When Hanna, a 26 year old woman from China's Hebei Province, asked her parents where she came from as a little girl, they said they found her in a trash can. Even now, everything she knows about sex she learned from chatting with her girlfriends. Their parents never mentioned the topic, nor did their teachers. "They think it's ugly," Hanna says, "but it's a problem that they always hide sex."
The lack of knowledge makes dating difficult. Chinese men often don't know how to practice safe sex, Hanna explains, and so many of her friends -- "too many" -- have had abortions. Since Hanna moved to Beijing two years ago, she has mainly dated foreign men.
"It's not easy to find the right person," says Hanna, who spends her evenings in chat rooms looking for a serious partner. Most hometown friends her age have already married and started families. "Nowadays, a lot of people just want one-night stands. Sex is very important, but for me, it can't be separated from love." She hasn't ruled out seeing Chinese men, but says that the taboos and double standards surrounding sex simply make relationships with them too complicated.
Today's China is in the midst of a sexual revolution. There are over 2,000 sex shops openly doing business in Beijing alone, and most of their products are made in China. Prostitution, while technically illegal, is rampant. In 2003, sex blogger Muzi Mei made waves with explicit lovemaking podcasts, and in cities couples displaying physical attention is a common sight.
Though unremarkable in many countries, these developments are significant in China, where extramarital sex was a criminal offense just three decades ago. Yet the country's sexual revolution is still incomplete. Sex boutiques sell fake hymens, designed to leak artificial blood onto the sheets, in order to cater to women who want to preserve the illusion of virginity -- even though 71 percent of Chinese people now have premarital sex.
The Chinese Communist Party is partly to blame for these contradictions. "The government is still recovering from Mao Zedong's total sexual blackout and is only slowly changing its attitude toward sex," explains Richard Burger, author of Behind the Red Door; an exploration of sex in modern China. "Much of the government remains ultra-conservative on the issue, yet Western influence and a general mood of liberalization has created friction that leads to what seems like a bipolar attitude toward sex."
Burger is not convinced that China will necessarily follow the same path of sexual liberalization as Western countries. "You can have development but still keep a tight lid on sexual awareness. How far it goes depends on the government."
While "hooligan crimes" -- laws basically prohibiting people from "messing around" as sex expert Li Yinhe laughingly put it -- were abolished in 1997, other vestiges of the country's traditional prudishness remain. Group sex remains illegal, and in an infamous 2009 case 22 "wife swappers" were thrown in jail. Brothel-owners are occasionally sentenced to death, and distributors and producers of pornography face life in prison. Film, television and the Internet are carefully monitored for "spiritual pollution."
But while pornography has been banned since the regime's inception, Chinese Internet users are no strangers to adult content. One of the most popular accounts on Sina Weibo belongs to Japanese pornographic actress Sola Aoi, and a 2010 study found that sexually explicit websites continued to spread even during government crackdowns. And censorship, while pervasive, is far from absolute: a quick search on Baidu for adult content generates results very similar to Google's.
"If you can't ban sex totally, then you can't ban pornography," explains Professor Li, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "Pornography to sex is like a restaurant menu to food -- if you can't ban people from eating, you can't ban people from seeing the menu."
Amid hate mail and threats, Li has repeatedly urged the regime to overturn its bans on pornography and prostitution. The laws are outdated and unconstitutional, she says, and for many, pornography is the only source of sexual education. Ignorance about sex is endemic, Li explains, and the consequences can be dire: She cited the case of a boy who castrated himself out of fear as he experienced his first erection.
Meanwhile, sex has also become an avenue for rebellion. Earlier this year, leadership in Hunan Province arrested 37 people following blackmail threats involving photo-shopped pictures of officials inserted into pornographic settings. The witch hunt on porn is widely considered a veil for more sinister forms of censorship. In 2009, Chinese netizens popularized the "grass mud horse" -- a fictional animal whose Chinese name is a homonym for a vulgarity -- as a symbol of resistance. And when the dissident artist Ai Weiwei was investigated for allegations of pornographic distribution in 2011, his fans posted nude pictures online to show support.
Inherently complex and highly politicized, it remains uncertain how China's sexual revolution will play out. Professor Li is optimistic that the situation will continue to improve. Economic development has enabled the country to make a lot of progress, and this progress has been realized in the sexual sphere, too.
"People will pull, and the government will follow," she says with confidence.
Zhaouhui Wu, a research scholar at Penn University and long-time monitor of the proliferation of adult content in China, was equally certain.
"This is a protracted war. The government is still spending money and force to block porn sites and porn websites keep on struggling to survive. Technically it's impossible to get rid of it. As long as there is a market, outlawing it won't work."