Change in the field of reveals not only a change of sexual attitudes and behaviors but also a series of related social changes via the process of social transformation. From the sociological perspective, there have been several main factors that have created the current turning point in the contemporary Chinese social context.
Since the early 1980s sex and sexuality have become prominent themes of public debate in China, after three decades during which discourses on sexuality were subject to stringent ideological controls.
The market reform and opening-up policy
China’s reform and opening-up policy has caused a series of great changes in Chinese society. The denial of the ideals of the Cultural Revolution, during which sex was used as a political tool for the control of the people, is an influential factor in making these changes.
Reforms in the area of sexuality show a lessening amount of government control over the individual private life. Many sex-related problems and personal lifestyles are no longer relegated to the field of politics and thus exempt from severe legal punishment or moral condemnation. Sex has been returned to the personal sphere under the domain of self-management. These changes can be seen in the weakened interference and control of the government in sex-related areas, strengthened sexual resources in the open market, a diversity of sexual lifestyles, and a strong appeal for sexual rights as human rights.
For instance, the government’s control of personal lives has gradually retreated since the passing of the new marriage registration principles in October 2003, which again simplified the processes of marriage and divorce. The committed parties no longer need certification or confirmation from their place of work or the local Resident Committee to get married or divorced. The pre-marital physical, which among other things once contained an indication of the woman’s virginity, is no longer obligatory. The new principles reflect a greater respect for human rights, a protection of marital freedom, and a change in the governmental function with regards to sexual issues.
At the same time, some major social policies have also played an important part. For example, the side effect of the family planning policy is to promote a separation of sexual behavior from purposes. If a couple can give birth to one child only, sexual behavior is no longer solely practiced to produce babies but also for pleasure. Changes in the legal code have reflected this while also publicly acknowledging sex as a pursuit of happiness.
Stable economic development and consumerism
Under recent policies, the social economy has seen stable and sustainable growth, especially in big cities. Material wealth and an increase in quality of life have brought optimism and consumerism which continually send messages to the individual that it is acceptable to seek sexual happiness.
Popularization of higher education
Popularization of higher education has become one of the major changes in Chinese education. According to recent statistics publicized by the Shanghai Education Commission, the gross entrance rate into higher education in Shanghai is 55 percent, ranking first in the country. Beijing comes a close second, at 53 percent. In the same year, the nation’s gross entrance rate into higher education has not yet reached 19 percent. More than half of the population aged 18 to 22 in Shanghai and Beijing can get access to some form of higher education. At present, only a few countries, such as Canada, the United States, Finland, South Korea, and Australia, have achieved such levels of higher education.
The impact of higher education has been significant. The younger generation may adopt a different sexual ideology from the older generation because they have more opportunities to access the human and social sciences. The government sponsored the conference and then signed the UN documents pledging gender equality, and official women’s organizations and feminist activists and scholars have been fighting against gender discrimination and working on achieving gender equality. Their struggle has permeated many aspects of the people’s social lives.
Mainstream feminist discourse in China tends to ignore sexuality issues, considering those topics either unimportant or as stirring up unnecessary trouble. Nevertheless, the critical thinking of feminist discourse has challenged stereotyped gender roles, including sexuality roles. The latter especially has influenced many young people. Such an increase in concern can be a double-edged sword for the sexual revolution in China. It provides both opportunities and risks. Sexuality has to be openly discussed because of AIDS concerns. For example, in the summer of 2005, China Central Television discussed the topic of AIDS under the title "Homosexuality: Confronting is Better than Evading." Scholars and activists have gained the legitimacy to talk publicly about the so-called "high risk" groups such as gay men and sex workers and have been developing strategies to work together with the government, replacing strategies of attacking the "evil" with models for caring for those at risk.
Sexuality, including homosexuality, has started to enter the public forum. The whole process is still ongoing, but it is breaking the silence on sexuality taboos. AIDS concerns also bring funding, and many organizations are working to fight the illness. The related knowledge and information on sexuality is spreading continuously among Chinese people, and it also strongly helps people to overcome the stereotypes, bias and ignorance regarding AIDS and health and sexuality issues.
References and further reading
*James Farrer ''Opening Up: Youth sex culture and market reform in Shanghai''. ISBN 0226238717
*Evans Harriet ''Women and Sexuality in China: Dominant Discourses of Female Sexuality and Gender Since 1949''. ISBN 0745613985
*Elaine Jeffreys ''Sex and Sexuality in China''. ISBN 0415401437