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Monday, January 25, 2010

Comparing Ideas About Sexuality in China and the United States

Originally posted on Advocates for Youth site:

At dinner in Beijing recently a Chinese friend, a sharp 23 year-old woman named Wu, asked some Australian friends when we learned about sex.

“When we were about five,” we replied, and she went on to tell us that growing up in China, she didn’t know what was involved in sexual intercourse until college, when she had the opportunity to look it up online. Through high school, she had no idea that her father was at all involved in her creation, and she knows female friends her age who, to this day, do not understand the physical nature of standard sexual intercourse: the exact means through which males and females bond physically.

It gets better. As this discussion was taking place, another Chinese friend, Guo, a male artist in his late forties, showed up. He grew up during the Cultural Revolution, when sexuality was a truly shameful thing of which nobody spoke and the only sexual education offered was public notices condemning convicted rapists.

They would read these notices with curiosity, knowing that rape involved sex—something that as teenagers, they were naturally curious about—but still had no actual understanding of. Once, when moving through a crowded street behind a woman, one of his friends—through way of sheer pent-up sexual repression—accidentally ejaculated. The woman saw this, reported him, and the man was thrown out of university, effectively ending any chances at a decent future.

Guo was 24 when he lost his virginity. Before that, he had spent six years with a girlfriend, both of them eager to have sex, nobody stopping them, but simply having no idea how to actually do it. They were living out the opposite of a one-night stand—a six-year undesired abstinence born out of pure ignorance. One can only imagine the frustration.

When they masturbated, Guo and his friends would fantasize about non-physical things. While guiltily performing this most natural of activities, they were not drawn to the vagina, but to more subtle female elements: the shape of a classmate’s wrist, a certain scent, swimming through a female teacher’s legs during Physical Education. It was a very Austen-period sort of sexuality, as a friend put it, and having learned about the penetrative nature of intercourse from a young age, it re-conceptualized the boundaries and elements of the male erotic experience for me in a way that I had previously never considered.

As teenagers, Guo and his male friends, as with other societies, were physically intimate in the sense that they masturbated together, sometimes yanking on one another’s willies. But to them, this was not homosexual behavior. They were into girls; they were just giving each other friendly assistance with the task at hand.

In fact, they had no notion of homosexuality to begin with.

But when Guo moved to Sydney to begin his career as an artist, he started to hear people throwing around the word “gay.” When he learned what it meant, he was struck with a surprising existential crisis: “Am I gay?” he would ask himself, having previously never known that such a thing was possible. Many girlfriends later, it turns out that he isn’t, but China remains a society in which many people do not know or deny the existence of non-heterosexual people.

As the board member of an organization that advocates the early provision of a comprehensive, sex-as-a-natural-part-of-life education to young people, talking to Wu and Guo helped me to re-consider just what is “natural” sexuality within different societies. In the United States, we oppose Abstinent until Marriage education policy largely because, as results show, it simply does not work. During its enactment, teen pregnancy and STI rates increased. At a philosophical level too, we find it disempowering to young people as intelligent, capable member of societies, who should be given the knowledge and power to make informed decisions about their lives.

But with this too is the notion that, at least in the West, perhaps in part because of our sex-obsessed media and pop culture industry, young people are going to have sex, whether or not adults consent to it taking place. The question is simply do you educate them on how to do it in a safe and responsible manner.

But in China, which is undergoing a sexual revolution or sorts but in which sex largely remains a taboo subject filled with ignorance, that’s not necessarily the case. According to most of my Chinese friends—during the few times when sex is ever discussed (as a general rule of thumb, it is not, even amongst friends)—they say that while sex amongst pre-collegiate youth does happen, it is very rare. It is more common in college, but still, not at anywhere near the near ubiquitous levels at which it takes place in Western campuses.

What this means is not that we are wrong to be educating young people about sex, and that in so doing we are “enabling bad behavior,” but that sexuality within societies contains different elements. Where we in the US have struggled for decades between Puritan conservatism and the counter-cultural sexual revolution, China has and remains a very Confucian society, where sex is only just beginning to acquire its own value as something greater than procreation.

That China’s population remains woefully uneducated as to the basic nature—let alone myriad pleasures—of the sexual experience, and yet does not have the sort of teen pregnancy and STI rates that accompany such non-education in the West is not some sort of revelation that comprehensive sex education is unnecessary. Rather, it offers further example of the myriad sexual taboos that various societies have developed, and, in considering the sort of hardships and confusion that Guo and Wu faced in recent periods, hope that our world is moving towards a more tolerant, informed and empowered society.

1 comment:

Victoria said...

veeery interesting mark