It is impossible for most young women in China to talk to their parents about sex and reproduction: “do you want to tell me about sex?” a woman from Tianjin asked her parents at age 13. They threw the question right back: “do you want us to tell you about sex?” The conversation ended there, and she had to work out the rest for herself. Chinese parents are too shy to discuss the issue with their daughters. So how do Chinese women learn about sex?
Chinese young women conduct their own sexual education to increase agency and enable personal choices
“My parents told me they found me in the street”, said Elena Cui. Another woman’s parents still maintain that they found her “in the garbage can”. Some were told “fairytale stories” about where babies come from: her parents met, fell in love, and then there was a baby. None were told the truth at any stage, and most still haven’t discussed sex or reproduction with their parents.
Amy Ma spent much of her young life confused about sex. Her parents would reach over to cover her eyes during kissing and sex scenes in romantic movies, a physical act embodying the whole family’s mutual embarrassment. Amy is one of many girls whose parents would chidingly remind their daughters not to do what they saw on screen throughout childhood. But horrifying rape scenes in war movies went uncensored at home and in school, so Amy grew up wondering why rape seemed okay if consensual sex wasn’t.
Mothers advise girls not to “do things” with boys because “it” is bad — very bad — for girls. Daughters are left to connect the dots between emotions and sex, then sex and pregnancy — links that are never stated, only implied in highly coded language. Girls are expected to understand through guesswork and implication that an unplanned pregnancy (ie. outside wedlock) would be the end of their education and careers — careers that the whole family is anticipating and working towards.
After learning how to put a condom on a banana, Elena texted her boyfriend to show off: “do you know how to use a condom?”
Contrary to (mainly western) feminist paradigms, for Chinese women the advent of birth control is not automatically synonymous with “freedom”. Within the collective cultural memory, family planning holds the cultural weight of painful state control, as legislation to reduce family sizes in the early Maoist period was enforced through forceful means. Rather than the spectrum of possibilities opened up by various kinds of contraception, without sexual education, only a few huge choices are made apparent: choose to have a non-sexual relationship; choose not to have a relationship at all; or, risk pregnancy and (commonly) the secret abortion that would result from it. Only a curious few will make the leap to a fourth choice: contraception.
Parents are willing to put in only minimal effort to educate their children, often neglecting opportunities due to embarrassment about the subject matter. The woman from Tianjin remembers finding condoms under her parent’s pillow when she shared their bed in the nineties, and blowing them up like balloons, much to her parent’s humiliation. They never explained what the condoms were for: she put two and two together from the images on the box.
Parents sidestep the what and how questions of sex, and schools follow suit, ignoring young peoples’ educational and sexual needs and desires to the point of danger. Undergraduate Grace Zhu told me that several girls at her middle and high schools got pregnant at age 15 or 16. Students in Grace’s school had never been given any sexual education beyond learning about genitalia and menstruation from pictures in textbooks. She had no idea contraception even existed until attending university. Grace’s sexually active classmates could not tell their teachers or parents, and rarely told their friends until after a pregnancy had been terminated. They’d go to abortion clinics alone or with their boyfriends, having raised the money to pay for it by asking school friends for cash, and then take time off school by pretending to have flu. For Grace, these stories were a warning for her to be careful.
“Privacy is a luxury. I am being responsible with my body, I want to know that I am okay, so why am I being judged?”
Women in China are working to empower themselves and one another, even if their parents and teachers are not. Elena Cui, a graduate student in Beijing, often travels to visit her boyfriend who studies in Nanjing. Before she travels, her mother will offer up a warning. “She doesn’t tell me about sex, she doesn’t say ‘you can’t have sex with your boyfriend’, she just says ‘you can’t, it’s not good for the girl’.”
Elena feels her mother is hiding something, because she repeats this vaguely threatening aphorism regularly. Elena does her own research online, and as a result she now believes that having sex is human nature, and nothing to be shy or ashamed of talking about. She talks about it with her boyfriend. Elena was surprised that her roommate (another graduate student) had never heard of condoms or other forms of contraception before the pair attended a potentially one of a kind women’s health seminar. After the meeting, in which she learned how to put a condom on a banana, Elena texted her boyfriend to show off about her newly acquired skill: “do you know how to use a condom?” she asked him.
One woman who studied abroad in the US felt reassured by the friendly staff and safe environment when she got a free STD test there. She didn’t have to make an appointment, and received her results by text message. She couldn’t believe the contrast with sexual healthcare in China. Having got an appointment with gynaecologist at a reputable Beijing hospital, she was told, “we don’t do that test here”. Reproductive health services are commonly provided only to married women; single women are not expected to be sexually active. Women often find that taking action to maintain reproductive health places them in situations in which they feel their agency is restricted or undermined.
“Privacy is a luxury,” she says. “I am being responsible with my body, I want to know that I am okay, so why am I being judged?” In a hospital that does make sexual health checks available, she queued for several hours on two separate occasions, even after making an appointment. Once inside, she felt forced into what she calls “social pariah” territory, by sharing a waiting area with patients with infectious diseases. During her examination, other doctors and patients walked freely in and out of the consultation room, while still more patients peered around the door as they waited in line. A self-described “tough girl”, she doesn’t feel shame in seeking the healthcare she needs. But this kind of treatment would prevent the softer hearted from accessing reproductive healthcare.
“I didn’t know anything about sex before I came to university,” Jodie Mai tells me. “But I have done a lot of research, watched a lot of informational videos online, and talked to my roommates about it. Most of the time we make jokes about sex, with girls and with boys, but sometimes my roommates and I have long, serious conversations about sex and boys. They’ve helped me learn everything I need to know about sex. So now, I still don’t want to have sex before marriage, but I know that it is my choice.” There is little reason to assume that institutions are changing in regard to providing sexual health education and services. But, young women are definitely asking the questions, and some of them seem to be finding answers.
My numerous conversations with young Chinese women gave a clear picture, that most Chinese women in their late teens and twenties have never received a comprehensive sexual education from parents or teachers. Without this, young women find making decisions about sexual relationships at the most granular level is still like moving boulders.
They told me that schooling around sexual education was sparse for those born in the late eighties and nineties. Their teachers refused to discuss sex, sometimes giving students as little as five minutes to memorise scientific terms from textbook diagrams of genitalia. Reproduction was a scientific subject, far removed from real women’s bodies.
For many, the teacher’s embarrassment effectively locked students’ curiosity out of the classroom. They had to find the practical information they were really interested in via other means. Most turned to the internet as teenagers, most often finding pornography and unfiltered information on Baidu pages, but sometimes finding Youku videos presenting accurate information for this specific purpose. Some learned from their parents’ sexual habits, studying the adults’ pornography stashes and connecting the dots with what they heard and saw when sharing a bedroom with their parents early in life.
“Most of the time we make jokes about sex, with girls and with boys, but sometimes my roommates and I have long, serious conversations about sex and boys. They’ve helped me learn everything I need to know about sex.”
One woman I spoke to remembered waking up to find her parents watching porn, and later repeatedly telling them she wanted to watch “that thing” she wasn’t allowed to watch. By taking charge of their curiosity, these women have gone beyond their formal education to explore their questions about sex, relationships, contraception and their bodies. These women say they feel freer to make choices that reflect their personal values and desires. Getting past the stigma to learn about sex can be a life-changing experience for women to increase their individual agency.