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?

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. 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? 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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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


Sean, let's talk about the money.

Jun 08, 2015 19:52 Report Abuse