In a nation where textbooks still teach that sex before marriage mars girls forever, Yao Sifan is offering a feminist take on the facts of life.
- By Amy HawkinsAmy Hawkins is a freelancer writer based in Beijing.
Until Chao Rong was 18 years old, she thought that giving birth was easy. After 10 months of being pregnant, a woman’s belly would “open naturally, and the baby [would] come out.”
“I had this idea because when I was small, I watched a ghost movie.… The women in the movie got the devil’s baby, [and] when the day comes, the women’s belly opened,” she says, now 23 and living in Beijing. It was only when Chao hit adulthood that a younger friend explained to her that “the baby comes out from a woman’s vagina.”
Chao’s experience is far from unusual in China, where sex education is patchy and more often nonexistent, says Yao Sifan, an 18-year-old Beijing high school student. That’s why Yao is on a self-imposed mission to make sure her contemporaries learn the facts about sex. Ignorance like Chao’s drove Yao late last year to start Rodoko, a page on the Chinese social media platform WeChat that puts out detailed, informative posts on sex and relationships to more than 1,000 followers each week. The name means “nutmeg” in Chinese and is also the site’s logo, chosen for the seed’s resemblance to a vagina.
The students Yao talks to through Rodoko are mainly from her hometown of Beijing, but ignorance about sexual matters is widespread throughout the country. Chao remembers a school friend from Jinan in Shandong province who, when she was 17, kissed her boyfriend at the time and was worried that she would get pregnant.
Given the state of sex education in China, it’s hardly surprising that such misconceptions exist. The national curriculum only requires that students are taught basic anatomy, and even then these lessons are often sidelined to make space for more exam-focused studies. What exists of sex education is normally delivered to early teenage students, before more complicated questions about sex might arise, and even then the classes can be loaded with moralizing. A textbook titled Senior Middle School Student Scientific Sex Education, which has been used around China since 2004, describes girls who have premarital sex as “degenerates.” This claim went viral on Chinese social media last year. According to Yao, “There’s no sex education at school.” When I ask if she was taught how to avoid pregnancy, the answer is a firm “no.”
Outside of the classroom, popular culture does little more to help young people learn about sex. Sex is very rarely depicted on television and at the cinema; foreign movies will have any sex scenes cut before being released in China. Last year, same-sex relationships were banned from being shown on television, along with what the Chinese government called other “abnormal sexual relationships,” such as “incest,” “sexual perversion,” and “sexual assault.” With nothing to learn from in mainstream media, Yao worries that many young people, as with the rest of the world, are turning to pornography for their sex education, a prospect that she finds “problematic.”
The consequences of such poor education are graver than a few funny anecdotes about belated biology lessons, especially for young women. Abstinence outside of marriage is honored as a cultural ideal mostly in the breach. A 2012 study found that the average age people first have sex in China is 22, which is before most get married (the legal age of marriage in China being 22 for men and 20 for women). Preventative contraception methods such as condoms and birth control pills are available, but their use isn’t widespread (it was only in 2014 that it became legal to advertise condoms on television); abortion has instead become one of the most popular means of preventing unwanted births in China. There are no national statistics for abortion, but estimates hover at anywhere between 13 million and 40 million per year, out of a population of around 290 million women of childbearing age. A 2015 study in The Lancet, a British medical journal, found that 37 percent of surveyed women who terminated pregnancies in 2013 were doing so for the second time; 29 percent for the third time or more. For Yao, “This is a very serious problem. It is associated with many topics, like sex education and women’s rights … [but] also with women’s status in society. If women can gain more control over their bodies, it will happen less.” The high abortion rates are also due in part to the now defunct “one-child policy,” which actively encouraged and often enforced terminations, and the Chinese government’s destruction of institutionalized religion. Confucianism was traditionally moderately anti-abortion and Buddhism weakly so.
There has recently been a small but significant public shift toward better sex education in China. The Chinese Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui drew widespread applause on Chinese social media last year for talking frankly about her period. Cherish Life, a new sex education textbook published by Beijing Normal University and distributed to schools, received media attention this year after parents and users of Chinese social media complained about its “unacceptable” contents. The book, aimed at 6 to 12 year olds, details (with diagrams) male and female sexual organs, menstruation, and penetrative sex and also discusses topics such as sexuality and sexual harassment. Negative attention hasn’t led to the book being revised or withdrawn — the publishers have emphasized that they want to provide sex education “naturally and accurately.”
Rodoko is part of this trend. “I have been always interested in feminism, and I wanted to do a project with feminism,” Yao tells me over the course of a conversation in which she uses feminist language in English with more ease than most native speakers, recalling the “body-shaming” comments she received as a young teenager that sparked her awakening. “At first I wanted to focus on women’s leadership, but then I thought that is a very vague concept. I noticed that girls in China don’t have basic knowledge about menstruation and no one ever teaches them.… They are very ashamed to talk about it.”
In designing Rodoko, Yao drew inspiration from the blogs she loved as a 12-year-old — many of which have now been shuttered or censored. Today, she cites the viral video star Papi Jiang, one of the most popular social media figures in China, as a heroine. Jiang has more than 44 million followers of her short, funny videos about topics such as gender stereotyping but had to curb her supposedly “vulgar” language following government pressure.
Yao says the feedback to Rodoko has generally been positive, particularly to her straightforward, educational posts. Anything that ventures more into the political arena, however, is trickier. “At first I thought we should advocate for [feminism] more strongly,” she recalls. “I organized a series of seminars about feminism and queer theory and LGBT [issues], and we invited many feminist activists, but then those seminars were banned by the government. They called our school and told us to stop it.” She was surprised that the local government had even caught wind of her event: “We only posted posters online. So they were actually censoring our WeChats. So any platform or movement is still strongly banned in China,” she says. Now she “consciously avoid[s] those very aggressive materials and just focus[es] on sex education.”
As well as posting discussions on topics such as sexual assault, contraception, and popular culture, Yao also uses Rodoko to interview younger students. On menstruation, she found that boys and girls were at first “very shy,” becoming “more open” after reading Rodoko’s posts. She knows that some high school students are having sex, but “they don’t want to talk about it,” she says, explaining that “slut shaming” is a more common response to news of sexual encounters than the bravado found in many Western classrooms.
Some of the most common questions she gets are about virginity, an evolving and complex topic in Chinese society. The popular Chinese soap opera Ode to Joy recently attracted controversy for a storyline in which a young man breaks up with his girlfriend after discovering that she had previously had sex. “How can I trust that a person who disgraces herself has the ability to love me?” he protests. Chinese netizens have been divided over whether or not they think this is reasonable of the boyfriend, with some suggesting that virginity is a fair requirement in a relationship as long as it is required of both parties and others arguing that virginity is just a personal preference: “Some people prefer raw dates, while others prefer them cooked.”
But talking about these issues can bring hard questions. Like any other form of activism in China, feminist movements aren’t tolerated. A group of women known as the Feminist Five were arrested and detained for 37 days in 2015 for planning a protest against sexual harassment on public transport. Leta Hong Fincher, the author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, believes that it’s not just activists “who label themselves as feminists” that the government is concerned about but also individual young women like Yao who “want more choices” and who are reshaping society by putting their own priorities, rather than the Chinese Communist Party’s, at the center of their lives.
But Yao is unlike many of her peers in that her resistance of the party doesn’t also entail having to defy her own parents. She is the only daughter of a policeman and an office worker who “don’t know much about what I’m doing.” Her parents know that she is running a sex education platform, but “they don’t ask so much,” she admits. “They’re not encouraging me. They’re just neutral.”
Photo credit: Amy Hawkins