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Birds & Bees

Chinese Finally Get Caught Up in Sexual Revolution

Book by New York psychologist and Asian professionals addresses issues.

November 12, 2001|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Wang, a 26-year-old Chinese man, finally mustered the courage to call a 24-hour reproductive health hotline operated out of a Shanghai hospital at 2 a.m., his voice quivering with anxiety.

"My wife is sleeping, but I have to talk to someone about this," Wang explained. "I am married two years, but the sex is not going so well. It is over so fast. I never was this way when I was younger. I am worried that my wife will not be happy with me."

Wang's questions about how to deal with sexual dysfunction and his fears that his wife might think him less manly unfold in China's first sex-advice book, written by an American psychologist in collaboration with Chinese health professionals, a book that bears the government's official approval.

"China Reproductive Health Hotline: Professionals Solve Problems on Sex and Emotions," published in July, was co-authored by New York psychologist Judy Kuriansky and six Chinese professionals, including Dr. Hu Xiaoyu, a gynecologist and urologist.

China may be a late bloomer sexually speaking, but concerns in the bedroom resonate across cultures. "I have heard questions from all ages all across America, and I hear many of the same questions all across China particularly from men," Kuriansky said. "Men are more open than women in China about sex, which is the reverse here."

The book was inspired by a toll-free, 24-hour hotline, the first of its kind in China. Launched in March 2000 at the International Peace Maternity and Child Health Hospital in Shanghai, the hotline is part of the government's effort to improve the accessibility and quality of reproductive health services. While three-quarters of the calls are about pregnancy and baby care, the rest are about sex.

"Accidentally, the calls came in about sex," said Kuriansky, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to a Healthy Relationship " and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Dating," both of which have been translated into Chinese. "It was a shock because the hotline was designed to answer questions about family planning and reproductive health."

Kuriansky, who has become sort of Dr. Ruth in China (she is known as Dr. Judy to listeners of her New York radio call-in show), was asked to evaluate the doctors and nurses staffing the 24-hour, government-funded hotline.

"No one expected people to call about sex," Kuriansky said. "I would describe China as just emerging sexually, just as China is emerging economically."

Call it China's sex boom. Last month, 68 doctors from around China participated in the first training course about treating sexual problems, sponsored by the Chinese Sexology Assn. China's first nude photo exhibition took place in March at the Shanghai Workers Cultural Palace. Pornography is still largely prohibited, but stores, staffed by employees in white medical coats, are permitted to sell sex information materials and sex toys.

A year ago, China held its first inaugural Men's Health Day in public parks where counselors and men gathered to discuss fatherhood and sex.

Attitudes about sex in China began loosening in the 1980s, the decade that marked the beginning of economic reform and Westernized marketization, according to an "Overview of a New National Survey of Sexual Practices in China" conducted by William O. Laumann and William Parish, sociologists at the University of Chicago and a number of Chinese researchers. During the 1990s, the market economy grew at an even faster pace in urban China, where the Chinese discovered what Americans have always known: Sex sells.

Sex, once considered taboo, has assumed a central role in Chinese print and television commercials, the researchers write. But the Chinese "sexual revolution" looks nothing like the American sexual revolution of the 1960s.

Most Chinese men and women are virgins when they marry, according to the survey funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Human Development. The median age at which Chinese men have first intercourse is 25, while women are 23 (compared with 16 for U.S. boys and 17 for U.S. girls).

The age of puberty in China dropped from 17 to 15 because of better nutrition (the average age of puberty in the U.S. is 121/2.) The average number of lifetime partners for Chinese men and women is one (compared with 12.4 for U.S. men and four for women), according to the survey.

The survey consisted of interviews with about 3,800 nationally representative men and women between the ages of 20 and 64. Respondents were interviewed by Chinese staff for an hour at a hotel (to ensure confidentiality) and 89% of participants gave a urine sample to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases, which are on the rise in China. Although the government has been accused in many quarters of ignoring or suppressing the incidence of HIV, it estimates that 1 million are infected with the virus that causes AIDS and predicts that 10 million will be infected by 2005.

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