And the response has been less than enlightened.
When 17 female students at the Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU), one of China’s most prestigious colleges, posted photographs of themselves holding up messages like "My Vagina Says: I Want Freedom," they probably didn’t expect to cause such a stir on Chinese social media. The women posted the photos on Nov. 7 on Renren, an online community website popular with university students, to promote an upcoming campus performance of The Vagina Monologues, U.S. playwright Eve Ensler’s controversial 1996 play. Each woman was photographed holding up a whiteboard with messages such as, "My Vagina Says: Don’t Treat Me as a Sensitive Word," "My Vagina Says: ‘I Can Be Sexy, But You Can’t Harass Me,’" and "My Vagina Says: Someone Can Enter If I Say So." The photos quickly found their way to many other social media websites, including Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, and generated thousands of comments — most evincing an ugly strain of misogyny.
Many male Internet users made comments passing judgment on the women’s looks and supposedly loose sexual mores. A significant number of commentators compared the students to prostitutes. One Weibo user commented, "If no one told me they are from BFSU, I would think they are whores." Another commented, "What are we teaching in our schools? Are they the future of our country? They are a bunch of sluts. I feel so much pain for how far the Chinese civilization has fallen."
Over the past three decades, China’s reforms have transformed the country’s economic and social landscape, with women’s sexuality increasingly advertised, commoditized, and monetized in the process. Prostitution is rampant and pictures of scantily-clad girls saturate China’s Internet. While a minority spoke up in support of the girls, the photos still offended a surprisingly large number of Chinese Internet users, who viewed the students’ open discussion of sex as another sign China’s traditional values were going by the wayside.
The commoditization of sex seems to have cultivated the widely held view that relationships between men and women, including marriage, are an implicit exchange of sex for money. One online commenter on the photos complained, "The reality is that some women can’t control their lower halves and open up their legs. But when it comes time to find a husband, they ask the guy to have a car and an apartment and also provide for the family."
Given strident online reaction, one could be forgiven for thinking China had never encountered The Vagina Monologues before. In fact, despite a brief ban on public performances of The Vagina Monologues in Beijing and Shanghai in 2004, the play was publicly staged from 2009 to 2011 in Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen to sold-out audiences, although producers sometimes had to omit the word "vagina" from the title in publicity campaigns.
The disconnect between the elite, educated women at BFSU who take a feminist view of their sexuality and the Chinese public that insists on objectifying it is real and troubling. Then again, performances of The Vagina Monologues around the world have often provoked uncomfortable conversations — and this incident may be an opportunity for the Chinese society to tackle issues of feminism, sex, and violence against women in an increasingly patriarchal society.