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China's Slow-Burning Sexual Revolution

Fueled by income inequality, gender imbalances and repressive laws, China is experiencing a barely-hidden sexual crisis. The government criminalizes Internet porn and sex toys, but offers no better solution for the urban lonely and millions of men unable

What would Mao say?
What would Mao say?
Bai Mo

BEIJING - On a social network website, a beautiful model, pictured draped over a car, posted a message: "Would anybody out there be so kind to invite me for a late dinner? I'd like it to be delivered to my room." She left the name of the hotel and the floor she was staying on, the seventh. An hour later, the same website was blue with curses. Quite a few men had made a trip to the hotel, just to find out that it was a building with only five floors.

Plots like this, woven with desire, seduction and disappointment are repeated everyday on this website. Some 120,000 people are regular viewers of the site. The majority are males between the ages of 20 and 40 who live in Beijing.

New messages are posted constantly with ever changing patterns in order to catch the attention of women. Lies, drama, naked desire are in the language. In essence, they are plainly asking for what in the West is called a "one-night stand". Unlike the sex trade hidden in dark corners of the city, in the virtual world and with a virtual identity, a nation's burning, unhindered desire is exposed.

Weekends and business-led festivals magnify the infinite loneliness of urban men and women. Yet the virtual world's social rules are as cruel as that of the real world. It is said that only the "tall, the handsome, the rich" will attract the opposite sex.

While the West was experiencing a "sexual revolution" in the 1960s, China was going through the Cultural Revolution, a violent, repressive attempt to eradicate "capitalist elements' from Chinese society. During the Cultural Revolution, sexual instincts were transmuted into idolatry, but they have now been awoken by the stimulation of materialism. After years of being closed up, the Chinese suddenly realized that there are a lot of wonderful things they have yet to enjoy. Rather than loving the leader, one might as well just love oneself.

Like a child who has been suppressed for too long, in today's China, sexual energy spews out and manifests in "symptoms of hysteria," as Thomas W. Laqueur, the American sexologist and author of "Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation" would describe it.

Chinese sexologist Li Yinhe puts it this way: "The desire for sex is like the craving for food, the more it's suppressed the stronger it gets."

China's relatively rapid economic rise has resulted in a polarization of wealth among its people. Within the last two decades, the concentration of social resources has deepened. Only a small number of people possess power, money and prestige.

The sex ratio difference does not help either. Currently in China, the birth ratio between boys and girls is 120:100. In fifteen years time, the male/female imbalance will leave tens of millions of men without any prospect of finding a wife.

"The marriage market is a female market," says Li Yinhe. "Sexual equality is particularly related to the social status, the economic and social resources one possesses… It's certainly a big temptation if a woman can change her living conditions and social status through sex, or marriage".

No wonder, some say. Although the American television series "Sex and the City" was popular in both America and China, the American female audience was most interested in the craving for sex, while the Chinese women were more attracted to the lifestyle of well-off women.

A Chinese matchmaker network hongniang.com confirmed the situation. In a survey posted on Nov. 11, the non-official Chinese "Singles' Day," shows that 43% of young people regard the economic situation and family background as their primary concern when assessing a potential lover, instead of the person's qualities. Modern Chinese marriages are suffering and the divorce rate has skyrocketed in the cities.

"When a society's value system is distorted and people worship only money, it is scary," Li sighs. "But the main cause of the psychological and sexual changes lies ultimately in the extremely unequal distribution of wealth."

Sex is the most neglected of all social issues

Paradoxically, despite the rising anxiety and sense of emptiness among urban men and women, sex is a topic rarely discussed by academics, the public or even the media. "In comparison with poverty, war, disease, racism and starvation, sex is regarded as a trivial subject," the feminist Gayle Rubin, has pointed out.

It's demonstrated in the collective, desperate searching for a one night stand. Chinese women still feel severely oppressed by the traditional view that women should not enjoy sex, and should renounce this activity if they become a widow. Li Yinhe quotes a statistic that 26% of Chinese women have never experienced an orgasm, a figure which stands around 10% in other parts of the world.

So does this mean that we are poised for an extreme and opposite reaction to the virulent sexual oppression of the Cultural Revolution? Li Yinhe says no. Change has happened slowly. The proof is that the average number of sexual partners in China is 1.3 compared to 16 in other parts of the world.

In a recent case, a man who went to an orgy in Nanjing was sentenced to three and a half years of jail time. Hypocrisy is everywhere. Pornography is rife on the Internet, but being caught watching it is harshly punished. When corrupt officials are arrested for embezzlement and fraud, it usual turns out they've had numerous mistresses. The official is not punished for his sexual exploits, but the lonely worker satisfying his fantasies with online porn is a criminal. Until recently it was still possible to be shot for opening a sex shop or running a porn site.

In the West, feminists are usually opposed to pornography, which they say turns women into objects. In China, no such subtlety is necessary: pornography is condemned on moral grounds, that's all.

For Li Yinhe, pornographic films and sex toys are the fruit of people's imagination and are there to stimulate desire. She sees no harm in them as they are objects not actions. For her the Chinese constitution guarantees the freedom of expression and publication, and that includes the contents of a sex shop.

In a good society, not only are you satisfied with your food, but you are also satisfied with your sex life. This is the sign of an advanced society. It is also classical Confucianism. The Communist Party of China has resolved the problem of providing food; now is the time to let that other human desire be fulfilled.

Read the original article in Chinese

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