This year, after courses at my university were forced online by the COVID-19 pandemic, my teaching assistant set up an online chat group for my criminal law students to both discuss the course materials among themselves and ask me any questions they might have.
Things were going well, or about as well as they could be, until one day in late March. The first two topics we covered that day were intentional homicide and assault. Checking the chat after my lecture, I found few questions. I was relieved: That meant I’d probably covered everything they needed to know. So after a short break, I moved on to the next item on the syllabus: sex crimes — including rape, indecent assault, and child molestation. It’s a complicated topic, and I hadn’t finished before it was time to take another break. Glancing down at my phone, I saw more than 60 unread messages in the group.
Some were questions, others contained the students’ own interpretations: “Teacher, what charges would be filed for a rape between two men, or a woman raping a man?” one message read.
“How can a woman force a man to have sex? Forceful masturbation?” read another.
“There are probably more cases of women raping men abroad,” a student offered in reply. “In China, that’s pretty rare.”
“Maybe that’s because victims are ashamed to speak up,” another student responded. I saw others discussing what it’s like to experience sexual harassment as a man.
Swiping through their comments, I was reminded of my own time as a law undergrad in the mid-2000s. It was a running joke among students back then that certain professors really knew how to “explain Article 236” — the article of China’s criminal code dealing with rape. The provision is quite simple, but you can’t talk about the legal definition of rape without explicit discussions of sex — oral sex, anal sex, digital penetration, or penetration with a foreign object could all carry different penalties, for example — so teachers must make sure students understand what each act entails.
That’s a subject not all of our teachers wanted to unravel, however. More prudish lecturers merely mentioned sex crimes in passing, suggesting students should read up on the specifics after class, while the in-depth knowledge of their bolder counterparts became the subject of titillating gossip.
Growing up in the ’90s and early ’00s, sex was always shrouded in an air of unspeakable mystery. Sex education was unheard of back then: Even biology teachers sometimes opted to skip over certain anatomical details they deemed too embarrassing. So it’s no surprise my classmates might see a class on sex crimes as an exciting and rare educational opportunity to learn about sex.
In 2014, when I went to the Netherlands to pursue my doctorate, I chose to focus my research on child sex abuse law. Whenever sex came up in academic conversations with my mentors and colleagues, their discussions were natural and uninhibited. It was certainly a contrast to what I was used to, but I adapted.
Returning to China to take up a position as a university teacher, I found myself experiencing a form of reverse cultural shock. Shortly after starting, I was speaking with one of my new male colleagues on the phone when the subject of my Ph.D. research came up. After explaining I’d focused on age of consent law, he was skeptical: “What’s there to research about that?”
I tried telling him about how sexual behaviors have been regulated in some Western countries. Austria used to ban anal sex, for example. After it was legalized, there was a period of time when it required a higher age of consent than penile-vaginal intercourse, although that is no longer the case.
He cut me off before I could finish. “Ms. Zhu, it’s not very appropriate to talk about that here. Let’s change the subject.” At first I wondered what I did wrong, but then I realized he was just embarrassed at hearing a woman candidly discuss sex.
He’s not alone. As a university teacher, I think I have an obligation to clearly explain the contents of China’s criminal law to my students. There’s no excuse for merely skimming over the surface of sex crimes just because they involve a topic that makes some uncomfortable. Yet there are still teachers at my school who are reluctant to talk too much about sex, and by extension, sex crimes, in their classrooms.
Years ago, when I was still a student, this tendency toward elision made learning anything about the subject difficult. But the internet and media give Chinese young people today access to far more information than I ever had.
With more knowledge comes more doubts: Some of my classmates barely knew what sex crimes were, so we rarely questioned the provisions of the law. My students, on the other hand, are quite critical. For example, some of them argue Chinese law doesn’t sufficiently protect male sexual autonomy, as the current legal definition of rape excludes male victims. Others are raising questions about how sexual minorities, including transgender individuals, can uphold their rights if they are victims of sexual assault. These questions demonstrate a growing awareness of the pluralistic nature of sexual assault — the fact that it happens to different people and takes different forms is something I couldn’t have imagined as a student.
I take that as a sign of progress. But it also raises questions. Given the knowledge young people have access to today, how can we ensure the information they’re getting is healthy and accurate in the absence of sexual education?
Societal ignorance and our unwillingness to talk about sex inhibit our ability to recognize and prevent sexual assault, as well as our awareness of our own sexual rights. As a country, China desperately needs to promote proper sex education. Students shouldn’t have to wait until Criminal Law 101 to learn about sex.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)