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.