The week of February 8th, 2014

The real Chinese sexual revolution

By Leslie Anne Jones

Rachel Zhang hasn’t ever told her parents what exactly she sells for a living. She recalls in her hiring interview that the general manager motioned to the table between them spread with plastic toys and asked if she thought she’d have a problem with any of this. The answer was no, and for almost six years she’s been the Asia sales director for Lelo, a purveyor of sleek, Swedish-designed “intimate lifestyle products.”

“Chinese people are very open to try new things,”she said over Skype recently. “That’s why the market for Lelo has been growing every year.” The consummate saleswoman, Zhang’s enthusiasm feels genuine. We first met several years ago when I was working as an editor at That’s Shanghai. Lelo was always generous and supplied the prizes for an erotic fiction contest I ran for the magazine.

China, now the world’s largest economy, is among Lelo’s top five countries for sales. The growing ranks of worldly, urban, young people with money to spare has been a boon despite China’s restrictive regulations on where the company can advertise.

Zhang, 28, works out of the company’s Shanghai office. Growing up in nearby Jiangsu Province, she says her parents never talked to her about sex. Her high school biology lesson covered sperm and eggs but not the mechanics of how one finds the other. She reckons a lot of young people learn from peers and partners, and the joke is that sex education comes from watching porn on the Internet.

“This is like standard procedure for boys in China,”she said, never mind that porn is ostensibly illegal. The lack of education is problematic. A study released last year by the Shanghai Health and Family Planning Commission found that less than 20 percent of sexually active teens in the city used condoms.

When Zhang was in college, she and her girlfriends would watch pirated episodes of Sex and the City, and she says living in Shanghai now, at this moment, is like living the show: She has a cadre of close female friends who trade sex and dating stories over drinks in a glam, highrise-filled city on the make. She’s reached a kind of silent understanding with her mother about her employment: At home one day, she happened on her mother reading a magazine wherein she’d been interviewed talking all about Lelo’s wares. Zhang figures that was her mother’s way of signaling she knew.

Images and writing produced and disseminated quickly are much harder to control.

China’s professed sexual revolution has been under way for about a decade now. Zhang, with her white-collar job selling high-end sex products, is emblematic of what people refer to when they talk about the Chinese sexual revolution—a concurrent growth of consumer-driven society and a casting off of traditional conservatism. Over the years, the demands of censorship have allowed for increasingly sexualized video and images, and urban fashion trends allow for plenty of skin. In December a popular historical TV drama was taken off the air and re-edited to cover up the cleavage on display in the show’s Tang-dynasty costumes, but the revision sparked far more outcry than the original outfits had. And for 11 years now, Shanghai has hosted the Adult Care Expo, one of the largest conventions for sex toys and products on the continent.

The pace of change has been so quick, the cultural gap between young Chinese people who are only five to seven years apart in age can seem much wider than it would for their American counterparts. Zhang says when she was in college, people were still fairly discreet with their liaisons, where today’s university kids are more casual about their sexuality.

Change has come faster to the cities, and fastest at universities, while attitudes and mores remain less permissive in rural areas. Part of this disparity has to do with access to information. China’s government employs a vast censorship apparatus that oversees all domestic media and a firewall that keeps politically sensitive and other material deemed harmful out of easy reach on the Internet. A common criticism is that the dramatic rise in prosperity has rendered people politically apathetic to the information they’re being shielded from. Not so with pornography and other explicit material. While pornography is censored, it is easy enough to find and share, either through peer networks, private chatrooms, forums, cloud storage, migrating URLs, and keyword workarounds. Nobody with a smartphone or computer and an Internet connection need do without.

That doesn’t mean no one is ever punished. On the contrary, China kicked off an anti-pornography purge last spring and has shut down hundreds of websites, cleansed millions of files, and arrested 30,000 people on porn- and gambling-related charges in December. Activities deemed criminally licentious extend beyond video. The government has also cracked down on “Boys’ Love” erotica, a popular stripe of fanfiction depicting gay male romance that is created and enjoyed mostly by women. In recent years writers have been arrested, websites shut down, and regulations created barring writing explicit sex on fanfiction sites still allowed to stand.

Why bother policing something so personal and seemingly inconsequential? Hong Kong–based scholar Katrien Jacobs, who has been studying the intersection of Internet culture and sexuality in mainland China and Hong Kong for about a decade, gets at some of the reasons in her latest book, The Afterglow of Women’s Pornography in Post-Digital China, which will be out in June. In it she has a chapter devoted to the Boys’ Love, or danmei, phenomenon.

China’s professed sexual revolution has been under way for about a decade now.

The Boys’ Love subculture flourishes thanks in part to the fleeting, impermanent nature of Internet culture. Images and writing produced and disseminated quickly are much harder to control. Not that these things weren’t happening before the Internet: Jacobs mentions in her book that during the Cultural Revolution, when depictions of recreational sex were shunned as capitalistic, people would pass around anonymous, handwritten erotica. One work called Girl’s Heart or Man Na’s Memories served as a primer for many teens at a time when there was no sex ed; sometimes police would storm into schools looking for copies.

Jacobs posits Boys’ Love as an “intervention in patriarchal morality”—a chance for self-proclaimed “rotten girls” to explore sexuality outside the limitations of traditional gender confines. A common trope in Boys’ Love stories is for one of the characters to be grappling with a major physical deficiency: Sometimes it’s a major illness like cancer, other times impotency, which can be interpreted as a stand-in for female weakness depicted in mainstream romance. Some stories imagine a sexual orifice between penis and anus, a male vagina.

Other forms of sexual expression that become targets for censorship pose a more direct challenge to the status quo. In the wake of two prominent cases of domestic abuse, feminist activists took the Internet posting naked photos of their torsos scrawled with anti-domestic violence messages. In 2013, literature professor Ai Xiaoming went topless with a message decrying sexual assault of minors and also the detention of another feminist activist, Ye Haiyan. In response, her phone and Internet were cut off and authorities wouldn’t allow friends and family to visit the 60-year-old scholar in her home.

Other nude Internet activists dabble more in titillation, with images that invite objectification as much as they denounce violence and repression. I asked Jacobs if this didn’t muddle the point. “It’s a very effective strategy for getting responses,” she said. “If you’re doing this for the first time you’re going to get some very raw, very negative responses to your body, but I totally see why people do it.”

Jacobs is careful not to overstate the potential for online sexual discourse and exploration to move people in a more politically progressive direction. Internet culture in China still tends to be male-oriented, and she thinks it’s still easier now to promote mainstream pornography than feminism, but she does emphasize the intrinsic power of fantasy to open people up to new ideas and possibilities.

Ethnographer Tricia Wang developed her theory on the “elastic self” conducting research based out of Wuhan University in Hubei Province. By looking at online social behavior, Wang discovered that semi-anonymous Internet activity allowed Chinese youth to develop and explore personal identity in ways that would be difficult or impossible offline due to traditional social norms and an authoritarian government. While only a portion of her doctoral thesis was devoted to sexuality, Wang’s research subject, Tao Ge, makes a strong case for the transformative potential of fantasy and sexual discovery.

Internet culture in China still tends to be male-oriented, and Jacobs thinks it’s still easier now to promote mainstream pornography than feminism.

Tao grew up in the countryside, but teachers thought he had potential to get into a prestigious university; his parents shipped him off to a boarding school (paying for this ate into the family savings and meant his father had to get a second job as a construction worker in addition to farming). Starting from middle school, Tao Ge told Wang he lived in a room with seven other boys and life was extremely regimented and wholly focused on studying. When he tried to write letters to a girl he liked from back home, the school intercepted them and didn’t tell him they’d done so until he graduated, sparing him the distraction; there was room for nothing but studying. As a teen, his sexual knowledge was so limited that when he started having nocturnal emissions in high school, he thought he had a medical problem—but one he was too ashamed to ask anyone about.

When he entered university, Tao said he had almost no experience with girls outside of the classroom and little sexual knowledge, but soon enough his education began. He started watching porn with his dorm mates, his first exposure to what sex actually looked like, and figured out that the other guys would masturbate afterwards. When he started to do so as well, his nighttime problem went away. It was still difficult for him to interact with women though, so he opened up several anonymous accounts on the instant messenger service QQ, where he could practice chatting and flirting with women. On one account he pretended to be a woman in these interactions, to further his understanding.

At the time Tao was in school, students were using university servers to store their pornography. He too began uploading so as to contribute to the common resource. After becoming accustomed to pornography, he eventually started searching for other information that the government works to keep off the Chinese Internet. He started using proxy networks to get around the firewall and look up censored historical information. After college, he started networking over QQ with librarians who maintain private collections in residential communities across the country.

For Tao, exposure to porn preceded a broader interest in open information, though that’s just a single human’s experience. A wider example of the interplay between sexual progressivism and mainstream politics though arrived with the Umbrella Movement, the Hong Kong democracy protests started last September. Hong Kong is not subject to the same Internet strictures as mainland China. The protests started as a call for democratic elections on the island but came to encompass a greater range of progressive ideals, as social movements that reach critical mass tend to do. At the end of January, Katrien Jacobs gave a talk at the Women Occupying Symposium at Hong Kong University on the gender and sexuality issues that cropped up during the movement. Along with naked activism and queer issues, one of the topics addressed was Alexter, a subgenre of Boys’ Love inspired by the movement’s student leaders, Lester Shum and Alex Chow Yong-kan. Since Hong Kongers are able to access Facebook, unlike mainland Chinese, there’s a group dedicated to fictional imaginings of the two that track with political developments.

Perhaps therein lies the best explanation of why the Chinese government goes after women writing sex stories with made-up genitalia: There is something dangerous in the imagination run wild.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated for clarity. 

Illustration by Max Fleishman