Monday, July 2, 2007

Sexual Rights Expanding in China

Policy Innovations interviewed James Farrer of Tokyo's Sophia University on a conference he attended last week in Beijing on Chinese sexual culture. James suggests that expanded freedoms and rights in the sexual realm are linked to greater freedoms and rights in Chinese society at large. Here is an excerpt from our interview:

James: The "sexual revolution" that I am talking about is not about advocating sex, but it is about advocating sexual rights. This includes obviously the right to say no to unwanted sex and the right to sexual health.

Q: You have argued that these developments signal a positive development in the level of freedom in China's society. Tell me about that.

James: I believe that sexual rights are fundamental human rights and also are closely related to other political and social rights. Practically speaking, the rights to sexual privacy, to free choice of partners before marriage, and to freedom of divorce after marriage have all expanded greatly in China. This has been an important factor in the increase in the quality of life of Chinese people over the past 20 years.

Q: What is the theoretical or statistical link between sexual freedom and other freedoms in society?

James: Showing a statistical link might require too narrow of an operationalization of the terms of my discussion. What I am talking about is a causal and institutional link. Rights to sexual privacy for example are directly related to basic changes in urban governance in China. It used to be that your "work unit" and the leadership of your residential compound had a great say in how you conducted your private affairs. Now, your "company" (almost no one says "work unit" anymore) scarcely bothers with your private life, unless you happen to be a young rural-to-urban migrant in which case such interference by bosses is still a problem. Residential compounds also are now more concerned about maintaining property values than about how many girlfriends or boyfriends you have. These fundamental changes in urban social governance have led to greater rights to privacy in all areas of life.

Greater freedom of sexual expression also is related to greater freedom of expression in other matters. This conference I attended is a good example, but an even better example is the amount of self-expression on the Internet. Sexual expression is one example, but there are many areas of personal and social experience in which people can express their views with little fear of provoking a response from the state. Censorship is prevalent and sometimes harsh, and state censors are constantly improving their techniques. But the sheer volume of discourse is so great that the space of discourse can only grow. Take the example of homosexuality. It was virtually a taboo topic in the Chinese media until the advent of the Internet. Now there are numerous sites devoted exclusively to gay issues, and the sphere of gay discourse is growing steadily, despite the skepticism and lack of support from the Chinese state. To some extent the sheer volume of sexual discourse has made the topic more acceptable.

Read the full interview here.

1 comment:

Elanah Uretsky said...

This was a great interview on a topic that is all too often overlooked. It is often assumed that China is going through some sort of sexual revolution that has been induced by a Western invasion or globalization. This so-called 'revolution' is also held responsible for a rise in STIs and HIV in China. James correctly points out the fallacy in such a belief. The 'revolution' being discussed is perhaps one in discourse but certainly not one in practice. The rise in prostitution and affairs with mistresses among government officials is something that can be traced back to China's imperial era. The increased emphasis on economic development, however, allows more people to exercise their desires without much backlash from the state. It's been convenient though to attribute a rise in such practices and their often resultant diseases to the introduction of Western influences.

At the same time, I think we also have to be careful about how we discuss the term 'sexual rights' in China. Can we argue that people have increased sexual rights just because they have more space to explore their sexual desires and curiosities? As James mentions, censorship is still a big problem and the government does not hesitate to monitor or censor websites when the feel things are getting out of control. Or ... in the case of the gay film festival you mentioned - they had permission to hold that film festival and the police came in and raided the event shortly before it was scheduled to begin.