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Changing Attitudes to Sex in China | Sex Toys & Sex Shops

China's Sexual Revolution: Socio-economic development means sex is now big business

Daniel Allen

The role of sex in Chinese society has come a long way since the puritanical days of the Cultural Revolution. In Mao's time men and woman were often kept apart, and any explicit display of sexuality, whether in dress or public affection, including kissing or holding hands, invited condemnation and punishment.

Today, although much of the country remains traditionally conservative, especially in rural areas, China's sex industry and sexual culture is now flourishing.

Changing Attitudes to Sex

Sex Museum, Beijing, China.

In urban China, thanks to a steadily booming economy and the liberalization of society, Chinese attitudes towards sex have undergone a radical change.

Visitors to China shouldn't be surprised to see students displaying their affections openly on park benches, and growing numbers of adventurous Chinese are trying out the alternative sexual behavior they can readily download from the internet and watch on illegal DVDs.

A recent survey by the Family Planning Agency found that almost 70 percent of Chinese today have had sex by the time they get married, compared with only 16 percent twenty years ago.

More Chinese people are also prepared to talk openly about sex - sex-related blogs, especially by women, receive massive numbers of hits in Chinese cyberspace (before they're inevitably shut down). As Chinese women are becoming more independent, they're also demanding more from their men.

A recent survey conducted by popular Chinese search engine Sohu found that 69 percent of Shanghai women agreed that an enjoyable sex life is necessary for a happy life and family, with 88.9 percent saying they would be willing to try new positions or sexual techniques to have more fun.

Throwing the figures above into sharp relief, another survey that found that less than a quarter of Chinese men claimed to know where the clitoris is located, and over half thought that sex toys wouldn't help them improve their sex lives.

It is virtually impossible to walk for 10 minutes in any major Chinese city without encountering China's thriving sex trade in one of its many guises. Prostitution, the target of a fierce and successful crackdown during the Mao Zedong era, is once again a huge business.

Estimates of the total number of prostitutes in China range from 3 to 20 million, and this "hidden industry" could contribute up to 6 percent of China's GDP. Most sex workers are migrants, part of the estimated 120 to 200 million people who have left rural China in search of better jobs.

In places like Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, despite the occasional government crackdown, brothels are seemingly tolerated - many barber shops, massage parlors and karaoke bars feature scantily clad girls in their windows, often in broad daylight, to lure in passers-by.

Hotels of all levels are often saturated with prostitutes, often working in conjunction with the hotel management, and single male guests shouldn't be surprised to receive a phone call soon after they check in or return home in the evening.

Sex Toys & Sex Shops

Another indicator of China's sexual development is that sex toys are becoming more popular, and 70 percent of the world's sex toys are now made in China. Beijing's first sex-toy shop opened in 1992, and now has an estimated 2,000 "adult shops", with more than 2,500 in Shanghai.

According to the China Sex Health Committee, the annual sale of sex products in China last year exceeded US$12 billion (RMB 100 billion), and is projected to grow at 30 percent annually.

Sales of sexual potions and medicines amounted to US$6 to $7.2 billion a year (RMB 50 to 60 billion).

Most of China's early sex shops were seedy, secretive affairs staffed by matrons in white laboratory coats, offering potency pills to a largely male clientele. Increasing competition is now pushing retailers to be more imaginative in their presentation, however.

Although public advertising is still forbidden, shop managers are displaying colorful arrays of products in their windows, and expressing a wider range of ideas about their role.

Despite China's sexual revolution, the gay and lesbian scene is still fairly concealed, even in "liberal" Beijing. Gay bars do pop up now and then, only to be sometimes closed down again soon afterwards. It's okay for people of the same sex to walk down the street hand in hand - many same-sex Chinese friends do so quite platonically - but no embraces or kisses are acceptable.

China's puritanical approach to sexual expression will probably strike many homosexuals from the West as nae rather than barbaric because anti-gay policies seldom ever surface and rarely, if ever, afflict foreign visitors, at least overtly.

On a slightly more cultural level, visitors to Shanghai can now check out the city's sex museum at the Pudong End of the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel.

The museum was originally located on Nanjing Lu, although the rent was too high and attracting customers was difficult - the museum wasn't even allowed to hang a sign outside with the word "sex" on it. The museum eventually relocated to Tongli in neighboring Jiangsu Province, but now sufficient funds have been raised to open this branch museum.

The museum houses ten small exhibitions, each focusing on different aspects of sexuality. There's a section on what the translation calls "abnormal behavior" such as bestiality and homosexuality (the latter was only declassified as a psychological disorder in China in 2001, but the museum generously takes a more liberal view towards it).

In an attempt to draw comparisons between eastern and western views of sex there are objects from other countries too. All that really gets highlighted though is the fact that western countries have more relaxed attitudes - over here you can't buy mugs with handles shaped like naked women (although souvenir hunters may come across a phallic object or two in Beijing's flea markets).

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