Sex and Politics

Recently finished the 2005 translation “Sexuality in China” by Pan Suiming, a sociology professor at Renmin (People’s) University of China and Director of the Institute for Research in Sexuality and Gender who’s been working on sexuality in China for about two decades. In this book he gives a light overview of the relationship between politics, cultural attitudes, and sex education (or lack thereof) in China. Much of the book seems mostly to be a statistic buttressed critique of the current state of sexuality in China, especially public sex education. However, the English edition doesn’t give any bibliographic information for the numerous studies referenced. It’s hard to give weight to numbers when you can’t track down and examine the studies from which they came, but maybe they just assumed English readers wouldn’t be able to access research conducted in Chinese anyway. The book is most useful to me in that it gives a rather recent picture of current political and popular attitudes toward sexuality and gender, demonstrates the rapid changes with research data, and provides a small introduction to the history of sexuality in China in general. It’s a short, easy read, and a good starting point for further study.

In China, the general population’s understanding of gender and sexuality is (once again) changing quickly and drastically. Pan’s emphasis is on the relationship between politics and sexuality and its impact on the population:

How such a vast and varied nation had sunk to so low a level might seem puzzling, until viewed in the light of Chinese cultural history. Several times over the centuries, sex had become bound to political goals, and always explained in terms of preserving social order. The overriding need for order required a total remake of the common cultural views of sexuality (29).

It was interesting to find passages that, although referring to a situation in China much different from the West, still seemed to fit the West rather well:

When a society binds sex to politics, it is reasonable to assume that if the political winds change, then sex will also change (31).

As a result, the youth of an entire generation had no notion of what morals, mores or practices should be applied to sexuality, and neither their parents nor the society as a whole had anything useful to impart. As these young people reached the age of sexual maturity, their behaviour made it clear that their concepts of sexuality were often contradictory or self-defeating, and had been developed entirely in a vacuum (33).

That is the state of affairs that educational projects like Bright Future, which one of our friend’s heads up, is trying to address. Young adults and adolescents with very little if any sexual education and a vaccuum where guiding values and cultural mores would normally be are China’s current ascending generation. The vast majority of Bright Future’s university students say they learn about sex from the internet – Pan even translates a specific Chinese phrase for ‘learning from pornography’ – and their cynical expectations regarding marriage are self-defeating. For example, untrustworthiness seems almost assumed, and spouses undercut mutual trust and respect from the outset by relying on leverage and manipulation to keep each other in line.

Perhaps the most valuable thing in this book for me was to hearing from someone who knows and feels these issues as a cultural insider. He can give insider reasons for why no one – parents, teachers, officials – wants to take responsibility for implementing sex education even though people want it implemented, and why foreigner-initiated sex ed. projects like Bright Future receive such a warm welcome in China’s universities. It’s both fascinating and scary to see first hand through Bright Future the things Pan is talking about and the opportunities for outside organizations to impact China’s young people.

Here’s also a translated interview with Pan Suiming from Aug. 2 – “The Personal Affairs of 6,000 Chinese Citizens.” – where he discusses their research methods (getting Chinese people to talk about sex to strangers!) and China’s recent “sexual revolution.”