Erwin J. Haeberle

Sexual Behavior in Modern China

From: D. Liu, M.L. Ng, L.P. Zhou,and Erwin J. Haeberle: Sexual Behavior in Modern China: Report on the Nationwide Survey of 20,000 Men and Women, New York, Continuum, 1997, pp. 568

It is both a great honor and a great pleasure for me to contribute a few welcoming words to this first major survey of sexual behavior in  China.

Such systematic surveys already have a respectable tradition in many countries, from Magnus Hirschfeld's pioneering efforts in Germany in 1903 and 1904 to Alfred C. Kinsey's famous American "reports" of 1948 and 1953. Unfortunately, these and other pioneering sexological studies were neither fully appreciated nor universally acclaimed when they were first published. On the contrary, Hirschfeld's work was terminated by court order, and Kinsey's private financial support was withdrawn as a result of political pressure. lt was only much later, after the the outbreak of AIDS, that the same governments that before had strangled sex research realized their mistake and very belatedly began clamoring for data. After decades of neglect, ridicule, interference, and outright suppression, sexologists were suddenly asked by the health authorities to tell them immediately and exactly how much  pre- and extramarital  intercourse, how much homosexual and bisexual behavior, and how much prostitution existed in each country, city, or rural district, as well as the prevalence of various sexual techniques in different populations in order to get a picture of possible chains of infection. The embittered researchers pointed out that the answers to such questions cannot be found overnight; that they themselves had, for a long time and in vain, asked for funding; that sex research needs steady support and a great deal of time to obtain meaningful results; that a single study is never sufficient, but must be repeated several times in order to yield sufficient insight; that sex research is extremely difficult under any circumstances and requires special training; and, finally, that such train­ ing is possible only within special sexological institutes which should have been set up years ago. In other words, in most countries around the world sex research has never received the recognition it deserves and , as a result, the actual sexual behavior in these countries is unknown.

In their desperation, and since nothing else was available , epidemiologists tu rned to older surveys, mainly to Kinsey's "reports" and tried to extrapolate the data not only to the present and fu tu re, but also to countries other than the United States. This way they hoped to arrive at some predictions as to the course the AIDS pandemic might take. However, it soon became clear that this simplistic approach could not result in accurate forecasts.

In the meantime, researchers i n the Unitfd States as well as i n Great Britai n, France, Finland, and some other countries have concucted new , representative or near-representative national surveys of sexual behavior . However , helpful as these efforts have been, they have not prod uced certainty. Greeted with relief by many health officials because of the "con­ servative" picture they painted , they have been questioned and dou bted by sexologists who know the pitfalls and shortcomi ngs of all existing research  methods.

Sexologists also know something eise: Each country, indeed, each social class, ethnic grou p, and generation within the same country has a different "sexual culture," and they  all  need  to  be  investigated. Most cou ntries also have a number of sexual "subcultures" in which members of otherwise very different social grou ps may interact, thereby creating specific erotic milieux and "lifestyles. " Examples are prison populations , youth gangs, homosexual communities, "swingers" clubs, sadomasochistic circles, and the various types of prostitution, from street prostitution to brothels and "call girl rings. " Such subcultures by no means exist in all countries, and they may show an enormous variability from one country to another. They do become important, however, as "target grou ps" for AIDS prevention campaigns, since they themselves are the best experts on their own sexual behavior. Therefore they can be very helpful in designing appropriate prevention campaigns and materials. They also know how to distribute such materials in the most effective manner, and they command  the necessary  trust.

In short, where such sexual subcultures exist , they can be the most valuable allies of health workers in preventi ng the spread of sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS. Conversely, those health officials who try to coerce or suppress such potential allies will fail in protecting not only the members of these subcultures, but also the general population. lt is therefore  necessary  for  sex  researchers  to  find  the various sexual groups that might exist in a particular society, to befriend them, to support them, and to learn from them. In this respect Hirschfeld and Kinsey were also role models for their successors.

The sexological pioneers also showed us that sex research is socially beneficial quite apart from the issue of disease prevention. They documented an enormous variety of sexual behaviors and thus enabled legislators to obtain a more realistic view of human nature. This, in turn, led to the reform of many unnecessary, counterproductive or downright destructive sex laws in Europe and the United States. As a result, the amount of sexual misery and hypocrisy in these countries was greatly reduced, the police had more time to fight serious crime, and the social peace in general was strengthened.

Another area where sex research has proved immensely valuable is in the treatment of sexual dysfunctions. Especially noteworthy is the work of Masters and Johnson in the 1960s and 1970s, which led to a new and much better understanding of the physiological processes underlying human sexual expression. This, in turn, made it possible to develop new therapeutic techniques that benefited dysfunctional couples. Today, "sex therapy" has become a recognized academic and professional  enterprise in many countries, and many couples and individuals who were formerly beyond help have regained their sexual capacities.

However, quite apart from all of these utilitarian arguments it must clearly be stated that sex research is meaningful in itself as a part of humankind's overall effort to understand itself and the world. lt should therefore be  obvious that, above all, basic sex research needs support regardless of any immediate practical application.  Only on this neutral, disinterested basis will researchers be able to maintai n an  open  mind and will the deeper truths of sex reveal themselves. Such basic research can and must involve many academic disciplines, from biology and med icine to history, economics, and sociology. The proper way to conduct sex research is therefore to set up interdisciplinary teams. Again, Hirschfeld and Kinsey recognized this and acted accordingly.

Magnus  Hirschfeld,  who  had  edited  the  world's  first Journal  for Sexology in 1908 and was a co-founder of the first Society for Sexology 1913, established the first Institute for Sexology in 1919 in Berlin. (Two years later, he also convened the first international sexological congress in Berlin.) His institute, from the very beginning, combined biological, medical, historical, sociological and anthropological approaches. This was also reflected in its publications and, above all, in its unique collection and  library.  lt attracted visitors  from all over the world, includi ng A ndré Gide, Margaret Sanger, and Jawaharlal Nehru ,  who later acted as Hirschfeld's host in Allahabad,  when  he visited  lndia  on his  world journey.

During this journey, which took almost two years (1930-32), Hirschfeld traveled from Berlin to New York, Ch icago, Los Angeles , and San Francisco, from there to Japan, China, the  Philippines, Indonesia, India, Egypt, Palestine, Greece, Austria, and Switzerland, lecturing everywhere about the new science of sexology and various sexological topics. In the summer of 1931 Hirschfeld lectured at all Chinese national universities. Especially in Beijing and Nanjing the audiences were very large. and at Sun Yatsen University in Guangzhou over one thousand students appeared for a lecture. Of course, he also visited Shanghai. (There still exists a photo showing Hirschfeld with members of the Chinese Women's Club.)

In view of this historical connection between Chinese and German sexology, I was especially gratified to hear about Professor Liu's plans for a first great sex survey in 1988. We began corresponding, and, in the spring of 1989, I finally had the privilege of meeting him and his collaborators in Shanghai. In a series of fascinating and personally rewarding meetings , I had the opportunity to contribute to the research design, to discuss details of the questionnaire and interviewing techniques, to make various methodical and technical suggestions and to offer my encouragement. As the president of the German Society for Social-Scientific Sex Research (DGSS) I also asked Prof. Liu to join our scientific advisory board, and he invited me, in turn, to become an advisor to the Shanghai Sex Sociology Research Center. After that we continued our collaboration by correspondence and also met several more times for working sessions, for example in Hong Kong at the First Conference on Sexuality in Asia and in Berlin at the national conferences of our own society in 1990 and 1992. We met again in Shanghai in 1992 for the first International Sexological Conference in China. On that occasion, we presented the original Chinese edition of our book to participants from many Asian countries.

Finally, in Berlin in 1994, our society was pleased to award Professor Liu the Magnus Hirschfeld Medal for outstanding contributions to sex research. In short, our collaboration has intensified, and we are now looking forward to strengthening our ties even further. For example, in the summer of 1995 we were able to present an exhibition i n Berlin of his extraordinary personal collection of art and artifacts under the title "Five Thousand Years of Sexual Culture in China." This exhibition at the State Library proved an enormous success with extensive coverage in all national media - the press, radio, and television. As a result, the German general public for the first time learned something about a hitherto hidden aspect of Chinese culture.

Professor Liu stands in the tradition of the great sexological pioneers Hirschfeld and Kinsey, making a total commitment to his science along with great personal sacrifices for the sake of his research. As these great men  did, he also seeks and finds allies and collaborators from various academic disciplines, and from official agencies as well as industry and large and small organizations. This careful building of local, national, and international  alliances is the best  proof  of the seriousness of his intentions and it also offers the best guarantee that his research will continue. Obviously, the first large Chinese sex survey whose results are published  here,  can only be a beginning.  Like all good  research,  it raises more questions than it answers. In many respects, the findings are almost predictable , since they are similar to those in most other countries.  For example, the fact that an overwhelming majority of college students find sex education  too  conservative mirrors  very  similar sentiments  almost everywhere  in  our  fast-changing  world.  The  fact  that  a  considerable number of people have sexual intercourse before marriage also reflects a nearly universal finding.

Considering the earlier physical maturation of boys and girls today and the rising age at which young men and women get married, this can hardly be a surpr ise to anyone. On the contrary, future, more specialized research will probably confirm this trend and raise the present percentages. Certain other numbers in the  present report, on the  other  hand, seem low compared to findings in other countries. For example, to experienced sex researchers it is quite surprising that less than half of the male college  students masturbate. According to our  reasoned expectations, this figure should be much higher.

Perhaps, in this first survey, the respondents were still too shy and did not tell the truth, or some other factor falsified the answer. lt seems reasonable  to assume that the number will be higher in future surveys. lt is also intriguing to find that well over 7 percent of college students reported homosexual experiences. A surprise is also the figure of just over 10 percent who had heterosexual intercourse.  In fact, the last two findings should prove very interesting to all sex researchers who learn about them. A variety of interpretions are possible. lt seems safe to assume, however, that in future surveys both figures will turn out to be different, and that especially the percentage of those with heterosexual experiences   will   grow   dramatically. The   percentage of those with homosexual experiences may eventually also be found to be at least somewhat larger.

On the other hand, the recent nationwide surveys in the United States, Great Br itain, and France report much smaller figures with regard to homosexual behavior than had been anticipated on the basis of the earlier reports by Ki nsey and his collaborators. However, while his figures, for certain technical reasons, were probably too high, the new numbers may well be too low for entirely different reasons. The debate among sex researchers abou t the best survey techniques is by no means over.

lt would certainly be interesti ng to keep an eye on the percentage of those with both homosexual and heterosexual experiences. In any case, sex research in other countries - no matter where it is being conducted ­ has shown time and again that there is no clear demarcation line between those with heterosexual and homosexual interests. Of course, the vast majority of men and women do not maintain homosexual behavior for long (if at all) , but some of them show some homosexual behavior after puberty for at least a few years, and in perhaps half of these cases it will probably remain significant throughout life . This has always been, and will remain true all over the world. After all, as the zoologist Ki nsey poi nted out, a. certain amount of homosexual behavior in a mi nority of the population is simply "part of our mammalian heritage." There is no biological reason why the Chi nese should be an exception.

This is not to say, however, that cultural factors do not play a very subtantial role in shaping all sexual (including homosexual) behavior. Especially the interpretation of such behavior varies greatly from one culture and historical period to another. I understand that Professor Liu is planning to give special attention to this whole issue i n his next study. I am certain that this also will be a very illumi nating, pioneering work.  

Another fasci nating discovery of the present survey is the fact that over sixteen  percent of the married report masturbation.  This certai nly has a ring of truth. Finally, the finding that over half of the couples practice sexual intercourse in various ways sounds both true and reassuring about Chinese sexual culture. On the whole, the present survey reveals a picture of "average" and in part even robust sexual health in China with a few fuzzy spots that need to be cleared up.

Needless to say, Professor Liu will have to prepare for a great deal of criticism from a number of quarters. Sex researchers are always criticized. And it is true that no sex survey can be perfect or cover everything that readers would like to know about. Professional  colleagues will undoubtely  point out various shortcomings in the research  design or in its execution . This criticism is also unavoidable and must be borne with equanimity. Actually, as everybody is going to discover, serious professional criticism is the most valuable response any researcher can hope for. More than anything else it promotes interest in more and better research. Thus, no matter how this survey itself is eventually judged, Professor Liu will have every reason to be pleased, since he has provided the first and greatest impetus to the growth of sexology in China. lt remains the enviable position of pioneers like Professor Liu to promote their field no matter how their work is received. Even the strongest attack will have the effect of pointing to the importance of what he is saying. Agree or disagree, his main objective will be achieved: Everyone will see that a survey such as this had to be conducted and will have to be repeated.

To foreigners like myself, the Chinese often appear both fascinating and "inscrutable." lt is Professor Liu's unique contribution that he has begun to show us that, in matters of sex, his compatriots are very much like most other people, that they are - not surprisingly - part of the same human race with the same personal satisfactions and problems. Most importantly, however, by enabling the Chinese to learn something about themselves which they might not have realized, he has opened the way to a multifaceted, inner-Chinese dialogue, in which the people themselves examine their values, hopes, and aspirations for happiness.

I for one hope that this dialogue will also result in establishing sexology as a scientific enterprise in its own right in China. Few things could be more welcome to us European and American sexologists than to see the growth of the Chinese institutes of sex research, especially those with a sociological orientation. After all, sex research in China, expanded and maintained over years and decades, could significantly increase our understanding not only of China, but of "the human condition."

Hirschfeld's own research, his collection and library, indeed his whole institute, fell victim to Hitler and the Nazis in 1933. To this day, this pioneering institute has not been rebuilt in Berlin, because the city's three universities have taken no note of international developments and consequently have never understood their responsibilities and opportunities in this area. Finally, in 1994, seventy-five years after the opening of Hirschfeld's institute, the Robert Koch Institute, a German  federal health research institution, took the initiative to open an Archive of Sexology in Berlin. lt could become the nucleus of an urgently needed German research center.

In any case, I was very pleased to be able to re-establish the interrupted Chinese-German  sexological connections,  to travel repeatedly  to China and to welcome Professor Liu even more often in Germany. I wish this book the grateful reception it deserves . and I am looking forward to helping the further development of Chinese sexology in any way I can .

The present  English-language  edition  of  the  book  was  prepared jointly by two of the original four co-authors: Dr. M. L. Ng of Hong Kong and myself. We have endeavored to remain very faithful to the Chinese edition in order to give the Western reader an accurate impression of the work and its context. For example, we left all of the scanty or iginal referen ce notes without making additions. Thus, the Western reader will clearly see how limited the acress to current American and Eu ropean sexological literature remai ns even in present China.

Moreover, we have retained the style and structure of the original , with a rather rigid (if not pedantic) narrative in order to convey an impression of the dispassionate "seriousness" which allowed the work to be published in the first place. Even so, as i n the original, some of the paragra phs contain surprising anecdotes and asides, and some of  the tables are startling. Therefore we hope that the work as a whole will be well received even by impatient Western readers. After all, few of us have the opportunity to get a good look at the "hidden" side of a cultu re of which we are only now beginning to become aware.