,don't start to put words into my mouth, which you have done here.
If you don't like something, normally you say "no" or "leave" don't you??
You seem to be a young guy that wants to control the World with your ideas, that's okay, but don't try and bust me with your uneducated rubbish!! I don't "vomit venom" you are just the people I despise who say you work as professionals in China!!
Maybe you don't understand what I mean!! I thought so!!

Aug 13, 2011 03:54 Report Abuse



Hold yourself together.Don't behave like some local tyrant.I've seen you salivating here on many topics with the same people you are now trying to shout down.Why would you debate other topics openly and vomit venom because the topic of discussion today is sex? Prostitution is the oldest profession,and I don't think it started in China.But Chinese are wont to abusing what ever new thing they learn.If it is homosexuality,many of them will flock into it.If it is keeping ernais,it becomes a favourite past time.If it is drinking,they compete for ostentation.If it is buying brand goods in other countries,only them matter.They have gone wild about sex because of the same way of doing things.This will change as the idea of being wealthy settles in after 20,30 years.They will become more refined in taste,and the choices they make,and above all they may cease to be too expansive.That idea of always asking people to go home when you disagree with them,makes some of you look small and pathetic.If we were to ask everybody to go home around the world,guess who will refuse to do so!

Aug 13, 2011 01:42 Report Abuse



Kelly, why do you have to be Chinese to "criticise " this article, or any article in this forum for that matter? I can not understand why you think you have the right to teach sex in China! There is not one company, any where that advertise for "sex teachers". If you get your jollies from talking about sex, maybe you should rethink your profession

Aug 12, 2011 19:40 Report Abuse



Actually, I have to agree with Alex here. As much as I rack my brains I cannot think of any university or post grad prof. who discussed sex in class unless it was related directly to the material on hand (i.e. rape in Criminal law, incest in Hamlet, etc.).
For oral English, I do not see how the topic is relevant. Do we talk about sex in Spanish class back in the US? Nope, so why must we do so here in China? I can see it already: "Okay Class, today we will discuss which are the best and worst sex positions and why.....". Pow! Back to the West!

Aug 14, 2011 05:06 Report Abuse



The pressure put on gay men to marry women is especially sad, and it's something I hope can change in the near future. There are so many stories of women stuck in marriages with husbands who have no interest in them and who end up going out and sleeping with boys on the side (often without condoms), not to mention boyfriends who fall in love with men, only to have their hearts broken when their partners have to cave in to pressure to fulfill their "filial duty."

There was a video posted online some time ago in which, following a wedding, the groom's boyfriend shows up, prompting the wife to fly into a rage. Watching it, I felt sorry for the boyfriend and the wife, though not for the man.

I've met a lot of guys Chinese guys who've married women under pressure from parents. While not formalized under any ancient philosophy, this phenomenon used to be common in the West also. It's not going to change in China until enough brave gay men (and lesbians) are willing to prioritize their own well-being over adherence to tradition.

Aug 12, 2011 12:47 Report Abuse



The sexual education mingled with chinese cultural hiritage is utmost important in Chinese socities and class room. I am current working in Dubai. Also I have worked in Baharin, Qatar, Malayisa, Oman and Malaysia, KL. There are 1000 of chinese ladies from main land china working here are sex workers mainly from Dalian and Beijing. Some mafia's trafficking women from China giving them falls promises to give job in UAE and elsewhere and finalishing pushing them to sex trade. In UAE itself more than 100,000 chinese women are doing this trade. Most of them are coming here on visit visa and absounding from authorites and doing this business. Almost all chinese ladies do this business with out proper protection and with all people, So these women will carry HIV back to China and spread accross the country. Chinese authority in UAE know about all this chinese flesh trade happening here. If they are not acting HIV will became big problem in China in coming years. Women are the foundation stone of family and hence the culture. So the great chinese culture will wheather away in due course. Most of the chinese ladies coming to Duabi and UAE is for this flesh trade and even they are hooking their pray from street side. So chinese are being look down by other nationalities. So my humble request to the authorities is the mafia or the women brokers operating inside china and in Duabi should be caught and punished, other wise it will became a nautral disaster to chinese socities.
Thank you.

Aug 12, 2011 06:46 Report Abuse


Mr. Martel

In 2 years, I've never once brought up the subject of sex whilst teaching. I've talked to Chinese friends individually on the topic here and there, and received some interesting responses.

However, to my mind, openly discussing sex is such a cultural taboo and is regarded as an intensely private matter, and so little is achieved by discussing it openly in a setting such as the classroom. Frankly, a lot of students back home would be embarrassed by such a discussion also.

I prefer to teach my students to think openly and critically about all topics, and may hint once or twice that such an approach can also be applied to how we view sex, romance, dating or marriage. But beyond that, I don't think I have the mandate, either contractually or in some higher moral sense, to discuss the topic with my students. And nor, to be honest, do I want to.

Aug 12, 2011 04:41 Report Abuse



I would just like to say, if you are a foreign English teacher, there a lot of topics you can talk about . I have not seen a job advertisment wanting someone to teach sex any where in China etc. You foreign people who think it is your right to do this, you aren't teachers you are rubbish. I have seen contracts finish because of this way of thinking. If you think you are a teacher, grow up and stop being a charlatan, otherwise go back home!!

Aug 12, 2011 02:13 Report Abuse



hey Alex, i guest you are a chinese that is why you are criticising this topic and it importance, it is good to educate younger once about sexual behavour not to keep in silence to see them do wrong things.....

Aug 12, 2011 06:33 Report Abuse



This topic is very useful in the current situation and every one should about this. I am also working and staying in china for last 2 years and I could see the really pathetic situation here. And the sad thing is that nobody can understand the real issue however i tried my best to convice them about the consequances.But nobody want to hear and they want to prove that their modern trend is good. And says that we should respect all culture !! I want to ask to all chinese young generation , is it a good culture?? sex in the public place, class room, even infront of their parents! What a good culture. Then dear all, let me ask you one thing. Then what's the difference between Animals and Human beings? Amny girls who I discussed about this matter, says that they have to be more sexual to attract boys to them! That means here the Love is nothing but its an affection to the flesh or naked body or sex. There is no sincere love between couples too; its only acting for getting something both are really needed. Then here i want to say to all the girls are blind about the sexual and to be sexy. To be sexy in looking is doesn't mean that complete nude or expose your assets. If girls can wear suiatble with enough cloths also can be sexy in that real meaning. See the Indian girls how sexy they are however they are not exposing anything as chinese girls who wear even the under garments [the mordern sexy cloths!!] only. I understand that its not only girl's problem, but its the fault of chinese govt that prmoting the premarital sex and sex business here. Its really ashamed to the total human culture of the world I feel. I can only conclude like this, Every thing should have the enough discipline and should have the respect to the society. And the people should behave themselves... [dear chinese friends, Don't be angry by read this. I like china and chinese people very much, but I am really against the things those are really worst and un natural, Just think ask yourself as a man, not a chinese or indian or american. We all should be a Human Being ultimately]

Aug 12, 2011 00:09 Report Abuse



What a crock! Is the auther of this inane topic so divoid of excitement and challenge in his life that he has to revert to a 'second-hand' story about sex! Jesus man, sex is not even discussed in western universities! There are enough topics to discuss in a universtity classroom other than the 'self gratifying' and generaly private topic of sex. Sex obsessed, and possibly sex starved FOREIGN teachers are not showing any respect to students in China. Get a life 'author'!!..also your so called 'friend'!

Aug 11, 2011 21:39 Report Abuse



Chinese students might not be discussing it in the classrooms but I am observing it from 2 years with my own eyes that they kiss, hug and.... in the school, public bus, parks and almost everywhere. Moreover, a hell lot of chinese girls come at our university's foreign students' dorm for sexual realtions especially with africans becasue.... (YOU know what I mean).

So if someone says that we don't want to talk about sex in the classroom, shit on you, you should not do it publicly also.

Aug 11, 2011 20:23 Report Abuse


Sean Patrick Sarto

Not only that...The sex with "little brothers" syndrome creates nothing but a dynamic where the young men land a "ripe" one, marry quickly, have their babies and build up a secure foundation with their wives (Chinese companies encourage this dynamic, because a young family guarantees them a steady workforce).... Once the "obligation" of the ripe one is met they, then drop their wives for younger women, tired of their wife's anatomy...It is a pretty crude perspective...I think it is pretty dysfunctional in terms of commitments, basically extortion...The pathetic “What else can you do?” complex..The older women then are free to troll for sex...Married or not. (It seems the husband feels "she deserves her pleasures" as does the wife, so extramarital affairs have no consequence).The younger women act all in control before they lose their virginity...but once it is gone...they are "damaged goods". This is just more "emperor" complex which is nothing short of pimping...But there is a great deal of denial, if not contrivance, on the woman's part also...It is endemic of a culture that encourages a commodity of human goods...Truly a Marxism based on "labor".(i.e.sex).

Aug 11, 2011 19:14 Report Abuse



I can't say it is that much different in the capitalism of the West...In my view though, the main difference is, in the West, the "little brother" syndrome is not so prominent.

Aug 11, 2011 19:21 Report Abuse



Sean, let's talk about the money.

Jun 08, 2015 19:52 Report Abuse