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.

微信图片_20180515112203

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. 

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.”

For China’s Disabled People, Sex is Still Taboo


BEIJING — A spinal tumor paralyzed Nie Shujie’s legs when she was little. Growing up, she never considered intimacy possible. Nie was ashamed of her own body and wouldn’t let herself think about sex. She was never rejected, but she also never gave anyone a chance. “I wasn’t sure whether I could or should have sex,” she says from her wheelchair.

At an event for people with disabilities, Nie met her future husband, who has a hunched back. They married in 2014. “Before I met him, I didn’t dare think about marriage, because I’m severely disabled,” she says. “I have so many concerns. Can I satisfy my husband? Can I get pregnant and deliver a baby?” She says her husband understands her, and she feels comfortable around him. But her insecurities are hard to shake. Nie doesn’t like the way her body looks or feels, she says. “It still takes a lot of courage for me to undress in front of the man who’s deeply in love with me.”

China was among the first countries to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2008. Nevertheless, many of the over 85 million people living with disabilities in China still struggle with myths and stigmas that they are not sexually attractive, not interested in sex, and not worthy of marriage — unless it’s with someone who also has a disability. “People assume that having a disability means losing sexual attraction, desire, and ability,” says Cai Cong, project director of Youren Foundation, a nonprofit organization for disabled people.

Cai believes that, in order to become sexually active, people with disabilities must first get to “know, feel, relax, and eventually accept their own bodies.” In 2013, Youren started organizing events and lectures for people in the community to explore their bodies and openly discuss sex, and found poetry to be the most effective method. “Anyone can write a poem, since there’s no fixed form, and writing and reading poems together can help them sympathize with each other,” says 32-year-old Cai, who is visually impaired. “It lets them feel the connection and power of life, which can give them more courage to face the pain and discrimination they deal with in daily life.”

In September, 35-year-old Nie and about 20 other people with disabilities from all over the country gathered in Beijing for a workshop on disability and sex co-organized by Youren Foundation. Many were reluctant to divulge much about their sex lives, or lack thereof. Even though the poetry workshop was named “Disability and Sex,” only a few people wrote about their sexuality.

img_20180912_171004

Participants collaborate to create poetry during the workshop in Beijing, Sept. 12, 2018. Fan Yiying

Such events have been helpful to some participants, allowing them to recognize they’re not a burden to their partners and that they have the same rights as anyone else. Despite these achievements, Cai says the disabled community itself still isn’t open enough, but that this is something you can’t rush. While people who do not have a disability in other countries feel self-assured enough to visit nude beaches, “people with disabilities in China are at the stage of slowly removing the cloak society’s wrapped around them,” he explains.

Youren Foundation plans to publish the poems so more people with disabilities will read them. Cai believes that, before getting society to change its views toward people with disabilities, it’s crucial to first awaken the community itself. “If they can look at their own bodies and accept that they’re unique, the rest will follow,” he says.

After participating in the Beijing workshop, Zhao Xin organized a similar event in Baoji, his hometown in northwestern Shaanxi province. He guided participants to talk about sex, but they showed more interest in discussing how to find a date and how to look good and attract people of the opposite sex. Just like at the Youren event, few wanted to talk about their sex lives.

While China’s assistance for people with disabilities and their sexual needs doesn’t go beyond discussion or dating events, other countries have more far-reaching initiatives. The Dutch government, for example, grants benefits to citizens with disabilities so they can access sex services a certain number of times a year. In Japan, volunteers at nonprofit White Hands help those with mental and physical disabilities to orgasm. “This kind of service is great, but is simply impossible in China, since it goes against public order and morality,” Zhao says. Prostitution is illegal in China, and Zhao says that currently no organizations in China offer paid or free sex services for people with disabilities — at least not publicly. “All authorities can think of right now is organizing dating events for us, but they don’t understand,” he says, pausing. “Sometimes, we’re not looking for marriage; all we want is just to have sex.”

In his early 30s, Zhao, now 39, lost vision in his left eye due to spondylitis — an inflammation in the spine. Afterward, his girlfriend of seven years left him, after pressure from her family. “I was in so much [emotional] pain, and it took four years to adjust,” Zhao tells Sixth Tone. He then found a job at the local branch of the China Disabled Persons’ Federation, where he met his current partner. The pair have lived together for years and plan to get married soon.

In less-developed areas of China, like Zhao’s hometown, men with disabilities face even greater challenges when finding a partner. Decades of family-planning restrictions, coupled with a cultural preference for sons, mean there are now tens of millions more men than women. This gender imbalance is most pronounced in poorer, more rural areas — especially for disabled men. “Being disabled often means [having a] low income, and parents question how a poor and disabled man can provide their daughter with a better life,” Zhao says. “Even divorced women wouldn’t lower their standards to marry a disabled man here. But, on the other hand, if a woman has a slight disability and a job, she can easily find an non-disabled husband.”

Li Shengping grew up in a rural part of northwestern Gansu province. Now 25 and a master’s student in Shanghai, Li’s only ever had one romantic experience: with his classmate. Because of her, he realized someone like him, born with misshapen hands, could be liked by non-disabled girls. “Unfortunately, I had low self-esteem back then, and I blew it,” he says. When hanging out with his male friends, Li says they sometimes talk about sex, porn, and women. Li has little to share on the topic. When he has sexual desires, he chooses to distract himself by reading or exercising. “I’m a nerd,” he laughs. “But now, I have no doubt that someday, I’ll marry my soulmate, and I don’t care whether or not she’s disabled.”

But even when people with disabilities find a partner, they’re not out of the woods yet. Parents of children with disabilities prefer that they marry a partner who does not have a disability to take care of them. “Even if that person came from a very poor family or was uncivilized, they would think ‘as long as she can see, that’s enough,’” says Cai, the Youren director. “When parents say something like this, we’re hurt.”

Cai’s parents are against the idea of him and his wife having children, as both of them are visually impaired. Nevertheless, they gave birth to their daughter two years ago, anticipating that she might have similar impairments. “Even if she was, we believe a child with a disability is still valuable, beautiful, and has the right to experience this wonderful world,” says Cai. The girl isn’t visually impaired.

But even some people with disabilities would agree with Cai’s parents, thinking that having a child would “bring tragedy” to the next generation. Liu Fang, who lost almost all of his hearing after being given unsuitable medicine when he was little, is one of them. His parents urge him to get married and have children, since he’s in his late 30s. Liu’s condition is not genetic, but he’s still worried he might have a child with a disability of some kind. “They can’t detect everything in prenatal checkups,” he says. “I’m already stressed, and if I brought another disabled life into the world, I just couldn’t take it.”

Liu Fang admires his favorite Buddha statue at the Palace Museum in Beijing, Sept. 18, 2018. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

Liu Fang admires his favorite Buddha statue at the Palace Museum in Beijing, Sept. 18, 2018. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

With hearing aids, Liu can hear 50 to 90 percent of sounds, depending on the environment. But the hearing aids can’t filter noise, and Liu says wearing them for hours on end is tiring and headache-inducing. He takes them out whenever he’s home. If he lived with a partner, he would always have to keep his hearing aids in, he reasons. “That’s why I’ve chosen to be single at the moment.”

Originally from eastern Anhui province, Liu has lived in Beijing for nearly two decades. He loves poetry and has a voice like a broadcaster. Girls have turned him down for his hearing impairment, and all the non-disabled women who have approached him only did so because they lacked self-confidence, he thinks. In terms of sex, he’s more than willing to “serve” his partner. “I think I’m not very confident in bed; therefore, I’d want to try all kinds of things to make up for it and please them.”

“To care for people with disabilities, you have to care about their sex [lives],” Liu continues. But the reality is that many people with disabilities in China don’t even think about having sex or building a family because it’s “hard to believe it could happen,” he says. In Liu’s opinion, China needs to work on social inclusion to increase the sexual autonomy of people with disabilities. Being different scares Chinese people, he says. “If we could teach children to embrace and accept differences, and give people with disabilities more access to study and work opportunities with non-disabled people, then, they wouldn’t feel so pressured when it comes to relationships and sex,” Liu says.

The public, including people with disabilities themselves, “views disabilities as defects, and finds it hard to accept their own flawed bodies, let alone consider them unique or beautiful,” says Bu Wei, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “As China hasn’t established a culture of equality, children with disabilities are very likely to be bullied at school, and in this environment, it’s becoming very hard for them to accept themselves and their own bodies,” she adds.

Nie, who took part in the poetry event, wrote about a qipao, a body-hugging Chinese dress, that a friend gave her three years ago. She never had the courage to wear it, thinking she wasn’t pretty enough. With her husband’s encouragement, Nie finally put on the qipao. “He tells me it looks beautiful on me,” she says, sobbing. “But I only have the courage to wear it in front of him.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

The Shanghai Sex Shop Selling More Than Just Toys


SHANGHAI — With thousands of sex shops sprinkled throughout the city, another store opening its doors isn’t usually cause for queues. But on Pepper Love Store’s first day, word spread quickly via social media. Soon, a line snaked through the former French Concession, putting a smile on the face of Mao Yongyi, one of the shop’s six owners. “We probably became the hottest sex shop in China,” he says.

Situated in a prewar residential building, Pepper Love Store somewhat resembles a house with every room richly decorated. At the top of a staircase lined with sensual photos, one doorway leads to a bathroom boasting an artful display of dildos, vibrators, and cock rings in all shapes and sizes above the tub.

微信图片_20180515112203

Pepper Love Store, March 28, Shanghai. Fan Yiying

For customers who don’t know how to choose among the many products, Mao and his colleagues are on hand to give advice. They don’t want to be the kind of sex shop where the staff “gives you a look as if you’re doing something dirty,” Mao says. “We aim to help couples have a better sex life.”

The third floor is full of sexy lingerie and BDSM products, from whips to nipple clamps. Though sadomasochism is a subculture within a subculture, says Mao, around 20 percent of customers purchase SM-related toys. “We also give them tips on protecting each other,” Mao says.

The shop is set up to ensure privacy. Visitors must make a reservation, as only six pairs are allowed in every hour; all time slots have been booked in the two months since it opened. “Many people ask me, ‘Are your customers really willing to speak to you about their sex lives?’” Mao says. “As long as you’re in a professional environment and speak to them professionally, people are certainly willing to talk.”

Compared with the puritanical days of the 1980s, when selling or producing sex-related products was against the law, Chinese society has become a lot more open-minded: Sales of sex toys are increasing, people frankly discuss anything from their one-night stands to BSDM experiences on specialized social media apps, and e-commerce platforms offer half-hour delivery services for condoms. According to Guangzhou-based research firm iiMedia Research Group, China’s online market for sex toys was worth nearly 18.9 billion yuan ($3 billion) in 2017 and will exceed 60 billion yuan by 2020.

But according to Pepper Love Store designer Zhuang Xiaokai, society still has a ways to go. Upon entering the shop, customers are greeted with crimson walls and an abundance of flowers. “I use a lot of flowers to imply sex,” says Zhuang. She hopes the creatively decorated store will inspire people to spice up their sex lives and can convey to Chinese women — who Zhuang says are sexually repressed by traditional views of chastity — that pleasure is good.

微信图片_20180515112155

Pepper Love Store, March 28, Shanghai. Fan Yiying

Sixth Tone visited Pepper Love Store and spoke with Mao Yongyi and Zhuang Xiaokai, both in their late 30s, about the shop, their views on sex, and how Chinese men are failing their female partners. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Sixth Tone: Yongyi, you previously ran another sex shop and now have about a decade of experience in the industry. Based on your observations, what, generally, do people get wrong about sex?

Mao Yongyi: In my opinion, sex is a way for couples to build trust and enhance understanding with each other. However, sex is often neglected or treated as a job by many Chinese couples. They don’t communicate or discuss it. Many men don’t know how to please their partners; on the other hand, it’s not uncommon for Chinese women to not know how to enjoy sex. Having sex with their boyfriends or husbands is viewed as an obligation. As long as the men are finished or happy, women think it’s good enough.

Sixth Tone: Many customers now prefer to buy adult toys online for privacy reasons. Why did you decide to open a brick-and-mortar shop?

Mao Yongyi: There are hundreds of thousands of adult toys in the world — how could you know which one suits you best without consulting professional shop assistants and playing around with it? When you shop online, you can’t see its size, you can’t feel its texture, and you don’t know whether it’s hard enough for you or the vibrational frequency is right for you. Most customers who have just started to explore sex toys don’t really know how to select the products that fit their needs, or how to use and play with them in multiple ways. Our job is to understand their needs and help them find the most suitable products.

Sixth Tone: Who are your main customers?

Mao Yongyi: Ninety-five percent of our customers are women who have a relatively high salary and good taste. They come by with either their partners or female friends. Most of our female customers can’t find satisfaction during sex because most Chinese men don’t know how to make love. Chinese men learn how to have sex from porn and intend to apply this to their partners. The majority of them have the inexplicable arrogance of thinking they are the best man in the world that their woman could possibly have. They don’t know much about the female body, nor are they willing to please their partners.

Sixth Tone: What are some of the most frequently asked questions from your female customers?

Mao Yongyi: I think Chinese women, especially urban millennials, are more and more open about exploring their bodies and spicing up their sex lives. But they also have common concerns: People often say they’re not sure whether they’ve ever had an orgasm, or they don’t know what to do when their boyfriends do a certain thing they don’t like or think is uncomfortable [in bed].

Sixth Tone: How have views on sex among the younger generation changed in the past decade?

Mao Yongyi: I think people are becoming more open about it, but the younger generation is receiving more mixed messages and misleading information about sex on the internet, and no one has taught them what’s wrong and what’s right. They don’t know how to protect themselves or be responsible to others. For instance, the definition of sexual assault is unclear to most of them. We’ve met a lot of customers who have a difficult time in their sex lives due to sexual assault they experienced in childhood.

As a mother, I feel that sex ed is sorely missing from the education system.

Sixth Tone: When straight couples visit the shop together, how do the men and women react differently?

Mao Yongyi: I wish I could see more supportive men, but unfortunately, I’ve only met a few in the shop. Men are more than happy to come here with their better half. But what annoys me is that they act as if they are very experienced and know all the products well. They then pick up anything they feel is exciting and ask their girlfriend to try it. Every time I witness that, I ask the guy: “Have you ever thought about what your girlfriend would like? Do you know her needs? Do you know what suits her body best?”

Occasionally, we meet girls who know exactly what they want. I remember a girl asking her boyfriend to buy a cock ring so they could try it together. He mocked her and told her to put it down, which really embarrassed her. I then suggested that the guy buy the product because he’s really lucky that his girlfriend knows her own body well and is willing to experience something new with him. He did so, reluctantly.

Sixth Tone: Xiaokai, what’s your favorite part of the shop?

Zhuang Xiaokai: One of my favorites is the window display that looks like a flower-shaped tunnel, symbolizing how people reach their climax. I also like the three deer [engaged in a threesome] that people see as soon as they open the door. [Visiting couples] could be either opposite sex or same sex, which shows our stance on sexual minorities. I’m surprised and happy to see that many customers we’ve served have no problem sharing their sexual orientation. I hope these artistic elements can attract visitors to our shop and eventually help build a healthy and positive attitude toward sex.

Sixth Tone: Pepper Love Store is your first foray into the industry. Why did you decide to join the world of sex shops?

Zhuang Xiaokai: As a mother, I feel that sex ed is sorely missing from the education system. It’s really a problem when most parents still don’t know what to do when their children ask where they come from. I think it’s high time for Chinese people to face up to sex.


This article was published on Sixth Tone.