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The Chinese Are Learning to Talk About Sex

The Chinese may not talk about sex, but they certainly do it. In fact, they probably do it just as much as the rest of us. What is obvious though is that the lack of dialogue around sex, and particularly the absence of sex education in the schools, has serious consequences for the nation as younger people begin to adopt a more sexually liberated lifestyle. I say this is obvious because even the Chinese government admits that this is a problem. The National Population and Family Planning Commission of China announced yesterday that the city of Beijing is rolling out the first ever sex education program for Chinese students next year.  If the evidence on youth sexuality in that country is correct, the program is long overdue.

In a massive study that was undertaken last year, United Nations Population Fund and Peking University found the found the following (startling) results:

  • 22.4% of Chinese youth age 15 to 24 were participating in premarital sex.
  • 51.2% of those sexually active youths did not use any form of birth control.
  • More that 20% of the sexually active youths had experienced an unexpected pregnancy
  • 91% of those youths had opted to end that pregnancy in abortion.

These estimates for pregnancy and abortion rates are even higher in studies that just look at university students. In one such study (which had 80,000 participants), 26% of sexually active students had an unexpected pregnancy with an abortion rate of 92%. 

The problem seems to be incomplete information about contraceptive use. For example the birth control pill, which is generally accepted as a safe form of contraceptive in the West, is rarely used in China. Only 1.7% of married women use the pill as a birth control method with many believing that in the long-run it will lead to infertility. Most women, married and unmarried, rely heavily on the morning–after pill, with 50% of women reporting that it is their preferred form of birth control. Also, 95% of women use “feminine wash”, a practice that has all but died out in the West, with more than half believing that this will protect them from sexually transmitted infections.

It turns out that abortion is big business in China. At an average cost of 600 Yuan per abortion (about $90 US) and about 13 million abortions undertaken medical clinics (with many more undertaken illegally) the procedure generates billions of Yuan in revenue every year. In the competitive spirit that is the market in China, this has led centres that perform abortions to advertise on university campuses to attract student business. Some hospitals even offer students half-price abortions in an attempt to capture some of the market share—just show your student card, pay your 300 Yuan and you are one harmless procedure away from returning to your studies.

The problem with the use of abortion and the morning-after pill to control fertility of course is that they do nothing to deal with that other sex-related issue—infections. The sex education program being rolled out in Beijing intends to deal with that issue head on. But they are only offering the program in a small number of schools in a very big city, in a very big country. The problem is that as I said, the Chinese don’t like to talk about sex.

Personally, I have never had an issue with that.

Thank you to Niko Bell, for talking to me about sex in China.

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