On a humid July morning in Beijing, a middle-aged Chinese woman stands center stage in front of an assembled crowd. Through her wire-rimmed glasses, she gazes down at her audience, then reaches for a condom, theatrically checking for holes or tears and noting the expiration date on the packet. She then slowly tears open the foil and demonstrates the condom's proper application, using a wooden prop.
Li Yinhe, the woman in question, never thought she would see the day she'd be allowed to host a safe-sex education exhibition at a public institution in conservative China. A sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, Professor Li partnered with sex-education practitioners to organize the event at her workplace.
That it was permitted at all highlights a shift in "traditional" Chinese attitudes on sex and sexual health.
“The difficulty in pushing safe-sex education programs in schools exists because a lot of people still do not want children to know about sex too early. 'The later the better' – this is generally people’s thinking.” says Li.
At present, Chinese students are supposed to receive basic sex education, but the lack of qualified teachers and the awkwardness surrounding the lessons means that students' knowledge remains rudimentary at best. Li and her colleagues hope to introduce effective, mandatory sex education in schools across China. And international backers have been supportive of these goals – in 2010, for instance, the Ford Foundation granted $100,000 to Marie Stopes International China, an international nongovernmental organization working on sexual and reproductive health, to continue their work of peer-to-peer sex education. But progress remains slow.
Indeed, Li’s event was not popular, and it was ultimately closed to the public. Most of the chairs that filled the large hall were empty. About 50 people, mainly sex educators and some university students, occupied the seats.
Sex education is a taboo topic in China, but analysts say public health statistics suggest that events like Li’s could help change that.
Of the 22.4 percent of unmarried youths in China who are sexually active, half have had unprotected sex, according to a 2010 study carried out by Peking University and the United Nations Population Fund.
The same study reports that 20 percent of unmarried women who have sex get pregnant, and 91 percent of those women resort to abortion.
Poor knowledge of contraceptives and sex education contribute to high rates of unwanted pregnancies. According to the State Family Planning Commission’s Science and Technology Research Institute there are more than 13 million abortions a year in China.
“Knowing where to buy contraception is one big challenge, and feeling empowered enough to do so is another,” says Lily Liu Liqing of Marie Stopes China.
The battle doesn't end with access to contraception: A 2009 Durex survey indicated that only 9 percent of Chinese under 25 actually know how to use a condom.
The Chinese state provides free contraception and family planning advice, but only to married couples. Under Mao, Chinese citizens were encouraged to have as many children as possible. However, economic pressures caused by this rampant population growth led to the introduction of a “one child policy” in 1979.
The program has recently been relaxed in rural areas, but the Chinese state continues to pour resources into the policy, monitoring women's fertility, offering sterilization and contraception to married women, and severely punishing women who violate the law. Some advocates suggest that sex education would be more effective than punishment in preventing unwanted pregnancies.
“If the resources that are spent on making spot visits to people’s homes to check if they are hiding additional babies were spent on educating people about having safe sex, China would have half the abortions the country is facing,” says Yang Zhizhu, an associate professor at the China Youth University for Political Sciences and critic of China’s one child policy.
One major hurdle to instituting a sex-education program across China is just getting people to talk.
Here, talking about sex is uncommon even between young people, let alone families: Emma, a 24-year-old student at Peking University, shares a dorm room with six other young Chinese women, but says she has “absolutely no idea” about the sex lives of even her closest friends.
However, there is some evidence that entrenched attitudes are beginning to change. In some places, young people are starting to publicly engage in conversations on the matter.
Sex shops are increasingly popular in big cities and are a venue for just that. One such establishment is Ma’s Powerful Sex Shop in Beijing. The young owner, Ma Jiaji, says attitudes toward sex are changing, especially among the middle and upper class young people. “We … use humor in a way that encourages buyers to share their needs and ask questions,” she says.
But Ma’s sexually savvy clientele remain the minority.
Peng Xizhe, dean at the School of Social Development and Public Policy at Fudan University, says that until government funnels resources into safe-sex awareness in China, efforts to stop people from having multiple children cannot be entirely successful.
“The government needs to look at an effective administrative system of providing family planning services.” Dr. Peng says.