some thoughts on china’s sexual revolution sexuality and social change in contemporary china (IRN Reports)

The International Resource Network’s
website will debut this spring at www.
irnweb.org. To inaugurate the website, the
IRN has commissioned essays by sexuality
studies researchers from around the world.
Authors were asked to refl ect on sexuality
studies, and its relations to movements for
sexual rights or GLBT rights, in their regions.
The articles will appear on the site in their
original language, and will also be translated
into at least one of the website’s four main
languages—Chinese, English, French, and
Spanish. Dr. Sun Zhongxin, whose article
is excerpted below and is one of several essays
from China, taught the fi rst homosexual
studies course at Fudan University in 2005.

The last two years saw several
changes in the public discourse around
sex and sexuality in China. So what are
some of the most controversial sex-related
topics to be raised in China recently? According
to an article in the Beijin Sci-Tech
newspaper:
• hundreds of female college students
refused to sign a “chastity
contract”;
• a billionaire placed marriage ad for
a virgin;
• “fl ash marriages” gained popularity
among the young in the city;
• Chinese homosexuals made their
“debut” on CCTV, the television
network of the People’s Republic
of China;
• the fi rst homosexual studies course
opened for students at Fudan University;
• the fi rst Chinese homosexual marriage
took place on the Internet.
Of these six news items, three related
to homosexuality, two related to female
chastity, and one revealed a change in
attitude towards sexual marriage: they
all reveal changing attitudes toward
sex and sexual behavior in China. This
short article seeks to address some of the
sociological factors that have led to the
current turning point in sexuality in the
contemporary Chinese social context.
The Market Reform and Opening-up Policy
China’s reform and opening-up policy
has caused a number of broad transformations
in Chinese society. Until recently,
the fi eld of sociology in China had rarely
concerned itself with new issues in the
fi eld of sexuality. Yet the great infl uence
placed on people’s sex lives during the
process of social transition cannot be
overlooked. The rejection of the ideals of
the Cultural Revolution, during which
sex was used as a political tool for social
control, played an infl uential role in
bringing about these changes.
During the Cultural Revolution,
everyone wore the same uniform. Women
tried to hide their feminine curves under
their clothes. Individual sexual preferences
were supposed to give way to lofty
revolutionary ideals. Extra-marital affairs
were portrayed as a derogatory lifestyle
and pre-marital sex was construed as
immoral. Homosexuality was illegal and
would be punished under the statutes for
“hooliganism.” A person had to be sexually
well-behaved in order to advance in
his or her career.
Recently, however, reforms in the
area of sexuality have led to less government
control over individuals’ private
lives. These changes are refl ected in the
state’s diminished interference with
and control of sex-related areas, in more
sexual information and products openly
available, in a diversity of sexual lifestyles,
and in the strong appeal of understanding
sexual rights as human rights.
This slow retreat of the government’s role
in the control of the personal life can be
traced to at least October 2003, when
the new marriage registration principles
passed. These principles simplifi ed the
processes of marriage and divorce. The
committed parties no longer need certifi –
cation or confi rmation from their place of
work or the local Resident Committee to
get married or divorced. The pre-marital
physical, which among other things once
contained an indication of the woman’s
virginity, is no longer obligatory. The
new principles refl ected a respect for human
rights, a protection of marital freedom,
and a change in the government’s
role with regards to sexual issues.
While the major principles of the current
Chinese family planning policy aim to
control the population and enhance the
overall population quality, the side effect
of the policy is to promote a separation
of sexual behavior from reproductive
purposes. If a couple can only have one
child, sexual behavior can not longer be
sanctioned solely for biological purposes.
For the fi rst time, changes in the legal
code publicly recognize sex not just in
biological terms, but as an aspect of the
pursuit of happiness.
Stable Economic Development and
Consumerism
Various sex products are now sold
openly in the market. Information about
sex and sexuality is spreading directly
or indirectly through such public media
as street-side advertising. In addition to
being accessible in stores, on school campuses,
and on TV and radio programs,
information about sex can also be quickly
easily found on the Internet. All this
information, good and bad, has helped
push aside many of the traditional sexual
taboos and thus undermined traditional
norms of sexual practice.
In the legal arena, sexual minorities,
including gays and lesbians, are appealing
for their rights; in the marketplace,
the pursuit of profi t is creating market
niches for sexual minorities. The developing
economy and consumer culture
has led to more emphasis on individual
enjoyment and a newfound respect for
diversity.
The Rise of the Middle Class in China
When we talk about social change in
contemporary China, we cannot ignore
the great changes in and reorganization
of social stratifi cation. One of the
most important features is the rise of the middle class.
White collar
workers in
China tend to focus on their personal
happiness and to pay more attention to
their own quality of life. They are also
more likely to remain politically conservative.
Most website owners and users
are white collar workers, and some other
social groups also are comprised mostly
of members of the middle class, including
the “DINK” family (double income,
no kids), single person households, and
cohabitating couples who violate the
traditional sex norms. The middle class
is also the target group for most gay bars,
dating parties, “Dating on Saturday”
programs, and sports groups, among
others, in Chinese cities. The rapid rise
and growth of the middle class has the
potential to produce new emancipation
discourses for different sexual minorities,
including gay men and lesbians, that will
to break the silence.
Popularization of Higher Education
The impact of higher education on
China’s sexual revolution cannot be underestimated.
As entrance rates into Chinese
universities soar, younger people in
China may be adopting different sexual
ideologies from their elder generation, in
part because they have more opportunities
to study various human and social
sciences. With the increasing availability
of higher education in Chinese cities,
young people are more geared toward
the pursuit of equality, freedom and
self-realization. At the same time, the
opinions and ideas of elite intellectuals,
such as professors, researchers, lawyers
and policy-making consultants are being
expressed more frequently to the public
at the media reports and conferences.
Feminist discourse in China
Although gender equality is one of
China’s national policies, to a large extent
mainstream feminist discourse in China
tends to ignore sexuality issues. Considering
those topics either not important
or fearing that raising them will bring
unnecessary trouble, most feminist
scholars stick to the so-called “signifi –
cant issues,” such as women’s employment,
education, political participation,
marriage and family. Issues specifi cally
concerning women’s sexuality were also
avoided in the past. Even so, the critical
thinking of feminist discourses has challenged
stereotyped gender roles, including
sexuality roles. The latter especially
has infl uenced many young people. A
few feminist scholars have now started to
emphasize women’s sexual rights and the
diversity of sexualities among Chinese
women.
The Role of the Media and the Internet
The media is on of the most potent
catalytic agents of sexual revolution in
China. The Internet wields infl uence on
sexual behavior through promoting alliances,
sharing knowledge, and providing
a platform where diverse voices can be
heard. Many informal homosexual social
networks originally developed through
Internet and private websites. There are
many stories of individuals who came
to accept their sexual identity mainly
because of the Internet. It is obvious that
the Internet is a powerful channel for
people to fi nd sexual partners, to organize
offl ine activities, or just simply to have
access to sexual knowledge and sex-related
information. The Internet provides a
level of anonymity that is otherwise rare
in Chinese society
.
Opening the door: AIDS and Sexuality
Recently, the importance of AIDS
prevention in China has been stressed by
both the global society and the Chinese
government. Sexuality must be openly
discussed in order to address concerns
about the AIDS epidemic. For example,
in the summer of 2005, CCTV discussed
the topic of AIDS in a show titled, “Homosexuality:
Confronting is Better than
Evading.” Scholars and activists realized
that discussions of sexuality, especially
homosexuality and commercial sex work,
were more likely to be viewed as legitimate
in the context of discussions of HIV
risk. They have been developing strategies
to work together with the government
to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Globalization and Alliance of Social Forces
It has become hard to close the door
on globalization since China adopted a
market reform policy.
Globalization creates
an environment in
which many people
travel across countries
and from one region
to another in China.
It creates information
sharing, product
sharing, capital fl ow,
and value sharing, and
includes some basic
understanding of sexual
rights, gender equality
and human rights. Various projects in
China on sexuality, reproductive health,
and AIDS prevention have raised people’s
awareness of non-conforming sexualities.
Some non-profi t international and
national organizations are also working in
China. In addition, the international academic
community, together with Chinese
scholars, are sponsoring workshops and
conferences for research on sexuality.
Conclusion
Some argue that because the sexual
revolution is Western, it is therefore
foreign and chaotic. However, having
analyzed the institutional basis for the
sexual revolution in contemporary China
from a sociological perspective, it is clear
the sexual revolution has deep local roots.
Social policy, political reform, economic
development, and the rise of middle class
in China have all led to the formation
of out sexual cultures and the change in
attitudes toward sexuality. The key turning
points have been the development of
the Internet, the use of HIV prevention
discourse to talk about sexuality, and
globalization. The change of talk about
sexuality, far more than the change in
sex behavior itself, refl ects the dramatic
transformations of the past two or three
decades.
Although there are still too few
scholars engaged in sexuality studies in
the social science fi eld, and the sociological
study of sexuality is still marginal,
the voices claiming sexual rights can
now be heard. Meanwhile, the various
facets of the sexual revolution have raised
a claim for more feasible strategies and
countermeasures, such as advocating
sexual education among young people,
raising public conscious about safe sex,
fi ghting against all kinds of discrimination
and ignorance, protecting women’s
rights, advocating respect for diversity,
equality and harmony, and teaming up
with all the social
forces such as non-forprofi
t organizations,
government organizations
and academic
institutions.

Sun Zhongxin, PhD,
is an associate
professor in the Department
of Sociology at
Fudan University.