This article is part of an ongoing series examining erotic culture in modern China.
Following the arrest and sentencing of those responsible for uploading and spreading pornography on QVOD, a well-known video sharing site, the Chinese government has overseen a widespread purge of sexually explicit internet content. In China, the production and distribution of pornography for profit is a criminal offense. In the aftermath of the case, Baidu and other cloud storage services have been thoroughly audited, and their users’ pornographic content deleted. These moves have laid down new obstacles not only to accessing porn, but also to educating people about sex. Articles on sex were dismissed as erotic literature and removed, references to genitals became taboo, and sex became synonymous with pornography.
The government’s official attitude toward porn — and indeed, toward sex in general — has had a profound influence on the way ordinary Chinese people regard sexuality. Restricted access to information and a long-held opposition to sex education have meant that the technological barriers to viewing porn are formidable.
While many men have had opportunities in college to watch or share pornographic content with their friends, most women remain mystified about how to get hold of porn. In addition, on average women watch porn much less frequently than men, and this significant discrepancy may be one of the reasons why porn has a negative impact on so many relationships.
In my experience as a sex counselor, I have had plenty of exposure to the attitudes held by young men and women toward porn. In some cases, girlfriends object to their boyfriends masturbating to porn because they equate it with cheating. Other clients worry about whether they watch too much porn, or about whether masturbating too frequently will affect their health. More troubling cases occur when one party discovers that their partner enjoys porn involving children or violence, leaving the accused struggling to explain their behavior. In China, possession of child pornography does not constitute a criminal offense.
The largest exchange site for online porn in China is Caoliu. In 2014, this website received 30 million hits daily. Porn viewing is not limited to domestic sites either: Statistics also reveal that the same year, Chinese visitors also hopped over the Great Firewall to visit Pornhub — a site inaccessible in China — and spent far more time watching than the average American user. Following China’s continuing crackdown on online porn, however, many users have started saving content to their personal hard drives to ensure they can access it again in future.
Alongside the government’s drive to eradicate internet porn, China has not yet begun teaching sex education in earnest. Even though middle school textbooks have a chapter on reproduction, educators themselves rarely teach it. A few higher academic institutions have run their own sex education courses, but teachers often lack the special training required to teach the subject effectively, and the content itself is highly simplified.
In comparison with the majority of people in the West, the attitudes of most Chinese people toward sex are rather different. Chinese people tend to be more cautious and prudent when it comes to building relationships, while sexual intercourse carries connotations of commitment and responsibility. This prompts large numbers of young men to remain virgins well into adulthood, or to abstain from sexual relations with their girlfriends. Instead, their sexual satisfaction may come from masturbating to porn.
The Chinese tend to have very romantic notions of intimate relationships, yet they simultaneously feel the burden of inheriting certain traditions. In terms of sex before marriage, Chinese widely feel that less is better. For many, a lack of sexual experience is a positive trait, as it is equated with protecting oneself from spiritual contamination. Similarly, having no romantic history leaves one “pure and innocent.”
This stands in contrast, however, with the fact that Chinese men prefer a partner who is “a housewife in the kitchen, a lady in the living room, and a prostitute in the bedroom,” as one expression goes. They hope that women will be dignified and poised, manage the household affairs with thrift, come from a good family and educational background, and also be able to show some initiative and creativity between the sheets. Sexual expectations merge classical Chinese aesthetics of beauty, in which women are portrayed as graceful and maternal, with the aesthetics of pornography.
The sexual responses of women in porn are often highly passionate or exaggerated, and this affects the tastes of viewers. Even if some men do not wish for a woman to take control in bed, they still hope for her to have a strong sexual response. I have had male clients come to me complaining about their girlfriends’ perceived indifference to sex, saying things like “She’s too quiet in bed,” “She doesn’t orgasm,” “She never squirts,” and so on.
Since women generally have less exposure to porn, they tend to be comparatively unfamiliar with the way it portrays sexual expression. Even if they are able to understand the roles men would have them play under different circumstances, carrying them out in practice is another matter entirely.
There is something mutually destructive in trying to strike a balance between being prim and proper in public and being sexually uninhibited in private. While some women are able to switch freely between these roles, for most this is no easy task. Some may ask how they can be sexy without being seen as too experienced or slutty, and indeed there is no easy answer to this question. But for many women, simply mimicking the reactions of women in porn would be damaging to their self-respect, as well as dishonest to their partner.
Chinese views on sexuality are becoming more complex and subtle. Part of this can be attributed to growing knowledge about sex, allowing people to better understand themselves. On the other hand, it is self-evident that large numbers of people who become more complex are reflecting more general trends of cultural development. This is the path along which China is currently progressing, and along the way, I believe people’s attitudes toward porn and sexual expression will develop as well — becoming more open, tolerant, and liberal.
A previous version of this article referred to QVOD by its Chinese name, Kuaibo.
(Header image: IC)