Professor defies taboos to get the elderly talking about sex

By Zhang Yiqian Source:Global Times Published: 2015-12-27 18:48:01

Pan Suiming, renowned sexologist from Renmin University of China, has started a conference that gathers seniors to talk about their sex lives. Right now, little research is being done in China that touches on this issue. As China works to cope with the challenges brought by its rapidly aging population, Pan hopes that his conferences can start a conversation to help older people and society as a whole better understand the needs of the elderly.

Two elderly people talk with each other during a match-making event for senior citizens in Qingdao, East China's Shandong Province, February 14, 2012. Photo: IC

When Pan Suiming put invitations online asking seniors to sign up for a discussion about sex, all of his posts were deleted but one.

The renowned sociologist and sexologist from Renmin University of China suspects the reason his requests were removed was because he began the invitations with "besides inserting the penis into the vagina, the elderly can have sex in a variety of different ways."

He only meant that there should be other ways of enjoying sex when one reaches old age, and that there needs to be discussion between couples about it, instead of just stopping altogether. The reason he sent out these invitations, starting last year, was to try to find what attitudes elderly people have about sex.

Do it 1,000 times 

The idea came to Pan last year, when he completed paperwork for the university regarding his upcoming retirement. At that point, he suddenly realized that he's elderly now.

He has researched sex all his professional life, touching on a variety of topics. He even spent two years researching red light districts in China, talking with sex workers. But he had never done anything on the sex lives of the elderly.

"Internationally there's a principle in sexology research that we generally focus on people under 60, so I never really thought about it," he said.

But when he became a senior himself, he felt that he should explore this area.

When he searched a Chinese scholarly database, he found more than 10,000 articles related to seniors written since 1980, but only four related to elderly sex, which surprised him.

"We have many departments and organizations focused on seniors in this country, but why did no one do anything on this issue?" he said. "Why did nobody pay any attention to seniors' sex?"

In recent years, the issue of China's rapidly aging population is being discussed more and more. According to the 6th national population census, conducted in 2010, there were then more than 177 million people in China aged over 60, 13 percent of the entire population.

By 2050, China is expected to have nearly 500 million people over 60, exceeding the population of the United States, according to United Nations' predictions.

The aging population has brought greater demand for elderly care services, medical care and improving their quality of life.

Subsequently, an issue like sexual fulfillment might not be one that the authorities are especially concerned about. Nonetheless, the conference participants say it's important due to its massive impact on people's happiness.

With this in mind, Pan sent out invitations on nine websites and forums that focus on senior life or welfare, but soon after eight of the websites removed the posts, and some even blocked his account. Despite this frosty reception, in September 2014, Pan managed to host his first conference on senior sex with about 50 people.

Up to now, he's hosted three conferences, with attendees from all walks of life. There were consultants , lawyers, doctors, as well as regular people and factory workers.

During the conferences, Pan's ideas were often echoed by participants.

A therapist from East China's Shandong Province who gave his last name as Lü said during the third conference that "it should be written in the law how many times a month couples must have sex," the Beijing Evening News reported.

The then 65-year-old man had married his second wife a couple of years ago. When they met, Lü told her that he wanted to have sex at least twice a month, and if she doesn't agree to this then maybe they are not right for each other.

"I want to do it 1,000 times before I die!" he said during the meeting. 

First step: start talking

But the discussions were hard to get off the ground. In China, there has been a long tradition of stigmatizing sex, and most people refuse to talk about it openly, especially the elderly.

Xu Fengying first saw Pan's post on Home of the Educated Youth, an online discussion forum for zhiqing (young people who were sent by the government to work in remote rural communities in the 1960s and 70s) that he administers.

The 67-year-old saw that the post had been deleted by other administrators of the website and fished it out of the trash can. Then he went to the administrators' chat room and said he thought such discussion is necessary.

His words rippled through the group. The other administrators were vehemently opposed to his suggestion, saying it's disgusting to talk about sex openly. But Xu stood his ground.

"I asked him, 'Do you still have the need?' if he still has the need, then he should talk about it," Xu said. At the same time, he understands that their attitude is in line with hundreds of years of repressive culture in China when it comes to sex.

Xu's ideas about sex were shaped by his experience in the US. He went abroad in 1985.

At that time, he and a Chinese friend lived in the home of a renowned American psychologist. One day, his friend's daughter, who's in elementary school, came home with a survey her teacher had asked her to complete. The survey was on attitudes on sex and needed to be completed by people from 30 different countries.

But when the psychologist saw the answers Xu's friend gave, she was furious and called him a hypocrite. He wrote that he doesn't like sex because it's an "animal thing," despite the fact that he had porn in his room.

That was the first time Xu saw difference between Western and Chinese perceptions of sex, and that's another reason he supported Pan all the way, and took the time to persuade his web administrator peers.

Besides pressure set by seniors themselves, society doesn't generally permit the elderly to discuss sex. Pan said that during the conference, many expressed that they desire to make love, but don't have the time. Many old couples are even busier after retirement than they were at work, with household chores and helping to care for their grandchildren.

"They want to change people's belief that the elderly don't have anything to do but to care for grandchildren when they retire," Pan said.

A search of the media can find stories that show how seniors are forced into this role. In July a report by the Wuhan-based Changjiang Times included several stories in which children "sabotaged" their parents' happiness. An old man and woman were forced to live at their daughter's and son's apartments respectively to raise their young and could only see each other at the supermarket every morning. 

Increasing awareness

What he meant by his invitations' wording was that as one steps into old age, intercourse isn't the only way to express intimacy, Pan said. They can hold hands, hug and spend time with each other.

Many people have the wrong idea about sex, whether thinking it's dirty or thinking it only involves intercourse. He hopes these conferences can gradually have an influence through word of mouth and serve indirectly as a form of sex education for people that never received one in their youth. At the end of each conference, he requested participants talk about sex with their friends and family. It doesn't matter what they say, as long as they speak openly about it.

The Institute of Sexuality and Gender at Renmin University of China of which Pan was the head also has a program that aims to increase awareness of sexual issues. The program is titled Family Sex Education, and aims to influence parents and children through targeting young couples.

From Zhang Ning's experience, the elderly need to make adjustments because their bodies change as they age.

Zhang worked as a gynecologist and pediatrician. After retirement, she became director of a grass-roots health service organization in Jiaozhou, Shandong and mainly helps migrant women with their health issues.

She said in recent years, she found more and more elderly women coming to the hospital because of pain after intercourse. She once met a woman who was forced to have sex by her husband. But as it is difficult for women of that age to become sexually aroused, the pain was unbearable every time.

It doesn't mean women can't have sex at that age, Zhang said, they just need to be more attentive to their body's changes, such as their vaginas becoming drier. She seconded Pan and said sex education is the most important thing.

But it's difficult to reach elderly people. Many choose not to show themselves to public conferences and lectures. Right now, Zhang is planning a series of community outreach programs.

Pan isn't entirely satisfied with the way the conferences turned out either.

"From a sociologist's point of view, the sample is incomplete," Pan said. "We had active members in the conferences, but what about those people who didn't come? The people who refuse to talk about sex, or people who don't have sex, I'd like to hear their opinions."

Newspaper headline: Never too old to do it

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