To improve gender equality, sexologist opens ‘morals’ classes to train husbands and fathers

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2015-10-14 18:53:01

A sexology professor on a crusade to push gender equality and improve relationships in China held a three-day class last week to train men to be better partners. The boyfriends, husbands and fathers discussed topics like pregnancy, taking care of the home, their own relationship with their fathers, domestic violence and even some new techniques for the bedroom. While this project is in line with government policy on gender equality, in a country where traditional attitudes to relationships are common there's still a long way to go.

College students in a university in Jiangsu Province dress themselves up like pregnant women to get a sense of what pregnancy is like for women. Photo: CFP

A man learns how to cuddle a baby at the "men's morals" class in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of Fang Gang


"It's part of your body now, you should treat it with love, talk to it," the teacher told his students.

Li Dan (pseudonym) looked down at his bulging abdomen. Under his orange shirt, a basketball was tightly strapped to his body with bandages. Li, 31, held it up with one hand, caressed the top with another, and started to softly sing "twinkle twinkle little star" to his imaginary baby.

Three other men stood in a circle with Li, who works at an environmental protection company in Jiangsu Province. As soon as the balls were strapped on them, they all instantly became more maternal. One even walked with smaller footsteps, with one hand held out in front of him and the other hand on his back, as if he were having to deal with the weight of a real baby.

Later, they were handed plastic babies, which they clumsily grasped in their hands. They were to complete the task of bathing, powdering and changing the doll's diaper.

Li's son is almost 4 years old, but Li hasn't spent much time taking care of him. He was often impatient with the baby, as he was with the mother. But he hopes to start changing that now, which is why he attended a three-day "men's morals" class last week, in the innermost room of a teahouse in Beijing's Haidian district.

The class was organized by Fang Gang, sexology professor at Beijing Forestry University and founder of China White Ribbon, a grassroots organization that tries to increase male participation in the fight for gender equality.

About 20 students and teachers came to the inaugural class. Among them, 14 were local division group leaders of White Ribbon and two men that signed up to learn how to be "good husbands and fathers." 

Their own agenda

Li looked forward to the class for a long time. He has been separated from his wife for a year now because of the violence in their relationship. While they were together, he repeatedly beat her.

He first laid his hands on his partner about four years ago, when she was six months pregnant with their son. He vaguely remembers what sparked his temper, just recalling that it was something like his wife wanted him to hand over his bank cards.

When Li heard her request, he suddenly felt furious. Without thinking, he raised his foot and kicked his wife.

Afterwards, his wife said she would go to the village's women's rights committee, but in reality she didn't tell anybody, not even her own parents, because she was afraid of what people might say. In fact, when she finally said something to her parents when Li beat her up again, her parents, while angry at Li, also said to her, "It must've been something you said. Why would he hit you for no reason?"

Over time, the violence in Li's household became more and more common. Any small thing seemed to trigger his rage. Sometimes he beat his wife once every week.

In 2014, Li's wife applied for a divorce. When Li received the court's subpoena, he started panicking and regretting his actions. He started looking up information on domestic violence and came across White Ribbon. Based on the group's recommendations, he signed up for the class.

Its not just the perpetrators of domestic violence that have taken these lessons. Wang Ming (pseudonym) took part in the class because of events that cast a shadow over his childhood. When young, he regularly witnessed his father beating his mother.

"They tried to hide it from me, but I could still see it from time to time," Wang said. He hated both his parents for a long time, even though his feelings have softened now, he still doesn't like to talk about his past.

Because he witnessed a destructive relationship at close hand, he is determined to do better with his future family.

A couple of weeks ago, while browsing the Internet, he read an article about the class written by Fang, and he immediately decided to join, even though the three-day class cost him a hefty 4,000 yuan ($630).

"I wanted a change, I didn't want to be [my parents'] kind of person," he said.

Enhancing men's morals 

Fang Gang, the sexology professor, said he started thinking about starting the class more than a year ago. He and other White Ribbon volunteers started sifting through brochures used by women's rights and support groups abroad to develop their curriculum and activities.

There have been reports about "women's morals" classes in China in the past, and such classes were widely criticized for their attempt to make women docile and dependent on men.

In past interviews, women who attended such classes told the Global Times they were told by the instructors that "men should conquer the world, but women can conquer a man, that's enough," "divorce can make your children turn into criminals," or "women should learn how to cook, sew, arrange flowers and write calligraphy."

Fang Gang wanted to do something different, to train Chinese men to be good husbands and fathers, things he believes there are not enough of today.

His actions correspond with the global trend towards gender equality and with the Chinese leadership's calls to improve women's rights. Last September, UN Women launched the HeForShe campaign dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, asking men to "commit to taking action against gender discrimination and violence."

When the campaign came to China in April, hundreds of students signed declarations saying that they are committed to gender equality at an event held at the prestigious Tsinghua University, attended by academics and senior Chinese officials.  

Gender equality is also a hot topic on the Internet. Starting from last year, a new phrase - "straight man cancer" - spread online. The phrase describes chauvinistic men who believe that a woman should be demure, domesticated, and have no other goal in life than to serve men.

People started describing online their ex-boyfriends, fathers, or coworkers who fit this definition. During the Spring Festival this year, when a comedy show hinted women should make themselves "goddesses" instead of "behaving like dudes," netizens were furious. Some described this Internet phenomenon as a wave of feminist awakening.

But netizens make up only a small part of the population. When one looks at the local level, one finds the concept of gender equality is still too abstract for many people to understand.

Li confessed that when he was hitting his wife, he hadn't thought about her as a separate individual, and it didn't occur to him that she had certain rights.

Back then, he and his wife were living in a village and domestic violence was not unusual in their community. He has friends who have slapped their wives in public because of something they said.

Li also grew up in that kind of household. Even though he hadn't witnessed it, he knew his grandfather often beat his grandmother, and the atmosphere in his house was always tense. Family members didn't know how to effectively communicate with one another and often lashed out verbally. 

Long way to go

He remembers that after his high school graduation, he didn't want to go to college, and his father said to him, "If you go on like this, one of these days you'll get shot dead by the police."

"These words had left a scar on me," he said. "It's not so easy to forget."

Li found what he wanted in the class. There was a discussion on "effective communication," which taught him about how a couple should sense each other's needs and tend to one another's moods when communicating, instead of focusing on themselves. He said he wish he knew about this sooner, but it's not too late to learn.

The final verdict in their divorce came on Monday. Li's wife made some compromises and the court ruled Li will raise their son. Li agreed his wife can also take his son for around a third of the time and hopes she visit him often, because "a boy should have the love of his mother."

The fact remains that only a small percentage of men have sufficient awareness of the problems common in China to take this kind of class. In 2014, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development conducted a poll on how much time men in 29 countries spend on household chores, and Chinese men ranked fifth from the bottom, only doing 48 minutes per day.

Traces of these attitudes can also be seen from comments on Fang's Weibo, after he'd announced his class. Some replied, "Why would men need to take this class? They just need to hand in all their money to the women."

But that doesn't stop people like Li and Wang from enjoying what they learned. They may have been clumsy during the class and slow to understand the concepts discussed, but it is a start. Li said he will talk on his local radio station about stopping domestic violence and supporting women's rights.

Wang hopes sitting through the class will make him more popular on the marriage market. The 24-year-old said he had a girlfriend for three months but that they then broke up because he "wasn't a good enough listener."

"In the past, when she complained, I always tried to offer her solutions, then I'd get confused about why she was complaining about the same issues over and over again," he said. "But I was wrong, all she wanted was somebody to listen and comfort her."

Newspaper headline: Road to perfection

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