Chinese Censors Really Don’t Want You to Watch These Sex Ed Videos
Educator Chang Mengran is trying to teach Chinese women about their own bodies.
Two doughnuts, one plain and one frosted with pink icing and sprinkles, are held up to the camera. The plain pastry, the chirpy host explains, represents a healthy cervix, while the colorful one represents cervical erosion. In another video, red-stained tampons pop out of wine bottles to show how the sanitary products work. Chang Mengran is fond of palatable metaphors.
While she wields desserts in explanation, the 32-year-old’s mission is to end the sugarcoating of anatomical information. Every week, Chang and a small team of friends broadcast entertaining, informational videos on topics relating to sex, bodies, and dating from their studio in Beijing. Since launching three years ago, their channel, Wei Zai Bu Dong Ai (Tiny Doesn’t Know Love) has amassed over 5 million followers online. But it’s looking increasingly difficult for the show to survive, however popular it is.
“Sex education in school [in China] is very poor,” Chang said, “and it’s not getting better.”
“Fifteen or 20 years ago, when I was at high school, we still had some sex education. But now it’s becoming more and more conservative in Chinese society. Kids aren’t getting this kind of education. It’s very shameful, especially for women, to talk about their bodies, their private parts.”
In 2017, some schools were forced to stop using new sex education textbooks published by Beijing Normal University after parents complained that the anatomical diagrams and discussions of homosexuality were inappropriate for their children. Sex education is not compulsory in the Chinese education system; if it is offered at all in public schools, it is provided by nongovernmental organizations or private companies, meaning that the quality can vary.
These days, Chang believes the biggest gulf in sex education is around consent. This is especially pertinent after the events of 2018, when #MeToo became a phenomenon in China. One of the highest-profile cases of last year was when Zhou Xiaoxuan, a former China Central Television intern, accused the celebrity host Zhu Jun of groping and forcibly kissing her in 2014. When she went to the police at the time, she said, they responded by telling her that Zhou was a good force in society and that her parents’ jobs might be at risk if she took the case further, so she dropped it.
In other stories, the issue of consent has been more ambiguous, prompting the need for the kind of nuanced discussions that Chang is hoping to start. “I have heard lots of stories from [women] who said they weren’t quite sure if they really wanted it when they first had sex,” she said, describing herself as “a pushover” when she was younger, leading to “several experiences of taking the morning-after pill and two abortions.” It wasn’t until she was “22 or 23” that she first heard about the daily contraceptive pill, when an American boyfriend suggested it to her.
Abortions and morning-after pills are widely advertised in China. In a country where religion has scant presence in public life, and where decades of a one-child policy meant that terminations were not just legal but a political duty, being pro-choice is more about enabling women to make safer decisions about their own bodies. The lack of open discussion and the pressure to terminate lead to women’s lack of knowledge about their own bodies and the dangers that can come with certain kinds of birth control.
Abortions are advertised as painless and hassle-free; the China Daily reported that half of China’s 13 million annual abortions are for women under 25, and a 2015 study in the Lancet found that 66 percent of Chinese women having abortions were doing so for the second or subsequent time. Meanwhile, the morning-after pill accounts for 70 percent of the birth control pill market in China. Condoms remain a minority choice, often scored by men as intrusive, pushing the burden of birth control onto women.
This lack of sex education is having tangible consequences in China—where the rates of HIV infection are growing among young people by 35 percent every year. In the United Kingdom, where sex education is common and uncontroversial, the rate of HIV diagnosis dropped by 17 percent from 2016 to 2017 (although the overall rate of infection is still higher in the U.K. than in China).
Chang’s mission is to do something that is “valuable to other women.” This is part of what prompted her to record an emotional nine-minute video of herself talking about her stillbirth last year, which she published on her personal channel. “It helped me feel less alone,” she said, adding that “a lot of women have had the same experience and want to feel like ‘I am not the only one.’”
But as censorship grows online, it has become harder and harder to touch on issues of importance. Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, there has been a growing conservatism and patriarchy among Chinese leadership. Xi is affectionately known as “Xi Dada” or “Uncle Xi,” a moniker that reflects his strongman image that some have likened to that of Mao Zedong. With his rule has come a tightening control of society in all spheres, but especially when it comes to traditional values.
There was widespread outcry last year when the social media platform Weibo blocked “homosexual content” as part of a broad cleanup of its website. This decision was eventually reversed, but the fact of it happening demonstrates the greater caution and conservatism of internet platforms when trying to anticipate the government’s whims. “Patriarchal authoritarianism propaganda did not begin with Xi Jinping … but it is much more pronounced under [him],” said Leta Hong Fincher, the author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China.
Chang has felt this increasing conservatism firsthand: “When we started … we could talk about orgasms, penises, vaginas, but there is no way we could talk about that now.” Hong Fincher argues that this is because of a tension between the government’s control of women and women’s control of their own bodies. “Sex education, if done properly, is a way to give women more control over their own lives … that is seen as destabilizing,” Hong Fincher said, adding, “any time you give [women] more information about how to control their bodies, that gives them more control over their lives, meaning that control is being taken away from the [Chinese Communist] Party.”
Furthermore, Hong Fincher said that there is “no question that sex education material would fall under the radar of general censors.” Chang’s sex education content has sometimes been censored under the guise of anti-pornography drives. “It doesn’t need to go up as high as the government officials. Because the platforms want to be safe, they don’t want to make problems … [so] I know that [they will] take down anything about sex,” Chang said.
The tightening grip of censorship means that “we can’t do sensitive topics anymore,” Chang said, remarking that such content would be “suicidal.” That’s not to say she hasn’t tried: In June of last year, two videos—one in which women paint pictures of their own breasts and another in which they talk about misconceptions they’ve had about their vaginas—were taken offline by censors. The offense was being “low-level” and “vulgar,” according to the written warning that Chang received.
She said that she is “not surprised” by the censorship but is still frustrated at a digital world that is run by men being used to stamp out women’s voices. She is part of a generation of younger women whom Hong Fincher has identified has rejecting the pressures of traditional Chinese patriarchy and the growing conservatism of the state.
Since the one-child policy became a two-child policy and the government started encouraging women to have more children, the birth rate has actually fallen—causing shock among a leadership who expected a baby boom. Naturally, the response from the government has been to try to tighten up natalist propaganda; the official pressure on young women to have babies and stay at home is becoming ever more intense even as many refuse to make that choice.
These days, because of the censorship, Chang stays away from sex-related topics. Still, she said, “We will always be a feminist show. We will always put women’s worth and values at the top.”
Amy Hawkins is a journalist for the Economist.