sexuality and behaviour


sexuality and behaviour
Chinese have long been perceived as prudish about sex, a judgment at odds with the culture’s rich textual history of erotica and pornography, but very strictly in keeping with the administered sexual Puritanism of the Chinese Communist Party. Although the Chinese revolution was led by early twentieth-century advocates of free love, it produced revolutionary masses poorly informed about sex and tethered to conventional domestic arrangements brokered by lineage heads, parents or cadres. However, since the 1980s and particularly in Chinese cities, this post-revolutionary sexual repressiveness has given way to sexual licence, as young people experiment with public displays of affection, public trysts, premarital sex, same-sex alliances and self-gratification, while sex education lags troublingly behind sexual awareness. The magnitude of these cultural effects is so great as to constitute a revolution in national attitude and habit.
In contemporary China, as in the broad stream of global media in which the country wades, sex has a distinct and expanding currency. All of the nation’s urban centres have hostess bars, massage parlours, ‘barber shops’, karaoke lounges, singles’ bars, while out in the rural points of transit between Yunnan and Myanmar, or in the exotic sites of tourism in minority nationality autonomous regions, commercial sex availability is public and polymorphous. Cash is king and sex is its servant, an attitude ironically bound up with local politics. In 1999, the mayor of Shenyang, Mu Suixin, encouraged the development of prostitution in order to combat unemployment of laid-off workers of state-owned enterprises as well as the migrant labour force of an economically depressed countryside. His 30 per cent tax on Shenyang’s new sex trade has been a boon to the city’s economy (luxuriously fed by the nightwork of the city’s more than 5,000 ‘places of entertainment’) and has inspired other mayors and regional officials to mimic the practice.
In certain locales, such as the hyper-urbanized enclaves of the south and southeast coast (Hainan, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Shenzhen and other Special Economic Zones) and the northern capital, Beijing, sex is both inescapable and profitable. A cultural revolution of sexual commodities is visible everywhere: risqué clothing styles, brazenly displayed tattoos, pin-up calendars, women’s fashion magazines, supermodel contests, pornographic books, magazines and videotapes, notices for private clinics treating sexually transmitted diseases, national anti-HIV/AIDS campaigns, prostitution, sex slavery, condom promotion, breast enhancement advertisements, along with a proliferation of visual images of the body, clad and scantily clad, strewn throughout the commercial blandishments of the new urban streetscape.
There are other ways to assess the changing and more open character of China’s sexual climate from novel sex education programmes in schools, to radical legal guarantees of reproductive freedom, to the scientific study of sexual relations, to the commercial pathology of sex work and, unfortunately, the grisly epidemiology of sexually transmitted disease. In the Haidian district of western Beijing, not far from Peking and Qinghua universities, sex education books have been introduced into the middle school classroom, and in Jilin province in northeast China in 2002, the provincial government passed a law ensuring the right of single women of legal marriageable age to bear a child.
The prominence of the changes of sexual attitude in official public life became widely evident since the late 1980s with a newfound scientific pursuit of sexual knowledge and sexual practice that culminated in the first national survey, the ‘Sex Civilization Survey’, which was conducted from February 1989 to April 1990. Since then seminars and conferences on sexuality and contemporary sexual problems have been convened as the subject of sex and reproductive health has become professionalized. Now there are a number of centres for sex research in Beijing, Heilongjiang, Shanghai, Shaoguan and Shenzhen and increasing numbers of scientists with degrees in sexology. One of the most celebrated of these sexologists, one of the authors of the national sex survey, Liu Dalin, startled government officials in Shanghai when in November of 2000 he opened China’s first sex museum.
The most commonly discussed and the most salient of these indices of behavioural change is the astonishing growth in prostitution in the era since the reforms. According to the World Health Organization, China has the largest commercial sex workforce in the world, with an estimated 10 million men and women so employed—more than 300,000 in the city of Beijing alone. Yet commercial sex availability is not simply an urban problem, and its rapid expansion cannot be explained as a sudden escalation of public desire. The burgeoning market for commercial sex is evident in the perverse plurality of its offerings as displayed in the voluminous records of police blotters. There have been hundreds of thousands of arrests of men and women in the official ‘Hard Strike Campaigns’, numerous national scandals involving children in the sex trade, solicitations of underage sex (under fourteen years of age), involuntary sexual servitude, and kidnapping.
In 2001, Yunnan’s provincial government uncovered a prostitution ring operating in Kunming that was composed of high-school girls, some as young as thirteen and many of whom had been introduced to the flesh trade by older teenagers. The girls admitted that they prostituted themselves voluntarily because of the glamour and the inordinate compensation in wealth and power they received from their clients. However, one learns from the research of Pan Suiming, a scholar who has conducted fieldwork among urban prostitutes, from streetwalkers to call girls, that the work may seem glamorous but it is certainly not easy and often not as remunerative as one might presume looking at the figures indicating that commercial sex work generates between 6 and 12 per cent of China’s annual GDP. According to Pan, a woman working an average ‘barber shop’ solicitation post every day will be engaged by one client every four days.
In recent years escort services and the like have become more common manifestations of sex work as the government’s ‘Regulations on the Management of Places of Entertainment’ attempt to restrict the otherwise unabashed traffic in flesh. Escort or ‘leisure’ services of the ‘Mayflower Madam’ sort have sprung up, so that enterprising women can find work as ‘swim companions’ or ‘theatre companions’ of this new pornography lite. Private agencies in larger cities offer employment for $40–70 a month for women who can work as housekeepers, yet the women (and girls) who have answered such ads have been coerced into commercial sex trafficking. In this light it makes little sense to assess the sexual revolution in terms of sex or individual empowerment. Rather, it is better to recognize China’s sex industry as a capitalist pathology consequent upon economic scarcity and social jeopardy than to see it as voluntary election; and given the mutual entailment of commercial sex and official sponsorship of the entertainment industry through hotels, restaurants and so forth, it is unlikely that national campaigns to prosecute prostitutes and their clients will turn back the tide of vice in which many cities are awash.
For more than a decade prostitution and sexual transhumance has been rampant in the sites of illicit transit of drugs and people, such as Ruili in the southwest where young women in their early teens from Burma and even Nepal offer themselves for an entire day’s pleasure for a few dollars; there the incidence of HIV/AIDS can be read on the small, emaciated bodies of transit point traffickers. It is also at these flesh conduits and truck stops that a high percentage of migrant sex workers and the lowest echelon of prostitution is found, along with intravenous drug use and an elevated transmissibility of sexually transmitted disease (see HIV/AIDS and STIs).
Today sex and sexuality are front-and-centre, boldly displayed in billboards, magazines, on film and television, and in forms of dress, but because it is still not easily spoken of, sex stands on the edge of Chinese social life. A more liberal sexual attitude is found among high school and college-age youth (something documented in the Sex Civilization Survey). In 2000 UNESCO reported that studies conducted in Beijing and Shanghai disclosed that 50 to 85 per cent of women interviewed at premarital checkups had experienced sexual intercourse. The sexual liberation of Chinese youth is stridently proclaimed throughout the pulp fiction that passes as the standard of contemporary literary craft read by China’s GenX and GenY adults. Works such as Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby (Shanghai Baobei), Hong Ying’s Summer of Betrayal (Luowudai) and Mianmian’s La la la (see Beauties’ Literature) are populated with pseudo-biographical figures of prominent sexual bearing and interests whose self-gratification is paramount and whose identity is indissociable from sex. Of course, this addictive conjuncture of sex and commerce may not represent the actual lives of its readers, but the salience of the effects of this pulp is gauged by its overweening popularity.
In the countryside, the sexual atmosphere is less thick yet perhaps more real, in that there sex is more immediately about life choices and is not so easily commoditized as a product of natural desire. Since 2002 the government has moved to interdict the growth of strip shows in the rural towns of Shanxi, Hebei and Zhejiang. Like the age of marriage, the incidence of first sexual intercourse occurs three years earlier among village couples than urban ones. The ideal of romantic love and its presumption of sexual parity are communicated to rural China via film, television and the frequent movement of family members to regional capitals for both legitimate and illegitimate work. The chief consequence of this infusion of sexual knowledge is a refunctioning of traditional marriage practices so that the union of the rural couple may be predicated on love, but accomplished through a deliberative process involving family and friends.
Population density and crowded living conditions make it difficult for such comparatively permissive attitudes to be realized across the nation, although a more mobile rural population and the omnipresence of television have made the practices of China’s sexual revolution familiar. Most Chinese, including urban residents, still rely upon a go-between (zhongjianren), usually friends rather than official matchmakers, to negotiate the early phases of dating, and marriage is still arranged in much of rural China, with women moving to live with their husband’s families. At the same time the countryside in the provinces of Guizhou, Sichuan and Yunnan is the site of the new sexual predation on girls and young women who are abducted and either sold into sexual slavery or bought by men in search of a wife. (This phenomenon was the focus of government attention from the mid 1980s to early 1990s, when an investigation led to the shutting down of a national kidnapping and slavery racket operating in Shandong and Jiangxi (see Xie and Tan 1989)). Highly publicized figures from the 2000 ‘Hard Strike Campaign’ revealed that women drawn into the dark commerce of sexual enslavement by aggressive brokers and kidnappers were conveyed like currency along the backroads of China’s drug trade to Burma and Thailand, on to Malaysia and Singapore, and sometimes as far as Italy, Mexico and the United States—integers in the global calculation of sex. One of the kingpins of such a trade operated out of Guangxi (where he was executed in 2002), abducting and selling more than a hundred women for as much—or as little—as $125 to $375 per person.
In most parts of the country intimacy is still regulated by customs of restraint and repression, but there are signs of the advancing incidence of premarital sex. Yet, as Harriet Evans has noted in fieldwork on women and the sexual culture of Beijing, although extramarital and premarital sex are increasing, choosing not to marry or to have a male lover is considered abnormal. Even with the sexual liberation of the 1990s it is common for patrons of Beijing singles’ bars to register with the house if they are actively seeking a marriage partner. On matters of sex, attitudes and behaviour have changed perhaps forever; however, at this juncture it is not clear whether such change will be especially advantageous to the nation and its women, who have long held up more than half of the sky while receiving recognition for far less.
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LIONEL M.JENSEN

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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