Sexual Revolution Gaining Grounds In China

Laura Robertson

Only 60 years ago, arranged marriage was still the norm in many parts of China, but today Chinese teenagers have more sexual freedom than ever.

The topic of sex education was once taboo, and still off-limits in some areas, but changing cultural mores have presented a new challenge for Chinese educators. Officials in some of China's major cities hope increased sex education will help prevent some of the alarming sexual trends, like teen pregnancy, abortions, and STDs.

The first week of May, coinciding with China's "May Day" and Spring holidays, hospitals have reported a spike in the number of teens coming in for abortions. Shanghai newspapers reported a 30% rise in abortions for teenage girls, and Beijing hospitals have also noticed similar trends.

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Deng Jun, a doctor from Tian-en Hospital in Beijing told The Shenzhen Daily, "Girls who have abortions are considerably younger. Most of them are junior middle school students aged 14 to 15." Before the students who visited him were in late high school.

A 2004 survey from Suzhou University indicated that 4.2 percent of junior high school girls were sexually active, versus 4.6% of senior high students. While these rates remain significantly lower than those of their U.S. counterparts (just under half of unmarried American teenagers between 15-19 have had sex), the attitudes of Chinese teens towards sex have become increasingly liberal.

Only 6 of 1,300 girls polled in a 2007 survey said they would tell their boyfriend "no" if he wanted to have sex. Of the total 2,300 teens polled, a collective 85% said teenage sex was okay if it was either consensual, or the two people really loved each other.

By comparison, only about 30% of American teens approved of unmarried 16-year-olds having sex, though about 60% approved of 18-19 year olds having sexual relationships, according to a 2002 study from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

These differences in attitude could indicate future social trends. Even though Chinese teenagers aren't nearly as sexually active as their American counterparts, casual sexual attitudes could soon translate into casual sexual behavior.

International and Chinese family planning organizations are hoping that education can provide a solution to this situation. Some Chinese educators are trying provide sex education at an earlier age, but the lack of strong sex education has caused many Chinese youth to look elsewhere for information. According to one study, 75% of Chinese youth get most of their sex education through online pornography.

Considering the Chinese government's crackdown on internet pornography, and the fact that it's illegal in China, a 15-year-old boy caught looking at internet porn probably won't be able to escape the wrath of authorities by telling them that he's only accessing "educational material."

Government officials have expressed concern over the lack of sex education, and say they can do more to stop the rise in teen pregnancy. Ru Xiaomei of the China National Family Planning Committee told The New York Times the government was "on the right path . . . but we don't say we have done very well, or perfectly."

The questions then remain: is there a "perfect" way to educate Chinese youth about sex, and what is the right way to reach students about these delicate topics? And how will this method be carried out?

As we've seen with the U.S. sex education debates, educating the youth about sex is hardly a non-controversial topic. I imagine it will ignite similar fireworks in China, though the two sides might be even more extreme: comprehensive sex education vs. maintaining the status quo of little to no sex education. Implementation will also probably vary throughout the different provinces.

Despite the controversy, given the rising teen abortion rates and teen pregnancy rates, China has to re-evaluate the current system.

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