Here's the Skinny on China's Porn Consumption

Here's the Skinny on China's Porn Consumption
Photo Credit:AP/達志影像
Why you need to know

Young women are narrowing the gap with their male counterparts when it comes to consuming porn in China.

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In the 15 years that my surveys covered, the percentage of young men who admitted to watching porn remained steadily above 70 percent.

Sola Aoi is a well-known former adult film star in Japan with legions of young fans in China, including more than 18 million followers on Weibo, a microblogging platform. She has called for friendship between China and Japan and is an enthusiastic advocate of public welfare, traits that have led Chinese netizens to bestow upon her an endearing nickname: Teacher Aoi.

Aoi is one of the most popular stars among Chinese porn viewers. Between 2000 and 2015, I conducted four nationwide surveys into the country’s sexuality, all of which asked the following question: “Currently, there are many videos, DVDs, images, and photographs that depict explicit sexual content. Have you viewed any in the past 12 months? It does not matter how you came into contact with them.”

Among 18 to 29-year-olds, 68 percent of respondents said “yes.” Overall, in 2015, around 30 percent of people aged 18 to 61 reported having viewed pornographic material in the past year, which, in the context of my surveys, referred to explicit visual content in movies or photographs. The survey did not ask about erotic literature, which is sometimes referred to as “written pornography.”

In the 15 years that my surveys covered, the percentage of young men who admitted to watching porn remained steadily above 70 percent. Ultimately, I don’t think this figure will rise much higher, since almost everyone interested in consuming such material is already doing so. However, my research has also shown a rapid rise in the percentage of young women who views porn: from around 37 percent in 2000 to 51 percent in 2015. This shows that although men remain more likely to consume pornographic content than women, the gap between the sexes is gradually shrinking.

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Debunking myths

The above trend challenges two popular beliefs in China. The first is that women are innately opposed to sex, or at least less disposed toward it than men. The current generation of young Chinese women — those between 18 and 29 years old — have begun to debunk this misconception and it will continue to fade away. But do changing attitudes represent the moral degradation of women, or their liberation? Is the increasing consumption of pornography among women a form of gender equality? There are a number of vociferously conservative older women in China who strongly oppose porn consumption, which they largely see as a form of moral decay. In 2014, at a sex education event in the southern city of Guangzhou, a group of militant conservatives threw feces at sexologist Peng Xiaohui. But are the views they still hold rapidly becoming outdated?

The second presumption my survey results challenge is this: If 68 percent of young men and women have viewed pornographic materials in the previous 12 months, it seems the country's blanket ban on erotica have a negligible impact on consumption habits over the past 15 years, and I believe it will continue to be so.

According to the data I’ve collected, a young person is more likely to consume pornographic material if they are male, regularly drink alcohol, feel dissatisfied with life, spend a lot of time online, or have limited opportunities to interact with others. But there are also less obvious traits among porn consumers.

To start with, the most avid viewers of pornography are not uneducated, but are among those with the highest level of education: Individuals with a vocational degree or higher are 73 percent more likely to consume pornography than those who did not attend school or dropped out after primary education. Watching pornography requires imagination, and imagination requires a good education; otherwise, adult videos would resemble nature documentaries.

Furthermore, Chinese people who live with their romantic partner are 1.7 times more likely to watch pornography than single people. This likely shows that watching porn is a potential means of appraisal or comparison for those with sexual partners. Even more likely, it is a form of sexual entertainment that couples share together.

In addition, watching porn is an urban phenomenon: Chinese people who live in provincial-level cities or larger are 1.3 times more likely to consume porn than rural dwellers. You’re also more likely to watch porn if you have a high income or work in the commercial or service sectors, but less likely to do so if you’re an only child — probably because many young people born under the one-child policy still live with their parents.

Finally, and perhaps most fascinatingly, Chinese people who think they may have been sexually harassed are 1.8 times more likely to watch porn. Are these people watching pornography because they are worried about sexual harassment? Or did they only start worrying about harassment after watching pornography?

Many conservative Chinese are opposed to the display of sexual content, but their reasoning rests on the unproven assumption that the consumption of pornographic content will inspire people to engage in supposedly abnormal sexual acts — usually defined as anything that does not involve sex between husband and wife — or to commit sex crimes. The same logic applies to the Chinese government’s anti-pornography campaigns.

But I have found no correlation between the consumption of pornographic material and an increase in sexual transgressions. My surveys encompass a wide range of sexual behaviors frequently considered immoral, such as having extramarital affairs, having multiple sexual partners, groping someone while dancing with them, hiring prostitutes, having one-night stands, and ingesting drugs that supposedly boost sexual performance. People who watch porn are no more likely than anyone else to engage in such activities.

Whether China’s anti-pornography campaigns are grounded in reality is worthy of reconsideration. This fact is already quite obvious to many Chinese; after all, if pornography has such deleterious effects, then why is it that, in a society where 68 percent of young people watch pornography, official statistics show no corresponding rise in sex crimes? In fact, certain statistics are even trending downward: According to China’s year-end statistics, as of 2015, the number of reported rape cases had generally decreased over the previous decade.

Since my research first showed this back in 2000, I have consistently called for an end to campaigns waged with the aims of cracking down on pornographic content. The imagined fears of Chinese conservatives, who cast moral judgment on those in society who consume sexual content, are just that: pure imagination.

This is the third article in a series on gender and sexuality in China. Parts one and two can be found here.

Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.

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