Sex and the Single Chinese

A conservative country, still inhibited by the 1949 revolution, starts a sexual one

china-coupleIn China, the first time a man and woman are likely to kiss is at age 23, according to Pan Sui-ming, director of the Institute of Sexuality and Gender at Renmin University, who says that “Chinese are still some of the most conservative people in the world.”

But don’t expect that to last much longer. Driven by China’s opening to the west and the flourishing of western ideas, as well as a flood of communication by cellphone, social websites and instant messaging, Chinese youth are finding unprecedented access to each other, with the anonymity of online conversation emboldening youngsters to be much freer than if they were interacting in person, and it’s freaking out older teachers who are supposed to teach sex education but get embarrassed by questions.

Pan says a survey completed by the university in 2007 found that roughly two-thirds of people contacted believe premarital sex is now “acceptable.” In addition, increasing wealth for the middle class has led to new attitudes, healthier diets and higher standards of living that have pushed children to earlier puberty. Chinese girls are now entering puberty at 11 years old, almost two full years earlier than in the past.

Take Jo Xue and her boyfriend, who decided to consummate their relationship. Then in their first year of college in Tianjin, just south of Beijing, the couple thought about spending the night together in their dormitory. But Chinese dormitories are separated by gender and under strict curfews. Also, given the sheer number of students at university, most dormitories have six people living in each room, which hardly allows for privacy.

“We had nowhere to be alone,” said Xue, 24. “And a hotel was too expensive.” So she decided to call the number on one of the advertisements often found hanging on walls near universities around China. It was for a one-night motel, where rooms can be rented for two hours at a time for 40 yuan or for 80 for the entire night. Extended stays are not allowed.

“I called and a man said he had a room for us,” Xue said. “But when we got there the man acted very shy to us, like he was running an illegal business. It made me feel weird. But, actually, I felt very excited because we were going to spend the entire night together.”

The popularity of these one-night rooms and the overall acceptance of their existence (a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Health said they were a police issue) embodies the sexual awakening in the world’s most populous country.

“I've heard about rooms like this and I think they are kind of popular in China, especially in big cities,” said Zhenyu Liu, a 23-year-old senior at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. “Well, I don't go against it. It just fits the natural needs of young people only if it's clean enough. I think if the couple are satisfied with their relationship, nobody has the right to blame them for having a sex affair, so I accept it. However, I don't go there. I treat love seriously.”

This willingness to accept the reality of sex and discuss it is a far cry from China’s conservative history.

“When I was young there wasn’t really dating,” said Sun Zhi Lan, a 51-year-old mother of a 25-year-old girl who is dating a foreigner. “No one held hands or kissed before marriage. We could choose our own partners but most couples were introduced by their parents.”

Today, Wang Cong, 24, said young Chinese are getting married later – in their late 20s or early 30s – and it is far more likely for them to have had more than one romantic interest along the way. Wang said young people now express their love more freely by holding hands in the park or kissing on a crowded bus. He said students even dare to have one-night stands or make friends with people on the Internet.

“Sex is no longer a humiliating word,” Wang said. “Boys and girls can talk about this when they are together. The divorce rate is climbing up. However, although the youth get more open, most of them still think it over before they have sex.”

But of all the young people interviewed for this story only Xue was willing to discuss her own sexual activity. And her boyfriend is now her fiancé. So does a change in attitude necessarily mean a change in behavior?

"Those who are tolerant toward premarital sex might not actually do it themselves," Pan told local media. "They just have an open mind."

But others believe these opened minds are leading to more open behavior.

“The past 20 years have seen much more liberal sexual behavior, both heterosexual and homosexual,” wrote Robin Visser, an assistant professor in Chinese culture at the University of North Carolina, via e-mail. “Since then, especially in the 21st century, having multiple sexual partners prior to and after marriage has become far more prevalent, both in urban and rural areas.”

Nonetheless, “while physical maturity keeps advancing, girls, as a vulnerable group, are still immature psychologically,” Huang Hong from the Shanghai No. 2 Medical University was quoted as saying in Medical News Today.

Without proper education this immaturity mixed with the emerging openness toward sexual behavior can lead to disastrous results.

A hotline for pregnant teens, which was launched in 2005 in Shanghai, handled 11,000 calls its first year – 47 percent of which involved girls having their first abortion, 35 percent having their second and 18 percent having had three or more, according to research by the Washington Post.

China Daily reported that Beijing officially registered 973 new HIV/AIDS cases in the first 10 months of 2007, up 53.71 percent from the previous year. To combat this risky behavior Chinese authorities have implemented sexual education classes in the schools. The problem, however, is that teachers assigned to instruct these courses are often of the older generation and are uncomfortable publicly approaching such a subject.

“When it comes to the class for sex and puberty, the teacher always asks us to review the book without any guidance. When some classmates want to raise questions, the teacher’s face turns red,” Yao Liang, a middle school student, told China.org.

“Some schools say they have sex education classes but how many of them actually have them, I am not sure,” said a former middle school teacher who currently works at an educational newspaper for senior high school students.

In the United States, many parents believe it is not the schools’ job to teach sex education, believing the duty falls on them although between every parent and child is a generational gap. But in modern China that gap seems more like a canyon. Thirty years ago, China was a different world.

Zang Na, a 20-year-old student at MinZu University said she did not feel she was taught anything about sexual education while at school. But she said she had never even broached the subject at home.

“They [her parents] are not capable of talking about it,” Na said. “They even forbid boys to approach me.”

In the West, besides schools and families, religious organizations are a major influence on sexual attitudes. But in China, where organized religion is not frowned upon but perhaps not encouraged, support from these groups is not often sought. In most religions sex is for the purpose of procreation and not an act done casually. In China, with its One Child Policy, a government restriction limits the amount of children a couple can have.

So where should curious teens turn to for advice? In the end, the subject is best addressed within the family.

“In my family, my parents don’t talk about sex directly, but we talk about relationships, marrige and sex before marrige,” said Lucy Li, a 24-year-old student at Beijing Foreign Affairs University. “I believe that the parents and the children still have something in common to talk about. Just because people have different opinions doesn’t mean they can’t communicate.”

And what affect will this more open society have on a modernizing China?

“I think it will cause, and already has caused, the Chinese to rethink the basis and purpose of marriage, fidelity, intimacy, family, and other traditional norms under socialism and earlier ethical systems,” Visser wrote.

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