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Volume 95, Issue 1
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Open-door sexuality
William Parish says that in 50 years, China's sex life will mimic that of Western Europe.

When 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.

To 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.

The 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 principal authors.

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.

The 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."

Take 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.

Prostitution, 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.

In 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."

Pornography 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.

The changing 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.

But 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.

Along 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.

Even 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.

Chinese 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, is another.
- Amy Braverman



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