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."