What China’s sexual revolution means for women

Two decades ago, Hillary Clinton delivered a speech in Beijing that inspired feminists around the world, declaring “women’s rights are human rights.” Since that declaration, a lot has changed for women globally. But what has changed for women in China?

While Chinese women today have increased freedoms, there is still a long way to go before gender equality is realized. Civil unrest concerning gender inequality recently made headlines in China and abroad when a group of five female protesters in China were arrested and jailed for publicly demonstrating against gender inequities, such as inequality in higher education and domestic violence. This incident underlined much of the commentary at a recent Brookings’s John L. Thornton China Center forum on women’s issues and gender inequality in China, during which the following key messages were conveyed:

China is in the midst of a rapid, if quiet, sexual revolution

China’s first and leading sexologist, Li Yinhe, delivered a keynote address that emphasized that when it comes to sex, China is in the midst of an “era of important changes.” Li explained that all sexual activities before marriage were illegal in China before 1997 because of a “hooliganism law,” and a woman could be arrested for having sex with more than one man. Thus, premarital sex was forbidden. In surveys in 1989, only 15% of citizens reported having premarital sex—and “most of them were having sex with their permanent partners,” Li said. That law was overturned in 1997, and recent surveys show that 71% of Chinese citizens admit to having sex before marriage. This is a dramatic change in a short period of time, and marks what Li asserts is a sexual revolution for Chinese citizens.

Chinese law still lags behind changes in social customs

While some sex laws have adapted, others are far behind. Li highlighted some “outdated” sex laws in China that are still “on the book[s],” but that are no longer strictly obeyed by the Chinese people.

Li said the indicators are clear that the force of these laws is waning. There are fewer people being punished for these offenses and the punishments are becoming increasingly less severe. Her discussion stressed four areas where public opinion has changed drastically over the last few decades, but Chinese laws haven’t adapted:  

  1. Pornography: Pornography isn’t considered to be protected as it is in the U.S. In contrast, Chinese law strictly prohibits creating and selling porn. In the 1980s, porn publishers would be sentenced to death. Now the punishment is less severe—for example, a 24-year-old Beijing woman published seven “sex novels” online. Her viewership was 80,000 hits on her novels, but her punishment was only six months in criminal detention.
  2. Prostitution: Prostitution is another activity affected by outdated laws in China, where any solicitation of sex is strictly illegal. In the early-1980s through late-1990s the punishment for facilitating prostitution was severe. In 1996, a bathhouse owner was sentenced to death for organizing prostitution. Now, prostitution is widely practiced and the most severe punishment for organized prostitution is that those managing sex workers are ordered to shut down their businesses.  
  3. Orgies and sex parties: Chinese law used to brutally punish swingers and individuals who planned sex parties. For example, in the early-1980s “the punishment for spousal swapping was death…[and] people would be sentenced to death for organizing sex parties,” Li explained. But this is another area where the punishment for the law has now become less strict. In 2011 in Nanjing, an associate university professor organized a sex party with 72 people, and the “punishment for him was three and a half years in prison.” Also, in 2014 in Shanghai, some citizens recently organized an online sex party, and their punishment was only three months of criminal detention. According to recent private surveys, “many people are [engaging] in sex parties or orgies.” While in theory these are punishable by criminal law, “no one reports [them], so they do not get noticed,” Li said.  
  4. Homosexuality and same-sex marriage: In regards to homosexuality, Li was quick to note that China’s view of homosexuality is historically very different from Western views. For example, in some U.S. states, laws “criminalized or deemed homosexual activities illegal.” But throughout China’s history, there were not severe repercussions or the death penalty for homosexuality, and it “was never illegal.” However, this is not the case for same-sex marriage. Li thinks it will be “hard to predict” when same-sex marriage might be legalized.

Chinese women will have sexual freedom, but when isn’t clear

So what does the future hold for these laws? Li explained that sex is a “hot topic” right now in Chinese public debate, and the “general consensus among legal scholars and sociologists is that these [outdated] laws need to be removed.” Those who oppose removing these laws are “in the minority.” While that may be true, she suggested it would be difficult to “form a timetable” when politicians might consider amending these laws.

As for the five young women sentenced to jail last month, Li said she usually tries to stay out of politics, but thinks people “should stand up and speak out” when their own rights are being violated. Li argued that jailing these women for expressing their opinions violated the rights of all women—and hopes that other women speak up about their arrest.

If you are interested in learning more, watch Li Yinhe’s full keynote and the entire panel event here:

Alison Burke contributed to this post.