From The Introduction, Behind the Red Door: Sex in China

Every year, thousands of Chinese women pay for an operation to restore their hymens shortly before their wedding so that husbands can see blood on the sheets on their honeymoon night. Brides-to-be who cannot afford the 4,400 yuan operation (about $700) can walk into one of China’s 200,000 sex shops or go online to buy a cheap artificial hymen that seeps artificial blood when punctured. Although the percentage of Chinese women who engage in premarital sex has skyrocketed in urban areas from 15 percent in 1990 to more than 50 percent in 2010, conservative attitudes toward sex, even in big cities like Shanghai, remain largely intact. To most Chinese people, virginity matters, and husbands look forward to their wedding night when they can deflower their young virgin brides. For some husbands, the absence of blood on the sheets can be grounds for divorce.

It has become a tired cliché that China is a “land of contradictions,” but it is only a cliché because there is so much truth to it. China has cities that sparkle with new wealth and villages that struggle with dire poverty; it is encouraging reforms while often turning a blind eye to corruption; it is allowing new freedom of expression while tightening control of its Internet. The contradictions related to sex in contemporary China are just as dramatic. Opposing forces always appear to be pulling at each other. Looking at a Chinese newspaper one day you might get the impression China is as sexually liberated as Sweden, and the next you might think China is actively engaged in sexual repression.

In 2009, authorities launched a 15-day crackdown on the huge prostitution business in the southern China manufacturing hub of Dongguan. Hundreds of arrested prostitutes were marched down the street tied to a leash, their photographs broadcasted throughout the country. Others sat on the sidewalk, their heads in their hands, weeping. The raids were major national news. And yet, any man in China seeking sex-for-sale can probably find it within walking distance, be it at a karaoke bar, barber shop or massage parlor. Most of the brothels busted in “strike hard” campaigns as in Dongguan are back in business a few weeks or even days later, though they may have changed their address.

There are now gay bars in most of China’s first and second-tier cities, and usually a bathhouse or two as well. In 2009 a gay male couple held a symbolic wedding a few blocks from Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and a photograph of the two men in a passionate embrace was splashed across the front page of China’s largest newspapers, all mouthpieces of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Other gay and lesbian marriages across the country followed, and were covered positively. But until relatively recently gay bars and establishments were frequently shut down with no notice. In 2009 police raided a popular “gay park” in Beijing and detained eighty men. A similar park in Guangzhou was raided three times the next year and a hundred men were also arrested. Bathhouses are frequently shut down during major national events such as the annual National People’s Congress or the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

Weddings in China are nearly as sacred and revered an event today as they were in ancient times. While many of the rituals, such as being carried to the wedding ceremony in a sedan chair, have been updated, vestiges of traditions that date back two-thousand years remain intact, including the selection of an auspicious wedding date by a feng shui master and the bountiful all-night wedding feast with foods selected for their association with good luck. For most Chinese, even homosexuals, the very idea of not marrying is incomprehensible; a child’s primary obligation to their family is the provision of offspring within wedlock. But at the same time, divorce rates have soared in China since the 1990s, with infidelity being the most common reason for separation. Hundreds of thousands of wealthy Chinese men keep “second wives” (ernais), a throwback to the practice of concubinage, and millions of married Chinese men of all social strata pay for sex on a regular basis.

For most of the past 100 years, talking about sex in public in China has been taboo. Still, in 2004 a healthcare website distributed postcards that were displayed in bars and restaurants across the country telling men and women there was no problem with masturbation. The Chinese expression for autoeroticism is “shooting planes,” and the front of the postcard features a large anti-aircraft gun pointing at a plane in the sky. Directly above, the text reads: “If you shoot planes too often, will your barrel get blocked?” Flip to the other side, and it says, “Of course not; both men and women can masturbate. It is normal and does no harm.”

Are the Chinese hyper-shy about sex or surprisingly liberal? As the expression goes: It’s complicated. The story of sex in China, from thousands of years ago to today, is an astonishing one. No society has swung more dramatically from extreme sexual openness to prudish orthodoxy and then to the sexually ambiguous atmosphere we see at present. This transformation has gone back and forth many times, and there is no single clear trajectory leading from sexual openness to sexual repression and back to relative openness. Even within the same imperial dynasties, China’s attitudes toward sex kept shifting. And during some of the most sexually repressive periods, Chinese artists created some of the most sexually graphic art and literature. These contradictions have been there throughout China’s sexual history, and they are alive and well today.

There is no arguing that China is in the midst of a sexual revolution, the beginnings of which can be traced back to the start of Deng Xiaoping’s policy of “reform and opening up” in the early 1980s. However, it did not really take off and become a true “revolution” until the 1990s. The initial opening only lifted the dark curtain of repressed sexual expression that fell over China from the Communist victory in 1949 through the late 1970s. It took several more years before sex education was introduced in China’s classrooms and many biology teachers today are still so squeamish on the subject that they skip it all together.

But the changes underway are palpable. Today in China’s cities you will see public displays of affection that would have been unthinkable as recently as ten years ago, let alone during the time of Mao. Young Chinese couples are holding hands, walking arm in arm, and they may even enjoy a brief kiss. But as is always the case when discussing sex in China, there are qualifiers. Public displays of affection are still rare in China’s smaller towns and villages, and even in the big international cities like Beijing and Shanghai many young couples refrain from touching one another. Still, the ice has certainly broken and more Chinese young people are rejecting the long-held tradition of keeping their affections to themselves outside of their homes.

China’s sexual revolution is real, but what kind of sexual revolution is it? It is tempting to look at China and conclude it is going through the same type of sexual revolution that swept the United States and much of Europe starting half a century ago. In the West, sexual expression was tightly repressed before and during the Victorian period, followed by a loosening up as people gained new political freedoms and societies liberalized. This process was a slow one, and it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that we saw the bubble burst, with young people suddenly “doing their own thing” and shedding many of the sexual inhibitions of their parents. Entertainment became increasingly risqué, and nudity and language that would have been considered obscene just a few years earlier became widely accepted. Co-ed dorms opened at universities, young people started having sex earlier, and erotica was everywhere. The door was opened for people in the West to express their sexuality as they saw fit. Openly gay bars proliferated after decades of operating in secret. Pornography and books that had been banned became available to anyone who wanted them. Sex clubs, mainly underground but well known to the public, became a regular feature of major Western cities, at least until the advent of AIDS in the 1980s. These changes were part of an overall movement of political and cultural liberalism, a willingness to challenge authority and traditional societal norms that suddenly seemed passé. It was a revolution fought on several fronts, and it swept through Europe and the United States at roughly the same time (although Europe tended to be more open-minded about sex earlier than the United States).

According to the popular narrative, China has generally followed this same course, the key difference being that it was a couple of generations late to the party. How tempting it is to chart China’s sexual revolution as if it paralleled that of the West. For the past thirty years, so the story goes, after a quarter century of a sexual blackout under Mao, the world was witnessing a long-overdue opening up of Chinese sexual freedom, growing in tandem with the economy and the slow but steady loosening of control over citizens’ private lives.

But was it really this simple? Matthew H. Sommer, in his book Sex, Law and Society in Late Imperial China cautions us: “This ideal of erotic liberation has influenced some historical studies of sex in China, which seem to assume that the only important story is one of a struggle between individual freedom and narrow-minded repression.” But China is not the West, where individual freedom has long been highly prized, and Sommer and other historians argue that such assumptions in regard to China are simplistic. Neither China’s creeping sexual repression under the Qing nor the country’s gradual unfolding of personal liberties in the late twentieth century follows the more linear model seen in the West.