China’s Sexual Revolution – Liberating or Destructive?

A chinese worker assembling what is becoming a very popular purchase in China.

Although it is a somewhat underground subject, even here in Britain, the sexual nature and openness of Chinese people has vastly changed through the generations, and has thrown up many positives, and sadly, caused many problems.

Sexual intercourse was traditionally considered dangerous for men, since they lost semen, which was identified as a man’s “yáng-essence” and was thought to be a non-renewable resource necessary for life. Nowadays, young people in China are indulging in their first sexual experience far earlier than their peers did.  One survey even claimed the average Chinese person could have up to 19.3 sexual partners. Research published by Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences showed that people born in the 1980’s have sex for the first time at an average age of 21 while in comparison, men and women born in the 1970’s had their first sex at an average age of 23, while the average age for people born in the 1960’s or 1950’s was 25 for men and 23 for women. If this trend continues, the people born in the 1990’s are likely to be engaging around the age of 18, and who knows, if this revolution continues this figure may continue to fall.

The following are two seperate data charts, showing a contrast in opinion on the age teenagers lose their virginity. (The first was published early than the second)

Sr. Number Country Average Age to Lose Virginity
1 United States 16.4
2 Brazil 16.5
3 France 16.8
4 Germany 17.6
5 Australia 17.8
6 Austria 17.9
7 Nigeria 19.7
8 Japan 19.7
9 Thailand 20.5
10 Hong Kong 20.5
11 Taiwan 21.4
12 China 21.9
13 India 22
14 Singapore 22.8
15 Malaysia 23

These contrasts in generations have a negative impact on the sexual revolutionaries of todays China. Rather than feeling liberated, they feel more trapped than ever before. An article written by Pete Marchetto for eChinacities.com states;

Parents are increasingly bowing to the inevitable. Five years ago the common parental instruction was: “You’re not to have a boyfriend until you’ve finished your studies.” Now, aware they will only be lied to, many parents have changed the rule. “Yes, you can date him, but if you do you must marry him.”

This view does not fit with the society the current generation live in, with girls now focusing on building careers and try to avoid the parental pressure towards early marriage and the obligatory grandchild for as long as they possibly can. This pressure can become unbearable, and saddest of all, many student suicides these days are triggered by relationship problems. Unable to turn to their parents, with friends who know no more than they, with no counselling available and no health education to guide them, too many give way to desperation when things go wrong.

To prevent such a thing becoming regularity, the education system has to reform to protect China’s newest generation as it adapts to a change in lifestyle. Many people believe a big factor in this lack of education is the fact that the previous generations were so suppressed by the Cultural Revolution that they are now too embarassed to talk, and therefore teach, about sex. Regarding awareness, the research by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences highlighted that about 63.8% of people born in the 1950’s and 1960’s have never used condoms. But that proportion drops sharply with younger generations. The percentage is 39.8% for people born in the 1970’s and 25.6% those born in the 1980’s. This is still a high figure, and sexual education is becoming a huge issue for the Chinese Government. Cases of Sexually Transmitted Diseases and more seriously, AIDS and HIV are on the increase, heavily due to this failure in the education system and also the government itself.

HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men in China is estimated at 5%. High rates of unprotected anal sex between men are leading to concerns that prevalence among this high-risk group is rising.Among the new HIV infections in 2009, 32.5% were as a result of sex between men, a significant increase from 12.2% in 2007.

Casting back generation to generation, it is believed even some emperors engaged in homosexual relationships, as it was seen to be more harmonious. Present day China is seeing a rise in the number of same-sex couples, although that is not to say they are more accepting. The government’s stance is simple and ruthless; the three no’s. “No approval. No disapproval. No promotion.”  The people’s opinion is becoming a little more accepting, and the people who find themselves in same-sex relationships are becoming braver. The first ever gay-pride event, Shanghai Pride, was held in 2009, and rather than a parade, it was a series of events. It is now a popular event, and it’s now held every year. Sadly, a vast majority of gay men in China who are married are still under social pressure to hide their sexual orientation.  Going back through the generation, although it was not regular, it is believed even some emperors have engaged in homosexual relationships, as it was seen to be more harmonious than hetero-sexual relationships.

Intervention efforts are difficult; homosexuality was not removed from the official list of mental disorders until 2001, which highlights another generation difference in views. The government have been slow to solve the issue of STD’s. For example, China’s first condom advertisement was banned just two days after its release in 1999 because government officials had said it was illegally promoting sex products. This ban was only recently lifted on World AIDS Day in 2002, and condoms were re-categorised as a medical tool rather than a sexual commodity.

Nevertheless, China’s first major television campaign to promote condom use was not launched until 2007. The campaign targeted the young and mobile, and comprised of short public service announcements on public transport, using slogans such as “Life is too good, please protect yourself Maybe in some debt to this campaign, by 2009 it was reported that condom use in China had ‘ballooned’, and by early 2010 there had been an increase in condom sales. During the Beijing olympics, China released a series of advertisements, some of which can be seen below;

This article was inspired by a 2008 documentary on Sex in China. Although heavily biased, as many American documentaries are, it does highlight the rise in sexuality, and blames the Cultural Revolution for suppressing Chinas sexuality for so long. The videos, especially part 2, are a little full on, but do include some good interviews and makes very interesting points.

Although hard to draw clear conclusions, it is obvious that the difference in generations is vast. Previous generations were scared to hold hands and branded ‘sexually illiterate’, now China has more sex shops than most other countrie in the world. With China still developing, and generation gaps thought to be occurring around every four years, the future holds no barriers for Chinese people, and the rise of sexuality may long continue. The Chinese government has to be ready for this, and increase its efforts to protect its people through sex education and promotion of safe sex, so that this revolution is a safe revolution.

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