Back in January, with my birthday approaching, I decided to organize something fashionable and interesting: a sex toy party for myself and five friends.
I invited two guys and three girls to the event. One guy said he’d get me a new sex toy for my birthday, but turned up holding a bottle of wine, having walked through downtown Shenzhen for several hours without finding a single sex shop. Although the southern Chinese city is cosmopolitan, it’s different from past places I’ve visited like Sydney or Philadelphia — or even Shanghai — where I could easily find adult shops in downtown areas. A female friend dispelled the awkwardness the guy felt by explaining that Shenzhen now has an online service that delivers sex toys to your door within 40 minutes of purchase.
I laid out 10 sex toys in my apartment. Some were from my personal collection, others were sample products sent by friends who work in the adult toy industry, and a few were inventory pieces from my own online sex store. The toys included an egg vibrator, banana-shaped dildo vibrators, G-spot vibrators, and a vibrating endoscope for women. As everyone examined, fiddled with, and talked about the toys, the sounds of the guests’ laughter rose and fell along with the whirring sound of the vibrators’ motors.
China’s first out-and-out sex shop appeared in Beijing in 1993. A quarter of a century later, the country’s sex toy industry generates more than 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) annually and is the world’s largest manufacturing base for adult toys, although most products are exported. A whole town devoted to pleasure products will soon be open to visitors near Hangzhou, in eastern China’s Zhejiang province.
More and more Chinese consumers are buying adult toys, but most people now choose to buy them online and have them delivered to their doors for privacy reasons. Some might tell their partner about it, but to most Chinese people, the chance to talk about sex toys freely in a gender-friendly environment like my party is still a fresh experience.
In addition, the country’s romantic relationships are in crisis. China is home to more than 200 million single adults. Families strongly pressure young people to get married early in their adult lives, and many people rush into unhappy or unfulfilling relationships to placate older relatives. Millions of women face physical, psychological, or sexual abuse at the hands of their partners. An entire industry of expensive dating agencies matches Chinese singletons with one another, but rarely helps them find high-quality intimacy.
Too many Chinese people are stuck in unsatisfying romantic relationships or are unable to achieve their sexual desires. The nation — particularly women — needs to get better at expressing itself both sexually and emotionally. To women, our bodies are keys to exploring our own identities and building sexual confidence; if we can establish an effective dialogue with our own bodies, we can then use this physical awareness to better identify our romantic needs and overhaul the ways we conceive of single life, intimacy, romance, and marriage.
When more people reach this point, I believe that China’s adult toy market will grow exponentially. Right now, many Chinese women remain largely uninformed about sex, their bodies, and the positive effects of exploring sexual pleasure. As a result, the market for adult toys is geared primarily toward men, leaving the women’s market underdeveloped.
Last year, I visited a sex toy factory in Shenzhen, a manufacturing hub for international adult toy brands. On the assembly line, men were responsible for checking vibrator motors, while women oversaw assembly and packaging. I asked some of the women if they ever used the kinds of toys they make every day, to which they all giggled shyly and replied that they didn’t. None of them wanted to go into detail when I asked why.
The success of the Chinese sex toy market is inextricably tied to women’s ability to speak freely and without judgment about their use of such products and female sexual pleasure more generally. Women-only sex toy parties have taken place in a number of Western countries since the 1970s. Beyond representing a new business model, these events challenged sterile forms of sex education that focused on the mechanics of sex rather than the joy of it. Today, compared with China, sex education in most Western countries is well-established in the basic school curriculum, sexual pleasure is generally not considered taboo, and the public is broadly accepting of sex toys.
Since around 2015, a sex toy market geared toward women has emerged in China. Although little research has been undertaken into the demographics of Chinese women who buy sex toys, more and more of those born since the 1980s see these products as a way of understanding themselves better, exploring their own bodies, and taking initiative during sex. However, China’s adult toy market for women is still immature, as is the market for sex toy parties aimed at both genders. The women’s market will blossom only when conversations about sex not only involve young, educated, and middle-class women, but also rural women, female factory workers, and older women.
The stigma associated with sex traditionally isolated Chinese men and women. When I was younger, certain Chinese men used to tell the most outrageous sex stories — known as huangduanzi — at the dinner table, deliberately trying to hassle or even molest the women in attendance. Fortunately, times have changed, and many men now accept that huangduanzi are a form of harassment. In addition, women like me are increasingly becoming bold enough to bring up sex during dinner table discussions.
Of course, I am able to discuss sex so openly both because of the inclusive environment in Shenzhen and because of my background in gender and sexuality studies. I decided to host a sex toy party for my birthday because I wanted men and women to have a frank conversation about their sexual attitudes, preferences, and fantasies.
By the end of the night, my friends were casually talking about the sex toys. “If I bought one, I’d go for the one that looks like lipstick — it’s more convenient and way less awkward,” said one of my female friends. “I could bring it with me on business trips.” The guy who brought wine said he was already looking forward to the next party, saying that these get-togethers were fun. “I want to come along more often,” he said on the way out, “because it’ll be easier in the future to talk about sex with my partner.”
In recent years, as China’s birth rate has fallen, the national government has abandoned the one-child policy and allowed all families in the country to have two children. But a relaxation of regulations on new births fails to address the social issues behind low fertility rates. I believe that one overlooked aspect of the decline in births may be the country’s taboos surrounding discussions of female sexuality, especially those driven by women themselves. The more Chinese women spoke up about their sexual preferences, and the more Chinese men fostered comfortable, safe, and respectful environments for women to do so, the happier Chinese women would be. Perhaps this, in turn, would help them connect sexual enjoyment with the pursuit of procreation.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(People record a model displaying sex toys at the China International Adult Toys & Reproductive Health Exhibition in Shanghai, April.14, 2017. Xing Yun/VCG)