how to really #GetAtHome in this world

Sex and Culture: So Much More Than “Just Two People”

Is sex fun?

You’re probably wondering where this is supposed to go now, thinking something along the lines of “well, if it’s consensual, yeah – why else would people do it?”
Even cultural backgrounds should not matter much, except where they shape the conditions when it’s acceptable to get busy. It’s just a biological thing after all, just two people.

It is exactly in such “simple” situations that cultural knowledge seems to go out the window, at the same time at which culture exerts its strongest influence, exactly because it becomes so strongly hidden.

Culture and the Body

Culture inscribes itself even in the body (though not like that). Image found at http://robert.foo.my/2010/02/chinese-calligraphy.html

In learning about cultures, you may learn that Chinese (or even East Asians, for that matter) will tend to avoid openly talking about problematic things, you pretty certainly will have heard about different ways of greeting, eating, and all that. Maybe you even came across the point that dating, let alone sex, has a different meaning in China than it does in “the West” – it’s typically associated with marriage. As Middle Kingdom Life, the top result if you google for such things, notes both in a text and in an extra text box,

For most “good” Chinese girls, an offer of sex is almost always a gesture of good faith in contemplation of marriage.

Such norms are pronounced verbally, in statements categorically declaring that sex only  comes after marriage. (Even in a language debate competition, one of the topics was “Is it bad for a country’s morality if people cohabit without being married?,” as that has been hotly discussed in China).
Practically, it may happen as a promise of a future together (and in the opposite, one finds many a discussion of what to do, as a woman about to get married, if you are not a virgin anymore, or of whether a man could/should conceivably marry a non-virgin).

And yet, I’ve come across quite a few foreign voices in China who argue that it’s still, at heart, only a matter of two people deciding what they want to do – or in this case, whether they want to do it.

Even in science circles, there are those who try to argue that evolutionary psychologists have got it wrong, and sex is fun simply because it is, not even because it’s necessary for procreation. Well, why it ever became fun would be because it’s better – evolutionarily speaking – for it to be fun than not (human females don’t just go into heat, so the whole “game” of sex – and relationships – plays out differently than it does with many other animals). Sure, humans have somehow gone overboard with that. Which is exactly where the cultural issues play out.

After all, whether you emphasize the aspect of pleasure or that of social bonds is very much shaped by the culture you are socialized into. (For a look at gender roles in China, see this earlier post, for example.) It is also contingent on personality and circumstances. Some people simply are more open, some surroundings more “modern” and carefree.
(The same people who categorically told me that Chinese didn’t have sex before marriage, when asked about the things one hears about Shanghai, just shook their heads and replied, “Well, Shanghai… that’s different.”)

The influence goes still deeper. Even the very fun something is – or is not – depends on such influences. An example from the blog “My Chinese Wife” put it rather bluntly, but illustrates the point very clearly:

Although such compliments to me [the American husband was just complimented on his knowledge and skills] have never resonated, it does mean a lot to Ms B [the Chinese wife].

Well that night, after Ms B and I retired to bed, I got to see a part of Ms B that I had never seen before. Her sexual appetite was insatiable, and her sexual responsiveness was to die for. And all the while she kept making references to the compliments I had received that night on my intellect. It clearly left an impression on her.

Even if the example is probably extreme, the influence does exist.

The very idea that sex is only about two consensual partners is a Western idea. Not that the consensus is not necessary; but different assumptions and influences, both cultural and personal, will be attached even to such a fundamental, biological act. Do you see sexuality as just a fun aspect of life, or as a sign of a committed relationship? Will you feel you are doing what you want, or what’s expected, or what you expect to want, or what?

In China, a further complication is introduced not just because society is more tightly knit, in different ways  from how it is in the West, but also because of state influence: That the women are very concerned about potential pregnancy (and abortions are so common), is both because social ostracism would be extreme (and the onus on the women alone), and also because it would present an unmarried woman with extreme bureaucratic hurdles to have a child out of wedlock.

China Supermarket Checkout - Condoms

Condoms, and the interestingly translated “Earthquake Ring”, at the checkout of a small-town Chinese supermarket

Not that these concerns were stronger than the sociocultural influences, but they do often get overlooked by foreign observers – and it doesn’t help when things are explained only in terms of culture, as the usual “Chinese don’t have sex before marriage” does, while “adult goods” stores are never far away, and condoms are sold at the supermarket check-out.

Of course, we are also all similar human animals, and so (hopefully), when things are going well (however that plays out), feel pleasure from things which are a part of our biological make-up that is supposed to give pleasure – but there’s always more to it than just our biology. More, even, than “just two people.”

Feel free to contribute