SPW: What do you see as the most critical issues concerning sexuality and sexual rights, broadly speaking, in China today?
Pei: As a researcher, I think the most critical issues on sexuality in China are related to how we look at the value of marriage, in a very practical sense. “Marriage” is undergoing much transformation and troubles these days. For instance, extra-marital relations are becoming very popular. People talk about it in the media and in their ordinary lives, and all suggests that extra-marital relationships are becoming increasingly accepted in society. But at governmental and academic level, monogamy and fidelity remains as core values that must be protected. In daily life everyone thinks and speak about these changes, people are saying, “oh, now we can do this or that”. But you can never seriously discuss existing marriage policies, or what marriages may become in the future. In my view, this is one of the most critical issues for sexuality research.
Another critical matter is prostitution, which can be portrayed in similar double-bound terms. Local governments do know that sex worker and prostitution exists and they unofficially accept these realities because they are profitable. But in order to make sure that socialist values and norms around prostitution are still on place, party leaders and other authorities are constantly saying that: “We can not allow prostitution to exist”.
SPW: Is prostitution illegal in China? Is it punished by criminal law?
Pei: Yes. It is illegal, but almost all karaoke clubs in southern China have contracted sex workers. The same applies to massage parlors and beauty salons where sex services are also offered. In these localities, the policemen and governmental authorities know these realities exist, but they formally ignore it. Today some research has started to be performed in relation to these realities.
SPW: Criminalization of prostitution in China criminalizes the women themselves, or just the exploitation of prostitution?
Pei: It actually criminalizes anyone involved in prostitution, including women. People who sell sex can be sent to reeducation camps, obliged to forced work, or else subjected to high fines. This applies to everybody, but in reality men engaged with commercial sex pay fines but are never sent to re-education camps, while women are. In recent conferences on sexuality, some researchers have presented empirical data informing that in China there male and transgender persons involved in sex work. But the government denies it. Moreover existing criminal laws just apply to women. Lastly since prostitution is illegal in China, research is not so easy and it is hard to raise critical views in relation to the realities surrounding prostitution.
SPW: Is there any other critical issue that you want to raise?
Pei: In China when we talk about sexuality we always talk about negative aspects of sex. This is a strategic stance because it is the only way we can raise sexuality issues in public debates, otherwise you will be seen as promoting sex (which is bad). But in reality, Chinese people think that food and sex are the most important things in their lives. Given that now we have enough food, it is predictable that people start pursuing happiness and therefore wanting to have more and more pleasant sex. This is being already recognized by academics such as Professor Li Yinhe, a very famous researcher. Every year she’s invited to a sex festival, promoted by a company that produces condoms and sex toys to speak about sexual pleasure and lots of people attend this festival.
Guangzhou was the first city to hold such a festival. It takes two or three days. It’s like a market place; you must buy tickets to get access and there are boxes with many kinds of sex toys, condoms and even movies, never porn movies, but sexuality educational movies. There are also entertainment programs such as, for instance, samba dance that is shown there as a very sexy dance. The interesting aspect is that, despite the formal party positions on sexuality, these festivals are s operated by local governments, which say they are promoting a healthy sex culture. But truth be said, the festivals are mostly about the condoms. There were already three festivals in Guangzhou and this year other cities have also started to promote similar events. But yet it was never presented in Beijing, where controls are stricter.
SPW: What is the public attending these festivals?
Pei: Most participants are male, college students, migrant workers but also ordinary citizens. They are mostly young people. It is very interesting, in fact, because the predominant audience is composed by either very young people or the older generation. We do not see too many people from the middle group, maybe because they are too busy making money. I guess this is so because youth is searching for more clarity and information about sexuality and old people never had access to this type of information. The festivals indicate that sex plays a main role in people’s life, even when government and the academia have not yet recognized it fully.
SPW: Cai Yiping, what are the critical issues in your own view?
Cai: Thinking from an activist perspective, the first critical issue in China today, is inequality, particularly in regard to access to health care and services. Some groups are highly marginalized and discriminated. For example, young people are not recognized to be sexual, or to have sexual health needs. There are family planning services, where you can easily have access to free condoms or even legal abortion with paid leaves. But the policy is exclusively design to married people, to couples. Also internal migrants are not covered by health care policies because they are designed to the“local population”. So the provision of health care is very unequal, but it is also inadequate. Even though they provide many of services, it is not enough. Especially, because services are not accessible to those who mostly need them.
Another issue I want to raise concerns the perceptions around sexuality, which constantly shift between danger and pleasure, which these days is related to the new phenomenon of commercialization and commodification of sex and sexuality. In fact there are many paradoxes at play. On the one hand there is a highly sexualized discourse in Chinese culture, which is in fact deeply embedded in tradition: Chinese eroticism. This means that people have enjoyed and still enjoy sex. On the other hand, not everybody has the same right to sexual pleasure, as this mainly applies to men, or else to those who have much economic or political power. For example, in the past, men who had money or power practiced polygamy. They had many wives and concubines, bought sex from prostitute and this as seen as fine and normal. But rural poor men, very often could not even marry because they could not afford the costs of marriage.
Despite many transformations, these patterns remain on place. Today with media and more information available people have started to demand a more free expression of their sexuality, we could say liberation and empowerment. But in reality what prevail are market forces, the marketing of sexuality exclusively for profit. For example, the sex festivals Pei has spoken about are not exactly aimed at promoting sexual freedom, they are fundamentally about marketing sex toys and condoms. It’s very economic, profit driven. Of course they have an educational function or dimension. But their key motivation, from the local governments perspective, is to promote the local economy and the companies’ profits.
SPW: Is there another critical issue you would like to talk about?
Cai: Yes. From an activist perspective, I do think we do need more democratic spaces for advocating for rights to information, to services, to sexual expression and diversity. We still face many obstacles in relation to “naming”. For example, commercial sex workers are always named as the “wrong women” or “women doing the wrong thing”, as criminals. There are also issues of naming in relation to the emerging LGBT movement. For instance as elsewhere in China today there is much discussion about the terminology men who have sex with men (MSM), which has spread under the umbrella of HIV/AIDS prevention projects. I attended a conference where some speakers from the LGBT movement talked about a major split in the movement, because on the one side there are those who organized around sexual identities, and on the other the flooding funds for HIV/AIDS prevention is catalyzing a new environment in which NGOs have been created that are not interested in rights, discrimination or political engagement. They simply engage in condom distribution projects for having safer sex and pleasure. This is why I think democratic spaces are so important. I do not see a problem in that different ideas or strategies are being discussed. But it is necessary to have spaces where these ideas can be debated.
SPW: Do you have in Chinese specific terminologies for non-conforming sexualities? The language has those terms, like you have in Hindi or in other languages? Or are you totally dependent on the international vocabulary?
Cai: We have translated a lot of international concepts into Chinese, for example homosexuality, gay, lesbians etc. But we also have invented, renamed or have given new meanings to old Chinese words. For example, there are two terms in Chinese to describe gays. One is “tong xing lian”, which is the translation of the English words “same sex love”. The second term is “tong zhi”, meaning “comrade”. As you do know comrade is highly political and very very positive term in Chinese language. During the Cultural Revolution era, everyone should be called the comrade, to indicate that people shared the same points of view and common visions. Interestingly enough these days the gay community is using and re-signifying the term.
SPW: But in Mandarin, itself, are there old words to describe same sex relations?
Cai: Oh yes! In the past, there were plenty of terms to describe homosexual relationships between men, women, with many subtle differences. I also think that throughout the history new terms reinvented and re-signified. In a historical perspective these terms varied depending on context and values, whether society, at that point of time, wanted to criminalize these practices or whether it was more tolerant. But we must note that in the past these terms did not have any political meanings. They were descriptive, they portrayed the phenomenon, the behavior, the culture, but were not political. This is why when LGBT terminology is adjusted to Chinese it implies the novelty of political meaning, which is important to the movement, to activism related to sexual and gender identities. But as I have said there are paradoxes, contradictions, even some disagreement within the movement about language and naming.
SPW: In relation to the Internet, can you say something? Are there web-based conversations on sexuality? Are there web-based activisms related to sexual rights and sexuality?
Cai: Yes. Right now the most democratic space in China is the Internet. Even though it is constantly censored and surveilled, the web remains the most realm in society. There are lots of debates underway about a wide range of issues related to sexuality, ranging from the gender based violence to the LGBT rights, prostitution, commercial sex work, among others.
SPW: Would you say that Internet is playing today the role Dazibao used to play in the past?
Cai: Somehow. But I think it is even more powerful than the “Dazibao”, because of of the scale of the web and the number of people it involves. The internet is definitely a tool for people to communicate with other people who have the same cause even though they don’t know each other. But yes we can say it is promoting a certain “cultural revolution”, because on the internet no one can totally manipulate others, neither governments nor single individuals, neither activists, or their political opponents. The internet is a very promising space, despite all the difficulties and the waves of censorship.