After decades of phenomenal economic growth and modernisation, people assume China’s conservative social and sexual norms have changed too.
And on the surface it looks that way; in the major cities the number of love hotels has exploded and sex shops are more common than teashops.
But mention ‘sex education’ to the Chinese, and they blush.
When I asked my parents how they created me, my dad said I was an abandoned baby and they picked me up from a trash bin. Believe it or not, this was a popular response as the other kids at school got the same answers. The closest answer we got was that a baby came out from a leg of the mother.
It wasn’t because parents were trying to be mean or nasty, but they just couldn’t confront the issue.
Parents still believe teaching kids about safe sex would only lead to premarital sex, so they don’t mention it at all.
My mother has never talked to me about sex. Even now at age of 34 she wants to believe I’m a virgin, even though I am sure she knows that’s not the case. She wants to believe that my boyfriend sleeps on the couch at my own apartment in Beijing when in fact I’ve been going out with him for more than a year.
When I was growing up, there was no real sex education. It was all about preventing sexual activity amongst adolescents.
Premarital sex was depicted as wrong and shameful. We were just not given the information.
Instead, at middle school I had a class called ‘physiological hygiene’, which taught us to prepare for physical changes at puberty. Our teacher would ask boys to leave the classroom at girls’ learning part, and vice versa.
Many of us believed kissing a boy would get us pregnant, and I even heard of a story of a girl who thought she got pregnant because she let a boy from her class use her towel! So I was afraid to kiss any boy until I was 16.
The mystery of sex was finally solved when a friend’s married sister told me the details and it took me a few days to digest it.
These days, the internet is the most efficient and private way for young Chinese people to find out about sex.
Although they can get a lot of information, most of it is not scientific but commercialised, and the pornography they might see sends a wrong and confusing message.
Unfortunately, sex education is still a taboo topic.
Many of my Chinese female friends don’t take birth control pills because they believe it will do serious harm to their bodies. Meanwhile, their boyfriends are reluctant to use a condom. Therefore they rely on men to pull out before they ejaculate…not the safest option!
The problem is once a Chinese woman gets pregnant, they have to get married immediately or get an abortion because a child out of wedlock is not tolerated by Chinese law or society.
Chinese people are not supposed to have sex until they get married. China’s legal age for marriage is 20 for women, and 22 for men. It’s the oldest in the world, as well as in Chinese history. It was meant to assist with China’s one child policy, which is now abolished.
Sadly, many teenage mothers choose to abandon their babies on the street because they are ashamed and they cannot face the social pressure. It is estimated 10,000 children are abandoned this way each year in China.
There are other dangers too: despite the total number of AIDS cases declining, among the young AIDS has spiked and increased by 35 per cent in the past five years.
The fundamental issue – the need for proper sex education – is not even up for debate, let alone being taught in schools.
In recent interviews I was doing on the topic, I asked three male university students in their 20s in Wuhan city, central China, whether they knew how to use a condom correctly.
They all nodded with confidence. One of them said when he was a child he used to put water inside to play with it, or put it on his penis for curiosity, but never used it for the purpose of sex. Another student said he only read the instructions from the box, while the third kept silent with embarrassment.
Chinese don’t care about appearing ignorant when it comes to sex. Knowing about sex can bring the heavy judgement of low morals from society.
But there are some brave individuals who are trying to change all this.
Professor Peng Xiaohui from Central China Normal University is a rare thing in China: a sexologist who wants to heighten awareness.
His lectures are very popular among students but wider society accuses him of spreading bad morals and turning teenage boys into homosexuals – a ridiculous accusation born of ignorance. A middle aged woman even threw a bag of faeces over him in protest.
Professor Peng says the core problem is that educators and the public confuse sex education with pornography and immorality. Even though sex education was written into law by the Family Planning department in 2001, there is little will or resources to make it happen properly. But Professor Peng is determined to go on with his life’s work.
Change is happening, but more so in the bigger cities like Beijing and Shanghai. The challenge for Professor Peng and other sex educators is to bring the rest of the country up to speed.
Cecily Huang works as the ABC’s China producer. Previously, she worked for The Guardian newspaper for three years reporting on the changing face of China. She has a Master’s degree in journalism from University of Technology in Sydney.