Pledges of pure simplicity

December 21, 2001

China's sex-education policy has focused on teaching young people self-restraint rather than instructing them about safe sex and contraception. Joanna McMillan reports.

Earlier this month, World Aids Day was given full publicity in China for the first time, and after years of denial, there is finally official recognition that China has an HIV crisis.

Accurate figures are hard to come by. The number of registered patients is only about 21,000, but it is acknowledged that most of those infected do not register for "fear of becoming outcasts". Official estimates say that between 500,000 and 1.2 million Chinese have been infected by HIV. Though much of the early spread of the disease was through needle sharing and incidents such as the notorious Henan blood-selling scheme, official pronouncements tend to cast Aids as a mark of moral degeneration, laying the blame for it and other sexually transmitted infections at the door of "sexual liberation". Official thinking has it that if everyone was married and faithful, there would be no HIV/Aids problem.

That call for fidelity, however, is falling on deaf ears. Recent reports suggest that the divorce rate nationwide is 10 per cent, but that it may be two or three times higher than that in the major cities. As one Chinese social commentator put it: "In foreign countries in recent years, the phenomena of divorce and family breakdown have become rather serious, while sexual liberation has become popular and sex lives chaotic. This has given rise to abnormal families." It is just this scenario that the Chinese state is anxious to avoid as the country continues in its headlong rush to economic development, erecting a kind of cultural sluice gate that opens, it is hoped, to only those aspects of the West that are "appropriate for the Chinese situation".

Sex education is seen as an important plank in efforts to shore up social stability along traditional familial lines. But there is as much earnestness to remove what is seen as "2,000 years of feudal thinking" that turned a natural, healthy act into a taboo, as there is to guard against the dangers of sexual freedom.

This "two millennia" tag overlooks what was a flourishing ancient sexual culture, a past that tends to be disregarded because of its "unscientific" overtones of erotic sex worship. Contemporary sex education textbooks, for example, make little mention of historical writings, and when they do, the classical Chinese is only sparsely annotated so that the reader is allowed no more than a general impression of what are extremely detailed, if metaphorical, descriptions of sexual activity.

Any more than that would run the risk of being not only unscientific but also obscene, a risk that publishers wisely avoid, given that trafficking in pornography can incur the death penalty. Eight laws have been passed since 1985 defining and redefining obscenity. The most recent, from 1997, states that obscenity consists of "specific descriptions of sexual behaviour or obvious erotic incitement to sexual debauchery". Exempted from the definition, however, are the topics of human physiology and medical knowledge. One Beijing publisher has said that he is reluctant to take on sex education books because they are "just too much trouble".

China's first pilot sex education programme was introduced to Shanghai middle schools in 1980. It expanded into Beijing in 1984 and was formally endorsed as a nationwide project in 1988. Liu Dalin, dubbed "China's Kinsey" for his 1989-90 survey of sexual behaviour in modern China, found that 70 per cent of high-school students had received some sex education, though rates varied considerably between urban and rural areas.

The curriculum is dominated by "adolescent psychology", a euphemism for civilising wanton urges. The classes apparently have the desired effect - young people report an increased ability to regulate their sexual desire and to concentrate on their studies. The curriculum also places very little stress on contraception. This is perhaps surprising in a country that exercises a rigorous policy of allowing a married couple just one child. A recent textbook used in the training of sex education teachers devotes just six of its 367 pages to contraception. The inclusion of such information would be read, it is feared, as incitement to experiment. Young people are, in short, encouraged to understand the involuntary workings of their body but to make conscious decisions against its use in sexual activity.

A similar argument is put forward against the promotion of safe sex in China's high schools. Gao Dewei, convenor of the sex education major at Beijing's Capital Normal University, has argued that to take the message about condoms out to schools and campuses is tantamount to asking young people to use them. He believes that self-restraint is the only way to protect young people's sexual health, and that the same discipline can safeguard marriages against the destruction of disease and extramarital affairs.

It is this call to chastity until marriage and fidelity afterwards that underpins the instruction of the 600 students admitted onto the sex education teacher training course since 1996. Gao has found an unlikely bedfellow in the conservative American group the International Education Foundation. Together, they have organised a series of campus activities, including the mass signing of a "purity pledge" in which hundreds of Beijing undergraduates committed a "filial heart to parents, loyal heart to the motherland, loving heart to its people and to leave chastity unto myself".

The purity pledge activity was given commendatory coverage in the pages of Chinese Sexology , the journal of the Chinese Sexology Association. Set up in 1994, as part of the resurrection of sex as a legitimate field of study, the CSA works to "dispel sexual ignorance and move towards science". Last December, it organised a national conference on sexual culture and the media. This drew more than 100 doctors, broadcasters and journalists to look at how the media and sex education could be arranged into a happy marriage. The conference was held in Danxia Shan, a remote outpost of Guangdong Province. The long journey from Beijing was justified by the topological symbolism of the area. Endowed with a yang stone and a yin stone, rock outcrops famed for their genital likeness, and representing the naturalness of exclusive heterosexuality, Danxia Shan was, from an ideological point of view, absolutely the perfect spot. CSA president Xu Tianmu offered a positive appraisal of the successes of Chinese sexology, especially in the field of high-school sex education. He plotted a path for the future that tiptoes between the Scylla and Charybdis of the sexual repression of China's past and the dangers of the sexual liberation of the West. He also reiterated the naturalness of sex within marriage and the need for strong family values.

In the face of the Aids crisis, large administrative cogs are beginning to turn. In keeping with socialist tradition, this year saw the announcement of a five-year plan for the prevention of Aids, and last month, the country's first national Aids conference was hosted in Beijing. China's ministry of health estimates that without effective counter-measures there could be 10 million cases of HIV by 2010. But with Aids education hampered by draconian anti-pornography laws, morality will have its work cut out.

Joanna McMillan is a PhD student in the East Asian studies department, University of Leeds. Her PhD is on sexual dysfunction and the biomedical understanding of sexuality in contemporary urban China.

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