SHANGHAI — In a recent episode of the popular Chinese TV series “Ode to Joy,” which began its second season this month, Qiu Yingying, one of the show’s five young female protagonists living in Shanghai, gets dumped by her boyfriend after he finds out that she is not a virgin. His mother even says that Qiu must not respect her own body.
Even in 2017, a preference among heterosexual men for female virgins — or chunü qingjie, “the virgin complex” — persists in China. But there are signs that the trend is reversing. In some quarters, one set of social pressures is giving way to another, as young people are shamed both for having too much sexual experience and too little.
A still frame from the second season of the TV drama ‘Ode to Joy’ shows the character Qiu Yingying crying after her boyfriend broke up with her. The subtitle reads, ‘He asked me if I was a virgin.’
University student Mary Yang, 23, has encountered both perspectives. When she was still in high school, she remembers adult men openly voicing their preferences for virgins in relationships. “They made me feel disgusted and objectified,” she tells Sixth Tone.
But when Yang entered college, her more sexually liberal peers ridiculed her for being a virgin. Her university friends shared their myriad sexual experiences during games like Truth or Dare, but when it was Yang’s turn, she confessed, uncomfortably, that she had no stories to share.
Yang’s own view is that she wants to have some sexual experience before marriage so she can find “a more sexually compatible partner” later down the road. Yet while this is a fairly common attitude among young people in China, the larger society still believes women should remain virgins until marriage — an expectation that is rarely applied to men.
Since sex is an act between two or more people, the fact that there is an overwhelming preference for female virgins among heterosexual men points to a glaring double standard.
Liu, a 20-year-old college student who, like many others Sixth Tone spoke to for this story, declined to give his full name, says most of his male classmates at a high school in Nanjing held a view that he recognized as unfair: Though they would date women who had sexual histories, when it came to marriage, they preferred virgins.
The issue of the virgin complex has sparked heated discussion in Chinese online forums. A post about the “Ode to Joy” plot on Zhihu, a Quora-like question-and-answer forum, received a wide spectrum of responses. While most female respondents disapproved of Qiu’s boyfriend’s behavior, many male commentators were less critical of his attitude, seeing it as a matter of personal preference rather than a product of chauvinism.
“A preference for virgins is just a preference like anything else,” one male user called Betray wrote. “Some people prefer raw dates, while others prefer them cooked.” He added, however, that it was important to make one’s feelings known before beginning a serious relationship because “spitting out the date after eating it” was irresponsible. Another user called Lin Bai wrote that he would not judge other men’s preferences, just as he would not judge “women who go after limping old men for money.”
As in the case of the boyfriend’s mother in the television plot, older women are often guilty of championing the importance of female chastity. Earlier this month, Ding Xuan, a 63-year-old female expert on traditional culture, gave a lecture at Jiujiang University, in the eastern province of Jiangxi, during which she claimed that “chastity is a woman’s best asset,” and that “being a virgin is the best gift for a husband.” She was widely criticized after her lecture slides were shared on microblogging platform Weibo, with many saying she represented “feudal China” and challenging her to apply equivalent standards to men.
Longtime women’s rights advocate Feng Yuan explains that the virgin complex has historical origins in patriarchal family structures. Lineage was crucial, and there were no DNA tests to prove paternity, so marrying a virgin was one way for men to safeguard their genetic lines. “This ‘blood is thicker than water’ notion was etched in the Chinese mindset, and it still influences some people’s views today,” she says.
“In the patriarchal society, women were trophies to reflect male success and achievement,” Feng argues. The thinking was that virgins could belong to their men entirely, because they had never been ‘possessed’ by another man before. As a woman’s own sexual pleasure was not considered important, given her duty to bear children, it was thought improper for a woman to have sex before marriage.
Since the birth of modern China, Feng believes the nation has never fully resolved the tensions between traditional and progressive values when it comes to sexuality. “On the one hand, ‘New China’ advocated for gender equality, banned prostitution, and improved marriage laws,” she says. “On the other hand, it increased government surveillance in every aspect of life, blurring the lines between public and private. This resulted in people seeing sex as a humiliating act, and premarital sex as immoral.”
But for younger generations, especially those born in the 1990s and later, diverse attitudes are apparent. While the virgin complex continues to direct the dating standards of some, others say they have been shamed by their peers for remaining virgins.
Xia, a 23-year-old college student, says that though mainstream media portrays virginity in a largely positive light as a form of purity, among his peers, virginity is seen as a bad thing for both genders. His friends jokingly label virgins as “the leftovers.”
Teresa, 21, recalls that when she was in high school, it seemed that “every guy had the virgin complex, and every girl wanted to remain a virgin until marriage.” But things seem to have shifted since then, she adds: One of her close female friends has been living with a boyfriend for a year.
An ‘artificial hymen’ sample on display in Zhengzhou, Henan province, June 14, 2004. Sha Lang/VCG
College students now are also coming of age at a time when more progressive representations of sexuality are visible in film and television, mainstream media, and even on campus. Zhihe, a student organization based at Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University, attempts to fill the gaps in classroom-based sexual education with events, discussions, and its own online media channels. The organization’s WeChat messaging group has over 300 members.
For Zhang Hanzhen, the 20-year-old president of Zhihe, it is important for a discussion of sexuality to include both feminist and LGBTQ perspectives. For him and for other gay and lesbian members of Zhihe, Zhang says that “while [men’s preferences for female virgins] do not directly concern us, we neither understand nor approve of such a mindset.”
Every year, the student group produces its own version of “The Vagina Monologues,” based on Eve Ensler’s 1996 play and adapted to include stories from Zhihe’s members’ own experiences.
In a rapidly changing China, traditional sexual mores are simultaneously challenged by countercultural groups and defended by staunch conservatives. And while traditional culture promotes female chastity before marriage, contemporary Western media often scorns a lack of sexual experience. Building a truly liberal atmosphere, in which no position is shamed, is no easy task.
“Either promoting or denigrating the lack of sexual experience makes me feel uneasy,” Mary Yang says. “Sex is personal — I don’t like to be judged for it.”
Correction: A previous version of this story included a reference to a survey of Chinese men that apparently found that 90 percent of respondents preferred to date virgins, but incorrectly linked a different article. As no reliable source was found for the survey, we have removed this reference.
Editor: Qian Jinghua.
(Header image: Gawrav Sinha/VCG)