"What does LAT mean?" Luo Ping, a 26-year-old math teacher in a senior high school, was stumped when one of her students asked this question. She thought it must be a special term in mathematics, but the smile on the student's face told her she was wrong.
Back in her office, she asked her colleagues, but nobody had any idea. Finally, she sought an answer from an experienced English teacher, who was shocked. "How can a young girl know this word?" LAT is the English acronym for living apart together.
Luo's face flushed -- she currently is involved in such a relationship with her boyfriend, Han Feng. He has already bought a house, but she rents a small room elsewhere. Ostensibly, Luo and her boyfriend, who have been in love for eight years, are committed to living apart until marriage, but actually they are involved in a close relationship, including sex.
Both sets of parents are urging the couple to get married as soon as possible, believing that the two will take care of each other once they've started a family.
Luo and Han, however, refuse to be bound to each other too quickly, arguing that a greater commitment would provoke more conflicts between them. "It's so boring to see the same face day after day" Luo said. "Sex is attractive, but everyone needs certain privacy." Living apart has never altered her affection for her boyfriend, she added.
As a matter of fact, while LAT is an unfamiliar word, more and more Chinese are taking up this lifestyle, even including some married couples, such as Luo's friend Han Lin and her husband.
When Han was cohabiting with her husband -- then her boyfriend -- they signed a "sex agreement," which says that neither of them is obliged to have sex with the other, and if one of them refuses, the other should not force the issue. Both are free to have new partners, and if either has had sex with a new partner and is willing to live with that person, the two will stop cohabiting. "Our marriage has not ended this agreement," said Han, adding that quite a few couples, married and unmarried, have signed similar agreements.
Han, who said she has always valued the "quality of sex," even found a special bed. The bed, which she discovered in a shop, can be adjusted in a number of ways, reputedly helping couples have sex in a more "relaxed and harmonious way." When she told her husband of the bed, he initially praised it as a scientific contribution to improving people's sex lives, but ultimately rejected it, arguing that it would shock the elderly people and children in their large family.
No longer a taboo
To some experts, these developments represent a sexual revolution in China. While there are differing views of the degree of such a "revolution," academic experts do agree that since China began to open itself up to the world in the late 1970s and early 1980s, sex has gradually lost its status as a taboo subject, and people's attitudes toward sex are quite different from what they used to be.
Prior to the late 1970s, and during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in particular, young lovers could only show intimacy to each other in public by grasping each other's hand. At that time, men and women were denounced as living a profligate life if they were involved in sexual scandals.
Those who had premarital sex risked being fired by their work units if their affairs were exposed. Hospitals did not have clinics for treating sexual problems or sexually transmitted diseases. Embraces between men and women in foreign movies were among the few "sexy" images available to the Chinese public. During the decade of the Cultural Revolution, no mass media referred to sex and people were deprived of access to sexual knowledge.
In 1980, two events helped to promote the changing attitude toward sex. One was the promulgation of the new Marriage Law of the People's Republic of China. According to this law, divorce is granted in two cases: First, where mutual affection no longer exists; and second, when mediation fails. As a result, people began to enjoy the freedom to divorce and mutual affection (including sexual harmony) began to be considered an important factor in marriage.
The other important issue was that in 1980 China adopted its "family planning and one child" policy. As a result, sex for reproductive purposes became less important, and "recreational" sex more significant.
According to Professor Pan Shuiming, an expert on sexology at Renmin University of China, under the family planning policy contraception and abortion are widely practiced legally, and more couples have begun to seek a happier sex life.
Li Yinhe, an expert on sexology and researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, pointed out that technically speaking, it is the separation of sex from the task of reproduction that has stimulated the changing attitude toward sex.
For a long time, a booklet offered by marriage registration offices was the only "official channel" for young couples to gain sexual knowledge, so a great many young people were ignorant. For girls in particular there was a general shortage of information about sex, and curious adolescents could only get some basic information in some medical books.
As recently as the 1950s, it was still impossible for Chinese to obtain information on sex. For example, Knowledge on Sex, which appeared in 1955, was the first book dedicated to sexuality published after the founding of the PRC in 1949. However, with the expansion of political campaigns, people were gradually cut off from access to sexual knowledge.
It was not until 1982 that the ban was broken when Sexual Medicine was translated and edited by a team under Professor Wu Jieping, one of the pioneers in the field of urology in China and an academician at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Engineering. Three years later, the Handbook of Sexual Knowledge, oriented toward both experts and laymen, was published. During this period, mainstream media also began to discuss sexual matters.
Since the 1990s, more Chinese view sex as a privacy issue. Li of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences notes that many Chinese are quite open-minded about sex. Some women acknowledge that they have begun to enjoy more rights in sex, and even have the same freedom as men. Virginity is no longer considered as important as a girl's life.
Less state control
At the same time, the state is relaxing its control over love, sex and marriage. In accordance with the Provisional Regulations on Marriage Registration promulgated by the Ministry of Civil Affairs in 2003, permission from one's work unit or neighborhood committee is no longer necessary to get a divorce, and a premarital medical examination is optional.
A survey of university students last year found that 62 percent think premarital sex is acceptable as long as it occurs between true lovers; 85 percent think it's not obligatory for sex partners to marry if they do not wish to; 60 percent are tolerant of homosexuality, while 62 percent believe that the stress on virginity is a restriction on human nature.
Experts indicate that it is economic development that has promoted the changing attitude towards sex. If people are still struggling for survival, it's impossible for them to pay so much attention to sex.
Nowadays, sex seems to have become almost commonplace in Chinese life. Passionate kisses on the street are no longer only seen in movies or on TV but in reality as well; exhibitions on the human body do not hold as much appeal as they did previously; boys will not be slapped in the face if they call girls "sexy."
Models in advertisements wear less and less clothing; shops selling sex products are doing well, and almost all magazines have sex columns.
The Internet has pulled down the wall of communication on sexual information between China and the outside world. Such terms as "flirty," "extramarital affairs" and "one night stand" are hot topics. "DINK" (double income, no kids), "homosexuality," "sexual harassment," "ji," literally meaning "chicken" but a slang for prostitute, "to find a sugar daddy," syphilis and AIDS are frequently talked about.
Since Chinese morality has held sex to be a sensitive subject for so long, it seems to be a "black hole" in the context of contemporary social life. On one hand, it is invisible; on the other hand, seduction is omnipresent. Against this cultural background, sex is giving rise to more perplexities, problems and crimes.
Despite the apparent openness, many experts insist that in China most people still hold a serious and conservative attitude toward sex, and although no one will blanch at the mere mention of the word, the bottom line of morality remains. Generally speaking, casual and premarital sex are still intolerable.
Even among young people, such as college students, who are thought to be more open-minded about sex, premarital sex is not as prevalent as it seems, and quite a few of them, especially college girls, are still quite conservative concerning this issue.
In an effort to dispel Internet rumors of a low virginity rate, female students at Beijing Foreign Studies University recently conducted a survey of their female schoolmates which demonstrated a much higher rate. While public opinion tends to laugh at these girls for their conservative attitude, it is a fact that most of China's students still cherish the traditional morality.
According to a survey by Professor Pan, among those 20 to 64 who are married or cohabiting, only around 13 percent have had sex with extra partners. In China, extramarital sex mainly is not seen in the form of a "one night stand" or "sex transaction" but it is a relatively long-term relationship between two people. In the survey, 83 percent of these people were found to have been involved in such a relationship for more than one and a half months. Some experts point out that to an extent, extramarital sex is a compromise between divorce and maintaining a marriage. As divorce is still seen as a dangerous action, when torn between marriage and love, some will turn to extramarital sex.
Many couples believe that sex is part of human nature and instinct that should not be debased by immoral behavior. They agree with what a sex expert has to say concerning the morality of sex: It is acceptable as long as it is done without force or harm.
(Beijing Review February 24, 2006)