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Behind closed doors
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There is a college town in suburban Nanjing, called Xianlin. Like most college towns across the nation, residents rent out apartments to students who want to get away from their dorm lives and enjoy some privacy. A unit goes for 30-100 yuan a day, varying according to demand. A student may patronize such a place to focus on his or her study or to have an intimate moment with a date.

In late February, someone in Xianlin posted a notice, titled "A letter to college students who rent rooms with dates", and it went like this:

"For a flash of pleasure, you have failed the expectations of your parents and teachers, and have failed to live up to be role models. You have passionate kisses by the roadside, in buses; you walk hand in hand into this neighborhood. Here's my advice to you:

Young students should develop correct morals, have dignity and self-love and strength. You should do what a student is supposed to do. You should have lofty ideals and a correct mode of thinking. Don't waste your education and a life of happiness because of immature romance.

We sincerely plead that female students resist the illusory temptations and male students don't use up your future happiness on ephemeral and shallow pleasures. If you love each other, please respect each other!

The bottom line of morality should be upheld by both sides!

We also caution the renters that you must love these kids. If they were your own children, would you want to see them walk into the rooms? Don't give them a hot bed for their foolish impulses for the sake of petty profits!"

The letter was signed: Parents, uncles, aunts, brothers and sisters who want to see you grow up, make progress and be happy.

We Chinese have a special way of talking, which makes it possible to address something at great length without mentioning its name. Whoever wrote this open letter (for the sake of simplicity, let's assume it's a he) wanted to yell: "Don't have sex! It's bad for you!" But he simply could not utter this crucial word. It's a dirty word that must be avoided at all cost.

First, let's clarify the legal issue: A typical student enters college at the age of 19. That means, he or she is already one year older than the legal limit for defining an adult. By the time he is in his senior year (22) and she is a sophomore (20), they can legally marry in China.

In other words, they can have sex as long as it's consensual.

Obviously nobody is suggesting the cop comes to get them. And the moral ground is much more slippery.

The above letter, after making its way to the Internet, has elicited an avalanche of feedback, which neatly falls into two categories: Those who support the letter agree that students nowadays must be awakened from their degenerate ways; and those who oppose him argue he is being too nosy. There is essentially no middle ground.

I'm sure the first group would blame the "loose morals" of our day. But the real culprit, in my opinion, is our food. Because of what we eat, a 14-year-old today may have the physical maturity of a 19-year-old a generation or two ago. Had we been kept in an age of scarcity, with no supermarkets or dietary supplements, our college kids may still be acting like high-schoolers.

If you accuse me of avoiding the "s" word, I'm guilty as charged. It's not easy for a Chinese to bring up the question: Should college kids have sex? I remember the time even "date" was a dirty word on campus. For me, it's something a student should neither be forbidden nor encouraged to do. Instead, it deserves special education because students need to be told the possible ramifications of the act.

No, I don't think having sex will necessarily lead to poor grades. Soap operas are more addictive. And it is ludicrous to associate sex with moral character. One can victimize another person much more easily by the way he talks. Generally speaking, campus romances tend to be pure but do not lead to a fruitful end, okay, marriage.

If you analyze the letter, you can feel the writer was quite sincere, albeit overtly condescending. His fundamental rationale is: Sex devalues a person, especially the female. This is deeply rooted in the Chinese notion of virginity, which can fetch a premium in marriage or even in prostitution.

By this time, the letter writer and his supporters will ask: "Would you want your daughter to have sex in college?"

It happens I have two underage daughters. So, this question is by no means hypothetical to me. I'll do two things: first, make sure - to the best of my capability - that their boyfriends truly love them before anything happens; second, I'll have them go through a thorough sex education so that they'll know all about self-protection, prevention of diseases and unwanted pregnancies. This may deprive them of some of their boyfriends' surprise moves, but it will reduce the likelihood of truly miserable consequences.

Most of all, I'll assure them that whatever they choose they should have a sense of responsibility. If they want to abstain from sex, I'll support them; if they want to have sex, it should be a beautiful experience, not something they'll regret down the road. They should not be pushed one way or the other way. Sex or no sex, it should be natural.

The debate is not only polarizing, it's misleading. You might think this is a serious problem but research shows that in 2001 only 5 percent of China's college students had sex, rising imperceptibly to 7 percent in 2005. Given the level of testosterone in this age group, I would say China's college students are far from being oversexed.

Now, let me try to get into the mind of the letter writer. He obviously can't see what is going on behind closed doors, but he notices public display of affection, like kissing and hugging and that upsets him because it helps him visualize what is happening out of sight. If the students are discreet and enter the rooms separately - they've watched enough spy thrillers to know how to avoid undesirable attention - few will notice them.

This comes down to the social stigma Chinese society attaches to passion and its manifestations. Confucian tradition exemplifies connubial bliss where the wife does not look at the husband directly. Now, if a guy acts like Michael Douglass in Fatal Attraction and a gal is like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, it's got to give the old generations shocks and heartache.

Follow-up reports detailed that girl students venturing into the Nanjing neighborhood now "lower their heads and hide their faces". I've seen shoplifters with more self-confidence. Well, I guess it's appropriate to adjust one's behavior to the environment. If you've entered a conservative community, you should respect its unwritten rules.

As for the lament of "too little oversight from authorities", I'm astounded that after everything China has gone through we still have voices asking for government intervention into strictly private affairs. Let's keep the genie in the Pandora's box. People who want their employer's approval before going on a date should probably stay indoors and ask their neighbors not to rent to noisy youngsters.

(China Daily March 20, 2009)



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