I may regret writing this after I get about 一兆 (one trillion, yízhào) spam comments, but what the hell.
For you see, sex in China is not always free. And it’s the women I’m talking about. Sex in China seems to either be for money or financial/life security. There are two parts to this theory. First, there are literally thousands of brothels in Shanghai alone, and I’m sure a couple of million spread out across the country. But sex for money doesn’t stop there. Girls going to bars are often equated with prostitutes and there’s a good reason why. Many of them (the ones going there alone or in twos) are out for money. They play up a guy just like girls in lots of other countries would, and then either when it’s time to leave the bar or when they get back to his place she asks for money. By the way, I’m not speaking from personal experience, but have lived here long enough to know all the stories. (Believe what you want.) Then there are mistresses, who are also not free. The transaction may not be for cash, but she gets gifts that surely compensate her for her services, and those gifts are surely not breakfast in bed or gushy poems. Casual sex is not free.
Then there are women in relationships. Husbands provide something for sex: financial security and a kid. What women most truly desire in China is a child, (in Shanghai they’re not quite so fixated on boys) because it gives her legitimacy in her own family and acceptance from her husband’s. A child gives her purpose, to be a mother, when often she has neither business ambitions nor other goals (Olympic medals, charity work, inventing efficient solar cells, etc.) A woman who dies without a child is worthless in traditional Confucian culture. Modern lifestyle is slowly altering this perception of women, but the pressure to marry before 30 and have a child as quickly as possible afterward is still immense. In addition, women in China generally lack financial independence. This is now often secured via the wedding ring. (Women get a diamond ring but not a wedding band… they’ve not picked up the whole tradition – nice work De Beer’s.) Women can offer sex, and they use it to get what they want. I’m not saying it’s all they can offer, but in a society with low expectations, it seems that it’s all women think they can offer. I’m not trying to be controversial, but there it is. Men get sex, women get a ring, legal protection in case of divorce, and a kid. (I’m obviously not giving men a lot of credit here, but bear with that, it’s a whole other can of worms…. and mothers.)
I’ll wager that leaves about 2-5% of women in China who have sex neither for money nor financial security and a kid (outside of extra-martial affairs, which I’ve read are more common than one would think). What about dating and boyfriends, you say? Most Chinese 20-something women have one boyfriend in their life and they marry him. Many of the guys, though certainly not all, at some point end up going to the pink lit shops, for the variety they never got through dating I suppose. Again, these trends are changing. More girls date and have had a couple of boyfriends by the time they’re finished college. But they’re an extreme minority. The 25-year-old virgin is still as common as hot dumplings on a cold day. Pregnancy out of wedlock (or a guy who’s been tied-in) is a dangerous thing here, and families do not approve. There are no Murphy Browns in China. Sex ed is limited, so kids are stupid and ‘accidents’ happen, but they are limited, and quickly covered up by abortions.
What’s more, teens here are so sheltered and focused on studies that they don’t have free time to socialize with the opposite sex. Even today, high school teachers have an incredible amount of control on their students’ lives, and dating is strictly forbidden. Caught holding hands? A stern lecture and some phone calls to parents will dampen that romance. Kids go to university with no experience in dating, let alone sex. Until recently, colleges were as Victorian as high schools. Pregnant girls can get expelled. Kissing on campuses was forbidden at some schools, though these days universities have been at pains to explain that they’re not so prudish anymore. Check out this bit from the Shanghai government from March of last year if you don’t believe me. For an extended post about life at university, see Howard French’s post here. Unbelievable.
Anyway, back to sex. There’s very little of it going on until girls get steady boyfriends, sometimes in college but very often well after they graduate (that is, in Shanghai, it’s a different story in the sticks where younger marriages are common). So you’re 26, in your first real relationship, the guy is 28 and has a decent job. Where is this going? Marriage. A year later he meets your parents and you’re essentially engaged (there is no nerve-racking question with a guy on one knee and a couple months of salary in his hands being offered). So sex is had in a safe relationship; it will be compensated by the guy’s devotion to providing the girl with marriage, a comfortable lifestyle, and her own little family.
Girls with ‘loose morals’ are more difficult to find in Shanghai. The average Shanghainese are certainly puzzled by Western women, who are seen as free (lacking social constraints against free sex), but also often as misguided. There is not quite the same misunderstanding and hyperbole about Western women as in the Middle East, but they are still sometimes viewed as the Madonna (Madge, not “the” Madonna) or Britney, as if all their information about Western women was gleaned from TV ads and fashion magazines.
Times they are a changing, but for this issue rather more slowly than I would have expected. China is a country with a lot of cultural inertia behind it. Chinese women haven’t had their 1960s; there was no sexual revolution in China. Women got various rights because of the vision of Sun Yat-sen, and later, the Communists’ drive for equality. But with sex, it’s different. I suppose it always is.