How ‘The Penis Monologues’ Challenges China’s Toxic Masculinity


ZHEJIANG, East China — On a theater stage in the city of Hangzhou, a male character reflects on the time he date-raped a woman. “I finally broke through her defense and forcefully penetrated her. Controlling her, I felt the happiness of a conqueror. The insertion of my penis seems to have stamped a seal on her body, a label marking my sovereignty.”

The unflinching scene is part of a monologue in “The Penis Monologues,” a play that pitches itself as a counterpart to the well-known feminist play “The Vagina Monologues.” Written by Fang Gang, a renowned Chinese sexologist, “The Penis Monologues” examines aspects of what Fang calls “dominant male temperament” — a phrase that shares certain similarities with the English phrase “toxic masculinity.”

Based on real case studies collected during Fang’s research on gender while at Beijing Forestry University, the play’s 12 episodes are all performed by 10 amateur male actors. Before coming to Hangzhou in May, performances took place in Beijing and Shenzhen. However, Fang’s also had to overcome his fair share of obstacles in China, where frank conversations about sex and gender are still taboo. A performance in the southern city of Guangzhou was abruptly canceled for unknown reasons, while the show’s Chinese name deliberately avoids using the word “penis.”

Despite its limited run, “The Penis Monologues” is a remarkably candid examination of sex and relationships in a deeply patriarchal country. In 2017, a wide-ranging online survey of college students found that it was not uncommon for respondents aged between 18 and 22 — most of whom were female — to experience sexual harassment on campus, but that less than 4% would report it to the school authorities or police. And although dozens of women spoke upabout sexual harassment issues in the country last year, the impact has not been as strong as in Western societies, where soul-searching is taking place among certain groups of men.

Fang hopes “The Penis Monologues” will prompt more heterosexual Chinese men to reexamine the ways they approach and treat women. “I want to reflect on and criticize the violence of men against women, and promote gender equality from a male perspective,” Fang tells Sixth Tone. “Unilateral efforts from women are far from enough; men must act, too.”

That raison d’être resonates with Tao Xiaotao, a social worker specializing in sex education who is also the play’s Hangzhou producer. The mother of two young boys hopes that news of the performances will spread on social media and get more straight men thinking about their interactions with women. “Drama is a more acceptable form of expression (than directly calling for change), as it’s easier for people to relate to characters in a play, which then prompts them to reflect,” she says.

But the play’s subject matter hasn’t made it easy for Tao to find willing actors. Most men she approached declined after reading monologue titles like “Penis Size,” “Domestic Abuser,” and “Erectile Dysfunction.” “They are afraid of being mocked or judged by the public,” she tells Sixth Tone.

When 42-year-old business owner Yu Lei read the play for the first time, he was shocked that it so boldly addressed taboo subjects. But after attending one of Fang’s sex-ed public lectures and seeing members of the audience calmly taking notes, he decided to join the troupe, despite never having acted before.

Tao assigned Yu to the play’s first monologue, “Date Rape,” which tells the story of a male college student forcing his girlfriend to have sex with him in a hotel room. Yu was so nervous about performing that he told his wife he was taking part in a charity event organized by White Ribbon, the advocacy organization launched by Fang in 2013 to end the violence perpetrated by men against women. But he needn’t have worried: His performance wins thunderous applause from the 90 or so people in the audience, though Yu later confesses to Sixth Tone that he slightly regrets doing it. “I’m afraid people might think it was my own story,” he says.

Unlike Yu, Wang Hongqi directly told his wife about the play. On the night of the performance, she sits in the audience alongside their 6-year-old son. Despite the play’s occasionally explicit content, Wang doesn’t worry that sex-related topics might adversely affect his child. “Kids think all this stuff is perfectly normal and natural,” Wang says. “It’s the parents who don’t know how to give them a proper sex education.”

Wang, who used to work for a company that builds subway systems, once accepted the combination of extreme work hours and after-work social gatherings organized by his male bosses. But that culture kept him from spending time with his family, causing his wife to claim she was trapped in a “widow marriage.” So, Wang decided to make a change: In 2015, he quit his job and opened one of only a handful of sex shops in Hangzhou.

But as Wang’s new business flourished, he became more and more concerned about male chauvinism found in sex culture. “Most of my male customers want to buy something that can make them bigger downstairs or last longer in bed, but few of them care about what their female partner wants to experience in her sex life,” says the 41-year-old. “Sexual violence can be more subtle than physical violence, but it’s still something we should discuss and pay attention to.”

Assertions of masculinity come up often in Fang’s play. Several monologues dwell on the so-called masculine temperament, which “requires men to succeed in their careers and be in a dominant position in their relationships with women,” Fang says. The anxiety to assert their manliness brings men not only “welfare and power,” but also stress and pain, he explains.

Two actors portray the story “Gender Queer” during the play “The Penis Monologues” in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, May 18, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Two actors portray the story “Gender Queer” during the play “The Penis Monologues” in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, May 18, 2019. Fan Yiying

That pain is familiar to Ye Chuyang, a queer actor portraying their own experiences in the monologue “Gender Queer.” “I don’t agree with binary gender divisions, because it limits people’s possibilities,” Ye tells Sixth Tone. “Most people think men are supposed to be macho, decisive, and strong. They don’t appreciate feminine or delicate men. Though my parents appreciate the sensitive and gentle side of me, they prefer me to be strong and tough just like other boys.”

Ye thinks the play is a chance to both educate people about sexual diversity and help more men understand the experiences of women. “If men could break the rules and speak out, women would feel encouraged and less lonely in this battle,” he says.

Gu Wei’s story, meanwhile, is probably the most personal. A former domestic abuser, his monologue reflects on how, in the past, he treated his now ex-wife as a possession and didn’t tolerate any challenges to his authority in their marriage. “It’s typical dominant masculinity,” he says.

Gu, who has since reformed his behavior and become an activist and volunteer at White Ribbon, hopes to raise awareness of an issue that many Chinese women suffer in silence. Though a national law to protect victims of domestic violence came into effect in 2016, in reality women who report abuse seldom receive adequate help from the authorities, which sometimes list domestic violence cases as “family conflicts.”

Born in 1999, Luo Bin is the youngest in the crew. Growing up, Luo witnessed how his grandfathers dominated the family and how they snapped at his submissive grandmothers. The young Luo concluded that such behavior was normal. After he got to college, he sided with his male friends when they complained that their girlfriends wouldn’t have sex with them.

Working on the play has convinced Luo that his long-held attitudes toward gender roles are misguided. “It didn’t occur to me that when your girlfriend says no, it means no,” he says. “We hurt girls before we know it. I hope the play can make the public aware of date rape and prevent it from happening.”

The sophomore college student acts as the play’s host, going up to other actors and asking questions like “What’s a real man?” and “What’s your favorite sex position?” The questions sometimes make the spectators visibly uncomfortable, but Luo thinks they’re necessary to foster open conversations about gender equality. “Now I know if we don’t give people the right to choose what they really want, then it’s not equal at all,” he says.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

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Fighting China’s Shame and Ignorance on Postpartum Incontinence


SHANGHAI — When Chen Lijun explains the damage giving birth can do to the body, the young women in her audience gasp. Unsatisfying sex, prolapsed organs, and an inability to hold in your pee aren’t exactly the sorts of things their mothers told them about.

But, to her audience’s obvious relief, there are solutions, says Chen, a health instructor who specializes in the pelvic floor — the web of muscles that support the bladder, bowels, and uterus in women. Even though pelvic floor problems are common among mothers worldwide, millions of Chinese women remain unaware of them.

The Chinese Medical Association said in 2011 that 18.9% of adult Chinese women experience stress urinary incontinence (SUI), a leakage of urine that occurs when the abdomen is placed under strain, even by simple actions like coughing, sneezing, or laughing. But China Women’s News, a newspaper affiliated with the state-backed All-China Women’s Federation, puts the figure at nearly 50% with just one-tenth of those affected seeking treatment. In absolute terms, this would mean roughly between 93 million and 246 million Chinese women have untreated SUI.

Although postpartum incontinence is common, many new mothers are afraid or embarrassed to talk about their urinary incontinence. The event where Chen is a speaker — called “Pelvic Floor Awakening” and hosted on May 11, one day before this year’s Mother’s Day — aims to raise awareness. It is jointly organized by Yummy, an online platform for Chinese women to discuss sex, and British intimacy brand Durex. More importantly, says Yummy founder Zhao Jing, the message is “to let women know that they are not alone in this battle.”

Growing up, few Chinese women who are now in their 20s and 30s were ever told by their mothers what it is like to give birth, and how to deal with the physical and mental toll it can take. “But the younger generation is paying more attention to their feelings and needs,” says Zhao. She decided to organize the event after noticing an increase in Yummy users sharing their awkward experiences leaking urine while laughing, coughing, or running during pregnancy or afterward.

Attendants watch a video about postpartum mothers at the event, “Pelvic Floor Awakening,” held in Shanghai, May 11, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Attendants watch a video about postpartum mothers at the event, “Pelvic Floor Awakening,” held in Shanghai, May 11, 2019. Fan Yiying

Huang Jianxuan, one of the 30 or so attendants, has had occasional incontinence since she gave birth to her son three years ago. She wasn’t sure what caused it. “I thought it was normal, as other mothers I asked were going through the same thing,” she tells Sixth Tone.

“It’s common but definitely not normal,” responds Chen, explaining that pregnancy stretches the pelvic floor muscles, which sometimes don’t return to their original positions after childbirth and can leave the bladder and other organs unsupported, potentially leading to SUI. Regular exercise, therapy, or surgery can repair the damage. The pelvic floor is a niche medical field in China, neglected by both women and medical experts, Chen says.

In some Western countries, health insurers require new mothers to undergo postpartum pelvic floor rehabilitation. In China, though, it’s mostly just top hospitals that offer such programs. When, six weeks after giving birth, Huang visited a Shanghai hospital for a postnatal examination, doctors didn’t mention checking her pelvic floor. “But even if they had, I wouldn’t have gone for it, because I was too busy taking care of my baby,” says the 29-year-old.

As China’s medical resources are stretched and doctors are preoccupied with more acute conditions, Chen believes social organizations should lead the drive for better pelvic floor care. That conviction led her to leave the state-owned hospital she had worked at for over 20 years and establish her own practice offering female pelvic floor health services in 2016.

At the event, Chen confesses to the audience that after giving birth to her second child while she was in her 30s, she went through an unspeakable period of time when her underwear was constantly wet. “I looked energetic and cheerful, but deep down inside, I was so afraid of running or jumping,” Chen says. “But then I recovered, and I wanted to help more women.”

So far, Chen’s taken on over 300 cases in her Beijing clinic, and she regularly posts on social media to raise awareness. At the same time, she believes public figures may have a greater influence.

Chen Lijun, a health instructor, gives a speech about pelvic-floor care at the event, “Pelvic Floor Awakening,” held in Shanghai, May 11, 2019. Courtesy of Zhao Jing

Chen Lijun, a health instructor, gives a speech about pelvic-floor care at the event, “Pelvic Floor Awakening,” held in Shanghai, May 11, 2019. Courtesy of Zhao Jing

When celebrating her third Mother’s Day on May 12, Ella Chen Chia-hwa, member of the legendary Taiwanese girl group S.H.E, shared her experiences with pelvic floor muscle disorder after giving birth. “My pad would get completely soaked, and then my pants were wet,” Chen Chia-hwa wrote on Facebook. Recently, she finally opted for surgery, she added. Her post was shared on Chinese social app Weibo, where thousands of users left comments with their own experiences.

When working in the hospital, Chen Lijun says she noticed that new mothers only sought medical advice when facing serious problems like Chen Chia-hwa’s. However, since 2016, she has witnessed a change. Many of her clients have yet to become mothers, or even have sex. “The younger generation has the sense to protect their pelvic floor before giving birth,” she says. Compared with older generations, who bear their symptoms in silence, Chen Lijun finds it “stunning” to see Chinese millennials so eager to figure out why their mothers have urinary incontinence, and why their elder sisters no longer have sex after childbirth.

Many in the audience at the event are unmarried and childless, too. Yao Weili joined Yummy two years ago. The state-owned enterprise employee pays attention to her body. She works out regularly and is familiar with Kegel — a pelvic floor-strengthening exercise that Chen explains at the event. Though Yao, 39, is single and has no immediate plans for motherhood, she decided to attend the event to get more firsthand information. “When I was little, I heard my grandma complaining about her leaking urine to my mother and aunts,” she tells Sixth Tone. But when she wanted to know more, they just stopped the conversation or shut the door.

Most of Yao’s friends are married and have at least one child. They often talk about how labor has damaged their bodies and how frustrated they are with their sex lives. “If sex is a meal, then the pelvic floor is like the ingredients,” Chen says. A damaged pelvic floor can decrease sensation in the vagina, making sex less satisfying and orgasm more difficult to achieve. Chen says about 70% of her clients and patients have low sexual desire, sexual arousal disorder, or a lack of orgasm, yet only 3% would see a doctor for such issues. “This is even worse after women have children,” she says.

Postpartum sex lives are a recent focus for Yummy, too. Early this year, it released an online “training camp” to help new mothers recover from childbirth. “We decided to step into this area after witnessing the huge demand,” Zhao says. “We want women to know that they can get back to enjoying sex after following these exercises.”

Zhao Jing, founder of Yummy, gives a speech at the event, “Pelvic Floor Awakening,” held in Shanghai, May 11, 2019. Courtesy of Zhao Jing

Zhao Jing, founder of Yummy, gives a speech at the event, “Pelvic Floor Awakening,” held in Shanghai, May 11, 2019. Courtesy of Zhao Jing

Launched in 2015, Yummy now has over 2 million users in China. In 2018, Zhao was honored to have made the BBC’s list of “100 inspiring and influential women from around the world.” But she was even more thrilled when China Daily, the state-controlled English-language news outlet, shared the news on social media: “I felt the authorities had approved of me and my work and that women pleasing themselves and exploring sex wouldn’t need to be kept under the table anymore.”

As China now encourages couples to have more than one child, Chen says it’s high time to make women aware of how to take care of their pelvic floor. “It’s very likely women will wet themselves more often when they are older if they don’t exercise their pelvic floor muscles after each birth,” she says.

Huang, the mother of a 3-year-old, is thinking about having a second child in a few years. But first, she is determined to go see a doctor and regain control of her bladder. “I always told myself that it would all pass, but it didn’t,” she says after the event. “I’ve realized that whether a mother or not, women should put themselves first and take care of their bodies, rather than just building their lives around the kids.”