The state of sex in China today is often described as dramatically shifting away from the repression of public sexual expression that characterized the Mao era of 1949-1976. As reporter Amy Braverman notes, "When China opened its doors to international markets in the early 1980s, it inadvertently let in another modern phenomenon — the West’s sexual culture."

But the popular narrative of a monolithic communist state oppressing people and human sexuality in a top-down fashion requires nuance. Discussions of sex and sexuality, while not exactly taboo in the Mao era, were incorporated into the discourse of class struggle. For example, the newly victorious Chinese Communist Party (CCP) clamped down on the sex industry and venereal disease, which were seen as emblems of exploitative class and gendered relations.

Such policies by the CCP encouraged a normative view of sexuality — for sexuality to be seen as monogamous, marital and heterosexual, rather than pre-marital, extra-marital, commercial or homosexual. The nationalization of the industry that ensued, involving the establishment of socialist work units, agricultural collectives and restrictions on population mobility, restricted the physical spaces available to engage in non-marital sexual relations. The media’s emphasis on revolutionary state-building also removed the discursive space for alternative representations of sexual identity and politics.

The Cultural Revolution — from 1966 to 1976 — is often depicted as the zenith of sexual repression in China. Romance was seen as bourgeois and women cut their hair short and dressed in androgynous clothing.

Yet personal memoirs show that many youthful members of the Red Guard had newfound opportunities to experience love and sex as they traveled around China without parental supervision. There were high levels of cohabitation and pre-marital pregnancy during this period, even as some Red Guard factions bullied people for being immoral and prioritizing love over the Cultural Revolution. Some local cadres used their patriarchal-style authority to penalize pre-marital sexual relations and pregnancies, while others exploited that authority for their own sexual benefit.

The history of sexuality in the Mao era is thus more complicated than a straightforward narrative of government repression would suggest.

The claim that sex was actively repressed by the Maoist state is popular because it appeals to what historian and philosopher Michel Foucault calls the repressive hypothesis — the assumption that sexuality is a natural human attribute that modern government has sought to repress.

Foucault argues that we have become attached to the repressive hypothesis, despite varying degrees of historical inaccuracy, because talking about sex in terms of liberation from repression activates the speaker’s benefit and gives the author the aura of being attached to an important political cause.

Foucault’s argument can be demonstrated by China’s now defunct one-child policy. This policy was introduced in 1979 as a means to guarantee future economic prosperity by curbing population growth. It became a two-child policy in 2016.

The policy was condemned by many as the world’s most extreme example of coercive government control over human reproduction.

But its implementation dramatically altered the lives of Chinese women by severing the historical link between sex and procreation. Women are living longer, largely because of declining fertility rates and maternal mortality, flowing from better access to contraception and health care. Chinese women are now spending less time childrearing and more time in full-time employment and other activities outside of the home.

The current limitation placed on sex for the purpose of procreation has also encouraged the expansion of public discourse about marital sex for pleasure and eroded physical restrictions on non-marital sexual relations.

It has also meant that parents have had to accept what are seen as non-traditional sexual and lifestyle choices of their only child. Some lesbian, gay, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth are protesting against family pressures to marry to continue the family line. They are urging government authorities to support marriage equality and "equal rights to love," in order to stop LGBTQ people from entering cooperative, fake marriages with members of the opposite sex or gender.

Whether intentional or not, the past and present domestic government policies have always played a significant role in promoting an expected model of sex and sexuality. Contemporary research on sex in China should consider how different governing strategies and socio-economic arrangements produce particular types of sexual cultures, rather than simply reinforcing the East–West divide.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

TNL Editor: Edward White