William Parish says that
in 50 years, China's sex life will mimic that of Western Europe.
China opened its doors to international markets in the early 1980s, it inadvertently
let in another modern phenomenon-the West's sexual culture. Signs of Western influence
are apparent, for example, in the changing lifestyles of contemporary Chinese
women, who read local versions of Cosmopolitan, and particularly female
novelists, who discuss formerly unmentionable topics such as picking up men in
discos, living with boyfriends, and masturbating.
quantify such anecdotal evidence of changing sexual mores, a research team led
by William Parish-Centennial professor in Chinese studies, professor in sociology,
and director of the National Opinion Research Center's Population Research Center-conducted
what he says "could be the first comprehensive, national probability
sample of sexual behavior in a developing country anywhere in the world."
Parish, who's been at the University since 1968, presented some of the survey's
results at a recent U of C Women's Board discussion on China.
idea for the study came from the 1992 National Health and Social Life Survey-dubbed
"The Sex Survey"-conducted by a team of Chicago sociologists. Parish
got a call from Suiming Pan of China's Renmin University, who wanted to conduct
a similar survey but needed a translator to contact Edward O. Laumann, the George
Herbert Mead distinguished service professor in sociology, one of the sex study's
In 1999 and 2000 Parish, Laumann,
Pan, and another Chinese researcher worked with Tianfu Wang, SM'01, and Kwai Hang
Ng, AM'99, to survey 3,825 Chinese men and women aged 20 to 64 on a range of sexuality
topics. Ninety percent of the respondents supplied urine samples, which were tested
for chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomonas to check against the respondents' self-reports
on sexually transmitted diseases (STD). The researchers now are working through
the data, preparing to publish a series of articles and eventually a book.
urban responses (about three-fourths of the survey) reveal "drastic changes
in sexual behavior among the younger cohorts," Parish says. Dividing respondents
by the year they turned 20, a likely age to engage in sexual behavior, the researchers
found that this trend began in the 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s. At this
rate China's urban population-30 percent of the country-"will look like Western
Europe in 50 years."
The numbers also indicate
China's rapid movement through the early stages of a pattern noted in other Asian
countries, including the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, transforming from
conservative, family-based sexuality to a more liberal, pleasure-centered system.
The shift begins with a strong, male-centered ideology that promotes male sexual
freedom while severely limiting such freedom for females. As women gain liberties,
they benefit from greater sexual satisfaction but also face body-image issues
and STDs. Parish focused on female consequences, he says, because economic, sexual,
and cultural development "carry more controversies for women."
premarital sex, "one of the most conspicuous markers of the degree of liberalization
towards sex." Among older respondents (those who turned 20 before the early
1980s economic changes) about 25 percent of men and 10 percent of women had engaged
in premarital sex, most with their future spouses. In the young group (those who
turned 20 around 1995) 40 percent of males and 25 percent of females had had premarital
sex, the women typically with their future husbands, while young men also reported
sex with short-term lovers and prostitutes.
in fact, has been on the rise since the 1980s. As more urban men have disposable
incomes and rural women remain poor, migrating to cities for work, both the demand
and supply in the sex industry continue to grow. Less than 8 percent of older
Chinese men reported paying for sex, while more than 20 percent of young men said
they had done so. In the United States, conversely, older men have employed prostitutes
more often than young men. The 1992 sex survey shows about 33 percent of U.S.
men who turned 20 in the 1950s have paid for sex. As the sexual revolution and
women's lib arrived in the 1960s, the use of prostitutes began to drop, and by
the early 1990s, when casual sex was more readily available, rates reached as
low as 5 percent. With most Chinese women not yet sexually liberated, Parish says,
young Chinese men "resort to prostitution for their sexual demand."
And many of these young men are married. The extramarital
sex rate was lowest for older men and highest among men in their 30s, indicating
that the opportunities for extramarital sex are a recent phenomenon.
the same vein, young men have greater access to pornography, which Parish says
filters into China through more developed Asian countries. Among men in their
early 20s, 80 percent said they had viewed pornographic materials in the previous
year, compared to 40 percent of young U.S. men. The pornographic materials, Parish
explains, give the men "something to model their behavior after."
also may help explain the pronounced increase in male masturbation rates. More
than 60 percent of young men reported masturbating at least once in their lifetimes
by their early 20s, compared to about 35 percent of older men. Women of all ages
reported little masturbation, though 30 percent of younger women had done so by
their late 20s. Both sexes reported beginning at younger ages than their parents'
generation, and "the gap between men and women will begin to narrow"
over time, Parish says.
Young heterosexual couples
also are experimenting more with sex. Ninety-five percent of women in their 20s
reported occasionally using the woman-on-top position, while few elders had done
so. Young women also initiate sex more often and are more comfortable with manual
and oral sex than older generations.
attitudes among both sexes, Parish says, mean that women benefit from greater
sexual pleasure. For example, 40 percent of older Chinese men and 70 percent of
young men correctly identified the clitoris. (Only 20 percent of older women and
50 percent of young women did so.) Fewer young women than older women said sex
was dirty, and more found sex satisfying overall.
if young women are more fulfilled by their sex lives, they are less satisfied
with how they look. Only half of the young women surveyed with a body mass index
(BMI) of 18-below average-thought they were attractive. Half of young women with
a healthy BMI of 22-23 said they should be dieting. Diet pills and plastic surgery,
Parish says, have begun to pervade the culture.
with prostitution and extramarital sex, STDs also are increasing. Fewer than 5
percent of respondents aged 30 to 70 reported ever contracting an STD. For young
people, however, the number jumped to more than 15 percent. The urine samples
showed that 7.4 percent of young women and 3 percent of young men had chlamydia-the
highest prevalence of the diseases tested. Among the Chinese most at risk for
STDs-urban men with higher incomes who frequently travel and entertain for business,
and the women married to them-chlamydia rates were 20 to 30 percent.
more troubling, AIDS knowledge is inadequate. More than 40 percent of both males
and females-correlating with those who were most likely to engage in risky behavior,
such as not wearing a condom with a prostitute-said either they knew nothing about
STDs or they believed all STDs could be cured. If the government doesn't step
in, Parish worries, AIDS rates among the highest-risk Chinese could rival those
in sub-Saharan Africa. Already the United Nations reports more than 1 million
confirmed Chinese HIV cases in 2000-01 and projects 5 million by 2005.
officials are taking notice. In June the Chinese Ministry of Health signed a "memorandum
of understanding" with the U.S. Health and Human Services Department (HHS)
to "promote enhanced United States-China cooperation on HIV/AIDS prevention
and research," according to the HHS. And though "after a while it gets
hard to put Humpty Dumpty back together again," Parish says, the plan is
a step toward reversing the trend. His own research, by exposing the numbers,
- Amy Braverman