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Eros Unchained

The rise of e-commerce has catalyzed a booming industry of erotic toys and deepened sexual liberation in a country where sex has long been a social taboo

By NewsChina Updated Feb.1

On March 23, 1993, the “Adam and Eve Store” quietly opened on Zhaodengyu Road, in Beijing’s inner west. Visitors to the 30-square-meter store were stunned to find things they’d never imagined inside: ribbed condoms, vibrators, dildos and oils that claimed to prolong intercourse. It was a veritable pornocopia. Many customers could hardly wait for their change, hastily leaving the store, while others lingered outside trying to muster up the courage to enter. 
It was China’s first sex toy store. Attitudes toward sex have softened since China legalized adult sex shops in the early 1990s. Today, the country is a major player in the international sex toy market: as the world’s biggest manufacturer of sex toys, it services more than 70 percent of the international market. There are more than 2,000 sex toy stores in Beijing alone. The country now focuses on sex toy imports and production for its own domestic market. 
Many Chinese shoppers still feel uncomfortable about purchasing sex products in person. But, the rise of online retail in recent years has played a key role in boosting the industry.  

The Joy of Fish 

A Daoist story goes: Zhuangzi and Huizi were strolling on a bridge over the River Hao, when the former observed, “See how the minnows dart between the rocks! Such is the joy of fish.”
“You are not a fish,” said Huizi, “so how can you know the joy of fish?”
“And you are not I,” responded Zhuangzi, “so how can you know that I do not know the joy of fish?”
Even the wise Zhuangzi, an influential Daoist philosopher of the 4th century BC, could not have imagined that millennia later his ancient wisdom would be used to advertise a female vibrator.
Launched on October 23, TryFun, an original adult toy brand under NetEase – a leading Chinese Internet and online gaming provider – claims that it brings “elegance” to sex toys. 
TryFun sells four kinds of products: condoms, lubricant, male masturbation toys and female vibrators.
“Some things we will do, but some things we won’t. You won’t see things like blow-up dolls or plastic vaginas on our shelves. They don’t suit our esthetic – not elegant at all,” said Zhao Yong, head of TryFun’s design team.
Unlike most adult toys in the domestic market, which the TryFun team dismisses as “explicit” and “coarse,” TryFun hopes to surprise clients with its sophisticated, artistic style of design and promotion. Its vibrators are named after classical literary allusions to sex, such as “the joy of fish and water,” and “cloud and rain,” which is shaped like a small cloud. 
“It looks so cute! It’s like a ‘mochi’ rice cake. I won’t be embarrassed if someone found it. Who on earth would realize it was a sex toy?” a young woman said of her latest purchase, TryFun’s cloud-shaped vibrator. 
“My girlfriend, after my tireless persistence, used a pleasure toy for the first time. She felt quite good about this experience. It’s unlocked a new world for her,” another client commented on TryFun’s online store. 
“Asian women are usually shy about using sex toys. Thus, our artistic and discreet style is very popular,” Chen Qinglin, a member of the TryFun design team, told NewsChina.
TryFun’s products, Chen explains, are targeted towards young urban white-collar workers aged between 25 and 35, who usually have strong purchasing power, have curiosity about new experiences, and harbour a strong will to improve their quality of life. 
Lin Degang, who goes by “Uncle Spring,” is the 44-year-old chief executive of the adult toy e-commerce company Chuishuitang. He says a heavyweight like NetEase entering the market proves the industry has great prospects. He approves of TryFun’s refreshing, discreet design and claims that their style has “brightened” sex toys, making them more acceptable for the wider population.
“When I started the business in 2002, I discovered that many women, especially those who were born in the 1980s or later, have both curiosity and a need, but their sense of shame is so strong that they believe pleasing their body is somehow wrong. It defies their sense of identity,” Lin says.
Most sex toys, especially those designed for women, are startlingly life-like, which Lin says has reinforced the stigma and repelled shy consumers. But after 2005, so-called “de-sexualization” became a trend in the design of female sex toys, with products looking less and less like actual penises.
Lin admitted that his company will feel the heat competing with a giant like NetEase. But his stress eased a little as he said TryFun’s products are generally geared toward the entry-level consumer. “They are all for newbies, but more beautifully designed,” he said.  

Made for E-commerce 

Today, adult stores are a frequent sight in China. Some are small, dowdy and crowded with small vendors, others are franchises attached to a large brand. Chinese consumers can also buy adult products, such as condoms and lubricant in foreign supermarkets such as Walmart and Carrefour, or convenience stores such as FamilyMart, 7-Eleven, Watsons and Mannings. 
Most shoppers, though, prefer to buy online. 
“Sex toys are almost made for e-commerce,” said Lin. Online retailers emphasize the protection of private information. Anonymity, plain, packaging with no product information, confidential shipping: nobody knows what you buy. Your personal information is well protected.
In 2014, the Chinese market for sex-related products exceeded US$5 billion, with a compound annual growth rate of 20 percent, CIRN, a Chinese market research institution, reported in 2015. Sales of sex toys on online platforms such as Alibaba and Taobao surged an average of 50 percent each year from 2011 to 2014. Furthermore, the market may exceed US$9 billion by 2020, according to the report. 

In 2013, e-commerce giant Alibaba revealed that more than 2,500 sex product companies have set up shop on its online platform.
However, quality problems and safety concerns remain an issue. Even though China is the biggest sex product manufacturer, its own domestic retail market is still flooded with poor quality, unsafe sex-related commodities. 
“Retailers have to guarantee high profits from selling low-priced products. Thus over 60 percent of sex products in the domestic market are unable to meet consumer expectations,” said a manager at Ta Qu, an online sex toy retailer, who requested anonymity. 
A common phenomenon inside China’s sex product market, the manager told our reporter, is that domestic sex toy providers are largely ignorant of branding and instead focus on selling products, rather than building a reliable brand. They will simply change their brand name if their products are poorly received. 
Supervision loopholes exist in the massive domestic sex product market. On the one hand, low-quality products are seldom reported by consumers, as many are too embarrassed to reveal they purchased a sex toy in the first place. On the other hand, the management of different product categories has been placed under the responsibility of several government departments, which makes quality supervision more difficult.  

Liberalized Lifestyle  

Sex toys have existed in China for centuries. Wealthy Chinese men who had many wives hoped that dildos would keep their wives faithful.
It was not until the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) that sexual liberation began to kick off in modern China. Along with the launch of Reform and Opening-Up in 1978, Chinese attitude toward sex has very much liberalized. 
Sex-themed festivals are no longer rare in China. Besides big cities like Guangzhou and Shanghai, some relatively conservative inland urban centers like Zhengzhou in Central China’s Henan Province and Xi’an in Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province have also held such events. 
In 2005, only 0.26 percent of the total population had tried sex toys, while the ratio increased to five percent a decade later. Today, conservative values remain strong in the countryside, but in the cities, young people are exploring more facets of sex.
According to the “Chinese Sex Consumption Report of 2015,” issued by the Alibaba Health Data Research Center, in 2015, Chinese netizens searched for more than 1,000 different keywords, such as “love egg,” “masturbation cup,” “dildo,” and “inflatable doll,” to describe their sexual practices. 
The report also notes the impact of art and film on diversifying Chinese sexual behaviors. After Fifty Shades of Grey was released in the West on February 13, 2015, the film, along with its original novel, swept China through various channels. Searches for BDSM-related sex toys spiked significantly on Alibaba’s platform following the film’s premiere, reaching a peak on November 9. 
“Nowadays, more and more young Chinese are getting into BDSM. It’s a trendy, modern form of sexual play that turns sex into a game and drama in pursuit of psychological and physical pleasure,” the renowned sociologist and sexologist Li Yinhe said of the launch of TryFun. 
Li says the development of the economics and power of the Internet have reshaped Chinese people’s sexual attitudes and behaviors. Modern values of individualism have challenged millennia-old family-oriented values. 

“The Chinese have undergone a sea change in values. Even though China might still be a country that attaches great importance to procreation, the trend of individualism – favouring individual happiness over family values – has gained more popularity among young people,” Li said. 
Li Jihong, the deputy director of the Sexologist Association of Guangdong Province, says China’s gender imbalance has given a boost to the sex toy industry. Decades of the one-child policy and a cultural preference for sons have distorted the country’s gender ratio. As of 2017, men outnumbered women by more than 30 million in China, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. 
Sixty-four percent of sex toys sold online were to males aged 18 to 59, according to the Chinese Sex Consumption Report of 2015. Sex dolls have become the best-selling sex-related products on Taobao, one of China’s largest e-commerce platforms, accounting for 19.5 percent of the sex product sales revenue on the site. Northwestern China is the region that craves sex dolls most – they make up more than two-fifths of the region’s sex toy consumption. 
Life-size silicon dolls have led Chinese men’s newfound craving for substitute women. The massive Singles’ Day Shopping Festival on November 11, 2017 saw a huge surge in the sale of sex dolls. One retailer sold 1,500 dolls, an average of one per minute.
The sex product e-commerce platform Ta Qu launched a “Girlfriend Sharing” project, which enabled users to rent life-size dolls for 298 yuan (US$45) a day, with an 8,000 yuan (US$1,200) deposit. But it was shut down by authorities four days after launch.
Sexual revolution aside, a serious problem continues to lurk in the shadows: China still lags behind in sex education. The lack of a formal sexual education curriculum in schools puts millions of Chinese children and teens at risk. 
According to the National Health and Family Planning Commission, HIV/AIDS rates have grown among the young in the past five years, with 35 percent annual growth in new cases in the 18-to-25 age group. 
Teenage pregnancies and premarital abortions are also rising. The National Health and Family Planning Commission reported in 2015 that approximately 13 million abortions are performed annually in China.
Yet not all Chinese parents are prepared to equip their children with knowledge about sex, and some fear that learning about sex will corrupt kids’ minds. In April 2017, a set of sex education textbooks was overhauled by the authorities when parents complained they were “too vulgar.” 

“A tug-of-war is ongoing between old and new generations towards sex,” Li Yinhe told the press. “Conservative values remain strong, resisting society’s progress in carrying out proper sex education. The debates are ongoing,” Li said.