Sex and the Forbidden City

Adult toys a booming industry

A woman holds her marriage certificate, as couples participate in a staged mass wedding in Shanghai

Pre-marital sex is on the rise

In 2012 Xi’an TV got a phone call from a villager saying he had unearthed a strange double-headed mushroom.

The station dispatched a young journalist who dutifully measured and prodded the strange fleshy coloured object, before doing a piece to camera saying the suspected fungi bore a strong resemblance to the taisui – a plant that ancient Chinese believed was the source of eternal life.

Shortly after her report went out on the evening newscast, viewers called in to inform the station of the true nature of the object – it was a sex toy, not a mushroom.

Would a young Chinese person make the same mistake today? Arguably not. Sales of sex toys in the country are soaring with the generation born in the 1990s being the main buyers.

Vibrators, mini vibrators (known as bullets), Ben Wa balls and male masturbation aids are being bought in their millions. Highly lifelike rubber dolls are also doing a roaring trade though they tend to be enjoyed by an older demographic, Hong Kong-based internet magazine Initium notes.

The website’s explanations for this uptick is generational: after decades in which Chinese people subsumed their desires to the will of the Party, as well as to society at large, today’s younger folk have a stronger sense of individuality which they express through their clothes, their choice of career, and increasingly, their right to seek personal pleasure.

“For Chinese people born in the sixties and seventies, ‘sex’  meant

‘birth’ but for generations born after the reform and opening up in the eighties and nineties, this word, that has been an unspeakable thing for older generations, has come to mean ‘pleasure’ ” Initium suggests.

Some 70% of Chinese now have sex before marriage (up from 15% in 1989) and the age that young people become sexually active has dropped to 17 (though sadly most schools still don’t teach sex education).

The result has been a boom in sex-related products and services.

Taobao reports that it sold 90 tonnes of adult toys on November 11, the cut-price shopping day known as Singles Day and that sales of sex-related items in general are rising 50% annually.

China’s largest dedicated sex-toy platform Chunshuitang also reported a 100 % increase in sales last year. Boutique-type platforms such as TOIs, which target female customers, are also reporting similarly steep rises. The shift is a turnaround for Chinese manufacturers who for years have churned out the vast majority of the world’s intimate devices – 70% by most counts – only to export them overseas.

China’s sexual awaking has also spurned the launch of several by-the-hour love hotel chains. According to UK newspaper The Guardian, the Lots of Love hotel chain offer rooms named after the Shakespeare play Midsummer Night’s Dream and (somewhat incongruously) each is decorated in the style of a Swiss chalet. “We are not just a place to have sex or do sexual things. We want to create a space and a romantic atmosphere,” the hotel’s marketing director Wang Ziwen told the paper.

Perhaps as a bid to ward off critics Wang added his customers often choose to spend their wedding night in his hotel and his staff see guests proposing marriage “everyday”. Mind you, one of Wang’s hotels in northeast Beijing ran into trouble recently after it put up ads  saying:  “Extreme passion, extreme romance”. Elderly residents in the surrounding area objected.

Yet even Chinese who came of age at the height of Communist prudishness are being sucked into this new sexual revolution.

Elderly men are apparently one of the main demographics for producers of high-end, highly lifelike rubber dolls – some of which can be tailored to look like a younger version of a spouse.

Middle-aged women are also keen participants at so called pop-up ‘pre-marriage parties’ where knowledgeable vendors teach people how to choose and use sex toys.

Organisers of such parties are often passionate, even evangelical, about what they do, citing the high levels of sexual dissatisfaction and dysfunction that currently exist – and which aren’t discussed – in some parts of Chinese society.

“I want to save Chinese women,” the Global Times quoted Wu Zheng, the founder of boutique TOIs as saying. She says she has held over 300 such pop-up salons in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. “I have had women in their forties ask what an orgasm feels like,” she adds.

Men too are coming round to the idea that sex toys are not a threat to their relationships. Some 60% of all purchases are made by men but 80% of the products are for women, according to industry estimates.

Wang Pi – a convert to sex toys after he bought a vibrating bullet for his girlfriend five years ago – says they have changed his view of sex .“They have stopped me being a male chauvinist. I have realised a man should not be selfish and should take the initiative to please women,” he told Initium.

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