In China, Delicately Testing the Taboo on Talking About Sex

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 11, 2006

BEIJING -- In the studios of Capital Life Radio's No. 1 rated show, "Tonight's Whisperings," the co-host leaned in close to the microphone. "Tonight we're going to talk about love and sex," Sun Yan said in a deep voice, launching into a text message sent in by a student.

The young listener said that he and his girlfriend had experimented sexually the month before, but "both of us wore underwear." He wanted to know what to do. "What if she's pregnant?" he asked. "Will her life be in danger if we have an abortion? Which hospital can guarantee a successful abortion?"

Sun's co-host, the author and lecturer Wu Ruomei, clasped her hands together. She explained patiently that the girlfriend was unlikely to be pregnant, but she also issued a warning. Experimentation should be avoided, she said, because it could lead to sex, and then "you might be headed for a visit to an abortion doctor."

The exchange kicked off an hour and a half of discussion on a subject that is still taboo in much of China, even as magazines, music videos and the Internet increasingly promote sex to the country's trend-conscious youth. Adults, many of whom came of age during the ideologically driven Cultural Revolution, have struggled to keep up. The result is a growing gap between how teens behave and what older generations are doing to educate them.

"Tonight's Whisperings" targets college students but enlightens thousands of younger teenagers who are hard-pressed to find answers to their questions elsewhere. It also worries anxious, tradition-bound parents who believe too much information about sex will corrupt their children.

Adults now in their fifties would have been teenagers during the Cultural Revolution, a time of such puritan attitudes that couples rarely held hands in public. Openness about sex was already considered bourgeois by the Communist Party, which came to power in 1949 battling Western influence and the corrupt excesses of the ruling Nationalist Party. Under the Communists, the smallest romantic gestures could lead to a person's being labeled a "bad element," subject to persecution along with rich peasants, landowners and counterrevolutionaries.

"It was a very cold time. You did your romance in darkness, in secret," said He Guanghu, a Renmin University professor who was 16 when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966. By the time it ended a decade later, a generation of young people had lost not only their chance for an education, but also the ability to speak openly about love and sex and display the emotions of a loving marriage.

Even today there are limits. "We cannot say too much in the radio program and should be careful how we speak, in case some listeners appeal to higher authorities to cancel the show," said Wu, who has co-hosted "Tonight's Whisperings" for eight years.

Most of the queries come by e-mail or text message from listeners who want to avoid being overheard by parents or roommates.

On a recent Friday, there were questions about masturbation, sexual harassment and feelings for those of the same sex, as well as a question about whether a virgin bleeds when she has sex. A high school student pining for a boy she slept with two years ago was told to forget him and move on. A girl who had gone swimming with her boyfriend was told that sperm could not swim into her body and make her pregnant.

"Sex education in China does exist, but it's useless," said Zhang Yinmo, author of a best-selling book about high school sex and adolescent yearning. "They stand there and tell the students to read it themselves, or they tell them to study it at home."

The most common form of sex education today is a 45-minute class offered just once, in the middle of a physical hygiene course, in the second year of middle school. Most teachers are too embarrassed to discuss this chapter in the course textbook, which identifies body functions, periods and wet dreams, experts said.

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