Public opinion is sharply divided over one Chinese province's decision to give away free condoms on university campuses.
For some, the policy is government-sponsored promiscuity, while for others it is nothing more than a logical and effective public health measure.
Zhejiang Provincial Health and Family Planning Commission announced last month that all 128 universities in the province would have free condom dispensing machines installed on their campuses, in an effort to reduce accidental pregnancy and arrest the spread of sexually transmitted infections.
Li Danhe, the commission's head of contraceptive management, said that at least 10 colleges have already installed the commission's dispensers and that all universities would have at least one within a year.
The Zijingang Campus of the prestigious Zhejiang University in Hangzhou took the lead by installing a machine in March. It provides contraceptive suppositories, spermicidal gel and condoms and is located in a building in the student accommodation area of the campus.
Anyone aged from 18 to 60 can obtain free contraceptives by scanning their ID card on the dispenser.
The doctor responsible for maintaining the machine said that over 1,000 boxes of contraceptives had been distributed and the machine was restocked about once a week.
Lunchtime, early evening and night are the peak times for people to collect the contraceptives and most patrons are students, she said.
Chen Qunfang, in charge of the University's birth control department, said that free contraceptives were previously only available in the department office, and only teachers or university staff ever asked for them. "However, from the machine's records, we can see that users of the dispensers are predominantly male students," she said.
Installing free condom machines in universities is opposed by people who claim to be protecting what they believe to be traditional social norms, claiming abstinence and premarital virginity are basic Chinese values.
Li Danhe said, "The machines have met opposition from those who think they encourage students to have sex."
"Our school's leaders discussed it," said university official in Shaoxing who demanded anonymity, "but gave up the idea in case parents complained."
At Zhejiang Ocean University where a condom machine has just been installed, a female student – demanding anonymity – told Xinhua that she felt insulted: "It will contaminate the school's atmosphere. Both me and my parents are angry about it!"
"Students are still not independent enough either financially or socially, and cannot handle the responsibilities of premarital sex," opined another anonymous student.
A contrary opinion was voiced at Zhejiang University: "Sexual intercourse is not rare in colleges. Since there is no way to stop it, we should protect the students. The machine offers easy access to contraception and students will feel less embarrassed than going to a store. This can protect girls from accidental pregnancy."
Knowledge is strength
Li Danhe said, "Free condom machines in schools are neither an approval nor encouragement of premarital sex. College students' attitudes toward sexuality and marriage are changing, but they still don't know much about sexual health, nor how to protect themselves."
According to a 2012 poll by Xiaokang magazine, a subsidiary of the Qiushi Journal of the Communist Party of China's Central Committee, 70 percent of respondents said they had had premarital sex, up 30 percent from 1994.
Zhou Ji with the Zhoushan, Zhejiang birth control department described a national rise in unwanted pregnancies, with a quarter of the people involved under 25.
College students fall prey to sexually transmitted diseases all too often. Statistics from Zhejiang show 3,327 new cases of HIV/AIDS during the first ten months of 2014, up by 21.2 percent from the previous year. Among them were 104 college students, up 85.7 percent. Medical sources in the province attribute the rise to students being more sexually active and having more sexual partners.
About 96.5 percent of the 3,327 AIDS cases were sexually transmitted, 40.4 percent through male homosexual practices. "It is estimated that about 4 percent of male college students engage in homosexual acts, and many are unaware of the danger of unprotected sex," said Jiang Jianmin, vice head of the Zhejiang disease control center.