Pioneering teacher blazes trail for sexology

Source:Nandu Weekly - Global Times Published: 2014-10-10 5:03:01

Peng Xiaohui teaches Introduction to Sexology at Central China Normal University on September 24. Photo: CFP

Facing a classroom full of students, Peng Xiaohui joked, "As men, we all like to look at naked photos." The students laughed. Then he continued, "But learning sexology means you have to turn that into praise for life."

That was the second lesson of his sexology class. Peng has been teaching at the Central China Normal University (CCNU) in Wuhan, Hubei Province for 20 years. He had once been jokingly referred to as the "sex professor" and "the professor who hands out condoms," but today his class has become widely popular. 

Diverging roads

Peng's interest in sexology started when he was in college. After the gaokao college entrance examination system was brought back in 1977, Peng went to a medical university. During one class, he noticed that the teacher used two expressions to refer to the same thing: sometimes she would say "genital organs," and at other times she would say "sex organs."

He asked the teacher what the difference was.  The teacher said there was no difference, but couldn't explain why. When Peng tried to find out for himself, he couldn't obtain enough information on the matter, as there hadn't been much research done on the subject at that time. The lack of sex-related research intrigued Peng, and he decided to study the topic more.

After graduating, Peng became a lecturer at the School of Life Sciences at CCNU, teaching anatomy. At the same time, he never gave up on collecting information on sexology.

He searched for documents on sexology and went to academic talks both in and outside China.

Much of the content of sexology is covered by other majors, such as biology, Peng said. However, even though it is a separate major abroad, in China no college professor had ever stepped in this field before. 

Sexology class

In 1992, Peng started a class called Sex Biology. Over the next three years, he developed the curriculum, combining sex sociology with sex psychology, and finally changing the name to Introduction to Sexology. Open to everybody at the school, 40 students came to the first class.

Over the course of 20 years, he has seen attitudes change. The post-1970 generation of students were afraid of being seen taking the class. The post-1980 generation was a little better, but the students were still afraid of coming in through the front door and always snuck in the back.

But nowadays, students seem to have entirely accepted his class. "Some people even bring their significant others to the class," he told the Nandu Weekly.

In 1998, Peng earned his qualification to be a master's advisor, but didn't recruit his first master's student until 2000. Over the following 10 years, he only had a total of 10 students.

That's to be expected, he told the Nandu Weekly, as sex is still a taboo subject in China. Some relatives even ask him to his face, "Why can't you do something else?"

But that doesn't bother Peng. "If everybody goes for popular majors, your chance of standing out will be limited. But if an unpopular major coincides with your interests, then congratulations, you will definitely succeed," he told the Nandu Weekly.

Liberating minds

After achieving success with his class, Peng attempted to establish sexology as a major. In 2003, Peng accompanied a friend, an American sexologist, to eight schools in hope of setting up more sexology classes in China.

Sociologists and psychologists all agreed with this idea, Peng said. However, overcoming the administrative hurdles proved too challenging.

Unsuccessful in his bid to establish a sexology major, Peng went back to liberating minds at his school. He told his class there would be "lifelong benefits for you and even your children" for taking the class.

He also found proof of that statement among his students.

Once, a woman who took Peng's class described one of her "sexual experiences" when she was young. It was a game in which she and a neighboring boy touched each other's private parts. She didn't think it was inappropriate or "impure" until a friend told her it was during her adolescence.

She carried that burden with her until Peng's class, when she heard him say, "Children's sex games and curiosity about sex are a normal phenomenon."

"Your class liberated me," she wrote in her term paper.

'Sex-illiterate society'

Besides teaching, Peng has spread the idea of sexology in other ways. He makes himself available to discuss questions involving sex, both to his students and to the public through Weibo.

The topics he gets asked about include being gay, sexual techniques, incest and masturbation. 

"As extreme as the questions can get, they are all within the bounds of my field," he told the Nandu Weekly.

In 2000, with Peng's influence, one of his students founded the Sexology Society, the first university psychology club in China to deal with sex related issues. In 2006, Peng directed the Vagina Monologues at CCNU and put on three public performances for local residents. It's now a tradition for CCNU students to put on the play every May.

Even though Peng has accomplished quite a bit, he has also been the center of some controversies, which have made him cautious when speaking with the media. He was misquoted in 2011 as suggesting a woman threatened with rape to offer her attacker a condom when all he meant was condoms can protect women who were being raped.

Afterwards, he was nicknamed "the professor who hands out condoms" and had to set up a Weibo account to explain himself.

Peng said there will always be opposing voices to any new thing.

"Right now, 99 percent of adults in China are illiterate about sex," he told media. For Peng, anyone that hasn't received systematic and scientific sex education should be considered as illiterate on the subject.

In 2002, he had a chance to talk with students at Stockholm University and found a huge difference between the sex education abroad and in China.

"They were discussing the Queer Theory, but in our schools, the university students are still learning about basic sexology.  This is a huge difference," he told the Nandu Weekly.

Peng is set to retire in three years. What he worries about the most is if he leaves school, there will be no one left to accept master's students in the field of human sexology. 

Right now, he has something to occupy his time after he retires. One of his master's students has just established a media communication workshop to spread knowledge on sexology and asked Peng to consult.

"This is great," Peng said. "I focused on sexology theory for my first 20 years, now I'll be able to focus on application."

Nandu Weekly - Global Times
Newspaper headline: Let’s talk about sex

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