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May 1997: Chinese sex survey published in English

      The first nation-wide survey of sexual behavior in China has just been published in English:

Liu, D, Ng M.L., Zhou, L. P., and Haeberle, E. J. ,
Sexual Behavior in Modern China: Report on the Nation-wide Survey of 20 000 Men and Women,
New York: Continuum 1997, pp. 586 (Chinese edition: Joint Publishers, Shanghai 1992, pp. 866)

Thus, the results of one of the most comprehensive sex surveys have, for the first time, become available to the non-Chinese reading public.
Prof. Haeberle (center) and Prof. Liu (behind him to the right) after a training session with the chief research assistants of the survey. Shanghai, May 1989.


(For historical precedent, move mouse over picture: Hirschfeld in China: Group portrait with the Chinese Women's Club in Shanghai in the summer of 1931.)

First the Federal Health Office, and later the Robert Koch Institute (Archiv für Sexualwissenschaft), have supported this survey with expert advice from its very inception in 1989 and have, in fact, closely collaborated with its principal author, Prof. Dalin Liu, Shanghai, in preparing both the Chinese and English editions. In conducting the survey, the four main co-authors were supported by a team of 30 research assistants and 530 field workers, who, from the spring of 1989 to the spring of 1990, collected data in 28 regions located in 15 provinces of China. Four main groups were studied: High school students, college students, married couples, and sex offenders. A total of 19 559 filled-out questionnaires could be used for analysis.

For the benefit of interested sexologists, and in close cooperation with Prof. Liu, we summarize here some of our findings from the survey.

High school students

  • Figure 1: Age at Menarche
  • Figure 2: Age of First Ejaculation
College students
  • Figure 3: Age of First Sexual Intercourse
Married couples
  • Figure 4: Monthly Rates of Sexual Intercourse

High school students

1. The high school students of China are progressively reaching puberty at an earlier age. They develop an earlier sexual awareness, including the desire for physical contact with the other sex. Some students put their desire into action, in the form of early love, masturbation, petting and other forms of sexual activity. Their sexual awareness is closely related to their social environment, especially peer influence. All of these indicate that their sexual attitudes and intentions are at a crossroads.


Figure 1: Age at Menarche

Figure 2: Age of First Ejaculation of Male High School Students

2. In order to deal with adolescent sexual problems, sex education has to be strengthened. It should include the teaching of sexual ethics. Further essential topics are relationships, emotions and biological, medical, psychological, and sociological facts.

3. The results of sex education are still tentative. Our survey found that the sex education materials in China were not well balanced. They contain too much sexual physiology and hygiene, with little attention paid to sexual ethics. Sex education is also not well developed in the more outlying districts and rural regions.

They also had some misunderstanding and disagreement on the planning and purpose of sex education.

Adolescent sex education still has no fixed place in the Chinese school curriculum. Although many schools have set up a course, teaching hours are not fixed or secure enough to be effective.

There is still no national policy, curriculum, or teaching aid for sex education in China: 33.1 percent of the schools had difficulties with offering sex education because of a lack of support and materials. The "Government Committee" instruction was that "the National Teachers Committee should set up a standard teaching guide and curriculum of adolescent sex education as soon as possible," and "a good set of teaching materials should be made available soon."

There is a need for more sex education courses for teachers: 64.06 percent of teachers had difficulty in teaching sex because of their own inadequate sexual knowledge. Currently, except for a few experienced pioneers in adolescent sex education, most teachers still lack the basic knowledge and training for the job. In some pilot schools, the job is mostly taken on by teachers of biology, physiology, political education, or the school clinic doctor. There are no teachers specifically trained for sex education. China currently has about 15,000 high schools with about 45,000,000 students overall. In order to provide sex education for all of them, the need for a qualified teaching staff must be met.

There is still not enough support from the students' families and society in general. In our survey, the students' parents were not helpful in giving sex education.

College students

1. College students still have inadequate sexual knowledge. Their sexual attitudes are rather conventional and, in part, immature.

2. Only 0.1 percent of the students considered their teachers to be persons to whom they could talk about intimate personal matters.

3. Sex education in the colleges, necessary as it is, might come too late for most young people. This insight should guide our strategy in sex education.

4.Probably due to the mixed messages received from Chinese and Western sources, college students in China show both traditional and unconventional sexual attitudes. How to help them integrate their knowledge and feelings, and how to get the best information from both sides, should be a major concern of college sex education.

5. The necessary process of integration has to take the need for family and social harmony as well as the needs of the country into account.


Figure 3:

Age of First Sexual Intercourse

6. Love relationships among students are quite common. This reflects their psychological and physical need. This need has to be faced honestly by administrators. It cannot be dealt with by mere authoritarian suppression and punishment. A proper channeling of this need should be permitted together with education on healthy sexual attitudes, practices, and responsibilities.

7. It was very difficult to elicit meaningful information concerning homosexual interest by means of our relatively simple questionnaire. We could only rely on specific behaviors as somewhat objective indicators. Of all respondents, 7.5 percent reported an experience of a same-sex erotic embrace, 2.4 percent reported same-sex erotic kissing. If same-sex erotic embraces are taken as indicators of homosexual interests, then 7.5 percent of college students had such interests (i.e. 7.0 percent of the males and 8.4 percent of the females).

Married couples

Contemporary Chinese society is undergoing rapid change. Many obsolete ideas have been rejected, but not all. Our survey shows many of these contradictions:

(A) Many women and men want to marry for love, but often have only the vaguest concept of love, i.e., they do not know what exactly love is and is not.

(B) Many claim satisfaction with their marital sex lives, but are not satisfied with many of its details.

(C) Many are interested in knowing more about sex and are openminded about it, but take no initiative to look for information.

(D) The status of women has improved, but few are concerned with the quality of their sex lives, including the women themselves.

(E) Many have some sexual knowledge, but it is often fragmentary and not comprehensive enough.

(F) Many try various ways of enhancing sexual pleasure (e.g., different sexual techniques and positions), but they only do so secretly, and there is no open agreement that it is al1 right.

(G) Many understand the importance of family planning for the nation, but many still practice contraception reluctantly, or deliberately avoiding it.

(H) There is a general open-mindedness about divorce and extramarital sex, but not necessarily when it comes down to one's personal life.

(I) There is an increase in premarital and extramarital sex, but there is a great deal of controversy concerning its meaning.

(J) The problem of sex in the aged has been identified but not yet given its due attention.

These and many similar matters have to be dealt with in the future sex civilization of China. In order to find solutions, one wil1 have to improve the people's quality of life, and this is inseparable from an improvement in economic circumstances.

The usual idea about Chinese families is that they are very stable and this is believed to be an asset in Chinese society. Our survey, however, raises the point that it is not always enough to be satisfied with outward stability. We must look at the basic reason for the stability. It is obvious that marriage and family as examined and described by us are of high stability but low quality. For example, outward satisfaction often hides underlying frustration. Therefore, one may ask whether outward stability is, in fact, hiding inward instability? It is important to identify these problems and to solve them.

3. To improve the quality of marital sex, it is important to help people to have a proper attitude toward sex. Previously, sex was considered "dirty" by many people, but now we encounter many different attitudes. It may be appropriate today to emphasize the pleasure function of sex and to put it in a social perspective.


Figure 4:

Percentage of City and Village Subjects with Different
Monthly Rates of Sexual Intercourse

4. To enhance the quality of sex for married couples, it may be necessary to emphasize the role of affection and love in marriage. Our survey shows that there are still many married couples who consider sex as nothing more than a duty or a means of producing offspring. This is likely to make sex monotonous, lowering the quality of the marriage.

5. There are still moral controversies about some sexual issues, such as masturbation, premarital and extramarital sex, divorce, and chastity. It is quite impossible to find one universal morality governing such matters. Sex education should probably teach the moral principle that any behavior is permissible as long as it is harmless to others and takes place by mutual consent.

6. There is a need for adult sex education. It should emphasize the importance of and difference between affection and moral duties, rights, and responsibilities. To maintain a happy and enduring marital relationship, it is not effective to depend only on the force of morality and the law, because they can, at best, maintain only a superficial stability. Teachings about mutual respect and love, on the other hand, will strengthen the foundations of a stable and happy marriage.

7. A greater emphasis should be placed on the sexual needs of women and the aged. Our survey shows that women remain largely under the influence of traditional concepts and are therefore more removed from factual sexual knowledge and flexible sexual attitudes. The sex life of the elderly is also largely neglected by most people.

Our survey shows that sexual behavior is determined very much by sexual knowledge and sexual attitudes. If we want to minimize conflict in this area, we must popularize sex education and see it as part of our society's civilizing process. In view of the now occurring social changes, we must work for a more open and tolerant atmosphere. Only this way can we hope to adapt well to the rapidly modernizing world.


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