China Has a Problem With Bad Sex Advice. Can a New Exam Fix It?


Guo Yun finally found the courage to step into a sex shop last year to buy a dildo for her birthday. Before long, however, she retreated back to the streets of downtown Shanghai, confused and disappointed.

“It was one of the most elegant sex shops I’ve seen in the city, and I thought they’d have professional sales assistants as well,” says Guo. “But instead, they just kept promoting the most expensive products.”

The final straw came when the 26-year-old asked why the deluxe versions would suit her needs, and the staff replied: “With dildos, the bigger, the better.” “I’m no expert, but instinct told me that’s not right,” says Guo.

Guo’s experience reflects those of countless others in China who are throwing off decades of sexual conservatism and becoming more experimental in the bedroom, but are often receiving poor advice from vendors with little understanding of the products and services they’re selling.

Demand for sex toys has skyrocketed in recent years, with tech giants including Alibaba promising door-to-door dildo delivery at 30 minutes’ notice. China’s online market for sex products is predicted to exceed 60 billion yuan ($8.5 billion) by 2020, up 250% compared with 2017, according to consulting firm iiMedia.

But the boom is taking place in a society where sexual knowledgetends to be low. Sex education at most Chinese schools is extremely basic, and parents and teachers often oppose moves to provide students with more practical advice. Sexual content in the media and online, meanwhile, is strictly controlled.

The result has often been widespread confusion. Industry insiders tell Sixth Tone companies are regularly misleading customers, from beauty firms making fanciful claims about the benefits of their vaginal oils, to staff at “delay spray” producers not realizing their intercourse-prolonging products are different from anti-impotence drugs like Viagra.

Now, the government is stepping in. This past November, the China Health Care Association — a national-level industry organization backed by the Ministry of Health — launched a standardized training program for a newly identified profession: sex health counselor.

The new program defines sex health counselors as any professionals involved in aiding consumers with their sex lives, including intimate masseurs, sex coaches, and sex shop owners, as well as staff inside China’s vast family-planning regime. Its ultimate goal is to provide every “counselor” in the country — around 12 million people — with a thorough grounding in the birds and the bees.

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Sex toys are displayed at a sex shop in Shanghai, March 28, 2018. Fan Yiying

According to its organizers, the training scheme will bring order to the rapidly growing sex products market, as well as support the Chinese government’s wider push to boost the nation’s reproductive health.

“The next 10 years will be an important period for the development of China’s sexual and reproductive health industry,” says Zhao Jing, deputy secretary-general of reproductive health at the China Health Care Association. “Training professional specialists is urgent and essential.”

The program enrolled its first batch of around 200 students — a mix of reproductive health care workers, sex product vendors, and beauticians specializing in vaginal treatments — in late 2019.

Over 30 online classes, the participants received lectures on sexual values and minorities, pleasure skills, sexual disorders, and sexual and reproductive health, among other topics. In late December, they sat a test. Three-quarters passed.

Recruitment of a second batch of students kicked off Feb. 19, and Zhao says the association also plans to launch a more advanced course in June. The higher-level training will focus more on sexual techniques and will be targeted at beauticians.

“At present, there are many nonstandard practices in the domestic beauty industry, so we hope to invite experts to provide technical guidance … to better regulate the market,” says Zhao. “Over 35% of the junior certificate holders have already asked us how they can get the intermediate one.”

Yang Fan was among the first people to sign up for the entry-level course, which is currently voluntary. He has run a sex shop in the northwestern city of Xi’an since 2015, but he often feels out-of-his-depth when customers ask him how they can spice things up at home.

“I wish to provide them with more professional advice — especially women, because women here are still embarrassed to discuss sexual problems,” says Yang. “But the more professional I am, the more open they’ll be.”

According to Yang, the training program has inspired him to hold sharing sessions at his shop to promote his business and teach people what he’s learned. He hopes this strategy will win out over the aggressive tactics used by most of his competitors, who often pressure new visitors into buying pricey, multifunction dildos unsuited to their needs.

“They’re new to this, and they use high-end products and freak out,” says Yang. “Bad advice like this prevents people from coming back for more.”

He Miao, a worker at a Xi’an-based delay spray manufacturer, has also found the course beneficial. In the past, she received a lot of complaints from customers claiming the firm’s products didn’t work, but now she’s learned how to help people make better use of them, she says.

“Before, I thought only sprays could help men last longer, but now I can share with my customers that a combination of products and techniques works better,” says He. “It’s just like if you were sick — buying medicine by yourself and taking it under a doctor’s guidance will produce different results.”

For others, the course’s main attraction is the chance to gain an officially recognized qualification. Zhang Bimin, 28, is a sex coach who teaches women how to pleasure themselves via online tutorials on social media app WeChat. She says it’s important the government recognizes her profession.

“After the relevant department issued the certificates to us, I felt more confident in my work,” says Zhang, who’s based in the southern megacity of Shenzhen.

Cheng Jingjing, a Shanghai-based stay-at-home mom, took the online classes while also studying to become a certified psychological counselor, listening to the lectures while cooking or at the beauty salon. She feels the certificate will help her build a career advising clients on sexual health online.

“I figured people are more comfortable talking about sex online,” says Cheng. “And having a certificate will make me look more professional and trustworthy.”

The course helped Cheng on a personal level, too. She says the LGBT and BDSM classes were particularly eye-opening. “I also learned a lot about men’s confusion and anxiety about sex, which has improved my relationship with my husband,” she adds.

Cheng hopes to use the knowledge she’s gained to help her friends and relatives, many of whom stopped having sex after they had children. Yet this is proving to be an uphill battle.

“They complain about their husbands and shout at their children … mainly due to their unsatisfying sex lives,” says Cheng. “But unfortunately, every time I start a conversation (about this), they just avoid talking about it.”

For Yang, the main obstacle to sharing his newfound knowledge with the public is, ironically, the government. After posting videos about sex culture and products on a few popular online platforms, his accounts were blocked — a fact he blames on the authorities’ strict rules against so-called vulgar content.

“Due to a lack of publicity, many people don’t know these toys can play a role in improving their sex lives, making their marriages more harmonious,” says Yang. “We’re posting positive content online and should have been supported by the government.”

Like most of the certificate holders who spoke with Sixth Tone, however, Yang believes the training program should eventually be made mandatory. This is the only way, they feel, that the public will come to accept sex health counseling as a profession.

“It’s the same as psychology,” says He, the delay spray worker. “At first, people were opposed to it, feeling that those who see a therapist are neurotic. But then they saw psychologists were licensed and the industry seemed regulated, and they understood it’s normal to have psychological problems and seek professional help.

“One day, people will feel the same about sex health counseling,” He adds.


This article was published on Sixth Tone. 

Amid the Epidemic, a Quiet Leap Forward for China’s LGBT Community


The days leading up to the Lunar New Year was a tense time for people across China amid the worsening COVID-19 epidemic. But Jiang Junjie had even more reason to feel nervous than most.

The 26-year-old not only planned to visit his parents in the southern city of Chaozhou, 350 kilometers from his home in Shenzhen, in spite of the outbreak; he was also bringing along his boyfriend.

It would be the first meeting between Jiang’s partner and his family, and the young engineer had a lot riding on the outcome. In China, bringing a partner home for the holiday is a big gesture — and often a sign the couple intends to one day tie the knot.

Just months ago, Jiang wouldn’t have considered taking such a step. The previous Lunar New Year, he’d finally come out to his family, and it had gone worse than he’d feared. His father had told him never to come home again. His mother had said nothing at all.

But Jiang had managed to change his parents’ minds with the help of an unexpected ally: the Chinese government.

In late 2019, the country’s top legislative body allowed the public to make suggestions for an updated draft of China’s civil code. It received an avalanche of submissions, with nearly 200,000 people sending feedback in one month. Over 190,000 of them made the same proposal: Legalize same-sex marriage. It was so overwhelming that officials publicly acknowledged legalizing gay marriage was among the most popular suggestions they had received during a Dec. 20 press conference.

“As far as I know, never in the history of Chinese legislation have so many people put forward so many opinions on one law,” says Sun Wenlin, co-founder of iFamily, a nongovernmental organization that promotes same-sex marriage in China.

Jiang messaged his parents with the news, and told them tens of thousands of people like him had campaigned for it. “Two days later, my dad called and asked me to bring my boyfriend home for the Lunar New Year,” he tells Sixth Tone.

Many LGBT people in China have been similarly excited — and more than a little surprised — at the government’s reaction to the civil code consultation. Though few expect China to legalize same-sex marriage any time soon, the authorities’ willingness to recognize the issue is an important step forward — and could encourage more people like Jiang’s father to accept the gay community.

In previous statements, officials had signaled clear opposition to marriage equality. As recently as this past August, Zang Tiewei, a government spokesperson, told reporters that China’s current civil code — which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman — was “consistent with our country’s national circumstances, history, and culture.”

Sun, of iFamily, says he expected officials to take a similar line again, or ignore the issue completely, after the public consultation. “But they showed neither support nor opposition (for same-sex marriage), which is a lot more positive than last time,” the 29-year-old tells Sixth Tone.

The change in tone has convinced Sun that China may allow same-sex marriage much sooner than he’d previously thought. In 2015, he filed a lawsuit against his local civil affairs bureau in the central Hunan province for the right to marry his partner — China’s first case over same-sex marriage — but the court ruled in favor of the government. After that setback, Sun assumed he’d have to wait 20 years to get married, but now he’s more optimistic.

“Now I don’t think it’ll take that long, after seeing how quickly people’s attitudes toward gay people and same-sex marriage have changed in the past few years,” says Sun.

Though homophobia and discrimination remain all-too-common in China, there are signs that society is becoming more tolerant as the LGBT community gets more vocal and visible.

When Jiang started identifying as gay a decade ago, he says he didn’t feel he could confide in anyone, given the widespread negative attitudes toward LGBT people in society. Now, however, he has come out to his colleagues and family members and feels most people his age accept him for who he is.

The results of a December poll conducted by Chinese news website ifeng.com support his assessment. According to the poll, 6.3 million people — 66% of the respondents — voted in favor of legalizing gay marriage. Chinese Christian groups appeared to be alarmed by the news, with several beginning to organize opposition to a potential legalization on social media.

The Alibaba-owned shopping platform Tmall, meanwhile, caused a stir in January by producing a Lunar New Year TV ad featuring a father and mother warmly welcoming their son’s boyfriend into their home during a family reunion.

“It’s so exciting and encouraging to see a gay couple on a TV commercial in China,” says Jiang. “I feel we’re almost being acknowledged and accepted by society.”

Gao Bo, director of the LGBT group PFLAG in Wuhan, Hubei province, says the Dec. 20 press conference will definitely have an effect on China’s gay community, making more people willing to come out.

“We’ve been walking in the dark: Even if there’s just one star above our heads, we feel very bright and hopeful,” says Gao.

Two weeks after the press conference, Gao’s PFLAG chapter held a group wedding ceremony for same-sex couples in Wuhan. More than 200 people came to watch four couples — including Gao and his partner — symbolically tie the knot, an attendance beyond Gao’s expectations.

“The wedding not only celebrates our love; it also encourages more people to speak up for themselves,” says Gao. He plans to make the group wedding an annual event in Wuhan once the city has recovered from the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, which was still at a very early stage in early January.

Participants in a group wedding ceremony for same-sex couples stand onstage in Wuhan, Hubei province, Jan. 4, 2020. Courtesy of PFLAG

Participants in a group wedding ceremony for same-sex couples stand onstage in Wuhan, Hubei province, Jan. 4, 2020. Courtesy of PFLAG

The 36-year-old created an online group with more than 100 members during the civil code consultation, to encourage more people to send responses.

“Many of them asked me if China would legalize same-sex marriage this time, and I told them 300% ‘no,’” says Gao. “But the key is that we need to stick together, get ready, and then when the government reveals any positive attitude, we’ll know what to do and how to seize the opportunity.”

Jiang and his partner took full advantage of their invitation to Chaozhou over Lunar New Year. Things started awkwardly, Jiang recalls, but the family gradually loosened up as they took part in a few activities together.

“We watched TV, played video games, wrote couplets in honor of the festival, and livestreamed on social media,” says Jiang. “My boyfriend cooked several different dishes every day, which really pleased my parents.”

Jiang’s parents even asked his boyfriend to join them in burning incense and praying to Buddha — a New Year tradition in parts of southern China. “It was a sign of acceptance, as we don’t typically ask guests to do it with us,” says Jiang.

But not even the success of the civil code campaign was enough to convince Chen Minming, a 35-year-old from the eastern province of Fujian, to bring her girlfriend to the Lunar New Year dinner with her parents over the holiday.

When Chen told her parents she was a lesbian in 2018, her mother was too shocked to speak. “Then, she cried for days,” she recalls.

Chen’s father also strongly disapproved of her sexual orientation. “My girlfriend was nice enough to collect some articles on LGBT issues online and print them out for my dad, but he still disagreed,” says Chen.

Unlike most of the LGBT people who spoke with Sixth Tone, Chen remains pessimistic about the prospects of same-sex marriage in China, pointing out that legalization in other countries came only after decades of campaigning. “I don’t think it’ll happen any faster than that in China,” says Chen.

In November, Chen and her partner held a small wedding ceremony in Thailand to celebrate their love. “I don’t care that it isn’t legal,” she says. “I just believe life should be filled with a sense of ritual.”

Eros Li, a 39-year-old from the southern city of Guangzhou, however, has no intention of holding a wedding, even if China decides to allow same-sex marriage. Li has been with his boyfriend for 17 years, and he says a piece of paper won’t affect the way they feel about each other.

“I think marriage is a tool for the government to promote the stability and unity of the country,” says Li. “And many people don’t get married for love anyway.”

Nevertheless, Li is an enthusiastic campaigner for marriage equality. He participated in the civil code consultation and encouraged his friends to do the same — even those afraid of coming out.

“Whether I want to get married or not is different from whether I should have the right to get married,” says Li.

Li doesn’t think the authorities’ recognition of the support for same-sex marriage means it’s rethinking its policy. “The number of responses on this topic was far higher than any other — they just couldn’t avoid mentioning it,” he says.

But the government’s attitude has no effect on him on a personal level, according to Li. He and his partner have good relationships with both sets of parents, and the couple spent the Lunar New Year with Li’s family in the eastern Jiangxi province.

“I take my partner home based on whether my family accepts him, not based on the civil code,” says Li. “Even if we’re not legally accepted yet, as long as my family embraces us, I’m willing to take him home.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

 

Pets, Abandoned and Blamed, Struggle to Survive Virus Outbreak


Du Fan had made plans to travel north and spend the Spring Festival holiday with friends amid wintery scenes of ice and snow.

Instead, during a viral epidemic that began in his hometown Wuhan, Du is roaming a deserted city to break into strangers’ homes and rescue their pets.

As the city — the capital of central China’s Hubei province and the epicenter of an outbreak that has killed over 700 people and infected more than 34,000 as of Feb. 8 — closed itself off from the outside world on Jan. 23 to halt the spreading virus, millions of Wuhan residents were out of town with no way home.

Across China, measures enacted to stop the spread of 2019-nCoV, as the coronavirus is known, have affected businesses, people — and animals. Pets have been blamed for spreading the virus, willingly abandoned amid the crisis, or unintentionally left to fend for themselves.

Three days after the lockdown that put Wuhan’s roads, railways, and airport out of service, Du issued a notice on social media saying his nongovernmental organization Wuhan Small Animal Protection Association would help stranded pets for free. So far, the association has received more than 2,000 requests, mostly from people who expected to only be away for a few days and are now afraid their pets are running out of food and water.

Du’s team of 28 volunteers are in a race against time, maneuvering through a city of 14 million without the use of cars or public transportation. They have so far managed to save more than 400 pets, mostly cats. Still, they’re receiving more new requests than they can handle. “We will keep doing this until the city is unlocked,” Du tells Sixth Tone.

Left: A locksmith opens the door of an absent pet owner’s apartment; Right: A volunteer feeds pets left alone as a result of the lockdown in Wuhan, Hubei province, 2020. Courtesy of Du Fan

Left: A locksmith opens the door of an absent pet owner’s apartment; Right: A volunteer feeds pets left alone as a result of the lockdown in Wuhan, Hubei province, 2020. Courtesy of Du Fan

 

Before entering a house, Du will ask its stranded owners to record a video holding their ID card and stating that they allow the volunteers to get in. After entering with the help of a locksmith or a hidden key, they are greeted by hungry but elated animals. In one video Du posted on social media, a pig locked in a closed balcony hadn’t eaten for a week. “The balcony is a mess, and he has even chewed on the water basin,” Du said.

In another video, a cat was giving birth when Du arrived. Two of the kittens died, but the volunteers cleaned up and left enough food and water to last a fortnight, preventing a worse situation. “In the face of disaster, helping small animals is also what we humans should do,” Du says.

Elsewhere in China, animals and their caretakers have also been put in a bind by the outbreak and the measures enacted to stop it. In cities throughout the country, businesses have been advised to stay shut following the weeklong Lunar New Year break, which would have ended on Jan. 30 but has been extended to Feb. 9 in many places.

Chen Junren owns a pet store in downtown Shanghai, and this week opened up anyway. With a decade of experience, he knows it should be a busy time of year. “Usually around this time, the store should be filled with owners taking their dogs over to buy food and give them baths, but now it’s so empty,” Chen tells Sixth Tone. He has turned to selling online, but is quickly running out of goods, especially imported brands. Chen thinks China’s pet market, which has rapidly grown and last year exceeded 200 billion yuan ($28.8 billion) for over 100 million cats and dogs, will be affected for at least a year.

Chen is also facing a staffing shortage. “None of my employees have returned yet,” he says. Some of them celebrated Lunar New Year with their families in Hubei and cannot leave the province until the lockdown lifts. In any case, it might be a while before Chen gets help. Anyone arriving in Shanghai from elsewhere in China is asked to go into two weeks of self-quarantine.

But Chen is not alone. A 7-month-old shiba inu was sent to stay in his store by its owner, who is stuck in Wuhan. “I will take care of the puppy for him no matter what,” Chen says. “Pets are more important now than ever because, without their company, life would be so much harder at this moment.”

Vet clinics have also largely been ordered to stay closed. Zhang Fan, a veterinarian in Wuhan, thinks such measures might be counterproductive and harmful to public health. “Some pet owners may take their pets to other cities for medical treatment, which will increase the possibility of unnecessary population flow,” he says.

Many clinics have launched online consultations, though there are limits to what doctors can do from a distance. “But we will do our best to alleviate the difficulties and save the lives of as many pets as possible,” says Qin Kong, co-founder of Shanghai-based pet services company Petform. “Every life deserves respect.” They launched their online consultations on Jan. 30 and have already helped hundreds of customers.

For most pet owners, the biggest worry is whether they should still take their animals outside. Li Lanjuan, an epidemiologist and member of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Engineering, said in an interview with state broadcaster China Central Television last month that people should “more strictly control their pets,” and that “if your pet runs around outside and comes in contact with an infected person, it will need to be monitored. This virus is transmitted between mammals, so we should take precautions for mammals.”

Despite statements from both the World Health Organization and an expert at China’s National Health Commission refuting Li’s claim, suspicion toward pets has spread. In Weifang, eastern China’s Shandong province, and Taiyuan, a city in northern Shanxi province, districts have banned public dog-walking. In Wuxi, Jiangsu province, a neighborhood committee staff allegedly buried a cat alive after its owner was infected with the coronavirus, out of fear the feline could spread the disease.

Fang Ling, the founder of a pet hotel in the mountains outside of southwestern Sichuan’s provincial capital Chengdu, tells Sixth Tone that Li’s comments created a wave of panic. “Every day, officials come to supervise and check whether we wear face masks, and how many times we disinfect and clean the place,” she says, adding she’s afraid she’ll be ordered to close any day. She’s taking care of some 35 dogs and has received new orders from people who’ve found it too difficult to keep walking their dogs in the city.

While most Chinese have stayed inside the past few weeks to limit the spread of the virus, Wang Yingchao, founder of WoWoDogWalk, a Shanghai-based dog-walking service, takes over 15,000 steps daily. “Staying indoors for a long time is painful for us, let alone some dog breeds who need more exercise,” says Wang.

With her team, she walks dozens of dogs every day, fewer than usual. But there’s also a silver lining. “It’s actually less hassle to walk the dogs now, as you can hardly see people on the street,” says Wang.

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.