Spousal Distancing: The Chinese Couples Divorcing Over COVID-19


Zhang Ning will soon be reunited with her husband. He left the couple’s hometown of Wuhan to visit relatives in late January, and just days later the central Chinese city suddenly went into lockdown, leaving him unable to return for over two months. But China is now easing travel restrictions as its COVID-19 epidemic subsides, allowing him to finally come home.

Zhang couldn’t be less excited.

“I’ve told him I’ve decided to divorce him,” the 34-year-old tells Sixth Tone.

Rather than making their hearts grow fonder, the prolonged separation has exposed deep fissures in the couple’s relationship that they’d previously ignored, according to Zhang. She was left alone taking care of her elderly parents-in-law and 8-year-old son in a city at the heart of a global pandemic — and her husband was less than sympathetic.

“When I called him wanting to release my emotions, at first he comforted me a bit, but then he became impatient,” says Zhang. One day, he snapped at her: “Aren’t you supposed to do all this?”

For Zhang, it was the final straw. For years, she’d stayed with her husband for the sake of their child, but from that moment on, she decided she was better off without him.

“I’ve never felt that determined in my life,” says Zhang. “The pandemic helped me make up my mind.”

Many Chinese couples have had similar realizations during the past few months. As cities began relaxing their virus-control policies in early March, registry offices across the country were swamped by an unprecedented number of divorce appointments.

The northwestern city of Xi’an saw a surge in divorces, while a district in the southwestern city of Dazhou also reported a sharp increase in divorce applications between Feb. 24 and March 11.

Lan Zi, a divorce counselor at a marriage registry office in the southern city of Shenzhen, says she’s been overwhelmed by the growing number of couples seeking her services since the start of the pandemic.

“Couples are having to make reservations a month in advance before they can get a divorce,” Lan tells Sixth Tone.

The recent spike follows years of rapid increases in China’s divorce rate, fueled by economic and societal changes that are empowering the nation’s women and undermining traditional taboos against dissolving marriages.

Nearly 4.5 million couples got divorced in 2018, a 2% year-over-year increase. Over a longer time frame, the increase is even more striking. China’s divorce rate in 2018 — 3.2 for every 1,000 people — is nearly six times higher than the rate for 1987. In the United States, by contrast, the divorce rate has been falling over the past decade and now stands at 2.9 per 1,000.

The Chinese government has even felt the need to introduce policies designed to discourage couples from splitting. Getting a divorce in China is easy and cheap, with the formalities often taking less than an hour and costing as little as 9 yuan ($1.25), but legislators in December of last year proposed requiring couples to observe a 30-day “cool-off” period before officially ending their marriages.

Local registry offices have also started offering free premarital and divorce counseling in recent years. Lan, the Shenzhen-based counselor, says she’s helped 115 couples reconcile with each other and cancel their divorce appointments during the past two months.

The recent crisis, however, has been unlike anything Lan has seen before. For many couples, being locked up at home together for weeks created new tensions in their relationships and exacerbated old ones — and even counseling is not enough to resolve them.

“Home isolation can cause many family conflicts to erupt,” Lan tells Sixth Tone. “A lot of ordinary little things may cause divides, or even become more intense — directly affecting the intimate relationship between husband and wife or leading to a marital crisis.”

Hong Lanzhen, a divorce lawyer based in the southern city of Dongguan, says she’s already handled multiple cases in which her clients have emerged from lockdowns determined to get divorced as quickly as possible.

“One thing these couples have in common is that their relationships were fragile before the outbreak,” says Hong. “Quarantine forced them to stay together. The longer they were locked down, the more problems they had and the more disagreeable they were with each other.”

Xiao Mei, a 32-year-old from Beijing, moved out of the apartment she used to share with her husband and filed for divorce soon after life in the city started to return to normal. She tells Sixth Tone the crisis revealed her husband’s “true face.”

According to Xiao, her husband always used to tell her he was too busy with work to help with housework and child care. “But this time (during the lockdown) he had plenty of time, yet he still did nothing,” says Xiao. “I finally realized my husband is a giant baby, and I don’t want to carry on with this widow-like existence anymore.”

“The pandemic has been like the final straw to break marriages,” says Li Hua, a psychologist based in Zibo, East China’s Shandong province. “The small spears and shields that could be ignored or tolerated get suddenly exposed and pile up one on top of each other like a sharp knife, cutting mercilessly at the relationship.”

The lockdowns came as a particular shock to the huge number of Chinese couples in long-distance relationships. The country has an estimated 288 million migrant workers as of 2018, with many living apart from their spouses and children for large chunks of the year as they work long hours in the big cities.

Until the pandemic, Zheng Rujun only saw her husband once a month, as the pair had jobs in cities a three-hour drive apart in the southern Guangdong province. Their relationship was stable, and the couple treated each other with respect during their monthly visits, according to Zheng. Things quickly changed, however, once they found themselves living together for the first time since their wedding in 2017.

“He throws dirty clothes and smelly socks all over the house; he plays video games on his phone all day long; and when I share with him my worries about the virus, he mocks me for making a fuss,” Zheng tells Sixth Tone.

After a few weeks, Zheng couldn’t take it anymore and told her husband she wanted to break up. He was against the idea, telling her things would go back to normal once the lockdowns were over. But Zheng’s mind was made up. “Since I’ve already uncovered these problems I can’t bear, why waste time?” the 27-year-old says.

For others, it was the stress of being separated during the lockdowns that opened up new marital rifts, according to Li, the psychologist. “Women especially often feel anxious and insecure about their relationships,” says Li. “They worry about their husbands’ safety and whether they’re cheating.”

According to Li, many of her female clients repeatedly asked their partners to send photos and videos of themselves to prove they were where they said they were. “I’ll help them … understand that their behavior will only push their husbands away,” she says. “When you feel inferior, you’ll be afraid of others abandoning you.”

Financial pressures have been another source of strife, with firms cutting staff and the self-employed sometimes suffering drastic reductions in income as a result of the pandemic. The added stress has sometimes pushed marriages to their breaking point, according to Lan, the divorce counselor.

“The outbreak cuts off household incomes and the stress that comes with it triggers emotional crises,” says Lan. “We’ve seen this a lot during our daily work during the pandemic.”

Not every relationship has been damaged by the crisis, however. Some couples have emerged from the lockdowns closer than ever. According to a survey by LoveMatters China, a platform for sex and intimacy education, nearly 300 of 1,500 respondents said they’d “stuck together” with their partners 24/7 during the lockdowns. Of those that had done so, 55% agreed that the daily super-close contact helped them communicate better and improved their relationships.

Although disasters bring huge trauma and loss, researchers have found that they often also push survivors to move forward: People who are afraid and lonely marry earlier; those in the wrong relationships end them faster; and families considering having children stop hesitating.

Chinese regions that experience earthquakes typically see their divorce and marriage rates rise by 6.1% and 1.9% respectively the following year, a study published in 2016 found. In the United States, the marriage, divorce, and fertility rates in South Carolina also increased following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, another study showed.

“The disaster may simply act as an accelerator or catalyst for people’s actions,” explains Li. “They come to recognize the status of their marriages during the pandemic — this special life-or-death period — and make firmer decisions.”

Wang Liting, 35, says COVID-19 helped her understand what truly mattered to her. She’d been thinking about divorcing her husband of nearly 10 years before the pandemic struck.

“I felt like he didn’t get me,” says Wang. “And I had a really bad relationship with my mother-in-law, who was always pushing me to have kids.”

Wang had a change of heart, though, after the couple was confined to their home in Shenzhen. She started to feel unwell and panicked, fearing she’d been infected with the coronavirus.

But then her husband stepped up, according to Wang. He took her to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with just a regular flu bug. He cooked for her, did all the housework, and watched comedy shows with her to help her relax.

“I felt so loved in our marriage for the first time,” says Wang. “That’s when I knew he was the one I could rely on.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

 

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. 

Silent No More: How China’s Domestic Abuse Victims Spoke Out


SHANGHAI — The video appeared on Chinese social media platform Weibo Nov. 25 — the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Posted by He Yuhong, the popular beauty influencer known as Yuyamika to her over 1 million followers, the 12-minute piece included shocking surveillance footage showing a topless man dragging He through the doors of an elevator as she struggled to free herself.

Accompanying the video, the star wrote a short message: “I’m a victim of domestic violence. I seemed to be living in a nightmare the past six months. I need to speak up about domestic violence!”

Yuyamika’s post generated an enormous response. On Weibo, a related hashtag received over 2 billion views within 24 hours of the video going live. It also sparked an intense debate over China’s continued failure to crack down on domestic violence, which affects nearly 1 in 3 married women in the country.

Three years ago, China implemented its first anti-domestic violence law, which covers physical and psychological abuse toward spouses, children, and the elderly. It also grants courts the power to issue personal safety protection orders, banning abusers from contacting victims.

Yet the reforms have had limited impact in practice. Low public awareness, lenient punishments, and failures in the justice system have undermined the law’s effectiveness and discouraged victims from reporting abuse to the police.

Supreme People’s Court data suggests that in the vast majority of cases, victims of domestic violence are not attempting to obtain personal safety protection orders. Chinese courts granted a total of 3,718 such protection orders between March 2016 and December 2018.

Experts say the low number of protection orders reflects a failure to publicize the rules, and that the penalties for breaking a protection order are inadequate. Violations typically result in a fine of up to 1,000 yuan ($145) and a 15-day detention. As a result, many victims doubt whether a protection order would successfully deter abusers.

When victims do come forward, meanwhile, they often struggle to obtain a protection order. In 2019, Weiping, a Beijing-based nonprofit that focuses on women’s rights issues, analyzed Shanghai’s handling of personal safety protection order applications between March 2016 and September 2019. The study found that Shanghai courts accepted just over half the applications, with 34% rejected and 12% withdrawn.

Insufficient supporting evidence was the most common reason cited for an application’s rejection, but Weiping also found multiple examples of judges refusing to grant protection orders based on personal value judgements with no legal validity. Cited grounds for rejection included the applicant and the respondent not living together, the low frequency of the violence, and the abuser’s active admission of wrongdoing.

Lin Shuang, a researcher who worked on the Weiping report, tells Sixth Tone the deficiencies of China’s legal system are driving women to social media to speak out about their abuse.

“A lot of times you go to the police and you can’t even get a receipt (confirming the victim has reported a crime),” says Lin. Failing to obtain a police receipt makes it difficult for victims to apply for a protection order or a divorce, she adds. “It lets the perpetrator know it’s useless for you to go to the police.”

In the days following Yuyamika’s expose on Weibo, other women spoke up online about their experiences of abuse. On Nov. 26, Julieta Benavid accused Chinese actor Jiang Jinfu of assaulting her — a charge the star denied. In 2018, Jiang was detained in Japan after admitting to abusing his then-girlfriend Haruka Nakaura.

Campaigners hope the enormous public attention generated by the Yuyamika case will prompt authorities to fast-track reforms making it easier for victims of domestic violence to obtain justice. There is a precedent for this. In 2011, Kim Lee, the then-wife of celebrity English teacher Li Yang, accused the Crazy English inventor of beating her and filed for divorce, sparking public outrage against Li.

“Li Yang’s domestic violence, which was widely discussed by the public, directly contributed to the formal implementation of the anti-domestic violence law in 2016,” says Fang Gang, founder of White Ribbon, a Beijing-based advocacy organization campaigning to end violence against women. “Anti-domestic violence campaigners had been arguing for this legislation for years before that, but little progress had been made. If it wasn’t for Kim’s act, the legal process might have been delayed for several years.”

Lee, however, was heavily criticized for her response to the Yuyamika video. On Nov. 28, the U.S. national wrote on Weibo: “I will always love my husband. Domestic violence is wrong and intolerable. These two facts exist at the same time, although they seem to contradict each other. Why? Because of forgiveness.”

The post received more than 18,000 comments, most expressing disappointment and anger toward Lee. “Your self-righteous reasons and love will mislead many people who are hesitant to get out of marriages full of violence,” wrote one Weibo user. “There are so many difficulties in enforcing the law … You saying, ‘we are family’ will just cause the precious little progress made to reverse itself,” commented another.

Yet progress appeared at the local level in 2019, as several Chinese provinces adopted new policies designed to fix problems with the existing anti-domestic violence law.

In March, the central Hunan province introduced a reform enabling the provincial branch of the All-China Women’s Federation — a quasi-official women’s rights group — to help both male and female victims of domestic violence secure personal protection orders.

Then, Guangdong province drafted a new domestic violence regulation in December expanding the scope of abuse and adding measures to protect minors from such acts. The draft rule has defined humiliation, slander, privacy violations, threats, stalking, and harassment as non-physical forms of domestic violence. It has also classified minors who witness domestic violence as victims of such acts.

In interviews with local media, Guangdong officials made clear they considered domestic violence a priority issue. Xu Guang, chairman of the Social Construction Committee of the Guangdong Provincial People’s Congress, told reporters there was “an urgent need to solve the outstanding problems in Guangdong’s anti-domestic violence work” — characterizing the problems as “large in number, wide in range, and various in form.”

Guangdong’s proposed regulation also attempts to prevent situations in which victims have no way to report abuse. The rules would introduce a “first responsibility system” that would effectively prevent public institutions from handing off cases to another department.

Authorities were, at least, quick to respond to Yuyamika’s case. Three days after she published the video, local public security officials stated the blogger had been granted a personal safety protection order and her attacker had been put under administrative detention for 20 days.

For anti-domestic violence campaigners, the goal is to ensure every victim receives similarly swift support. The 2016 law was a first step toward that, but there is a long way to go. “At least you can tell the police there is a legal basis (for action) now,” says Lin. “You have some room to argue with them.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Late Bloomers: China’s Elderly Embrace Sex After 60


SHANGHAI — Every Wednesday afternoon, Xue Xiaoqing grabs her favorite purse and heads to a beauty salon in the city’s leafy former French Concession. There, the 70-year-old receives special massage therapy that her therapist has coyly named “private maintenance.”

The treatment for vaginal dryness is designed to help Xue improve her sex life with her husband. After a year of weekly sessions, she says she feels much younger and more confident. “I want to keep having sex until I can no longer walk,” she tells Sixth Tone.

Xue is one of a growing number of elderly Chinese who are rejecting traditional cultural mores and embracing their sexuality as a source of health and happiness.

Like many of her peers, Xue, a retired teacher, used to feel intense pressure to refrain from intercourse. Chinese culture has long stressed that sex should be for procreation only, and making love after menopause was considered both unhealthy and immoral.

“I felt guilty whenever I had sex and tried to suppress any sexual thoughts,” says Xue. She cites a common proverb to explain her feelings: “An old man who desires sex disrespects the elderly and brings misfortune on his family.”

But things changed for the 70-year-old when her beautician recommended she give the massages a try. “The therapist told me women in the West have sex into their 80s, and we can achieve that, too,” says Xue.

Quietly, millions of other retirees are joining the silver sexual revolution. Though 85% of young Chinese believe their parents never have sex, according to a recent survey, research suggests that most of the respondents are mistaken.

A 2018 report by researchers at Renmin University of China found that 53% of Chinese people aged between 55 and 61 had sex at least once a month. The number of elderly respondents that reported having an active sex life, meanwhile, rose from 25% in 2000 to 39% in 2015.

Zhang Ying, a professional matchmaker from Kunshan, a city roughly 70 kilometers west of Shanghai, says she has noticed an attitude shift among her elderly clients in recent years: As income levels rise, they are looking for more than just economic security — they are increasingly prioritizing their emotional needs.

“Almost all my clients emphasize that they want to have a sex life after they remarry,” says Zhang.

Personal information from a matchmaking event in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, Feb. 23, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Personal information from a matchmaking event in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, Feb. 23, 2019. Fan Yiying

Though media discussion of this trend remains rare in China, it is no longer taboo. A growing number of commentators are advocating “scientific sexual knowledge” and encouraging the elderly to keep on having sex “until the end.”

And as public awareness of sexual health issues grows, more retirees are seeking treatments to prolong their sex lives. Zhou Yujing opened a female beauty clinic specializing in sex-related therapies in the eastern city of Hangzhou in 2017. She says nearly 10% of her patients are aged 60 or over.

“This number is already larger than I expected,” says Zhou, adding that she expects to attract more older patients as society becomes increasingly open. The 33-year-old surveyed the mothers of dozens of her friends before starting her business, and she was struck by how many chafed against the patriarchal valuesthey had internalized as young women.

“They all wanted to have sex, but moral hang-ups prevented them from doing so,” says Zhou. “If a woman stops having sex after childbirth or menopause, she’s being unfair to herself.”

Yuan Baohong — secretary general of the China Health Care Association, a Beijing-based nongovernmental organization — encourages elderly patients to pursue an active sex life, arguing that it can offer mental and physical benefits.

“When they have sex, older people feel they are actively engaging in life, rather than retreating from it,” says Yuan. “The self-confidence and positive mental state this fosters can help prolong their lives.”

For Yuan, sex can be an effective cure for the loneliness and negativity that often affect elderly patients. Though many understandably feel unable to move on after they lose their partners, this often heightens their sense of alienation, he says.

“Because their (sexual) needs can’t be understood by their children or society, they often feel distressed or depressed,” says Yuan. “Their moods can become volatile, and they sometimes lose their tempers for no reason.”

At an Ikea store in downtown Shanghai, however, more than 100 single elderly residents are actively searching for a new partner. Groups of retirees meet at the store’s second-floor café twice per week, many of whom attend multiple meetups each month.

On a humid Thursday in August, several attendees in their 60s and 70s tell Sixth Tone they are hoping to find a new spouse at that day’s coffee date, while others say they are simply looking for a friend with benefits. Many openly speak about their previous marriages and desire for emotional intimacy, though most prefer not to discuss their sex lives.

But Wu Xiangui doesn’t shy away. The 68-year-old strides across the cafeteria, remarking to Sixth Tone that he is searching for a “target.” He says he has dated three women since his wife passed away four years ago.

“China is now an aging society, so why is it shameful to talk about the sexual problems of the elderly?” asks Wu. “Everyone has the same desire for intimacy, regardless of age.”

According to Wu, most of the regulars at Ikea have not found suitable life partners despite years of searching, but many have become “old lovers” who meet weekly. They share meals and sing karaoke together and often have one-night stands. “It’s just a need that is understandable and should be understood,” says Wu.

Experts observe that clear gender differences remain among elderly Chinese regarding attitudes toward sex, with men more likely to support the idea that older people have “normal sexual needs.” This is partly due to cultural conditioning, and also a result of the physical changes women undergo during menopause, according to Zhou, the Hangzhou-based sex therapist.

“Women’s inner vulvar mucosa gradually declines with age,” says Zhou. “This can make penetration painful, and slowly, women become sexually apathetic.”

The contrast between the sexes can sometimes create tensions within heterosexual couples, as Zhang Weibin attests. The 60-year-old has been married for more than three decades, but he says he and his wife last made love eight years ago, shortly before his wife started having menopause.

“Ever since then, her sexual desire started to decline,” says Zhang. He adds that he can “solve the problem by himself,” but admits that he has thought about having an affair.

“I think the ancient Chinese were wise,” says Zhang. “They allowed men to marry younger women when their first wives weren’t able to have sex with them anymore.”

For other couples, however, retirement provides the time and space to rekindle their sex lives. Zhuang Xin, a 58-year-old former state-owned enterprise employee from Hangzhou, says she and her husband have sex at least three times per month.

“It’s not as passionate or as long as before, but I see sex as a way for us to show affection for each other,” says Zhuang.

Many of Zhuang’s friends complain about their unsatisfying sex lives, but Zhuang says that old age also brings advantages. “My husband doesn’t need to use a condom now,” she says. “The pleasure is much greater for both of us.”

The couple is able to keep the conjugal flames burning because both make an effort to spice things up, according to Zhuang. They change into each other’s favorite underwear and pajamas for special occasions. On Zhuang’s 52nd birthday, her husband cooked her a romantic candelit dinner and bought her a dildo as a gift. “He was ill back then, but he still cared about my needs,” recalls Zhuang.

Mao Yongyi, who owns a sex shop in Shanghai, says he is receiving more and more orders from middle-aged and elderly people. He also notes that there is a marked difference between his older male and female customers: Women usually purchase lubricants and vibrators, whereas men tend to favor BDSM products.

“Elderly women who come to the shop know that it’s normal to have sexual needs, though they are still concerned about society’s opinions,” says Mao. “But if a man still has a sexual partner at this age, he’ll be particularly confident, feeling awesome about himself.”

But both genders have one thing in common, which is that sex helps them maintain their youth, according to Mao. One of his male customers, 83, needs assistance walking but still purchases bondage gear, while his oldest female customer, 76, is a joy to talk to, he says.

“I can tell she has a stable sex life, because she’s glowing and looks so young for her age,” says Mao.

A few blocks away from Mao’s sex shop, Xue has just finished her therapy session at the beauty salon. She fixes her hair and takes a sip of her favorite green tea. “If young people take it for granted that sex is exclusive to them, it’s only because they are not old yet,” she says.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

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.”