Sexologists in China face boycott and feces-throwing attackers

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2014-11-24 19:28:01

Sex is the topic of debate in China once again after a sexologist was pelted with feces at the Guangzhou sex expo. Sex is still a taboo subject for many in the country and some accuse sexologists of being degenerates that damage public morality. But sexologists have called for greater dialogue about sex, and have said that the traditional attitude towards sex is slowing the improvement of human rights in China.

Spectators take pictures of a model at the Guangzhou Sex Culture Expo held in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, on November 8, 2013. Photo: IC

Peng Xiaohui had just started his talk when a middle-aged woman ran up to him and slapped him in the face. Then, she tore open a plastic bag she was carrying and threw feces all over the academic.

As the foul smell permeated the room, she chased Peng off the stage before she was restrained by security guards.

The 58-year-old sexologist working at Central China Normal University was giving a lecture at the Guangzhou Sex Culture Expo on November 7 when he was attacked. Over the 20 years that he has been studying and teaching sexology, he's been met with a great deal of resistance from social conservatives.

Compared with a few decades ago, Chinese society's attitude towards sex is much more liberated overall. But sexologists in China, rare as they are, still face obstacles and criticism when they want to share what they have learned. Some see them as having a negative impact on society, due to China's traditional attitudes towards sex.

Pioneering in his field 

Fang Gang, now a professor at the Beijing Forestry University, was a reporter in the 1990s. He first interviewed a gay couple in 1993 and went on to write a book about homosexuality in China, at a time when homosexuality was even more taboo than it is today.

"When I got in touch with them, they were different than I imagined. They were nice, and the openness they had towards sex made me feel it was a beautiful thing, even though it was looked down upon by society," he said.

He remembers the first time he interviewed a gay man and was shocked by his open manner. He had no idea that private parts or sex could be talked about publicly like that. But he also felt liberated. Gradually, he stopped feeling that sex is something dirty and shameful, a view that was common in China at that time, and began to feel curious about sex.

In 2004, Fang became a sociology doctoral candidate at Renmin University of China and he ended up writing his dissertation on male escorts after a few months of field research.

Over the years, Fang has researched a variety of subjects related to sex and published more than 50 books, most of which are on topics that are still controversial in China such as wife-swapping, transsexuals, sex workers and infidelity. These publications have led to him receiving a lot of criticism.

"Someone once accused me of hampering the university's ability to recruit students, saying that parents are afraid to send their children to a school that has such a teacher," he said.

Peng was also drawn to this field through his own curiosity. In the late 1970's he was studying medicine, but after his teacher failed to explain the difference between a "genital organ" and a "sex organ," he became interested in knowing more about sex in society.

In 1992, Peng started a class called "Sex Biology." Over the next three years he developed a whole curriculum, combining sociology with psychology, and finally changed the name of the course to "Introduction to Sexology," open to everybody at the school.

Peng has also become a bold advocate of talking publicly about sex. He not only teaches college students about sex and speaks at academic conferences, but has also become something of a "sexual consultant" on Sina Weibo. He answers questions from the public regarding homosexuality, sexual techniques, incest and masturbation.

Employees of a sex-themed restaurant in Shenzhen kiss a picture of sexologist Peng Xiaohui on November 19, 2014, to show their support for his research. Photo: CFP

Pressure and resistance 

While many of Peng's students have expressed gratitude towards him and say he has liberated their minds, some people have claimed that sexologists like Peng are corrupting Chinese society.

The woman who flung excrement onto Peng at the sex expo had spoken at another sex expo in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province a couple of months prior, expressing her anti-pornography sentiments. According to media reports, after her attack, she said that she had nothing against Peng personally and simply wanted to "defend our race, and build a good environment for children to grow up in."

Her sentiments are shared by the founders of the Anti-Porn Website, started by seven women living in Shijiazhuang, North China's Hebei Province.

Xia Haixin, one of the founders, denied that their website was behind the attack, saying that they "are not as low as that," but admitted they support the feces-throwing woman.

The website was established to stop the spread of pornography and to help create a "purer" society, according to media reports.

The website's volunteers take pride in the efforts they have made to report and shut down  websites they see as pornographic, having reported around 2,000 websites over the last two years. Recently, one of their volunteers received a grant from the China Internet Illegal Information Reporting Center.

A popular part of their website is the section regarding the dangers of masturbation, which features a variety of accounts of how masturbation has changed masturbators' personalities in a negative way and harmed their health. This is a key area of disagreement between academics and these conservatives.

"I know of a case where someone masturbated for more than 10 years, and now his health has weakened and he has cold sweats on his back all the time," she told the Global Times on the phone.

Besides the websites' volunteers, people writing on online forums, as well as on sexologists' blogs, have been critical of attempts to improve China's sex education.

In 2011, the first sex education textbook that was going to be used in Beijing elementary schools was revealed. The textbook explained different conception methods and used the words "sperm," "vagina" and "ejaculation." Many parents called the textbook absurd and called its anatomical diagrams pornographic.

In addition to this public criticism of their work, sexologists also face a lack of support from academic institutions.

What happened to Pan Suiming recently is a good example of this. He is a well-known sexologist who started teaching a sexology class at Renmin University of China in 1985. He is famous for his research into China's red-light districts, interviewing more than 1,000 female sex workers from 1998 to 2010.

But recently Pan was held up as an example of academic corruption because the sex workers that he paid for interviews were, of course, unable to provide him with receipts. Therefore he could not prove the money was spent on research and, as a result, was demoted and made to retire early.

Advancing society 

Despite the hostility he has faced, Peng has called for more dialogue between sexologists and their critics.

"It's a law of development, both in society and science, that as views and values change, there will be conflict. It's an unquestionable trend," he said. "But the question is when and how [the conflicts] happen."

"When it comes to controversial topics, it's good to have different viewpoints," Fang said. "But one should protect other's right to speak, instead of forcing the other party to accept the same values."

Fang thinks sexology can help advance China's society. Much of his research has focused on "silent minorities," groups that are at the edge of society.

"My interest is in sexual diversity, I want to dig up something that's outside of the mainstream and show people what the truth actually is," he said. "Only when we pay attention to the people that are smeared and denigrated by mainstream society, can the entire society's human rights situation be improved."

To Peng, focusing on education is his way of pushing boundaries but he acknowledges that China still has a long way to go.

In 2002, he had a chance to talk with students at Stockholm University in Sweden and found a huge difference between the sex education available abroad compared to that which is available in China. He found that these students were comfortable discussing post-structuralist queer theories, but in China few universities even offer classes on basic sexology.

Peng says that development takes time. He compares his situation to that of Dr. Alfred Kinsey who spent 25 years conducting surveys on sex lives of Americans, and who was also met with hostile criticism 50 years ago.

On the other hand, Xia thinks that Kinsey's liberated view towards sexuality has caused problems in the US. She says that people's minds have been "poisoned by the sexologists."

She claims that the "humanity" the sexologists talk about is actually a base animal instinct, and that civilization comes from having a strong sense of morals and that any behavior that falls outside of traditional sexual mores is immoral.

"They are publicly harming the youth of our country, they are raping the Chinese people," she said. She also said that avoiding pre-marital sex and infidelity is the basis of all stable family relationships.

There are 13 million abortions in China every year and more than 6,000 couples divorce every day according to Xia, which she blames on sexologists and their advocacy of sex education.

Peng said such acts have always existed, even before sexologists talked about them. "Prostitution is called the oldest profession," he said.

But he thinks it's understandable that such views exist in China.

"China has smeared sex for thousands of years, it's deep inside the culture," he said.

Peng once said that 99 percent of adults in China are "sex illiterate," meaning they have not received any kind of systematic or scientific sex education. Chinese society understands sex in a narrow way, and the government hasn't encouraged any liberalization of sexual attitudes, which can be seen from the fact that most sex shops are hidden away in alleyways in China, he said.

"Chinese people talk plenty about money, but they don't talk about sex. Why is sex so sensitive, so private, and so precious? I think everybody's entitled to express their own opinion," Pan Suiming told the Southern People Weekly.

Newspaper headline: Banishing sexual illiteracy

Posted in: In-Depth

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