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To an American reader, such a prize might seem weird for a feminist contest. How are condoms a feminist prize? Wouldn’t the second-place prize (a vibrator) be much more appropriate?
The answer has to do with China’s curious relationship with sexuality and family planning.
Though the regulations have gotten a little looser, China’s One-Child Policy limits the number of children a family can have. Unlike in the United States, family planning isn’t controversial; it’s mandatory.
However, openly discussing sex and contraception is still taboo. Just as in the United States, moral authorities fear that promoting contraception will make young people promiscuous. In China, pornography is banned (though people still manage to get their hands on it, of course). A nationwide ban on condom ads wasn’t lifted until 2014, in response to rising rates of HIV infection. Sex education in school is quite poor, and many parents and educators are too embarrassed to talk about sex in detail.
“[Our sex education] was only one lesson. That female teacher’s face was so red when she taught us what a penis is and what a vagina is,” recalls Mist*, a young single mother I interviewed.
Parents generally pressure their children to avoid sex and dating during high school or even during college. Many Chinese high schools forbid dating; students have to sneak off campus just to hold hands. As in the more conservative parts of the United States, the message is, Wait until marriage.
But Chinese kids have the same hormones that kids do everywhere else in the world. A survey conducted in 2012 revealed that 70 percent of Chinese people have had pre-marital sex. Unfortunately, many of these people don’t use condoms or birth control when they have sex. A survey of sexually active youths found that 30 percent of them had not used a condom during their previous sexual encounter. Only 43 percent of young female sex workers use condoms regularly. Very few Chinese women take the Pill, fearing side effects. Their understanding of STDs is poor (“Most Chinese think AIDS is a ‘foreigner disease’,” Mist said).
As a result, many young Chinese women get unwanted pregnancies. A 2015 study found that nearly a third of sexually active female students experience unwanted pregnancy. These pregnancies are usually handled with abortions — at least 13 million per year — many performed in unsanitary conditions.
After having children, Chinese women get IUDs. According to the United Nations 2011 World Contraception Report, 40.6 percent of married Chinese women use IUDs (compared to America’s 5.3 percent). The next most popular method is sterilization: about a quarter of married Chinese women are sterilized, compared to only 4.5 percent of married Chinese men. Only 1.3% of married Chinese women take the Pill. The survey claimed that 0.7 percent of married Chinese couples surveyed practiced withdrawal, but nearly every Chinese woman I spoke to swore that the old pull-and-pray method is still widely used before and during marriage. Only 10.6 percent of married couples used condoms. Overall, the burden of contraception in China falls on women, not on men.
So why not use condoms?
“My husband hates to use condoms,” said Cindy*, a 39-year-old married woman.
“Embarrassment,” Lily*, a nurse told me. “If I buy them, I will feel everyone is looking at me. At the hospital, you can get them for free if you want, but I don’t think people will go to ask for it.”
Though many hotels sell condoms in vending machines, buying them in shops is often a humiliating experience. In Vilifying and Promoting Condoms: Condom Debate During the Time of AIDS in China, sociologist Tiantian Zheng quoted a 28-year-old woman:
Although I am married, people always say that I look like I am 21. One day after work, I had time to stroll along the street and happened to step into a drug store. Dozens of colorful packages of condoms lying under the counter caught my eyes and aroused my curiosity. I thought I should get one and try it out. After studying them for a while, I still had no idea which one I should buy. So I turned to the shopping assistant, asking: “Could you please recommend one with good quality?” She looked me up and down, and then sneered at me, saying, “You don’t know? You should go ask your clients!” I was dumbfounded. I was so angry with her words that I stood there and could not say a word. Tears rolled down my eyes. I left the store, crying the whole way home and swore that I would never buy condoms again.
This is a common sentiment in China: condoms are for illicit sex, like prostitution and one-night-stands. Condoms are not for good, respectable people.
But things are changing. China’s government has announced that it will promote condom use to oppose the growing rates of HIV and AIDS. Beijing universities are expected to install condom machines for sexually-active students.
And activists like Xiao Meili are working to chip away at the stigma of condom use. Handing out condoms in such a brazen way says, “There is nothing wrong with sex.” It says, “Men should take responsibility for contraception instead of leaving the whole burden on the woman.” It says, “I’m going to have sex 100 times and I won’t apologize for it.” It’s pushing back against a long tradition of ignorance, sexism and slut-shaming.
(featured image via Living Green)