Jenny Zhu talks about modern Chinese attitudes towards sex and sexuality.
A sex museum in Guangdong, China. (Photo: SouthCN)
As a kid, one of my favourite things was to go down to the neighbourhood park in search of secret hideouts that eluded other visitors. But stop there! A couple would be making out right in front of me. As a Chinese kid who had had no sex education, any display of physical affection would send my heart racing and make me awfully embarrassed. The couple would stop kissing and pretended to be just talking, while I would pretend that I hadn’t seen anything and casually walk in the opposite direction. But, lo and behold, another passionate pair would be waiting for me there…
It was a common scene in parks in Shanghai in the late ‘80s. Relatively quiet spots in public spaces served as “love corners” for young adults across the city. Back then, most people lived in cramped spaces with their parents and even grandparents. There was no privacy at home. In a strange way, making out in public was more discreet than making out in your own home where your parents would see and reprimand you.
For while China was making great strides in modernisation, attitudes towards sex were still shrouded in conservatism. A girl who dated more than one guy was seen as promiscuous; a guy who slept with a woman he didn’t end up marrying could find himself prosecuted for “perversion”, a crime punishable by a jail term back then. Sex was the forbidden fruit and a great mystery, seen as something morally corrupt unless between a married couple.
A guy who slept with a woman he didn’t end up marrying could find himself prosecuted for “perversion”.
Fast forward to 2010 and attitudes towards sex have come on leaps and bounds. Not long ago a model named Shou Shou, whose sex photos were circulated on the Internet, became an instant celebrity and the most sought after model at auto shows in China; while Edison Chen, the Hong Kong star who took sexually explicit photos of himself and his various girlfriends, has staged a successful comeback. Yes, there was initially shame and shock in both of these cases, but what happened later on was more telling of our society’s more tolerant attitude towards sex.
Sex no longer comes with the same kind of harsh moral judgment it once did. Living in Shanghai for a while will likely tell you how liberal this place can be when it comes to sex and sexuality. But I tend to think that it’s due to indifference rather than true sexual liberation.
It’s true that dating any number of people would no longer render you “promiscuous”, but just as it was safer to make out in public than at home, Chinese still prefer to leave sex out of the home. Even in school, sex education remains scant. It seems that young Chinese learn more from sources like “Sex and the City” rather than their parents and educational institutions. That’s one reason why proper resources on “the birds and the bees” might be a great business opportunity in China.
This post was originally published on Urbanatomy.com in June 2010. Jenny Zhu also blogs at Jenny Zhu.