Sexuality research and activism in China
In late September 2011, Sexuality Policy Watch promoted an Inter-Regional Dialogue about Sexuality and Geopolitics, to share and discuss some of the outcomes of the previous three Regional dialogues held in Asia, Latin America and Africa.
Two Chinese researchers participated in the debates: Cai Yiping, a feminist activist based in Beijing, who is a member of the Executive Committee of DAWN - Development Alternatives with Woman for a New Era; and Pei Yuxi, an assistant Professor of the Department of Social Work, Sun Yat-sen University (in Guangzhou).
In the following interview, Pei and Yiping share their knowledge of sexuality research, activism and related public debates in China. The interview focused on three main areas: critical sexuality issues in Chinese society; main challenges for research and activism on sexuality; and the connections between China and the world.
Critical sexuality issues in Chinese society
What do you see as the most critical issues concerning sexuality and sexual rights, broadly speaking, in China today?
Pei: As a researcher, I think the most critical issues on sexuality in China are related to how we look at the value of marriage, in a very practical sense. “Marriage” is undergoing much transformation and troubles these days. For instance, extra-marital relations are becoming very popular. People talk about it in the media and in their ordinary lives, and all suggests that extra-marital relationships are becoming increasingly accepted in society. But at governmental and academic level, monogamy and fidelity remains as core values that must be protected. In daily life everyone thinks and speak about these changes, people are saying, “oh, now we can do this or that”. But you can never seriously discuss existing marriage policies, or what marriages may become in the future. In my view, this is one of the most critical issues for sexuality research.
Another critical matter is prostitution, which can be portrayed in similar double-bound terms. Local governments do know that sex worker and prostitution exists and they unofficially accept these realities because they are profitable. But in order to make sure that socialist values and norms around prostitution are still on place, party leaders and other authorities are constantly saying that: “We can not allow prostitution to exist”.
Is prostitution illegal in China? Is it punished by criminal law?
Pei: Yes. It is illegal, but almost all karaoke clubs in southern China have contracted sex workers. The same applies to massage parlors and beauty salons where sex services are also offered. In these localities, the policemen and governmental authorities know these realities exist, but they formally ignore it. Today some research has started to be performed in relation to these realities.
Criminalization of prostitution in China criminalizes the women themselves, or just the exploitation of prostitution?
Pei: It actually criminalizes anyone involved in prostitution, including women. People who sell sex can be sent to reeducation camps, obliged to forced work, or else subjected to high fines. This applies to everybody, but in reality men engaged with commercial sex pay fines but are never sent to re-education camps, while women are. In recent conferences on sexuality, some researchers have presented empirical data informing that in China there male and transgender persons involved in sex work. But the government denies it. Moreover existing criminal laws just apply to women. Lastly since prostitution is illegal in China, research is not so easy and it is hard to raise critical views in relation to the realities surrounding prostitution.
Is there any other critical issue that you want to raise?
Pei: In China when we talk about sexuality we always talk about negative aspects of sex. This is a strategic stance because it is the only way we can raise sexuality issues in public debates, otherwise you will be seen as promoting sex (which is bad). But in reality, Chinese people think that food and sex are the most important things in their lives. Given that now we have enough food, it is predictable that people start pursuing happiness and therefore wanting to have more and more pleasant sex. This is being already recognized by academics such as Professor Li Yinhe, a very famous researcher. Every year she’s invited to a sex festival, promoted by a company that produces condoms and sex toys to speak about sexual pleasure and lots of people attend this festival.
Guangzhou was the first city to hold such a festival. It takes two or three days. It’s like a market place; you must buy tickets to get access and there are boxes with many kinds of sex toys, condoms and even movies, never porn movies, but sexuality educational movies. There are also entertainment programs such as, for instance, samba dance that is shown there as a very sexy dance. The interesting aspect is that, despite the formal party positions on sexuality, these festivals are s operated by local governments, which say they are promoting a healthy sex culture. But truth be said, the festivals are mostly about the condoms. There were already three festivals in Guangzhou and this year other cities have also started to promote similar events. But yet it was never presented in Beijing, where controls are stricter.
What is the public attending these festivals?
Pei: Most participants are male, college students, migrant workers but also ordinary citizens. They are mostly young people. It is very interesting, in fact, because the predominant audience is composed by either very young people or the older generation. We do not see too many people from the middle group, maybe because they are too busy making money. I guess this is so because youth is searching for more clarity and information about sexuality and old people never had access to this type of information. The festivals indicate that sex plays a main role in people’s life, even when government and the academia have not yet recognized it fully.
Cai Yiping, what are the critical issues in your own view?
Cai: Thinking from an activist perspective, the first critical issue in China today, is inequality, particularly in regard to access to health care and services. Some groups are highly marginalized and discriminated. For example, young people are not recognized to be sexual, or to have sexual health needs. There are family planning services, where you can easily have access to free condoms or even legal abortion with paid leaves. But the policy is exclusively design to married people, to couples. Also internal migrants are not covered by health care policies because they are designed to the“local population”. So the provision of health care is very unequal, but it is also inadequate. Even though they provide many of services, it is not enough. Especially, because services are not accessible to those who mostly need them.
Another issue I want to raise concerns the perceptions around sexuality, which constantly shift between danger and pleasure, which these days is related to the new phenomenon of commercialization and commodification of sex and sexuality. In fact there are many paradoxes at play. On the one hand there is a highly sexualized discourse in Chinese culture, which is in fact deeply embedded in tradition: Chinese eroticism. This means that people have enjoyed and still enjoy sex. On the other hand, not everybody has the same right to sexual pleasure, as this mainly applies to men, or else to those who have much economic or political power. For example, in the past, men who had money or power practiced polygamy. They had many wives and concubines, bought sex from prostitute and this as seen as fine and normal. But rural poor men, very often could not even marry because they could not afford the costs of marriage.
Despite many transformations, these patterns remain on place. Today with media and more information available people have started to demand a more free expression of their sexuality, we could say liberation and empowerment. But in reality what prevail are market forces, the marketing of sexuality exclusively for profit. For example, the sex festivals Pei has spoken about are not exactly aimed at promoting sexual freedom, they are fundamentally about marketing sex toys and condoms. It’s very economic, profit driven. Of course they have an educational function or dimension. But their key motivation, from the local governments perspective, is to promote the local economy and the companies’ profits.
Is there another critical issue you would like to talk about?
Cai: Yes. From an activist perspective, I do think we do need more democratic spaces for advocating for rights to information, to services, to sexual expression and diversity. We still face many obstacles in relation to “naming”. For example, commercial sex workers are always named as the “wrong women” or “women doing the wrong thing”, as criminals. There are also issues of naming in relation to the emerging LGBT movement. For instance as elsewhere in China today there is much discussion about the terminology men who have sex with men (MSM), which has spread under the umbrella of HIV/AIDS prevention projects. I attended a conference where some speakers from the LGBT movement talked about a major split in the movement, because on the one side there are those who organized around sexual identities, and on the other the flooding funds for HIV/AIDS prevention is catalyzing a new environment in which NGOs have been created that are not interested in rights, discrimination or political engagement. They simply engage in condom distribution projects for having safer sex and pleasure. This is why I think democratic spaces are so important. I do not see a problem in that different ideas or strategies are being discussed. But it is necessary to have spaces where these ideas can be debated.
Do you have in Chinese specific terminologies for non-conforming sexualities? The language has those terms, like you have in Hindi or in other languages? Or are you totally dependent on the international vocabulary?
Cai: We have translated a lot of international concepts into Chinese, for example homosexuality, gay, lesbians etc. But we also have invented, renamed or have given new meanings to old Chinese words. For example, there are two terms in Chinese to describe gays. One is “tong xing lian”, which is the translation of the English words “same sex love”. The second term is “tong zhi”, meaning “comrade”. As you do know comrade is highly political and very very positive term in Chinese language. During the Cultural Revolution era, everyone should be called the comrade, to indicate that people shared the same points of view and common visions. Interestingly enough these days the gay community is using and re-signifying the term.
But in Mandarin, itself, are there old words to describe same sex relations?
Cai: Oh yes! In the past, there were plenty of terms to describe homosexual relationships between men, women, with many subtle differences. I also think that throughout the history new terms reinvented and re-signified. In a historical perspective these terms varied depending on context and values, whether society, at that point of time, wanted to criminalize these practices or whether it was more tolerant. But we must note that in the past these terms did not have any political meanings. They were descriptive, they portrayed the phenomenon, the behavior, the culture, but were not political. This is why when LGBT terminology is adjusted to Chinese it implies the novelty of political meaning, which is important to the movement, to activism related to sexual and gender identities. But as I have said there are paradoxes, contradictions, even some disagreement within the movement about language and naming.
In relation to the Internet, can you say something? Are there web-based conversations on sexuality? Are there web-based activisms related to sexual rights and sexuality?
Cai: Yes. Right now the most democratic space in China is the Internet. Even though it is constantly censored and surveilled, the web remains the most realm in society. There are lots of debates underway about a wide range of issues related to sexuality, ranging from the gender based violence to the LGBT rights, prostitution, commercial sex work, among others.
Would you say that Internet is playing today the role Dazibao used to play in the past?
Cai: Somehow. But I think it is even more powerful than the “Dazibao”, because of of the scale of the web and the number of people it involves. The internet is definitely a tool for people to communicate with other people who have the same cause even though they don’t know each other. But yes we can say it is promoting a certain “cultural revolution”, because on the internet no one can totally manipulate others, neither governments nor single individuals, neither activists, or their political opponents. The internet is a very promising space, despite all the difficulties and the waves of censorship.
_____________________________________________________________________________________ Main challenges for research and activism on sexuality
What about challenges? Pei, what are the main challenges for research in sexuality in China? What are the main obstacles? What are the opportunities?
Pei: I think the most important challenge in terms of research is the difficulty in accessing governmental funding. Today the government has a bulk of resources to support high education. In our university such as other universities, local government and central governments have invested much on research, but not on sexuality research. So, if you are engaged in sexuality research you must re-package your proposal to make it look as something else. This is why HIV research has become so popular. But although most of my colleagues do HIV research, they actually want to explore sexuality issues.
What about gender research, does the Chinese government support it?
Pei: Yes, but mostly you must focus your gender research on marriage issues. The Chinese government considers marriage so important that all gender research funds are channeled to marriage related subjects, or family related research. If you present a proposal for any other gender related research, including labor market no one will sponsor you. There are some gender research centers, but when applying for funds you must name your research as marriage research. This is how we study other subjects such as, for instance, gender aspects of internal and international migration, we frame the research in terms of migrant wives or wives of migrants. Governmental agencies apply a very restrictive frame in this case. As you see, the public wants to talk and experience sexuality; researchers want to do to do direct research on gender and sexuality, because there are so many novel phenomena happening in daily life. What is interesting also is that today reporters and journalists are constantly trying to grab researchers to make interviews and speak on TV and many researchers have become public speakers, public intellectuals specialized on sexuality. I myself have become a reference for public debates. But there are still many funding restrictions.
The appeal is sexuality is very high because every day something happens that calls the public attention. For example, twenty boys raped a girl collectively or a man imprisoned six women as sex slaves; he made rooms in his basement and imprisoned these six women for six years. These are subjects we can easily address in public debates. But it is practically impossible to talk about sexual pleasure or explore more positive views on sexuality. On the other hand you can also think that when people’s attention is captured by sexual violence, it is maybe the case that this is triggered by some kind of erotic interest there. I always think about that. Maybe one day we will be able to do some research in relation to this aspect, but not yet.
Cai: One first challenge I want to address is that, as activists, we tend to be over critical of our governments of many institutions. Yet we usually are not so critical about ourselves. And I do think we also should critically reflect about our own activism regarding sexuality. For example, I do think that social movements are also fraught with sexual and gender normativity, including feminist movements. For example, normally when feminists advocate for a law to prevent gender based violence, they always presuppose that this family will be heterosexual, or that the relationship is defined by a registered legal contract. And as we do know, this is not always the case. The same sex relations also experience violence and a large number of people may be in relations that are not “legal marriages”. In other words feminist activists can also be caught by conventional ideas and mentalities. This is very frequent in China where patriarchy is so deeply embedded in the culture. Quite often intervention or solution are solely focusing on “men who have another woman outside the marriage”. People seldom think that there is a main problem with marriage system itself, or that men should take responsibility. What is the sanction that may prevent men betraying their wives? Instead they tend to blame the women: the wife, because she didn’t perform as required by the culture; and the other woman, because she accepted to be a mistress. The public discourse on gender issues tends to simply repeat patriarchal descriptions, even when is articulated by people concerned with gender equality.
And second main challenge is funding. This is twofold. One is related to the ways people operate in relation to donors: you do not define your own agenda; you simply follow the money, wherever money is and start doing the donor’s agenda. You do research on HIV/AIDS, or on migrant communities related to HIV/AIDS, or on commercial sex workers, because there’s money to it. And most often these are projects initiated by the international agencies. It can also be domestic violence, man engagement in preventing gender-based violence, or something else. You are all the time running after the available money and it may happen that suddenly you will realize that you do not know anymore why you are doing what you are doing. You have forgotten that you were engaged in activism. You are now a NGO professional. It is not coming anymore from your commitments, from your beliefs. You do this because you are paid. The second aspect, in the case of China, is the lack of governmental funds especially for NGOs. Pei has already explained how difficult it is to get government funds for research. But it is even harsher for NGOs because they are constantly controlled and surveilled because there is the fear that the international funding may lead people to take positions against the government. Especially in the last two years it has been extremely difficult for NGOs to access even international funding. Not to mention bureaucratic obstacle as it is very difficult for NGOs to get a formal legal status.
The third big challenge is how, as advocates or activists, we can confront the challenge of consumerism and commercialization. As I see it, in China we are torn between being allied with the State, or to be allied with the markets.
For example, the State is interested in family planning policy and marriage and, of course, these days governmental officials also use a human rights discourse when they talk about providing better services for women who need family planning service or in relation to domestic violence prevention. When you work on these issues you may start thinking that you and the State are talking the same language, but very quickly you will realize this is not the case. While you are concerned about the rights of people, the government is concerned about indicators and how to reduce the imbalanced sex ratio (the decreasing number of women that result from son preference and gender selective abortions). Or else, when you talk about sexual pleasure, freedom, liberation you may feel like you are simply being manipulated or exploited by the market. You may become a spokesperson if a festival to say how wonderful and important it is to control your own bodies and sexuality, but in fact they are not really interested in rights. They are really interested in profits. This often makes us feel bad inside ourselves. More than often we get confused about where are our enemies, where are our friends, where are our allies.
Is there in China a more autonomous activism, such as people gathering together even when they have no funds to talk about rights and sexuality and gender in the web, in the universities? We are thinking of movements that are not really dependent on funding…
Cai: Yes, today the Internet really provides a new alternative space for people to talk even if they’re not meeting face to face. There is a huge community using the Internet and social media. Especially for people that don’t have other organizing tools, for example people living with HIV/AIDS, sex workers and the transgender community, they are among the most active users of the web. Because they don’t have other access to the mainstream media, they don’t have space at all to say what they have to say. But once again it is double edged. For instance, some sex workers may also use the Internet to find clients and this may give the government more arguments for further web control. But we must not throw the baby with the water. We must recognize the possibilities and potential of these new web spaces, and not give the authorities the power to decide what is right, what is wrong, what is to be censored. We should also defend the web space working for us, not serve the interest of the capital. On the other hand there’s much more space on the Internet than on the mainstream media. If people are looking for information regarding sexuality, definitely it’s not helpful to read the newspapers or watch TV. They go for the Internet. Maybe in responding to Pei’s observation that middle age people do not go to sex festivals we could think that they are not there because they find what they need on the web.The connections between China and the world
How do you see the connections between China and the rest of the world in terms of sexuality research and activism?
Pei: As I see it the connections are very weak China and the international academia. Language is a main problem. I can listen to English and I can talk, but I feel very difficult to express myself in details. Some of my colleagues, who are very good researchers, and whose work can affect a lot of people in China, cannot even speak a sentence in English. We are still very far from having closer connections with the rest of the world. Maybe it will be easier for younger researchers, if they finish their education overseas. But middle age scholars in China do not have those connections. This is why Ford Foundation is supporting Chinese scholars to go overseas in the recent years. I attended the CREA Institute and now I am here. I was able to think of many issues in the past few days, I feel proud of Yiping and of myself because this experience was a breakthrough for us. Usually when I have to work in English I would read from a paper, but now I am trying to express myself without a paper. The meetings made me think about my future and also about the lack of incentive for young women researchers that we experience in China.
As I am growing old, I am always thinking about my research, my life, my relationships and I consider very positive way the way the people in the SPW group is coping with these issues. Everybody is very active in academic and public advocacy and you still trying to do new things, in an independent manner. Everything was very new to me and allowed me to think of multiple positive ways to look into the future, maybe this is our future. And I keep thinking about how to make our voice to be heard in international academic spaces. Maybe we must strive to keep these connections alive with SPW and other groups, because both my colleagues and me need an international perspective.
My field of works is China. I do research on China, if I read English papers is always about China, when I meet other researchers that are doing Chinese studies, even when they are Westerners. This gave me the illusion that everybody knows China very well. But when I met you all, I finally understood that China is not so important, China is not so familiar. This allows me to analyze issues in China in connection to your analyses and experience. So the question is: How can I use international perspective to make us walk better?
Cai: I was thinking of what can be the value for Chinese scholars and activists to go abroad and attend international seminars and conferences. The first time I went abroad was in 1998 with a group of Chinese scholars to spend six weeks in UCLA Santa Cruz. That experience was really an eye opener for me as for the first time I met so many feminist scholars, doing research in queer theories; I met Judith Butler, Gale Rubin. Although, I couldn’t understand most of what they were talking about, I realized the amount of works implied in what they were doing. I realized the importance of being analytical. The same applies to the SPW meeting. The question is therefore: How we can use this to make our research and activism more substantial more grounded in our own realities. In the last few years I luckily had the chance to work with international organizations, I traveled a lot, met a lot of wonderful people that now are my peers. Most of these people were very interested in learning more about China, because there’s this big information gap. They always appreciate listening to you, even if your English is not very good, but people really appreciate what you have to say. I also feel humble in these situations, because I cannot represent China, I cannot speak for Chinese women, or Chinese sex workers. Yet people – quite unconsciously – think “Oh, if you are from China, can you tell us more about Chinese policies and politics”. I am always forced to additional research because I do not know about all policies in depth. So, I feel both grateful and humbled and always appreciate the outcomes of these exchanges.
Can you give us an example to illustrate what you just said?
Cai: For example, in the past, in China, the women’s human rights argument regarding health and sexual rights were a taboo. I was working as a journalist since 1995 and I remember the first article I published in Chinese mainstream media on sex workers and lesbian authored by a leading feminist scholar in the main women’s studies institute in China. She wrote a long article about the NGOs forum in the UN World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995. I was her editor and divided the article in four sections to be published in sequence and the last one was about sex workers and lesbian activists. I got a warning from the censorship department. They didn’t give me a reason why I shouldn’t publish that article; they just said that it was not proper to be published. I was really intimidated since that was my first job and I thought I would lose it. But nothing happened after that warning and I even got a promotion after a few years. The episode actually gave me courage. It taught me that you have to keep testing the boundaries, because you never know where the boundaries are until you test them.
Today health and sexual rights are not such a taboo, and the same applies to HIV/AIDS. Human rights terms that in the past you couldn’t publish were introduced in the public discourse. Chinese activist started to work on these issues after they started to interact with global feminisms and other social movements. New debates are underway in China, such as the problem of compulsory and sex-selective abortions. LGBT rights are definitely the newest conversation underway and this year LGBT movements have promoted several events to celebrate IDAHO. The groups organized some events where hundreds of people participated, such as film festivals. This is a lot progress even when we cannot yet parade on the streets.
I want finalize saying I have really appreciated the value of being here these few days. Although it has been a short time, we have learnt a lot, especially from Latin America, which is a very rare interaction for us. I think that one main problem of Chinese intellectuals exchange with other countries, is that they are quite US-centric and intend to only look at US, not even Europe. It is very limiting. Ordinary Chinese, or even scholars are not usually interested in other countries, especially in developing countries, the world that is beyond Europe and US.