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China’s Burgeoning Sexual Revolution Is Quiet But Strong

Photo courtesy of epSos.de via Flickr. 

While the West is known for its loud and proud movements seeking gender equality and same-sex rights, in China, a quieter revolution is underway.

Under Communist leadership, China is transforming around difficult roadblocks, like a closed media and suppressed freedom of speech, into a more sexually open place. But even given this landscape, progress is clearly underway, if contrived by various elements — namely, a tension between a conservative state and rising interest in sexual liberation.

We listened in to the Brookings Institution’s live webcast on women, sexuality, and social change in China. The broadcast featured some of the most prominent thinkers on the subject of sexuality trends and issues of the Chinese people. Here’s what we learned.

On changing attitudes toward sexuality…

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According to panelists, in 1989, just 15 percent of the Chinese public engaged in premarital sex, and even then, mostly with prominent partners.


aha1Today, the number has risen to 71 percent — a dramatic shift in part attributed to Western influence on Chinese culture, indicative of a burgeoning sexual revolution.

Laws that criminalized extramarital sex were abolished just three decades ago, as a gradual leniency toward sexual activity is adopted by the public and even the state.

Three prominent laws still exist in China that criminalize sexual activities like prostitution, group sex and pornographic production, ownership, and distribution. The sentencing has gotten lighter over the years, however, with the general consensus among scholars being that these laws must (and eventually will) be abolished.

Attitudes toward homosexuality are changing as well; in fact, though illegal, it’s not as vehemently opposed socially as it is in the U.S.


aha1While in America, 40 percent of people strongly approve of gay rights, 40 strongly disapprove. In contrast, 20 percent of Chinese strongly approve, 20 strongly disapprove, but the majority are ambivalent.

Though homosexuality was decriminalized in 1997, and no longer classified as a mental condition in 2001, there are still no discrimination protections for LGBT individuals. Recent lawsuits, accepted and heard by courts for the first time, may open the floodgates.

On China’s silent movement, and activist detention…

China’s sexual revolution is quiet, while Western movements have tended to be much louder. In China, people simply do, rather than say — for example, premarital sex is now common, but hasn’t been advertised loudly.

aha1This is largely because China still does not have freedom of speech or freedom of assembly, and this suppression of voice calls for more stealth in terms of activism and flamboyance.

Organized activism can come with extreme consequences. For example, on the eve of International Women’s Day, five women were detained for handing out anti-sexual harassment leaflets, prompting national and international outrage.

The arrests may have been less about the message, but the means, panelists say: the women’s “performance activism” was organized on social media and executed in multiple provinces, a scale deemed uncontrollable by the Chinese government.

On government-friendly movements…

How effect change, then? Is it possible to have movement without challenging state power?

Maybe so, panelists say. Activists don’t necessarily see themselves at opposition, and often seek to push inside system instead of against it. These people consider themselves patriots and want to reform without undermining Communist leadership.

Many groups attempt to cooperate with government, participating both formally and informally.


aha1Given the recent detention of women for organized activism, it makes sense that lawsuits are becoming a new form of protest that better fit within system rhetoric — essentially, an attempt to modernize state attitude from within.

On gender imbalances, and “leftover women”…

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There are other factors at play that influence social and legal attitudes, one being an extreme gender imbalance: in China, there are 20 million more men under 30 than their are women.

This has to do with the past “one child” policy and a cultural preference for boys. Some think the imbalance is a huge threat to social stability.

There is a huge backlash in China against “leftover women,” a term used to describe young single women in their 20s and 30s, typically urban and educated and unmarried by choice. Such women are scoffed at for refusing to settle down while young, especially given the sex ratio imbalance.


aha1It doesn’t help that 90 percent of Chinese men believe a woman should marry before 27, after which they are deemed much less attractive as mates.

On media and government rhetoric…

Others insist that “leftover women” is a myth enforced by the media and government.


aha1Single 20-somethings do not represent a crisis, panelists say: they are a global phenomenon, common all over the world.

Chinese women that remain single actually report more happiness than those that are married, but traditional Chinese culture, and the state itself perpetuates fearful sexist attitudes.

For example, the Chinese media expressed that higher rates of birth defects were due to women waiting too long to have children, when the actual cause was pollution.

On taking issues to court…

In spite of women outperforming men on a university level, over 70 percent of female graduates experience discrimination during the hiring process.

aha1Courts are beginning to hear gender discrimination cases, but it’s an uphill battle — only 20 percent of Chinese lawyers are female, a number that is only very slowly rising.

Panelists note the apparent discrepancy between Communist Party’s equality-friendly rhetoric, which says women are responsible to “hold half of the sky,” and a lack of momentum in terms of protecting women’s legal rights.

For example, women are forced to retire at age 50 to 55, five to ten years before men. Given the rise in life expectancy, this could be right at the stride of a woman’s career.

These attitudes trickle down to the courts, which may choose pass on difficult and politically sensitive cases.

On progress…

Studies find that younger generations embrace sexuality and pleasure, are influenced by LGBT culture, and believe people should know and love themselves.

There is more of an openness about sexual equality, masturbation, and pornography — a transparency which may also correspond with body positivity, experts say.

As for the state, things are also moving along, as new court cases and laws point to improvement in terms of gender equality and civil rights.


aha1Chinese court decisions are being put online for all to see for the first time in history, of which there are already over 6,000 searchable cases.

Domestic violence laws are on the legislative agenda, which will focus on protecting victims; such laws extend to violence within all cohabiting situations. Legislation is also being proposed to protect the contractual property rights of rural women.

The takeaway

Better education and an aroused consciousness on human rights, women’s rights, and the freedom of expression suggest a more promising future that is more progressive and less focused on traditional norms, in a way that mirror’s China’s progress in other areas.

While panelists believe there is still much work to be done, as Chinese citizens navigate the conflicting wishes of citizens and the government, it may be that the state will gradually follow the pull of the people.

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Jennifer Markert