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Sex in China: Prudence and Prurience

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In this week's Financial Times, there is an article concerning Nanjing "swingers club" proprietor's arrest which has spurred a debate on sexual freedom. "Twenty-two members...prepare to go on trial accused of having 'group sex,' a crime that carries a maximum prison sentence of five years."

Progressive versus Traditional Mores

This incident underscores the tension in contemporary Chinese society, not to be reconciled anytime soon, between a new reality of "progressive" behavior and traditional cultural imperatives. On one hand, the Chinese are having orgies. On the other, the price for fun may be jail.

Decadence All Around. What's going on here? One thing is for sure: sexual mores in the People's Republic are dramatically more liberal now versus fifteen or twenty years ago when economic reform really began to pick up steam. Prostitution is everywhere; it's difficult to check into a three-star hotel without being accosted in the lobby by pimps or "pleasure girls" plying their trade. Every high-ranking cadre seems to sport a Gucci-clad xiao laopo - i.e.., mistress or "little wife." Premarital sex is common place; ten years ago, most college students graduated as virgins while today less than half do. Sex paraphernalia shops, usually managed by old ladies in lab coats, are as ubiquitous as massage parlors, most of which offer "happy endings" for, I'm told, a reasonable fee. Karaoke joints, both seedy and ornate, transform "singing with the boys" into meat markets, as mama-sans parade comely country girls for inspection in between rounds of dice games and off-key musical discharge. Gay clubs have popped up in every city; "money boys" prowl dance floors in search of tricks. On line pornography, despite the government's intermittent, half-hearted crack downs, blankets cyber space, covering every possible predilection. (And it's free.)

When President Clinton had his fling with Monica Lewinski, no one here could understand what the fuss was about: he was just a man enjoying the fruit of power.

Conservatism Rules. And yet, in many ways, China's attitudes towards sex remain, by Western standards, prudish. Girls who have boyfriends during high school are "bad." Mass advertising is tame, reflecting not only strict censorship guidelines, promulgated by the state, but also broad conservatism amongst the public at large. (Underwear models are invariably Caucasians because Chinese blanch when fellow citizens strike a degradingly erotic pose.) Even dye-haired, urban fashionistas wince at dresses cut too low or "wild" tattoos. True, premarital sex is now the norm, but there is very little "sleeping around." Modern women, rarely overtly assertive, conform to traditional standards of "seductive demureness." Men, unlike Western counterparts eager to indulge in locker-room braggadocio, are tight-lipped regarding exploits, even after a beer or two. (On-line trash talk, fueled by anonymity, is another story altogether.) Boyfriends or girlfriends are never introduced to parents until engagement is on the agenda. And the vast majority of homosexuals, even new generation types, resign themselves the inevitability of prison marriages.

Is today's jarring coexistence of prurience and prudery merely a transitional phenomenon as the Chinese race, full throttled, toward sexual liberation? Or is something more timeless manifesting itself? Does China's sexual dualism tell us anything fundamental about cultural drivers in the Middle Kingdom?

Chinese and Western Marital Truths

In the West, sexual love and marriage are inseparable. As Frank Sinatra sang, they "go together like a horse and carriage...you can't have one without the other. [Trying] to separate them is an illusion." The root of a healthy union, regardless of whether it has been sanctioned by the state, is a romantic passion that deepens over time. When loves "dies," the union is considered, by society and individual, shambolic, empty at the core, hence divorce rates in excess of 50%.

Not so in the Peoples Republic.

Stability is Golden. In the Middle Kingdom, the individual is not the basic building block of society. It has always been, and will always remain, the clan. Marriage, therefore, is less a union of two souls than two extended families, and is not truly consummated until a new generation is produced, the fulfillment of sacred duty to past and future generations. Romantic love, desired and even "useful" as a bonding agent, is a secondary concern, a means to end. Men demonstrate worthiness via "proof of commitment." Valentine's Day, a platform on which devotion can be displayed, is almost as Chinese as Lunar New Year. Titanic was a mega-hit because Leonardo DiCaprio was willing to pay the ultimate price - his life - for love. Marriage is a protective union, a bulwark against the vicissitudes of a world in which: individual "rights" do not exist; self-expression is often viewed as a threat to the established order; and institutions designed to protect individual interests are rare. In America, DeBeers' slogan, "A Diamond is Forever," glorifies eternal romance. In China, the same tagline connotes obligation, a familial covenant, rock solid, like the stone itself.

Pragmatism and Release. The Chinese, supremely practical in most aspects of their lives, focus less on sexual fulfillment than we do. This is why, given the right professional opportunity, spouses are willing to be live in different cities, or even on different continents. It also explains why, according to research conducted by Durex in over 100 countries, China ranks third to last in terms of frequency of intercourse by married couples.

As a result, men in China have access to a much broader variety of "release" options than American or European men do. Sex is commercialized - and ritualized -- here to an extraordinary degree. With a wink and smile, prices of high- and low-end services -- by the hour or overnight, from manual or oral stimulation to full penetration -- are quoted as freely as a McDonald's menu board. Men joke about "above the line" (i.e., of the head and heart) versus "below the line" needs, separate and unequal.

Wives often turn a blind eye to sexual activities outside the home as long as they pose no threat to cohesion. Tolerance, of course, varies but women, more often than not, endure philandering spouses so long as dedication to family is not in question. They grin and bear an hour with a prostitute or a trip to the massage parlor. A mistress - i.e., a de facto threat to solidarity -- is more likely to be a deal breaker, but not necessarily so. According Xu Xinjin, the owner of marital-advice hotline, divorce due to extramarital affairs is still relatively uncommon. Many go on for years because no one wants to hurt the family's only child. Yes, the number of men -- and women - tempted into "dangerous liaisons" is on the rise. But those who have them, particularly after a child is born, are scorned by society, shamed by family and friends. (Twenty years ago, they would be demoted at work.)

Unhappy Destiny?

The prevalence of "loveless" unions and "cheating" spouses begs the question: are the Chinese unhappy? Do they buck against demands to forgo personal gratification in the interests of social stability? Yes and no. On one hand, divorce rates have skyrocketed. According to official statistics, more than 25% of Shanghai marriages now end in court, up from under around 5% during the 1980s. Support groups, both on line and off, are increasingly commonplace. Clearly, an economically-empowered new generation now refuses to put up with serial cheating, physical abuse, emotional abandonment, deadbeat dads or domestic cold war. That said, Chinese and Western aspirations - emotional, spiritual and material - are not, and never will be, the same. We believe "pursuit of (individual) happiness" is an inalienable right, the fundamental purpose of life. The Chinese crave a ta shi future, steady and sturdy; as long as both husband and wife advance the clan's well-being, harmony will reign. In the aforementioned Dumex survey, China placed second in terms of marital satisfaction.

Warm trust trumps hot love. True, the desire for romantic "completion" is universal and ever more aspirational, even idealized, in a globally-connected Middle Kingdom. But 5,000 years of cultural truth - the supremacy of Confucian cohesion over Jeffersonian individualism -- will not be swept away by ten years of Barbie and Ken. The Chinese will resolve, in their own way, on their own terms, the struggle between passion and pragmatism. Their journey to modernity will, in the end, only superficially resemble ours.

The co-existence of "comfortable" domesticity and extra-curricular indulgence is part and parcel of the Chinese experience. Save 30 years of post-Revolution puritanical repression, it always has been and always will be.