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Sex and the Chinese Woman

Updated: Nov 14, 2022

When CH (Taiwanese, who has been traveling to mainland China for many years and who now lives in Shanghai, co-author of this article) was struck by the impulse-purchase-inducing placement of condom brands near CVS cash registers when she first traveled to mainland China. “Hadn’t expected the mainland to be that liberal now…” went through her mind at the time. Many years ago...

And even before the spread of convenience stores in Shanghai and other Chinese cities in the early 2000s, Holger (co-author, who has been working and living in Shanghai since 1996) observed the ubiquitous presence of condom products in Mom’n’Pop stores everywhere in the late 90s – of course, that was actively encouraged by the Family Planning Commission at the time, a nudging reminder to couples to limit their offspring to one child only.

Non-commercial sex (prostitution, although rampant, was and is illegal) had become much less regulated than in the 80s, and by the late 90s one would occasionally even stumble upon low-key sexual advice published in the mainstream media.

In the mid 00s, having sex in office buildings’ restrooms became popular among high school students in larger cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou, and during deep dive consumer interviews that we conducted for various brands over the years, young male and female adults often openly professed to having frequently visited hour hotels situated close to university campuses.

Young adults—society overall, in fact—had openly embraced sex, people experimented and talked about it, and women and men of all ages actively sought sexual fulfillment whenever they could and wanted.

However, the 2022 “中国人私生活质量调查报告 Chinese Private Life Quality Survey”, released by Beijing University and Shanghai Fudan University, suggests new insights concerning sexual perceptions and behavior in China today:

Members of Higher Socio-Economic Classes show Less Interest in Sex

In CH’s psychological counseling work—and whenever related to sexual matters—she finds that clients with university education feel less able to deal with sexual matters, let alone solve related problems. Mothers often tell her that although they are aware of the importance of sexual enlightenment, they have no idea how to talk to their kids about sex, and a worryingly large number of parents today do not engage in communication about the topic with their kids. Ever.

A young teacher who once attended CH’s workshop on sexual and emotional well-being, told her: “Kids in fifth and sixth grade already talk about kissing, embracing, flattering, and so on, my generation never even thought about those things at that age, and some of the stuff those kids discuss today, we weren’t even aware of in our early 20s.

Whenever CH asks her adult clients about the quality of their sex lives, she often hears things like “I’ve given birth already, sex is not on my mind any longer”, or “I don’t really think about the quality of sex”, or “once you get married, interest in sex dissipates and disappears anyway.

With lack of constructive sex talk within the education system in China, and with less access to related sexual inspiration and experimentation (compared to some Western cultures), many feel little motivation to explore a correlation of sexual fulfillment with one’s overall quality of life. As for that apparent loss of interest in sex among married couples, we shall offer further insights below.

Gen Z are NOT the Sexually most Active Cohort

The university survey results indicate that less than 9% of men and women aged 28-52 (and who have a steady partner) have not had sex within the past 12 months, while 15% of males and 10% of females aged 18-27 with a partner have been abstinent in the past year.

Among men and women who have sex less than once a month (also in steady relationships), males aged 52+ occupy first place, followed by males aged 43-51, and with young men in the 18-27 bracket occupying a surprising third place (11% of that age group).

Another interesting phenomenon: cohorts leading the behavioral category of having sex at least once a day are males at the older end of the spectrum, those aged 52+, and females at the younger end, those aged 18-27.

Which perhaps begs the question, for certain age and gender segments: who has sex with whom?

A common phenomenon is, of course, older males wanting sex with younger females, but what about middle-aged and older women? We also need to bear in mind that older males have the tendency to wildly exaggerate their sexual prowess, and whatever truth may be hiding behind some of those (self-claimed) data, women and men experience different sexual needs and behave differently at various points in their lives.

For an increasing number of adult Chinese men and women, other activities and hobbies such as taking care of pets and engaging in various forms of (non-sexual) entertainment have become substitutes for sex—and so has masturbation, although perhaps not for all, as mostly younger men and women openly admit as such.

A 996 work culture in fast-paced urban China (from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week), the phenomenon of ‘内卷 nei juan’, or inversion (when increased effort leads to diminishing output), the struggle to succeed in a highly competitive society, kids’ educational pressures and other challenging life realities have significantly contributed to the decline and even destruction of many couples' sex lives.

Couples don’t think about sex any longer, many exist in empty shell marriages, living together like roommates focused on their own separate lives.

Male '知乎 Zhi Hu' blogger Yu Zhixi shared the following during a podcast: “In my marriage, sex is...another form of entertainment and that’s it. Today, people should focus on creating something instead of leading dissipated lives. I think having sex every day is too self-indulgent, almost debauched. People should lead more disciplined lives.”

Sex is debauchery, a waste of time. Interesting times.

In view of the above (mostly self-claimed) behaviors and attitudes, a ubiquitous social phenomenon becomes decidedly fascinating upon closer scrutiny: extra-marital affairs, among both women and men.

Based on unofficial data, more than half of all married men and women (urban dwellers aged 35 and above) have experienced extra-marital sex, either in the form of a short-lived ONS or longer romantic relationships.

One of the reasons for such affairs, by our observation, is the fact that many wives and husbands have come to question the veracity of their marital choices (at the time often under parental and social pressure to get married by age 30), resulting in emotional estrangement from their partners not long after getting married and having kids. Unwilling to divorce—for reasons related to money, kids or even social image—many choose to seek sexual and emotional solace elsewhere while maintaining their empty shell marriages.

And it seems to work fine, men and women who we have been interviewing over the years consider extra-marital sex and relationships as beneficial to their ability to handle life and maintain their sanity, that is take care of their overall emotional well-being.

We expect extra-marital relationships to keep rising in the coming years and even grow in importance as an important 'lifestyle' element—as well as the number of (as yet unmarried) young adults who seriously consider singlehood as a long-term life plan.

Sex Versus Love: Conscious 'Divestiture' among Younger Adults?

Among the Chinese Gen Z (the post 95/00 generation), both women and men separate sexual and emotional needs. Sex does not require love they find, and many enjoy sex for the sake of sexual pleasure, the fleeting thrill of satisfying raw sexual desire. Some do, however, also envision sex as a ‘magic pill’ that may (and is sometimes designed to) create feelings of love and a long-term connection with a selected partner.

Sex is both means and end, it seems: the single-minded means to satisfy purely sexual needs, but also, depending on which angle one takes, the innocently romantic or calculating strategic means to the end of finding lasting love. A blending of grounded pragmatism and a higher, emotionally-powered vision, a common mindset and approach to various spheres of life in China.

The university survey’s managers do have something to say on affairs and hurried sexual encounters, too:

Wishful thinking? An accurate observation? Policy disguised as 'citizens' feedback'? Some say hope (for true love) always dies last, others observe that ancient Chinese views on the ‘flimsy vagaries of love’ produced practices such as arranged marriage (which is illegal, of course, in modern China).

Who Should be (more) ‘Pro-active’ during Sex?

One of the findings in the university survey report states that both males and females want women to be more pro-active when it comes to initiating and having sex.

Interestingly, while young women’s attitudes have shown changes towards being significantly more pro-active as initiators and practitioners, men’s attitudes and expectations seem to have taken a bit of a turn in the opposite direction. Gen Z men in particular, show more traditional (that is patriarchal) preferences.

Why’s that?

One reason is, among young males in particular, the effect of the Chinese education system having re-directed its focus on increasingly traditional (Party-endorsed and propagated) values in the past decade. In schools and the mainstream media, patriarchal views, related perceptual frames and even ‘directives’ have brought back past ideas of gender roles, eschewing the diverse and creative lifestyle experimentation pursued by many during China's semi-liberalizing period under Hu Jintao in the first decade of this century.

Government agencies, with the nation facing a seriously declining birthrate, have recently been calling up young married wives to remind them of their 'duty' to produce children (and more than one, please!). This has, in turn, led some young men to hold more conservative expectations of their female partners, of their roles in society and marriage as well as sex.

Those men feel somewhat turned off by women who hold and insist on clear (and often individualistic) ideas of life, sex and marriage—and, more importantly, many young Chinese women refuse to accept the resurgence of patriarchal ideas, and they refuse to accept men who hold such ideas as long-term partners.

When those men are faced with independent women who only want but don’t need men, and who decline to pander to male ideas of ‘submissive femininity’, they feel threatened—because to them sex is an act of male dominance during which they need to retain control, as opposed to how an increasing number of young Chinese women see it today: physical and emotional pleasure, and a way to connect not only with one’s partner but with oneself in a most authentic and intimate way.

The good thing is (in our view) that many Chinese women will not accept a return to traditionally prescribed or expected female submissiveness, but this will likely lead to more tension between the genders, and it will also result in more women choosing singlehood to maintain the quality of life, sex and (short- or long-term) relationships.

The Rise of ‘Sexual Equality’

Apart from Chinese women pro-actively initiating (and leading) the sexual act, another part of the university survey touched upon the issue of ‘faking an orgasm to please the male partner’. Compared to Chinese women born in the 70s and 80s, the post-90s claim to less often fake an orgasm—and some of their male peers also claim to put more effort into making their female partners enjoy a genuine climactic experience.

Young Chinese women today clearly seek a higher quality of sex, they want to fully satisfy their sexual and emotional needs, and they refuse to pander to male (heroic but illusory) visions of control and dominance.

17% of Chinese Gen Z women seek a sexual partner on the internet, and so do 19% of their male peers. Compare that to those born in the 1980s: a whooping 34% of men aged 35+ seek sexual encounters via the internet, while only 11% of their female peers (dare) do so.

Such ‘Sexual Equality’ is driven by a pronounced sense of self-determinism among Chinese Gen Z women, and a focus on realizing one’s own ideas of what kind of life is worth pursuing.

Those young women refuse to yield to other people’s directives and expectations as to how to live their lives. They seek careers that they consider meaningful, and they desire to be with men they truly like and not for reasons of social status or other flimsy constructs that only lead to meaningless, empty lives—an epiphany experienced by many when they took a hard look at their own mothers' lives.

Of course, life is more complicated than idealistic ideas and reality tends to have sharp teeth: certain pressures remain inescapable, including society’s expectations on female beauty, or the fear of growing old without a partner, or the concept of a childless and therefore ‘incomplete’ women.

But to many young women in China today, enjoyable and fulfilling sex is an important and increasingly non-negotiable part of their female identity and experience.

Then, how about birth control?

Karex Bhd, one of the world’s largest condom producers, projected an explosive rise of condom use shortly after Covid began to confine people all over the planet to their homes. It didn’t pan out that way: January 2022 data releases presented a sobering (and decidedly anti-climactic) 40% sales decline of condoms during the pandemic.

The China Red Star Industrial Group, a business investigation services company, reported on the financial platform that during the pandemic, between 2020 and June 2022, more than 40,000 (!) mainland Chinese condom manufacturers went out of business (our guess is that many then started producing another kind of ‘hazmat suit’…).

Another interesting fact was shared by the ‘Southern Week 南方週末’ which published a report that almost half of all sold condoms used to fulfill their (pre-pandemic) function outside people’s own homes. Intetesting.

And today? Not only has the Chinese government’s Zero-Covid policy curtailed social interaction, but the authorities’ extensive tracing capabilities have put illicit lovers’ activities at serious risk of unwanted exposure and thus social and marital disaster. An important and interesting correlation: the loss of the ‘non-home market’ segment in China has clearly contributed to the serious decline in condom sales.

History, however, suggests that tampering with people’s sex lives may negatively impact the creation of ‘harmonious society’ (that is, an emotionally balanced society), and we have yet to see the final emotional and social toll of the government 's Zero-Covid policy, coupled with what many in China decry as a drastic reduction of personal 'free' space.

Among ‘legitimate’ lovers (that is, married or cohabiting partners), condom use has been on the decline, too, and a key reason is (and always has been) males’ obstinate unwillingness to use a condom as well as Chinese women’s openness towards other forms of birth control.

Implications for Brands?

Interesting times indeed.

Overall, there has been—and continues to be—a transformation of Chinese female sexual attitudes, expectations, and behavior. Self-determination is a key element, with women seeking a lifestyle that embraces sex as an important element of one’s emotional wellbeing and quality of life. It is a shift that Chinese men, inevitably, will have to accept and follow, lest they want to end up leading involuntarily celibate lives.

Brands that are willing and capable of building genuine emotional brand equity in China today (beyond short-term tactical sales efforts that only dilute brand equity) must address such evolving psychological and lifestyle needs of today’s Chinese women—and we are talking about all brands, in any product category.

It all boils down to her sense of ‘Identity’: who she is, how she experiences herself in a fast-changing world, how she manages her changing needs (again, not just sexual needs), and who she wants to be tomorrow.

The Chinese woman today increasingly seeks a deep connection to herself, a feeling of control and agency over her life path. Any brand narrative designed to create and manage a lasting emotional connection her must understand that shifting sense of identity, it must make the effort to decode her very personal narrative, to then connect at what we call ‘critical emotional-narrative-touchpoints’.

A brand that fails to emotionally connect with its female Chinese customer may (at best) qualify for a fleeting and forgettable ONS – more likely, however, she won’t even consider that brand.

As we mentioned in an earlier article, foreign brands are having a very hard time in China today, and it’s not about geopolitics, or nationalism or ‘国潮 guo chao’. Chinese consumers are too smart and self-focused for that.

It’s about creating a personally relevant emotional connection.

It’s her life, after all, and if you don’t make any effort to understand her needs, tensions and desires, you won’t get a part in her life.

Written by CH and Holger E. Metzger

Related publications and sources:

1. 「七夕」來了,避孕套市場仍處「冰窖」 這屆消費者換口味了?

2. 安全套巨頭銷量暴跌40%!兩年前曾發警告,結果出人意料

3. 中國人私生活質量調查(Chinese Private Life Survey)報告為「Sexuality in China: A Review and New Findings.」論文的一部分,該調查從2019年開始問卷設計到完成報告,共歷經三年左右,收集到6828份有效答卷。

4. Yu, Jia, Weixiang Luo, and Yu Xie. 2022. 「Sexuality in China: A Review and New Findings.」 Chinese Journal of Sociology 8(3): 293-329.

5. 結婚5年性生活誤區,我們坦誠聊一次

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