There’s this spot on my university campus that we’ve taken to calling “The Makeout Garden.” During the day it’s like any spot of green on the grounds of the ivory tower – a blip of green to contrast with the blase bathroom-tiled buildings of academic boredom. It’s full of elderly people performing taiji and students sprawled out sleeping during the morning and afternoon, but as soon as the sun goes down, it turns into a live re-enactment of an AXE commercial.

And I’m not really surprised. All of my students have at least three to five other roommates. They need to go somewhere. If it’s not The Makeout Garden, then it could be any of the “love hotels” positioned around campus. With their hourly rates, these establishments are perfectly suited for a few hours of privacy without having to plan around the schedules of five other people.

So I thought I stumbled across a veritable conversational class goldmine a few weeks ago when I found an article about how living with your boyfriend or girlfriend may be replacing dating in the United States. Considering the displays of affection I’ve seen around the campus and inside my classroom, I figured there were bound to be some violent reactions to the article, especially in this crowd.

What I got instead was a violent reaction I wasn’t quite expecting. A classroom full of flushed faces and cricket noises. Nobody was talking in their discussion groups.

Eventually, I was able to cajole my students into talking to each other about the article, or talking at all, but the rest of the class time was marked with a severe tinge of embarrassment. The very hint of sex, by talking about living with your boyfriend or girlfriend, shut up my entire class of normally very talkative students.

Some of them started talking though. They told me they never could, or would, live with their boyfriends. They were “traditional girls” who didn’t think it was acceptable and didn’t want to lose social standing. They would never live with their boyfriends because what if they got married? They would have nothing to talk about because they would have already had all their fun and conversations. Or my personal favorite – that living together is always a good idea for the man. Living with his girlfriend improves his health because she will take care of and clean for him. But living together is never good for the woman because then her health will suffer from his “dirty, gross” habits.

I was stunned. I know that my province is one of the most traditional and rural provinces in China, but throughout the year my students have tried to explain to me that it is their parents who are traditional, not them. Which is why I didn’t think the article would stun my students into silence, especially since they view the storyline of “Desperate Housewives” as normal American behavior.

I became more confused when I talked to my male students. All of my classes are the same – the students are all girls except for a handful of guys who clump together in solidarity in the back row. When I asked them what they thought of the article, they stoically told me that it was “real.” No tinge of embarrassment whatsoever.

One of my students, Victor, who I frequently call the Fonz because of his upturned collar and tendency to speak while pointing pistol fingers, even told me that living together was “normal” for university students.

“Most students in relationships live together in university,” he said. “I know several couples living together right now. I think it’s acceptable behavior.” His surrounding male gaggle all nodded their heads in agreement.

This situation repeated itself class after class. Most of my (female) students told me that they were “too traditional” to even think about living with their boyfriend or girlfriend, while others (mostly the male students) told me that it happens all the time at my university.

The discrepancy between the two sexes was mind boggling. I don’t know if it’s the fact that my female students didn’t want to “lose face” with their teacher or violate some social more. Or maybe my male students just thought they could will a situation into existence if they talked about it enough. Or maybe it’s a combination of all of those things. And why is there such unabashed display of affection in public, but tight lips and nervous glances when sex skirts the issue of a discussion topic?

The flustered faces got me thinking – there’s talk about the current sexual ‘revolution’ occurring in China right now, but what exactly is revolutionizing and how effective is this ‘revolution’?

Articles from Associated Press, TIME and CNN all have articles focusing on this ‘revolution’ with a date range from a few weeks ago to almost a decade ago. Surely the social revolution would have affected a rural province like Henan by now? And if so, why is a topic that’s rather innocuous in the scheme of sexual revolutions still taboo to talk about? Isn’t a benefit of this change in society the social freedom to discuss such matters?

If someone were to talk to just one of my female students without talking to a male student, then it could be very easy to walk away from the conversation thinking that cohabitation doesn’t exist in Henan and that its absence is not a big deal. You would walk away thinking that it’s almost like they’ve never thought about it and are embarrassed by the mere idea of it.

So what do young Chinese people want to revolutionize about sexual relations and is it a nation-wide movement? Does it exist outside of Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen? Or do Chinese people even see the need for a “sexual revolution”? And if there is a sexual revolution, what does it really mean if nobody wants to talk about it?

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About Emily

While fielding questions about Yao Ming and "Prison Break," Emily teaches English in Kaifeng. In her spare time, she tries to learn Chinese so she can understand badminton trash talk.

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  1. This is something of taboo topic, not that it should never be used or cannot be used successfully, in the classroom but it needs handling with care.

    I don’t know how long you’ve been in China or how much of the fabric of society and family life you have grasped, but some knowledge of these things helps. Try winding the clock back 50 years for the UK and you are probably on the similar level – but only similar. The two societies have not started out from the same position

    Unmarried couples sometimes do have sexual relationships but do not discuss them openly. I knew a couple of young teachers who had to marry in a hurry due to unplanned circumstances; I’ve known students who have been in trouble with the college after being caught in flagrante, so it happens sometimes but no one speaks openly and freely about that part of their lives. In my early days I would see girls wandering around the campus together holding hands, I would see boys walking around often entwined, but boys with girls always kept their distance, as if one or both had the plague. During the dark hours behaviour changed a little . . . . Things are a little different now.

    I’ve used personal relationships as a topic for debate on several occasions, from several angles and had no problems. However, I never attempted anything like that during my first terms in China and it was not until I had been there for quite some time that I felt brave enough or knew enough of what I was doing to try out several taboo topics. You definitely need to know your students – how bright are they, how mature, how well do they cope with new material, how comfortable would they feel about tackling topics that are normally out of bounds. One thing I should point out is that I am about the same age as the grandparents of most of my students and that gives me a considerable advantage. If you are too close their age that could put you at a disadvantage.

    One last point to make [this comment is going on too long . . . ], present the topic in such a way that they are giving their views on the matter in a detached manner, not talking about their private lives. If they relax, they might do that later but it may be as well to start shutting them up when that happens.

  2. @Emily: All this talk of supermarkets and yak-plagued lands of late … finally some sex talk on Lost Laowai. Nice!

    @Flotsam: 100% agree that if you want your students to talk about “romance” in any form a detatched method is best.

    There was a time before I settled down and married the most amazing woman I have ever met (points) that I was in the dating pool in this country, and I would like to firmly state for the record that what Chinese girls “say” and what they “do” are two ENTIRELY different things.

    From the point of view of being a foreign guy in this country, you tend to find yourself in situations where you are surrounded by a lot of laowai-lovers and the one common thing they all seem to say is that they feel they can cut loose and be themselves around foreigners – they don’t feel the pressures of cultural taboos.

    Couple with that the fact that (A) many people are exected to marry their first boyfriend/girlfriend in this country, and (B) everyone loves a little hanky panky, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for saying one thing and living another (in the dark – as Emily’s AXE commercial clearly illustrates).

  3. @ flotsam – I completely agree with what you’re saying and how it’s somewhat of a taboo topic, but that’s also why I have trouble with the situation. Isn’t the point of a “sexual revolution” the ability to change what is taboo to talk about? I expected them to not to talk to me openly about American couples living together as I’m their teacher, but what was most surprising is that they felt uncomfortable talking to their friends about it.

    And that makes me a little worried, especially living in Henan where HIV/AIDS is heavily prevalent. If young people are embarrassed to talk about sex with their friends (which calls into question the validity of the label ‘revolution’), it makes me wonder about sex education, STI prevention and protection against unwanted pregnancies. To me, one of the benefits of a sexually open society is information dissemination about these things. And that should be a big deal, especially in a province like Henan – the most populated province in China and a province with one of the highest rates of HIV prevalence.

    I don’t really know what to do about it, but it’ll be interesting to see how things develop here in the next couple of years.

  4. “a sexually open society” this isn’t.

    I find sometimes I joke about having had a few girlfriends and such and my students laugh about it, but I would guess that sometimes they are thinking it that maybe I am not a good person.

    If I had 1 fen for all the times I have heard, “We are Chinese, we are traditional” I would be a very rich man.

    So I think Ryan’s got it, say one thing, maybe do another.

  5. The whole “I’m too traditional” thing is pure social conditioning. Sexuality is still repressed in many parts of the society. Especially woman are afraid of telling their inner believes and instead often just say what they heard from their mothers and from certain TV rolemodels “I’m traditional”.

    I’ve experienced it myself quite often. I heard the “I’m traditional” line , but once I established a good connection to a woman, after I told her my own thoughts and made her clear that I won’t judge her in any way, the conversation became much more open.

    The problem in a group is, not only You have to make a good connection to the woman, but the woman should also have an open minded, unjudgemental connection to EVERYONE who is also present. Until this is not given (even one person can destroy the openness), You will keep hearing the “I’m so traditional” line.

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