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Chinese Sexual Culture

Devin Stewart interviews sociologist James Farrer about a recent conference in Beijing on sexuality and implications for human rights and civil society in China.

By James Farrer, | July 2, 2007

Devin Stewart: Tell me about this intriguing conference you attended in China. How does it relate to your work?

James Farrer: Hi Devin, thanks for doing this interview with me. Well, the conference I went to was called the "International Conference on Chinese Sexual Culture." It was held at People's University in Beijing in the third week of June, and was organized by the Sex Research Institute at People's University. This is practically a two person operation, but still the best academic sex research in China, led by sociologist Pan Suiming, who has been studying sexuality for over two decades in China.

Actually like many things in China, there's a lot to be learned just by investigating the conference title. There are two things I can tell you about this conference title. First, although it was called international, the conference actually ran completely in Chinese. That is, all the presentations and discussions were planned to be in Chinese regardless of where the scholars came from. Actually this was great for all of us, because we got to hear most of the conference presenters speak their minds fluently and clearly in their native language. Moreover, many Chinese scholars would not have been able to function well in English, so it was a practical consideration. But looking at this another way, it is also evident that Chinese are confident enough, and China is important enough that foreign presenters were expected to function in Chinese. Granted, this was a conference about Chinese sexuality held in China, but the step towards using Chinese as an international language is interesting. I see that more in China than in Japan, for example.

Secondly, the title of the conference was originally planned as the "Conference on the Chinese Sexual Revolution." The university administration of People's University asked that this focus be changed to the more neutral term "sexual culture." The original term "sexual revolution" however could summarize many of the path-breaking presentations at this conference, pointing to the liberalization of sexual mores in China, but also to the broader political and social implications of these changes, namely the increasing calls for sexual rights, including rights for sexual minorities and people with alternative sexual interests. So the point is, despite this being a purely academic conference, it is also a forum in which important and sometimes sensitive ideas are expressed. And the topic of sexuality is still sensitive enough that university officials are careful even about the conference title.

Finally, the conference was funded by the Ford Foundation, which indicates the important contribution that foreign non-governmental organizations can make to the development of Chinese academic discourse, the internationalization of discourse, and the free flow of ideas.

Are these types of gatherings common in China? Are they growing?

This kind of international academic conference is increasingly common in China. The fact that it was an international conference held largely in the Chinese language might make it somewhat unusual, but the open exchange of ideas, increasingly cutting edge research and plurality of ideas is an example of the opening up of Chinese academic society generally. Younger students were particularly daring and straight forward in their work, and some of them engaged important themes such as gay and lesbian life in China and the policing of sex work in China.

What kind of people attend?

About one-quarter of the presenters were non-Chinese "foreign" academics. The rest were Chinese. There were also quite a few residents of Hong Kong and Taiwan, and their presentations on sexual rights and sexual activism by non-governmental organizations produced some of the most lively discussion and attentive audiences among the Mainland Chinese crowd. The local Chinese were also extremely diverse, including university based academics, but also many people involved with the growing gay and lesbian communities in China, sex educators, AIDS educators, and independent writers and intellectuals. Not everyone was from the "liberal" side on sexual issues. The audience and presenters also including a few government officials, and a people associated with government bodies such as the all-China Women's Federation, an important government body. There were no angry disputes, but some clear differences of opinion did emerge on many issues.

Is this a sign of change in Chinese society?

This kind of conference represents a huge and on-going change in Chinese society. It is not a change that has come out of nowhere. Some of these people have been working on sex research for twenty years or more. And some have been patiently and in a very low-key way advocating the expansion of sexual rights. One of the milestones that is frequently discussed is the abolition of the crime of "hooliganism" in 1997. This was often the vague legal code under which many homosexuals and some heterosexuals who had engaged in non-marital sex, were arrested or detained by police. Now gays, lesbians, and bisexuals in China can rightly claim that there is no law against what they are doing sexually. It was pointed out repeatedly at the conference, however, that in removing the law against hooliganism, the government never had to take a stance clearly in favor of gay rights, nor are there any legal guarantees of gay rights in China.

There are also some other conferences and meetings like this one. There was a gay and lesbian film festival in Beijing and there have been a series of very popular lecture courses at Fudan University in Shanghai explicitly dealing with homosexual issues. I was invited to teach one session in 2005 and was surprised to see that students had arrived in the classroom as early as three hours before the class began to gain a seat in the large hall that could hold roughly 300 students. So there is huge public interest in sexual issues in general, including gay and lesbian issues in China.

Are there downsides to these changes?

Of course, conservatives in China, like conservatives in the US, will focus on what they perceive as the "downsides" of the sexual revolution. First there is the perception in China, as in the US, of a decline in moral values. This includes alarm at the rise in premarital sex among young people, which is often attributed to the corrupting influence of "western values." Unlike in the United States, there is almost no religious dimension to these conservative concerns, but there is much more of a political and economic dimension. That is, some of the criticism of sexual "morality" in China should be perceived as veiled political critique. For example, while conservatives in the United States tend to focus very much on the perceived problems of youth, the focus of conservative reaction in China has been on a rise in prostitution and the phenomenon of keeping mistresses. These are practices associated with increased wealth, increased geographic mobility, and huge gaps in income. All of these concerns have a very obvious political dimension, because they are all associated with the neo-liberal, market-driven policies of the Chinese government and the perceived prevalence of corruption among government officials. Corrupt officials are widely associated with keeping paid mistresses.

As for the connection to sexual disease, I refuse to see the sexual revolution as the "cause" of the rise in STD and HIV infection rates in China or in any other country, any more than increased education opportunities for children should be considered the "cause" of the chicken pox or measles. To say so simply implies that the solution is to stop people from having sex (or going to school).

I consider sexual choice, even for college students, a question of human rights, and would argue that what is needed is greater education about the means to prevent infection, including condom use. Of course, some individuals may choose to limit their sexual exposure, and that may be a good choice for them. The "sexual revolution" that I am talking about is not about advocating sex, but it is about advocating sexual rights. This includes obviously the right to say no to unwanted sex and the right to sexual health.

You have argued that these developments signal a positive development in the level of freedom in China's society. Tell me about that.

I believe that sexual rights are fundamental human rights and also are closely related to other political and social rights. Practically speaking, the rights to sexual privacy, to free choice of partners before marriage, and to freedom of divorce after marriage have all expanded greatly in China. This has been an important factor in the increase in the quality of life of Chinese people over the past 20 years.

What is the theoretical or statistical link between sexual freedom and other freedoms in society?

Showing a statistical link might require too narrow of an operationalization of the terms of my discussion. What I am talking about is a causal and institutional link. Rights to sexual privacy for example are directly related to basic changes in urban governance in China. It used to be that your "work unit" and the leadership of your residential compound had a great say in how you conducted your private affairs. Now, your "company" (almost no one says "work unit" anymore) scarcely bothers with your private life, unless you happen to be a young rural-to-urban migrant in which case such interference by bosses is still a problem. Residential compounds also are now more concerned about maintaining property values than about how many girlfriends or boyfriends you have. These fundamental changes in urban social governance have led to greater rights to privacy in all areas of life.

Greater freedom of sexual expression also is related to greater freedom of expression in other matters. This conference I attended is a good example, but an even better example is the amount of self-expression on the Internet. Sexual expression is one example, but there are many areas of personal and social experience in which people can express their views with little fear of provoking a response from the state. Censorship is prevalent and sometimes harsh, and state censors are constantly improving their techniques. But the sheer volume of discourse is so great that the space of discourse can only grow. Take the example of homosexuality. It was virtually a taboo topic in the Chinese media until the advent of the Internet. Now there are numerous sites devoted exclusively to gay issues, and the sphere of gay discourse is growing steadily, despite the skepticism and lack of support from the Chinese state. To some extent the sheer volume of sexual discourse has made the topic more acceptable.

What does all of this suggest for the future of China?

What I suggest is that [philosopher Jurgen] Habermas is perhaps right. The growth of a public sphere is perhaps the central development in advent of a modern political subject who develops a sense of his or her rights and responsibilities as a citizen by participating in these public discussions. Unlike some skeptics, I believe the Internet is playing this role in China, but also so are many face-to-face discussions in a wide array of social spaces. People should not forget that even the Communist Party itself is a very large and heterogeneous organization, which also allows for a great deal of internal discussion of social and political rights. There were many Party members present at the conference I attended, taking all sides on the issues that were discussed.

Finally, no one at this small conference was advocating systemic political change. That would be a foolhardy and probably a rather unpopular idea. Both Chinese public opinion and the Party state remain deeply conservative and cautious. We also should not overestimate the Party. A single party state is powerful when it comes to maintaining order, but limited in staking new claims on contentious public issues. It is likely that progress in China in human rights in China will take place in the arenas in which there is a very wide public consensus and in which a large number of urban dwellers have a personal stake. Sexual rights is a good example.

In the area of sexual rights, points of general consensus now include the right to no-contest divorce and the right to have intimate relationships before marriage. The right to divorce was present in the early egalitarian visions of Chinese socialism, but recent changes in the law represent a more liberal and individualistic approach that has developed in the past twenty years. The rights of homosexuals to marry are not included in this social consensus. But there seems to be ever-greater consensus around the rights of homosexuals not to marry people of the opposite sex just out of social and familial pressure and the rights of homosexuals to live their lives undisturbed by law-enforcement.

Other sexual rights that were debated at the conference include discussions of the rights of prostitutes. Here public opinion is very split, and the state is likely to remain very cautious about making any changes in laws governing prostitution or pornography, or other issues on which social consensus is lacking.

James Farrer, author of Opening Up: Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform in Shanghai, is associate professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, specializing in Chinese society.

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Read More: Culture, Ethics, Gender, Health, Human Rights, China, Asia

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