Why you should care
Sexual liberation in China sounds like fun.
As a sociologist at China’s Sun-yat Sen University, Yu Xinpei is used to dishing out advice — but not on what you might expect. One of the most popular questions she gets asked: How often should people masturbate? “It depends on your need,” she’ll say. “If you want to, just do it.” And she’s just getting warmed up. Yu’s research on sexual behavior took an odd public turn a few years ago when she went to the Chinese blogging site, Weibo, to offer 10,000 yuan (around $1,610) for the best video of female self-pleasure. “I assured them it was for research,” she recently said to the august halls of the Brookings Institution, the D.C. think tank that typically hosts staid talks on taxation or foreign policy. “But if they want to use it for porn, I congratulate them.”
Welcome to a new era in China’s sexual revolution, where sexperts like Yu — the Chinese call her “the masturbation professor” — are both charting and leading the stop-and-go process of liberating what was once one of the most sexually repressed societies in the world. These days, it’s mostly a go as far as premarital sex is concerned, and having multiple partners or being openly gay is gaining traction — not to mention prostitution, pornography and masturbation contests reported through national media as the ultimate safe sex, photos and all.
Between widespread availability of porn and open discussions about sex on the Internet, the Maoist view of sex has collapsed.
But the issues can play out in surprising ways. In Hong Kong, points out Guo Xiaofei, a scholar of political science and law at China University, someone’s marriage status depends strictly on gender at birth. Meanwhile, in China, a sex-change operation can lead to legal marriage with a partner of the opposite sex, although a married man or woman is barred from a sex-change operation on the grounds that it would violate the country’s marriage law.
While such a sexual transformation might seem to resemble the 1960s liberation in the West, China is following its own path. Differences reflect not just the harsh revolutionary reforms of the puritanical Communists, but also a rich history going back thousands of years when China was arguably the most sexually liberated place on planet Earth. Take gay marriage, for instance. Although homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997, prospects for gay marriage remain uncertain. At the same time, Li Yinhe, one of the country’s leading sexologists, who works at the Academy of Social Sciences, cites survey research that 70 to 80 percent of Chinese have no opinion on the subject, unlike until recently in the U.S., where opinion was split and polarized.
Indeed, same-gender sex was once considered a normal, unexceptional part of sex life in China, writes Richard Burger in his book Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, much the way it was in ancient Greece or pre-Christian Rome. Never was it seen as immoral, until the Communists banned it as a depraved import from the West.
Other attitudes toward sex waxed and waned through the dynasties. Taoists, for example, raised sex to a high art. They published detailed prescriptive manuals on how a man should bring a women to the point of multiple orgasms, while delaying ejaculation as long as possible. The idea was to grab as much female “yin” power as possible, for the benefit of the man, naturally. Confucianists supported sex as a means of procreation, sanctioned polygamy and never saw sex as sinful.
In 1949, Communists put a swift kibosh on whatever remained of these traditions by introducing strict monogamy and sex inside the bedroom only, as well as banning pornography, crushing widespread prostitution and criminalizing both homosexuality and adultery — sometimes with the death penalty. “Under Mao, even talking about sex was taboo,” Burger tells OZY.
But these days, points out Li, between relaxed laws, lax enforcement, widespread availability of pornography and open discussions about sex on the Internet, the Maoist view of sexuality has largely collapsed. “China has become much more open-minded in the past few years,” says Burger. Yet this movement toward a progressively freewheeling atmosphere has also had its downsides. As much of China’s economy has privatized, reports of workplace discrimination and sexual harassment have also been on the rise. Wang Zheng, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Michigan, says she arrived in the U.S. in the mid-1980s proud of her home country’s egalitarianism, but that young women now grow up in a different world. “They soon discover that this world is absolutely male-dominated,” she says. “The men discriminate, openly treat women as sex objects. That was not my experience.”
A high-profile debate popped up late last year with the public “outing” of Li, whose status as a fellow at the Academy of Social Sciences puts her squarely in the Chinese elite. Viciously accused of being homosexual, Li shot back on Weibo that, no, her husband was not a woman — but an “extremely typical transsexual, born a woman with the psychology of a man.” She went on to say that, in any case, heterosexuals and homosexuals are equals. (No surprise she’s already been on the record calling for the legalization of prostitution, pornography and gay marriage.) And when asked recently if her friends in high places were put off by the revelation, she said, no — they already knew.