Most of my male Chinese acquaintances have received sexual services at a bathhouse or brothel at one stage or another in their life. Most of them see this experience as harmless and as something you get out of your system when you start exploring your sexuality in your mid teens. I was sitting around a table of guys recently when the conversation turned to their school days and the mischief they would get up to, mischief mainly related to their experiences with girls. What shocked me was how they did not seem the least bit embarrassed or ashamed talking about their first hands jobs in bathhouses by country girls with rough hands – I later wondered if they thought I couldn’t understand what they were saying. All the guys around the table seemed to nod and relate to each other’s story like getting sexual services was the most normal thing in the world. One of the girls was cross-eyed, the other fat and clumsy…each guy around the table seemed to have his own funny story about a “massage girl”.
One guy recalled the first time he had sexual intercourse at the age of 17. She was a well-known player who had sex with several of his friends and acquaintances. He never had any feelings for her but one day on his birthday she showed up at his door out of the blue. “I have a birthday present for you,” she said, stripping off her coat to reveal her naked body underneath. Despite the initial surprise and reluctance, he decided to get his first time over and done with – after all, he would never be able to live it up if his friends found out that he’d turned her down while standing in front of him naked. No relationship formed after that particular encounter – it was just sex, nothing more, nothing less. Why the girl was so eager and easy to bed him remains a mystery.
Another guy recalled how he lost his virginity at the age of 14, also to a very forward girl two years his senior who had also been sleeping around with pretty much everyone around. I was shocked by how easy these girls seemed to give it up to under-age, immature guys just for the sake of it (these girls weren’t prostitutes but peers and classmates), and how these guys didn’t seem to care about feelings or view sex as something sacred and special. Could their casual attitude to sex be a consequence of China’s non-existent sex education? My knowledge of sex was imparted to me via television when I innocently watched a film one night that contained sensual, steamy sex scenes. From a young age, my exposure to sex in media gave me the impression that it was something very passionate and special, and an encounter that only occurred at a very emotionally charged moment when both claim their undying love for each other. I began to wonder if the lack of sex on television in China or the fact that most of them had learned about sex by watching porn movies, had something to do with their emotionally detached approach.
As the guys around my table nostalgically recalled the sexual memories of their youth, it also struck me that not one of them seemed to have ever stopped and thought that maybe prostitution is not something socially accepted and that perhaps the bathhouse girls – as cross eyed and clumsy as they me be – could be leading extremely miserable lives, facing social stigma, abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and more. I got the impression that while on paper, prostitution in China is illegal and frowned upon, the reality is that most men don’t think twice about it and view it almost like a rite of passage into manhood. Visiting a bathhouse and getting an “extra comfortable massage” at least once in your life seems to be a very normal and common thing…at least that’s the impression I got from those guys.
So while China can continue to organise the occasional prostitution sweep, the reality is that Chinese people need to change their attitudes towards sex and prostitution. For those already grown up, a major shift in mindset is unlikely to occur; China needs to start providing sex education to young children and also ease their obsession with censoring “vulgar” Western content from movies and TV. The paradoxical thing is that the Western sex scenes they deem so vulgar, could actually help youngsters realise that sex does not necessarily have to be some animalistic act, but is a sensual and special moment – because what’s better: allowing tasteful sex scenes in films or continuing to encourage China’s youth to turn to pornography for their sexual knowledge?