China’s Singular Sexual Revolution

In Behind the Red Door, Richard Burger examines various aspects of sex in China, both throughout history and in the resurgence of sexual freedom currently underway. From Mara Hvistendahl at Los Angeles Review of Books:

[… T]he book’s greatest strength is in carving out a distinctive story for China — and showing that analogies to the Western 1960s sexual revolution are misleading. The Chinese are not so much shedding the mantle of history, Burger illustrates, as they are rediscovering their country’s past. And that past includes a sexual openness that puts the West to shame.

[…] As Chinese embrace their rediscovered sexual freedom, the notion that carnality is a foreign import is an increasingly difficult sell. Beginning in 1993, the government allowed the establishment of sex stores, provided they maintained an ostensibly medical focus. Employees at Adam and Eve, the first establishment in Beijing, wore white lab coats and counseled customers on cures for erectile dysfunction. Today, China is reportedly home to 200,000 sex stores, and dried deer penis and other traditional medicines have been supplemented by lifelike sex dolls and French maid costumes. Chinese factories now produce around 70 percent of the world’s sex toys — a feat that the public is invited to admire every year at the Guangzhou National Sex Culture Festival. This year’s event, held in early October, drew 250,000 visitors.

[… A]s an explanation of the dueling forces within Chinese society, Behind the Red Door is spot-on. Among the book’s more delicious details is the list of seven categories of sex worker devised by Chinese police in the 1990s. My former downstairs neighbors fall into tier five — falangmei, literally “hair salon sisters” — a trade slightly more desirable, apparently, than walking the street or servicing migrant workers at construction sites. The copious detail with which officials characterized sex work establishments betrays more than passing knowledge of the trade. And yet the list also suggests a certain innocence — a pragmatic approach to sex in a culture where it has been intermittently criminalized but not indelibly branded as immoral, a culture that will never have the same tortured relationship to contraception, or gay sex, or sexual fantasy that we do in the United States. May no one ever again evoke China’s sexual landscape and the Summer of Love in the same breath.

See also Evan Osnos’ brave examination of China’s recent string of political sex scandals, via CDT.


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