The Guangzhou Sex Festival: ‘Where Is The Sex?’
Walking through China’s largest, most infamous sexpo
ROBERT FOYLE HUNWICK NOVEMBER 3, 2017
This story originally appeared on October 16, 2012, on Danwei.org, with the headline “Guys and Sex Dolls — Scenes from the Guangzhou Sexpo.” It’s republished here with minor edits.
As millions returned to work after one of the most stressful holidays in years on Monday, October 8, the 10th annual Guangzhou National Sex Culture Festival is just finishing. [Ed’s note: Guangzhou Sex Festival, for short.] “Look at the time,” Professor Zhu Jiaming, one of the organizers, says delightedly. “Three hours before closing on the last day, and it’s still packed!”
The festival’s remit is to “promote sexual science, advocate sexual civilization, set up sexual ethics, spread sex education, and improve sexual health” (以弘扬性科学、倡导性文明、普及性教育、树立性道德、促进性健康为宗旨), and features a forum of experts each year tackling a different theme. This year, it is sperm — or rather, lack of it.
China’s sperm difficulties are perhaps unique. In 2011, for example, 35-year-old Huazhong University of Science and Technology medical student Zheng Gang walked into a university-affiliated sperm bank and opened an account. What happened afterward was the subject of a 4 million yuan ($605,000) lawsuit in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Zheng passed a medical checkup and made four donations; the legal limit is five. But after making his last deposit in October, Zheng Gang collapsed and died. The actual cause of his death is in dispute, but for Zheng’s family, it was clearly the act of donation; the university, meanwhile, began evoking unspecified “foreign forces” in its defense. Further murky details can be found in this report.
Bizarre as it is, the case sheds some rare light on one of the more persistent superstitions in China, the idea that masturbation can be a life-threatening habit for the unwary male. The theory is a very old one — some Daoist beliefs dictate that all sex should be geared toward gathering energy from strictly heterosexual congress; solo sex is therefore a waste of good qi — muddled in with some good old-fashioned, down-on-sex Communist moralizing (of which more later). But the belief that losing your jing can be harmful to a man’s health has certainly taken hold.
It’s unclear if using a fleshlight, i.e., an artificial vagina like the one below, counts.
Zhu Ming is a Beijing-born student at the Communication University of China, where many of China’s future reporters and news anchors are trained. As background for this story, I spent some time on the campus chatting to students about their attitudes to sperm donations, which can offer a needy undergraduate about three to five thousand yuan — enough to pay half their annual tuition fees. But Zhu Ming is not interested: “I would not donate my sperm — ever! Not even if they pay me loads of money. It’s not just because it’s a deeply private thing,” he goes on to explain, “but also because I do not want to cause conflict with my family — as I know exactly how my mom would react to that if I did.”
This kind of attitude (and the fact that they’re not permitted to advertise) has left China’s 11 sperm banks short of product: The average wait for infertile couples to obtain semen from sperm banks is now at least a year. In September 2011, Luo Wenzhi, the head of the Guangdong Family Planning Bureau, was driven to make a public plea: “Donating your sperm is healthy,” he promised. “It won’t hurt you or kill you.” Inevitably, an unregulated black market has stepped into the breach, with the Global Times reporting last week on a number of eligible males offering to “donate” their sperm “directly.”
“There’s very little sex education in this country,” says Lanxing Wang, an English major in his twenties. “You just hear the government telling you to use protection, but most of the time without a good reason. We’ve been taught to be embarrassed about watching porn, but if not, how are we supposed to learn about this stuff?”
Into this muddle of ignorance, entrepreneurship, and bureaucrat rhetoric, and courtesy of the Guangdong Family Planning Bureau, comes the Guangzhou National Sex Culture Festival, now a fixed date in the city’s cluttered expo calendar.
For those who wished to hear it, the afternoon of the first day featured a panel of eminent professionals discussing “everything you want to know about sperm donation” (“捐精，你想知道的事儿”). It’s hard to gauge what effect their prepared speeches had on the national deficiency, but Professor Peng Xiaohui, a veteran sexpo attendee and vice secretary-general of the World Association of Chinese Sexologists, had nothing but good things to say: “My general impression is, [the sexpo] gets better every year, whatever its format, content, or theme,” he enthused, calling the Guangdong Family Planning Bureau one of the most forward-thinking provincial family planning organizations in the country.
Will sperm banks see an appreciable increase in donations as a result? Organizer Zhu Jiaming points to the amount of media coverage as proof that it was “very successful.” And in terms of getting pictures of scantily clad women into newspapers, few could deny that.
Wandering the Jinhan Exhibition Hall, which once housed the famous biannual Canton Fair, the first thing you notice about this sexpo is the complete absence of any eroticism. There are whips, chains, a lifelike latex German shepherd mask if that’s your thing, a smorgasbord of unappetizing and surreal orifices for men, many bristling with “lifelike” hair (did they not get that memo?), equally larger-than-life phalluses (conversely, hairless), but where is the sex? It’s not just the unspoken vacuum crying out to be filled with pornography, but the complete lack of any erotic potential at all — there’s not even the whiff of a hookup on offer.
It’s partly due to the demographic, says Professor Peng. “Agewise, usually the audience is at two extremes,” he points out. “The old and middle-aged, and the very young ones, like twentysomething, many couples.” Most attendees skewed toward the former. Men — often seen craning their necks, standing on seats, and fighting for a good view — far outweighed women. If you were to handpick a crowd of candidates least likely to get laid in Guangzhou, it would look much the one assembled at the sexpo.
Which probably explains the need for so many products for what is supposed to be a natural act. To the lucky, sex is one of the few pleasures you shouldn’t have to pay for; to the many less fortunate, a financial outlay is required. The official list of products on offer at the Guangzhou sexpo included “sexy lingerie, footwear, S&M products, lubricants, disinfectants, nourishing foods and medicines, sex-function regulating appliances, adult appliances, traditional Chinese medicine products, health tea, health wine,” and branched out into spheres such as reproduction (“birth control, IUD, technologies and products used to prevent reproductive tract infections, fertility treatments, maternal health care products, massage equipment”) and the beauty industry (“breast enhancement products, body-sculpting products, slimming products, cosmetics, jewelry”).
Any business seeking to sell or buy “silicone, latex, or rubber materials” comes to the Guangzhou Sex Culture Festival for its supply needs. If it can make you pregnant, potent, or popular, you can find it and flog it here. Traditional Chinese medicine stands offer buy-by-the-weight ginseng, deer antlers, linghzi mushrooms, and ox penises, while other companies sell well-packaged packets of “seadog essence,” purportedly real Viagra, “Shark Viagra” (“extraction of natural biological essence… sustained release of a substantial extension of time fox secretary” — only 10 yuan, or $1.50), and African Man, USA Soldier, and Chocolate Female Ecstasy powder (flying off the shelves to the over-sixties). For entertainment, there are three cultural exhibitions, four science forums, five theatrical shows, and, for reasons never fully explained, a 12-square-meter LED screen playing highlights from the Bolshoi Ballet’s recent production of Swan Lake at the Guangzhou Opera House.
Visitors can view a traditional array of Ming- and Qing-era jade and stone carnal objects housed under Perspex cases that looked pretty antique themselves, or see a human body-art photography show with 50 pictures. Elsewhere are two centerpiece sculptures, one called Unlockable and one called Men’s Pride, depicting “a massive man’s root,” a sex quiz with the theme “You Happy? I Happy?,” a gala show entitled Happy Family, and a “high-level” show called Private Yoga, featuring the aging TV presenter of Secret Garden, a cowboy-hatted senior consultant on marriage and family, and founder of something called “Private Yoga.” Then there was the inevitable qipao show (as a traditional Chinese dress, the qipao, say the organizers, embodies centuries of Chinese virtue and civilization, and represents the pinnacle of female fashion), a bikini show, and a lingerie show; early arrival at the latter was mandatory for anyone wanting the faintest hope of a glimpse.
“The sex toy industry in China, with more than 1,000 manufacturers, has been worth about $2 billion a year for the past few years,” the People’s Daily told its readers in 2010, adding that the largest market for these goods was South Africa, which in that year took “almost 20 percent of the export market”; licentious America only bought 2 percent.
In Beijing alone, there are around 2,000 sex shops, with around 200,000 nationwide. Just last month, AiLu, a little-known Chinese site selling sex accessories, aphrodisiacs, and clothing, raised $47.4 million in funding led by venture capitalist firm Shenzhen Capital and New Margin Ventures, according to finance site Ebrun.
The commercial opportunities are unquestionable, the demand apparently unquenchable. But the trade is completely unregulated: As with the food industry, no one can exactly be sure what they’re putting inside themselves. After visiting a former primary school-turned-dilapidated sex-toy factory in Zhejiang, a Global Times reporter concluded that “the government remains so embarrassed by the subject, it has failed to create appropriate standards to govern” the plastics and chemicals used in the production of sex toys. “There is not a single regulation or standard for the manufacture and development of sex toys in China,” Su Weiguo, chairman of the China Council on the Science of Sex, told the newspaper.
Yet migrant workers should be encouraged to use adult toys, Zhang Feng, director of the Guangdong Family Planning Bureau, announced at the seventh Guangzhou sexpo in 2009. “The problem has never been openly acknowledged by the government or the public,” said Zhang, as quoted by Southern Daily. “If we apathetically ignore these sex-starved people, a rise in AIDS and other problems will be seen.” For a migrant worker, spending 30 yuan ($4.50) for a sexpo ticket and a further 120 yuan ($18) on a made-in-China vibrating penis sheath represents a significant stake in his sex life. Should he have to risk toxic reaction as well?
Perhaps it’s simply a question of economics: Society operates according to “concepts of ‘sexuality resource,’ in which the ‘resource’ is basically defined as ‘women,’” says Professor Peng. “The distribution of this resource is in accordance with that of wealth.” The richer customer, even if he has been unable to parlay his wealth into greater sexual opportunity, can literally purchase it in other ways — and even indulge in more recondite fetishes. A number of stalls, such as the Taizhou Mingqi Health Instrument Factory, sold high-end exotic goods, including lifelike sex mannequins that do everything but talk; these drew among the largest crowds, although no one seemed to be publicly buying.
Doll Sweet (now EX Doll) is a Japanese silicone-model company whose factory is in Dalian. It offers a flat-chested, dull-eyed doll that weighs nine kilos (20 pounds), with a height of 100 centimeters (three feet three inches) — about the size and shape of a three-year-old girl. Another doll, closely resembling a nine-year-old, is pictured splay-legged next to a teddy bear and costs only 11,800 yuan ($1,780).
The company website insists the products are “NOT sex dolls” but rather “simulation dolls” that happen to have artificial vaginas. Still, there are certain things in life that are hard to explain away, and owning an anatomically correct nine-year-old rubber girl must surely count as one. Doll Sweet’s Guangzhou salesman, manning the stall at the sexpo, was prepared to give it a go anyway: “She is short,” he admits, wearing the expression of someone needing a collar tug, “but you can imagine she is any age: 100 years old, 200 years old, it’s up to you.” But even he eventually drops the pretense: “Japanese like girls of a lower age, okay?” he snaps. “It’s a completely personal preference, like liking them fat, tall, or thin. The Chinese like a doll that is lightweight and easy to operate.”
If the Chinese have any objections to Japan’s kinkier products, they are usually patriotic in nature. Ning Kang, president of Wild One, made more than a dozen new wholesale clients last year and around 5 million yuan ($756,000) in revenue. But nationalistic fervor over the disputed Diaoyu Islands has dampened sales lately: “My online clients are afraid of being attacked by hackers,” Ning tells me, “so they’ve been laying off our Japanese products.”
But no one at the sexpo seems to care about any of that. For first-time visitors it was more of an eye-opener, though not necessarily the kind anyone wants to talk about. “Curiosity,” answers a woman in her twenties queuing for a 30 yuan ($4.50) ticket beside greeters dressed as giant inflatable condoms with the brand name “Jissbon.” “I may buy something, too.” What, though, she would not say. Young couples shyly confess they are “curious,” “here to browse,” “here to find out more,” or “just looking,” before exiting the conversation as fast as possible.
Then there’s the migrant worker crowd. “Their lower income means it’s very difficult for them to have relationships in the big cities they work in,” says Peng. “They jump on the opportunity, even just to have some fun and get a feast for the eyes.” For older visitors, Peng adds, it can be a revelation: “I once overheard an old man next to me say, ‘I’ve just realized I’ve wasted my entire life!’”
Seasoned visitors were more sanguine, less easily impressed. “It was busier last time,” grumbles a man, who would only give his name as Mr. Zhang, as he lunched with friends at a canteen in the exhibition hall. “They had two floors. Now it’s just one.” His companions, all farmers in their fifties, make the trip into town every year “because it’s fun.”
The official emphasis on sex education is really about keeping up appearances. Half an hour before it starts, the most popular draw of the day is a tame fashion parade featuring local underwear models. There’s nothing on show that you couldn’t find on virtually any beach or water park in China — but that doesn’t deter hundreds of people from jamming the floor to snatch a glimpse (or, ahem, glimpse a snatch). Right by the catwalk is a photography exhibition staged by the local department of health, with graphic close-up images of male and female genitalia displaying symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases. It’s deserted.
Ms. Zhu, who’s here to bulk-buy racy underwear, recalls a far smaller event in Foshan, a nearby city with a large migrant population. “Some of the people there were very ill-mannered — when the models performed at the underwear exhibition, they went crazy,” she recalls. “Here, people are better behaved. The men are more gentlemanly.”
In the distance, onstage, a balding official is introducing the half-dozen glamour models due to perform; suddenly, the theme from the U.S. series Bonanza blares over the loudspeakers, an explosion of glitter descends, and the crowd cheers. A man in his sixties is hunched directly in front, wearing a fishing jacket and wielding a Nikon with a zoom the size of his head. As one of the models starts tossing condoms into the audience, he seems to buckle under the weight of the lens, though I manage to grab him before he goes completely under. “Help!” I shout, as the crowd surges around and free prophylactics whizz overhead.
Professor Peng, vice secretary-general of the World Association of Chinese Sexologists, is a leading progressive in a fast-dying modern discipline. Something of a maverick anyway — his Weibo avatar shows him grinning broadly under a leather cowboy hat — his human sexuality students at Wuhan’s Central China Normal University are forbidden to undertake the course as an independent degree, but must instead study it as a branch of zoology. As a consequence, the professor has only enrolled six students in the last 10 years — for three years, from 2004 to 2007, he didn’t enroll any — and the prospects in the field remain quite bleak. The Wuhan Evening News estimates over half a million sex-ed teachers are needed in China’s primary and middle schools, but no one seems to want to hire them.
The only major Chinese leader to ever give any backing to the concept of sex education was the late premier Zhou Enlai, whose schooling in Tianjin and Paris apparently equipped him with valuable knowledge of the subject. Zhou’s liberal views did not prevail at the time, and when the Cultural Revolution arrived, “any discussion or activity related to sex was described as ‘bourgeois,’ ‘lustful,’ and ‘decadent,’” writes Fang Fu Ruan in his book Sex in China. “Proposals for sex education were condemned…the publishers and authors of Knowledge of Sex [a rather conservative 1957 educational book] were criticized and attacked by the Red Guards and ‘revolutionary masses.’”
This situation relaxed somewhat after 1980; classes were finally introduced to Shanghai in 1981, focused primarily on family planning. By 1988, they had been deemed so successful that 6,000 schools across China had adopted them, leading the State Council to announce that they would shortly become part of the national curriculum.
But it was not to be. Even before 1989, the tension between “public morality” and social order had never relaxed; some posters for the Democracy Wall movement in 1978–79 made explicit calls for a relaxation of sexual attitudes, as did a few demonstrators during the student protests of 1987 and 1988. When the backlash came in 1989, sexual permissiveness was simply another Western pollutant to be stamped out. In 1990, the Supreme People’s Court’s vice president, Lin Zun, tightened the law on pornography and prostitution, and trafficking became a capital offense. A year prior, as the post-Tiananmen moral crusade swung into action, the government banned any form of prophylactic advertising; thus, the condom fell victim to a 1989 campaign aimed at products deemed “against the social norms and moral values of our country.” Despite having among the strictest family planning policies in the world, Professor Peng explains, “the condom was defined as a ‘sex tool,’ even though its real purpose was to prevent pregnancy.”
“The misunderstanding has a lot to do with the longtime restraint and vilification of sex in China,” he says. “In the past 30 years since reform and opening up, the wealth gap has widened… laobaixing [老百姓, regular folk] have less sexual resources, so of course they are extremely against sex.”
The attitude is aptly illustrated in Fang Fu Ruan’s book, with the story of Chen Shuhua, a 19-year-old student at Nanjing Art College who posed nude for classes in 1988. When Chen returned home, she immediately drew vilification from her neighbors, who accused her of prostitution and disgracing the village. The campaign eventually led to Chen’s suicide. Apart from the classic schism between provincial and cosmopolitan values, what seems most telling is the secret frustrations of the rural poor — denied access to perceived licentiousness, they often flail against it.
At the time, prominent painter Wu Zuoren said he was ashamed that such an event could happen in modern China. According to a September 2012 report from the Institute for Population and Development Studies, China’s interior still remains a cloistered world of prejudice, where unmarried men are the subject of mockery, while rape, incest, wife sharing, unsafe sex, human trafficking, and “down-low” gay sex are all privately practiced. By contrast, not a trace of unwholesomeness is on display at the Guangzhou Sex Culture Festival: Even the most ribald products remain firmly oriented toward health and heterosexuality. A few relatively tame-looking DVDs and VCDs are discreetly on sale, albeit starring foreign-looking actors and labeled as “instructional.” Apart from one extremely popular S&M stall, alternative sexualities are not catered to.
No such shame is attached in China to abortion clinics, which freely promote their wares: The government estimates that 13 million abortions are now carried out a year, often because, out of ignorance, Chinese women use abortion as a form of contraception. [Ed’s note: The U.S. State Department believes that number is as high as 23 million per year.]
Hospitals boast of their no-frills terminations, starting from as little as 98 yuan ($15), with many offering exclusive deals — bring your student ID for a half-price discount. The official view seems to be that there’s nothing untoward about this; in fact, Xinhua described a National People’s Congress proposal to restrict the use of abortion advertising on television, radio, and billboards as “an eye-popper.”
Prudish attitudes toward sex and continuing official ambivalence are deliberate, Peng believes. “Considering the increasing sexual deprivation of the greater public, the government has to maintain social security by promoting anti-sex attitudes — otherwise, the fight for resources will intensify.”
Whether this sexual tension can be allowed to remain unresolved is another matter. For one thing, there is a danger of social instability. It is estimated that 24 million men in China — known as “bare branches” (光棍, guānggùn) — face a life of perpetual bachelorhood due to gender imbalances. These men are mostly unemployed, sometimes suffer from mental health issues, and pass their time “drinking and fishing all day long,” according to “Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population,” a report based on research carried out in the provinces of Shanxi and Jilin in 2004 by Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea Den Boer.
For another thing, there’s too much money to be made. Typical of the hundreds of professional buyers at the Guanzhou sexpo is Ms. Zhu, the 30-year-old businesswoman paying her second visit to the fair. Last year, she came to learn about how foreign companies’ businesses worked by observing Brazilian models and comparing exhibitors’ wares and strategies. This year, she arrives ready to make lingerie purchases for her fledgling ecommerce business. Despite being a fully qualified roads engineer, she now wants to be her own boss. “The economy is uncertain,” she explains. After working at a state-owned highway giant, her future in China seems safer in the sex industry.